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Terry Theis entertains Main Street shoppers by playing German tunes on his button accordion. Theis started playing the instrument three years ago as a way to get in touch with his family culture. Photo by Phil Houseal

When Terry Theis first picked up the accordion, he was not looking to play for others, but he told me, "I guess I might as well start." He is available for parties and private functions. Theis can be reached at 830-864-4438.

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Struck by a bolt of music

by Phil Houseal
Aug 16, 2006

One fine summer Saturday I decided to play tourist in my own town, and went for a stroll along Main Street. Always alert for interesting music, I detected the distinctive drone of a button accordion through the rumble of traffic and shuffling of shoppers.

Tucked in the courtyard of the former Keidel Hospital, Terry Theis played a German waltz for curious kids and parents willing to pause in their pursuit of the perfect gewgaw.

The Texas native was the vision of a gypsy accordionista, sporting a mustache and beret with a button declaring "I'm a Polkaholic."

Until about three years ago, Theis never considered himself musical at all. He spent 20 years as a gun engraver, frequently exhibiting his skill at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio.

In fact it was there that Theis was first "struck by a bolt of music."

"I heard some conjunto players at the Folklife Festival, then went to the annual accordion fest at La Villita," he recalled. "It was obvious - I walked out of there knowing that's what I need to be doing."

Acknowledging that he is "the tightest guy around," Theis demonstrated the depth of his commitment by buying a $500 accordion.

While Theis had had no formal music training, he believed he possessed the heritage to make music. Son of a German father and mostly Hispanic mother, young Theis was raised around the music of both cultures. His great grandfather Henry Beck used to lead a polka band at Schertz, Texas, and his ancestors were some of the original settlers of Anhalt, where Theis still returns for the Oktoberfest and Maifest dances.

Theis studied for a year with Fritz Morquecho, a master of the button accordion. Knowing that you never really learn an instrument until you play it with and for others, Theis started joining the jam session at the Longhorn Cafe in Harper every Friday evening.

"That jam has been going on over 20 years," he said. "Those guys are all strictly local, and learned it on the front porch. They play Czech, Mexican, and a little bit of German music. I was real fortunate to start with them and learn many styles."

For the past several months he has become confident enough to entertain passersby on Saturday afternoons.

"Their reactions are just wonderful," he said. "What I love is you always meet someone who was raised around it and wants to hear something special."

He didn't start street playing to make money, so he was surprised when people offered it.

"It's like - OK, throw the money in," he said, but added, "I didn't do this for the money in the slightest. I never dreamed of making money doing this. I feel like it is part of my culture, and I like to be for real."

Theis is so besotted with the instrument, he easily spends an hour a day playing.

"I always tell people that learning music takes a lot of discipline," he said. "The discipline is to put your instrument down and go out and make a real living."

"I can't say how gratifying this is. It's so much fun, it's unbelievable."