Nursing homes aren’t usually grim, but for some they can be: Nursing home residents are typically at the ends of their lives, dealing with conditions too severe for their families to handle alone.
Isolated from their loved ones and the outside world, it’s easy for some residents to become catatonic, as Walter Lutz discovered in the Columbia Basin Care Facility’s lunchroom one afternoon in 2008 while visiting his dying mother.
“You’d think they were dead,” Lutz said about some of the facility’s residents.
The image was haunting enough to stick with Lutz long after his mother’s death later that year. “It struck me that they were so isolated and totally alone.”
And so, a couple years later, Lutz carried an accordion up to the nurses’ station at Columbia Basin and asked permission to play live music for the residents. After hearing a rendition of Edelweiss on his 1982 three-rowed diatonic accordion, the activities director agreed to have Lutz perform on a regular basis.
He started off just playing in the lunchroom and hallways, and for individual residents in their rooms, but was eventually invited to play for the facility’s monthly birthday parties.
He will typically engage in one-hour playing sessions: the first half-hour features just Lutz and his accordions, while in the second half, he distributes songbooks and invites everyone to sing along, which nearly everyone does.
Lutz printed his own songbooks in larger type so the residents can easily read them.
“Walt is wonderful,” said Columbia Basin activities director Alesia O’Brien. “The residents love when he come and plays for them; they just light up, they sing along with him and love to guess what song he is playing and who sang it.”
Lutz typically brings two diatonic accordions, one for each key he needs to play the songs printed in his songbooks, to Columbia Basin with him when he visits: the three-rowed diatonic button accordion he brought that first day and its twin, which he acquired years later from a nun in Phoenix.
He’s currently restoring a larger chromatic button accordion that can manage multiple keys at once, which Lutz says he’ll favor as his preferred playing instrument once it’s finished.
Lutz, a 1958 graduate of The Dalles High School, left The Dalles for an electrical engineering job in San Diego in 1963. It was then he met his wife, Rosemarie, and shared a whirlwind romance that led to their wedding six months later.
The newlyweds soon followed Lutz’ career with NASA to Alabama and then to Coco Beach, Fla., where they started raising their family.
They lived there until 1970, when Lutz moved his wife, dog and two children back to The Dalles to be closer to home.
He started a business, Lutz Audio and Video, with his brother, Hugo, that same year and moved his family into a house on Sunflower Lane, where he and his wife still live today. The business closed when Lutz retired in 2008.
Lutz has been interested in music since a young age, recalling childhood memories of his father returning from town on Christmas Eve with harmonicas as gifts for him and his brother. However, Lutz didn’t have the time or means to pursue music until his own daughter took an interest in the accordion years later.
They started taking accordion lessons together in 1977 and from there, it didn’t take long for Lutz to start taking accordions apart.
“Whenever I started something new,” Lutz said, “the first thing I did was take it apart and see what’s in it.”
Inside Lutz’ accordions are centuries of history, often written right into the interior parts by previous owners who did restoration work of their own.
One such accordion housed a penciled-in record of a 1935 sale written in German, alongside the owner’s name. Above it was a note written in pen indicating a repair completed in 1946.
These histories are a crucial part of figuring out how to properly restore the accordions, as they often indicate where an instrument came from, how it was originally built and what’s in need of repair — such as the hard wax and resin mixture that secures reed blocks, which needs to be replaced every 50 years.
Lutz reapplies the wax by heating it to 220 degrees in the same type of warmer used in beauty salons and carefully brushing it onto each reed block.
An accordion restoration is rarely this simple. Often, Lutz will have to remake lost or damaged parts by hand. The meticulous work is worth it to restore the old, broken-down accordions to the height of their physical and auditory beauty.
He has kept most of his restoration projects, with the exception of several user-friendly piano accordions given to friends and family who were interested in playing.
“My philosophy is that unless it’s a real kind of museum piece,” Lutz said, “I would rather have somebody play it than for me to have it sitting on my shelf.”
A big part of getting these old accordions back to a playable state is tuning, which he said is no simple task.
Tuning an accordion requires taking it apart to remove its reed blocks, meticulously scraping down metal strips smaller than a strip of gum on each of the accordion’s many reeds, reassembling the accordion, playing it to check the sound and then repeating the whole process until the instrument is in tune.
Accordionists used to have to tune their instruments by ear, but Lutz is lucky enough to have a digital program that will break down the accordion’s sound for him, so he knows exactly what needs to be adjusted to perfect the instrument’s sound.
The most rewarding parts of the process, Lutz said, are “when I first hear it and it sounds beautiful and when I play for others and it makes them happy.”
“It’s gotten so there isn’t any room anymore,” Rosemarie said regarding the turnout at Lutz’ music sessions at Columbia Basin.
In addition to playing at the nursing home, Lutz performs for people he has met in the past few years on his Meals on Wheels delivery route. Rosemarie, an avid baker featured in The Chronicle back in 2009, bakes a plethora of goodies every holiday season that Lutz takes to seniors on assisted-living.
“She bakes, I deliver,” he said.
Lutz enjoys playing for seniors on their birthdays and during the holiday season. He becomes great friends with those he meets on his route and expressed sadness at having one of the seniors he delivers for move away.
He particularly loves playing for the elderly because they often have personal memories associated with the songs he plays. Multiple residents have come up to Lutz after a session at Columbia Basin and expressed how Lutz’ playing brought up memories of their loved ones.
“It’s very hard to do with one instrument what you can do with an accordion,” Lutz said.