The Great Morgani takes a bow: Santa Cruz artist Frank Lima retires his beloved alter ego
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If you noticed that the world – or at least the public sphere of Santa Cruz County – is duller, more colorless, even more boring than before, you wouldn’t imagine it. Before the pandemic, Santa Cruzans inhabited a dynamic era of performance art that too many of us took for granted. Now that era is behind us.
The Grand Morgani has left the building.
Frank Lima, the artist behind perhaps Santa Cruz’s most beloved street performer, decided to hang up his spandex suits and accordions. At 79, Frank has been struggling with health issues for a year. Like many great performers, he’s also aware of certain milestones that his keen sense of timing would make for a good time to leave the stage.
This year, for example, marks his 70th accordion playing, dating back to when he picked up his first squeezebox at age 9, which ultimately led to his first dance band, Frankie Lima & the Starlighters. Additionally, he said, “Black Friday last year marked 25 years since I pretended to be The Great Morgani. I think I succeeded.”
For residents or visitors to Santa Cruz County for a quarter of a century, Morgani is hard to miss. Not every community has a man who regularly stands on a box playing an accordion covered from head to toe in a retractable outfit, often tied up with all sorts of weird appendages and gee-gaws. In fact, it’s a safe bet that none of us will ever see him again. Whether at farmers’ markets, street festivals, public events or celebrations, or simply on Pacific Avenue on a random Sunday afternoon, Morgani was the visual mascot of Santa Cruz. The city should put the guy on their official letterhead.
And if a brilliant local artist wants to do a mural or a statue to honor what Morgani has meant to their community, consider this your call to action.
Over the past week, Frank has been quarantined in his downtown apartment after testing positive for COVID. I spoke to him on the phone last week. He may have gone a little crazy, but he’s still as hot as he’s ever been.
Morgani is certainly a big part of Frank’s personality, but that’s not all. It might surprise fans and admirers that Frank is an introvert and recognizes that Morgani is a sort of mask behind which he can express himself in ways he otherwise couldn’t. The downtown apartment where he has lived for nearly 50 years has nothing to do with his Morgani persona. He lives alone, but shares his apartment with over 40 accordions and 150 costumes, all hidden away. “Everything is beige,” he said of his interior design. “I like color. But I can’t live in color. I need something very conscious, very zen.
Morgani’s origin story is familiar to locals and Frank has spoken about it many times over the years. As a young man, he became a stockbroker, which was a lucrative, if stressful, career choice. But after several years, he found himself becoming a “not too nice person”. At the end of the 1970s, at the age of 35, he left this career. He was comfortable enough to live a life of leisure for a while, but eventually boredom caught up with him.
The day after Thanksgiving 1996, he came out for the first time as a solo actor and street performer on the accordion. These early costumes were quite conservative by his later standards. He didn’t cover his face, for one thing. He found the name “Julio Morgani” as a kind of Italian alter ego. Eventually he dropped the first name and he credits others for coining the term “The Great Morgani”.
By the end of the 90s, Morgani’s psychedelic creativity had been fully unleashed as he researched increasingly outrageous and bizarre costumes, some of them referencing other icons or issues – gold , skintight Spandex Oscar season, dressing like the infamous river street sign – other riffs on particular colors or patterns or designs.
Over the past 20 years, Morgani has become a familiar and expected feature of many major events of the year, from the world’s shortest parade to Aptos, to the Wharf to Wharf race, to the magnificent fashion show Fashion ART. He’s hosted many private events, entertained in the lobby at ticketed events, and traveled all over the Bay Area, especially to the annual Cotati Accordion Festival because – well, he couldn’t not not turn right?
Although his act is deeply influenced by mime, and despite the fact that he works with his face covered, Frank has always been a talker standing on his performance box. He is the rare musician whose attraction is not mainly due to his musical qualities. Everything he plays on the squeezebox takes precedence over his outfit, presentation, usability, and accessibility.
(A dozen years ago I had the awesome experience to impersonate Morgani, as one of four fake Morganis walking alongside the real deal in the Aptos 4th of July parade. That day gave me both a sense of what it’s like to entertain people with their faces hidden and an immediate sense of the simple joy through which so many people have interacted with Morgani – plus a unique experience. to deal with the disappointment, especially of the children, when they learned that I was a phony who could no more play the accordion than I could land a 747.)
During the shutdown phase of the pandemic, Frank kept a low profile and essentially retired from public life, but he came back strongly in 2021, perhaps a little too strongly. The physical toll of performing in costume strapped to a heavy accordion combined with an ambitious schedule of appearances bit him, and by early 2022 he was developing a new accordion-free street number. After a few weeks of crafting the new act, he decided he couldn’t give it the dedication he needed.
“I want to focus on something different,” he told me. “Beverly Sills, the opera singer, she quit at the peak of her career. When she was interviewed, someone said, ‘Miss Sills, you’re at the peak of your career.’ I mean, why are you retiring? She was still quite young then. And she showed a little pendant, and it had the initials IDTA on it. And they said, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means “I’ve already done it”.
Playing the accordion is demanding enough that Frank Lima doesn’t want to compromise on time and age. He doesn’t want to have to sit down to play, for example, or hear the whispers that he isn’t as lively as he used to be. He told me the story of watching an elderly accordionist who was helped by someone who helped him on stage, brought his accordion to him and took it away after he was finished.
“That really bothered me,” Frank laughed, “because, you know, old accordionists don’t die, they just end up looking pathetic.”
As for Morgani, Frank is leaving in the same spirit as he left the business world, but with much more pride and satisfaction. “I have no desire to create costumes. I don’t need the money. I had 70 good years of playing the accordion, and now I don’t even want to pick up that damn thing. I still have energy from time to time,” he said. “But I really have to pace myself. In fact, it’s an adventure, not knowing what’s out there.