Joshua Tehee

Famed accordionist, Fresno native, Dick Contino has died

Famed accordionist Dick Contino headlined the Las Vegas strip for about 50 years. The Fresno native died Wednesday at the age of 87.
Famed accordionist Dick Contino headlined the Las Vegas strip for about 50 years. The Fresno native died Wednesday at the age of 87.

On the list of famous Fresnans, Dick Contino ranks as a superstar.

In the 1950s, Mr. Contino was a high-profile musician and actor who married starlet Leigh Snowden and appeared multiple times on “The Ed Sullivan Show;” more than 40 over his whole career. Author James Ellroy used parts of Mr. Contino’s life and name for his 1994 novella, “Dick Contino’s Blues” and in 1991 the actor was featured heavily in an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In 2011, The Showbiz Society honored Mr. Contino at an event in Las Vegas that included the reading of a letter from President Barack Obama.

Among musicians, he was billed as “The World’s Greatest Accordionist.”

Mr. Contino died Wednesday night at the age of 87.

Mr. Contino was fresh out of Fresno High School in 1948 when he gained national attention by winning the Horace Heidt Amateur Talent radio show in Washington, D.C. He went on to tour with Heidt’s orchestra and later the Musical Knights before breaking into the movie business. He was in the 1958 film “Daddy-O” and 1959’s “The Beat Generation.”

While he spent the majority of his life in Las Vegas – he was a well-known headliner in the early days of the strip – Mr. Contino never forgot his hometown.

And it never forgot him. When Mr. Contino performed in Fresno in 1998 to celebrate his 50th year in the business, 500 people showed up at TorNino’s to hear him play and sing. That included then-Fresno City Councilman Sal Quintero with a city proclamation declaring it Dick Contino Day in Fresno.

Wherever I go, wherever I travel, Fresno is the only place I can say ‘I’m Dickie Contino from the west side,’ and people know.

Dick Contino, at a performance in Fresno in 1998

Mr. Contino moved back to the area several years ago while recovering from hip replacement surgery and had been staying at Golden Living Center prior to his death.

He’d mostly retired from performing. That was not by choice, says his son Pete Contino.

Mr. Contino loved to be on stage and was a physical performer, says Pete Contino, who followed his father’s footsteps and became a musician in Las Vegas. He, too, plays the accordion.

“He was just an animal, man,” he says.

It was part of his charm and one of reasons the accordionist was so successful, even later in his career. Pete Contino played drums in his father’s band for several years in the mid-1980s. This was well after Mr. Contino had made his mark as an actor and musician yet even then, he drove fans wild. Pete Contino remembers being pulled away by security guards at a show in Chicago. In the chaos of the fans, they didn’t realize he was in the band, or that he was Dick Contino’s son.

“He touched people’s lives with his music,” says Mr. Contino’s daughter, local singer Diedre Contino. “They would be in awe. And I just loved that.”

Some of her best memories involve watching her father on stage. She remembers being a kid and staying up until 4 a.m. while he performed at a neighborhood block party. Later in life, Mr. Contino would join her on stage, playing along as she sang with her band. Sometimes, he would just stand there on the sidelines, taking it all in as a proud father.

“We were best friends,” she says.

“He’s going to be missed.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

Dick Contino

Born: Jan. 17, 1930

Died: April 19, 2017

Occupation: Famed accordian player, musician and actor

Survivors: wife Judy; brothers Pete and Victor Contino; children Deidre Contino, Peter Contino, Merri Scaife; two grandchildren

Services: Private service at St. Peters Cemetery in Fresno. A public celebration of his life is planned in Las Vegas in June.