When I was editor of Metro Santa Cruz back in the early 2000s, our annual “Best of Santa Cruz County” awards were called the Goldies. And every year, as sort of a tongue-in-cheek take on the name—and on the awards themselves, really—we’d photograph Santa Cruz’s favorite street performer, the Great Morgani, in a costume he called “The Oscordionist.” It wasn’t even close to the most outrageous of the head-to-toe lycra outfits locals and tourists have seen him in on Pacific Avenue and at events around the county for two decades, but it made him look like a giant gold Academy Award statuette—and posed in front of various Santa Cruz landmarks on the cover of the awards issue, he embodied exactly the quirky-yet-captivating vibe we were going for.
One year, while heading to the Goldies photo shoot with him, I got a chance to see something that few outside of his closest friends have seen: the inside of his house. And let me say that it was everything locals would expect it to be, times a hundred: costumes of every color hung in various spots around the living room, and there were multi-colored accordions on the couch. Underneath the tools of his artistic trade, however, the décor was shockingly normal.
Now, as Frank Lima celebrates 20 years of performing in Santa Cruz as the Great Morgani, he tells me that he still lives in that house, as he has for the last 43 years. And the 74-year-old Lima says the décor is still as bland as he can possibly get it.
“My whole place is beige,” he says. “I don’t like color. I love color in costumes, but I cannot live in that. So the beige is my Zen.”
His 800 square-feet now houses 150 costumes (the most elaborate take him around 100 hours to make) and 39 accordions. But I must have seen it during a particularly busy performance stretch, because generally he needs everything put away out of sight or he’ll pretty much go crazy, as he was reminded after doing the Cotati Accordion Festival, Palo Alto Fine Arts Festival and Capitola Art and Wine Festival in the space of just a couple of weeks this summer.
“Oh my god, I didn’t put anything away for three weeks,” says Lima. “There were bodysuits and accordions and wings—it looked like a clown threw up in my place. So then I spent two weeks putting everything away to get back to my Zen. I just really need that in my life. I’m very good at hiding stuff. In fact, I lost a pink accordion for a year. How do you lose a shocking pink accordion?”
Hitting the Street
When Lima started all this Great Morgani business 20 years ago, he didn’t have a shocking pink accordion to lose. He didn’t even have a costume. His was just the typical story of a successful stockbroker who gets fed up after 18 years and sells his share of the business, retires at the ripe old age of 35, does nothing for another 18 years, loses his motivation to get out of bed, and finally re-invents himself as the most famous post-earthquake street performer on Pacific Avenue. Textbook!
That’s not even the craziest part, though. Though he’d been playing accordion since the age of 9 (saved from a life of rock ’n’ roll by an honest-to-god door-to-door accordion salesman, who showed up at his parents’ house and talked them out of starting him on guitar—four years before Elvis broke), Lima had never aspired to live the artistic life; he just happened to pick up a book on street performance and decided to try it. But clearly there had been something in the back of his head pushing him toward Great Morgani-ness, even two decades earlier, in his life of finance, as evidenced by the jokes he’d make to his business partner about quitting.
“I’d say ‘I am getting out of this business. I’m going to go to the Azores and raise goats, or I’m going to go out on the Avenue with my accordion and play music.’ Just kidding, just a very flip remark! So I went to the Azores to visit some relatives, and they had goats. Man, those things smell. That’s off the list. Never thinking I would end up on the Avenue.”
He did, though, taking his name from the “J Morgan” emblazoned in rhinestones on his 1933 Guerrini accordion, which was actually the name of its original owner. Lima went with it, adding an “i” to the last name to make it sound more Italian (although he’s actually Portuguese), and creating the first name “Julio,” which he later dropped.
And how he got the other part of his stage name? It is, of course, a “great” story: the late Peter Ciccarelli, who hired him to play at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, saw a photo of Lima on the front page of the Gilroy Dispatch serenading the festival queens, and credited as simply “Morgani.”
“Peter called me the next day and said ‘If you ever go by the name of Morgani again, I will deduct 1 percent of your pay. I can get a Morgani on any street corner! I’m paying for a Great Morgani!’” Lima remembers, laughing. “I changed up my business cards and became the Great Morgani. Which sounds a bit egotistical. I’d rather just be Morgani, and that’s what people generally call me: ‘Hey, Morgani!’”
Just as boredom had driven him to the streets in the first place, so did it push him to cover himself up in full-on bodysuits and craft wilder and wilder costumes, complete with fiber optics, 10-pound shoes, dozens of plastic egg shells sewn on the fabric, clocks, full-body black-and-white stripes, giant cones and a whole lot more. Who-knows-how-many thousands of locals and tourists have caught him performing on the street over the years, and he’s upped his design game at events like First Night Santa Cruz, Seventh Sense, and FashionArt.
Lima came along after what locals generally think of as the Golden Age of street performing in Santa Cruz; famous acts like the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Artis the Spoonman that are the cornerstone of Pacific Avenue lore had long since left. However, Tom Noddy—who performed on Pacific Avenue from 1977 to 1983, before being invited on The Tonight Show and finding international fame with his “Bubble Magic” act—thinks that “Golden Age” was actually much longer than most locals remember. Noddy was instrumental in forming the Santa Cruz Street Performers Guild, and has seen the local tradition wax and wane through several eras. “In the 1980s and ’90s, we had some truly amazing acts coming through town because of the reputation that had grown up around the Karamazovs and their rise in show business,” says Noddy. “Of course we also had Tom Scribner as a fixture downtown, and an ever-changing group of musicians who called themselves the Ethnophonic Orchestra. They played Mexican or Balkan music, classical pieces or odd Hungarian music with the strangest time signatures … and they were regulars! You might step outside of the Woolworths and be transported to one of these remarkable places.”
However, he thinks Morgani’s imagination, humor and musicianship have made him a headliner of the Pacific Avenue “show.”
“Frank is a charmer,” says Noddy. “He loves what he does. That’s what’s kept him and the others around.”
Symbol with a Squeezebox
Lima doesn’t like being called a local “icon,” even though he is. (He’s not too crazy about the times he’s been called an “oddball” in the local press, either.) He sees himself as just another “colorful Santa Cruz character.” But he admits his view of his status in Santa Cruz did change in February of 2014, after he was threatened with a ticket under the ordinances governing street performance downtown. He had permission from the Verizon store he was playing in front of to be there, but was still told he’d have to pay the $300 fine.
“I could have gone in a really nasty direction. And I had some people who were advising me to go in front of the city council and raise holy hell,” says Lima. “And I said ‘no, I won’t do that.’”
Instead, he posted on Facebook that he would be retiring from street performance—and Santa Cruz basically lost its collective mind. He was flooded with interview requests, and the idea that the already-controversial ordinances would drive away a performer like the Great Morgani turned a lot of the public against them for good.
“Since the 2014 thing, maybe I do realize now that I have an image, but I think I’ve always had this image,” he says. “I want to be respectful. I’ve always had a good relationship with the businesspeople, and the cops, and the downtown hosts.”
Lima’s longtime friend Woody Carroll, who once produced a video about him for Comcast, isn’t afraid to use the i-word when describing him, and thinks many people are fooled by the theatrics into overlooking his genuine talent.
“There are a number of reasons the Great Morgani is still going strong after 20 years, and has become an icon in Santa Cruz,” says Carroll. “Yes, the dayglo spandex and outlandish costumes first get your attention, but if you pause to actually listen, you’ll hear that Frank Lima is actually a very talented musician. That’s a good thing as far as longevity goes. If you’re a bad accordion player, you’ll get run out of town pretty fast.”
Lima disappeared for nine months after the 2014 incident, but after Louis Rittenhouse offered to let him perform in front of the Rittenhouse Building, he returned. (The Rittenhouse alcove facing Pacific is private property and thus not covered by downtown ordinances.) To this day, people are still coming up and saying ‘welcome back” and he responds with typical Morgani humor: “I say, ‘Yeah, I had to buy the building. I’m going to open a store here selling accordion-shaped pot holders.’”
Since he dreams of eventually kicking it while playing a Puccini opera, then immediately being spray-painted bronze and hoisted onto a Tom-Scribner-like pedestal, it’s unlikely Lima will retire from his retirement anytime soon. Until then, he’ll chuckle at the great irony of it all.
“I used to wear three-piece suits, and I was always on Pacific Avenue a lot delivering securities. I’d see the [street performers] at the Cooper House—Ginger the Rainbow Lady, the guy that tap-danced. My thinking at the time was just terrible: ‘Why don’t these people get a job? God, look at these freaks!’ Never thinking I would be the ultimate freak many years later. So you better watch out what you say.”
Frank Lima’s book ‘The Great Morgani: The Creative Madness of a Middle-Aged Stockbroker Turned Street Musician’ is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz.