His outrageous and bizarre costumes — gold, form-fitting Spandex during Oscar season, dressing as the infamous River Street sign — have stopped and transfixed many of us for decades. Over the course of the past 20 years, Morgani has become a familiar and expected feature of many of the great events of the year, from the World’s Shortest Parade in Aptos to the Wharf to Wharf race and the magnificent FashionART fashion show. As Santa Cruz’s visual mascot retires, how can we recognize him?
In case you’ve noticed that the world — or at least the public sphere in Santa Cruz County — is more drab, more colorless, even more boring than it used to be, you’re not imagining it. Before the pandemic, Santa Cruzans were inhabiting a vibrant era of performance art that too many of us took for granted. Now, that era is behind us.
The Great Morgani has left the building.
Frank Lima, the artist behind perhaps Santa Cruz’s most beloved street performer, has decided to hang up his spandex suits and accordions. At 79, Frank has been struggling with health issues for the past year. Like many great performers, he’s also mindful of certain milestones that his keen sense of timing tells him would make a good moment to exit stage right.
This year, for instance, marks his 70th playing the accordion, dating back to when he picked up his first squeezebox at 9 years old, which eventually led to his first dance band, Frankie Lima & the Starlighters. Also, he said, “Black Friday of last year made 25 years that I’ve been pretending to be The Great Morgani. I think I nailed it.”
For residents or visitors to Santa Cruz County for the past quarter-century, Morgani has been hard to miss. Not every community has a man who regularly stands on a box playing an accordion covered head-to-toe in an eye-candy shrink-wrapped outfit, often attached with all kinds of bizarre appendages and gee-gaws. In fact, it’s a safe bet that none of us will ever see the likes of him again. Whether it was at farmers markets, street festivals, public events or celebrations, or just on Pacific Avenue on a random Sunday afternoon, Morgani was Santa Cruz’s visual mascot. The city should put the guy on its official letterhead.
And if some brilliant local artist wants to do a mural or a statue to honor what Morgani has meant to his community, consider this your call to action.
Over the past week, Frank has been in quarantine in his downtown apartment after testing positive for COVID. I spoke to him on the phone last week. He’s been going a little stir-crazy maybe, but he’s still as ebullient as he’s ever been.
Morgani is certainly a big part of Frank’s personality, but it’s not the whole picture. It might surprise fans and admirers that Frank is an introvert, and acknowledges that Morgani is a kind of mask behind which he can express himself in a way he cannot otherwise. The downtown apartment where he’s lived for close to 50 years is nothing like his Morgani persona. He lives alone, but shares his apartment with more than 40 accordions and 150 costumes, all hidden away. “Everything’s beige,” he said of his interior decor. “I like color. But I can’t live in color. I need something very mindful, very Zen.”
Morgani’s origin story is familiar to locals, and Frank has talked about it many times over the years. As a young man, he became a stockbroker, which was a lucrative career choice, if a stressful one. But several years into it, he found himself becoming a “not-too-nice person.” In the late 1970s, at the age of 35, he walked away from that career. He was comfortable enough to live a life of leisure for a while, but eventually boredom overtook him.
On the day after Thanksgiving 1996, he first stepped out as a solo act and street performer on accordion. Those first costumes were pretty conservative by his later standards. He didn’t cover his face, for one thing. He came up with the name “Julio Morgani” as a kind of Italian alter ego. Eventually, he dropped the first name, and he credits others with coining the term “The Great Morgani.”
By the late ’90s, Morgani’s psychedelic creativity had been fully unleashed as he reached for more and more outrageous and bizarre costumes, some of them referencing other icons or issues — gold, form-fitting Spandex at Oscar season, dressing as the infamous River Street sign — others riffs on particular colors or patterns or designs.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Morgani has become a familiar and expected feature of many of the great events of the year, from the World’s Shortest Parade in Aptos, to the Wharf to Wharf race, to the magnificent FashionART fashion show. He did plenty of private events, entertained in the lobby at ticketed events, and traveled all around the Bay Area, especially to the annual Cotati Accordion Festival because — well, he couldn’t not go, right?
Though his act is deeply influenced by mime, and despite the fact that he works with his face covered, Frank has always been something of a chatterbox while standing on his performance box. He’s the rare musician whose appeal is not primarily due to his musical chops. Whatever he plays on the squeezebox takes a back seat to his outfit, his presentation, and his friendliness and approachability.
(About a dozen years ago, I had the sublime experience of masquerading as Morgani, as one of four phony Morganis marching alongside the real deal at the Aptos Fourth of July parade. That day gave me both a sense of what it feels like to entertain folks with your face hidden and an immediate sense of the simple joy by which so many people interacted with Morgani — plus a unique experience of facing disappointment, especially from children, when they learned I was a phony who could no more play an accordion than I could land a 747.)
During the shutdown phase of the pandemic, Frank laid low and essentially retreated from public life, but he came back strongly in 2021, perhaps a bit too strongly. The physical toll of performing in costume strapped to a heavy accordion combined with an ambitious schedule of appearances took a bite out of him, and by early 2022, he was developing a new street act without the accordion. After a few weeks of working out the new act, he decided he couldn’t give it the dedication it required.
“I want to focus on something different,” he told me. “Beverly Sills, the opera singer, she quit at the height of her career. When she was being interviewed, someone said, ‘Miss Sills, you’re at the top of your career. I mean, why are you retiring?’ She was still a fairly young woman at the time. And she pointed to a little pendant, and it had on it the initials IDTA. And they said, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It stands for “I Did That Already.”
Playing the accordion is demanding enough that Frank Lima doesn’t want to have to make concessions to time and age. He doesn’t want to have to sit down to play, for example, or hear the whispers that he’s not as sharp as he used to be. He told me a story of watching an elderly accordionist who was assisted by someone helping him on stage, bringing him his accordion, and taking it away after he was finished.
“That really bothered me,” said Frank with a laugh, “because, you know, old accordion players don’t die, they just end up looking pathetic.”
As for Morgani, Frank is walking away in much the same spirit he walked away from the business world, though with a lot more pride and satisfaction. “I have no desire to design costumes. I don’t need the money. I’ve had 70 good years of playing the accordion, and now I have no desire to even pick the damn thing up. I still have energy now and then” he said. “But I really have to pace myself. Actually, it’s an adventure, not knowing what’s out there.”