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Issue Date: April 1975


Polka: The dance that refuses to die

Say what you will about lederhosen and accordion music, the polka remains one of Cleveland’s grandest and most enduring institutions
By Derek VanPelt
The twist and the stroll may come and go, but the polka refuses to die.

You may not know it, but as far as tens of thousands of rabid polka freaks from Parma to Euclid are concerned, Cleveland is still Polka Town, U.S.A., even as it was known in 1950.

If you’re not one of the polka people, this may not be readily apparent. The amazing thing about Cleveland’s polka culture is that it could be so large and yet, until recently, so invisible.

Most of us have heard of Frank Yankovic, the Slovenian kid from Collinwood who became perhaps the biggest name in polka history. And many of us have chuckled at Channel 5’s Sunday morning Polka Varieties show, with its crew of middle-aged polka lovers prancing gingerly about under the watchful eye of emcee Paul Wilcox (“Paul Whitesocks” to Big Chuck and Hoolihan).

But do you know that there are perhaps sixty active polka bands working in Cleveland? It takes a lot of jobs, a lot of clubs and a lot of support to keep that many musicians busy. There may not be that many rock bands around.

When Bobby Vinton, ex-bandleader and pop singer turned ethnic standard-bearer, sold out five shows at the Front Row in February, he uncovered the tip of an iceberg.

Vinton’s national Number One hit, “My Melody of Love,” with its half-Polish, half-English lyrics, and his entire performing concept appeal directly to the “ethnics”—the large populations of Eastern and Central European ancestry concentrated in industrial centers like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

There are perhaps a quarter million of these people in the Greater Cleveland area —Poles, Slovenians, Hungarians, Czechs, what-have-you. They’ve been keeping the polka alive for years—in the nationality halls, in the bars, on the radio. Today, in an era of increasing cultural consciousness, identification and pride, they are ready to’ be seen and heard.

Young people, too, are moving to the polka. From Buckeye to St. Clair, they’re out there doing the Chicago hop with their moms and dads, taking a heavy dose of polkas and beer right along with their rock and roll and grass.

What seems to be at hand is a full-fledged polka revival. And if such a revival is largely a reaction to the complexity and alienation of life in the ‘70s, it is also inventing new forms to keep pace with the times. In fact, the polka revival can be downright controversial when it invades an institution such as the Catholic Mass. Which it has done.

“I always said that ethnic music was going to be big again,” says Bill Randle, one of Cleveland’s radio eminences and a self-proclaimed “adopted Slovenian.” “An economic depression takes people back to their roots. Peripheral music only survives in affluence.

Rock stars like David Bowie and Alice Cooper won’t be remembered — it’s not real, it’s frothy.

“If you only have $8 to spend on records, not $30, you pick something that has a lot of truth for you. For these people, the polka has that.”

The “truth,” according to the gospel of the polka, is quite plain to see. It deals in no deep cosmic or psychological themes, but reveals itself in beer, women, friends, music and good times:

Go to each picnic in Cleveland, yes then Sing to an accordion, drink

beer with your friends Polka and waltz Slovenian style Life will take on a big smile!

—”Slovenian Picnic Waltz” (lyrics by Martin Serro and Lou LaVelle)

In a time when many people feel cut off from each other, the polka is communal in spirit. It is a genuine folk music, playable by anyone who knows a few chords. It can be danced by anyone who knows a few steps.

In the face of pretentiousness,

the polka offers directness; in the face of confusion, it offers simplicity. Preoccupied with your problems? Don’t know where to turn? The polka—unlike the blues, another folk music—doesn’t deal with problems by talking about them. It runs roughshod over them with its sheer exuberance and its affirmation of the positive joys of life.

For many Clevelanders, Anthony W. Zebrowski, the Polka Baron, is the embodiment of these values.

Certainly, A.W. has fashioned himself a highly successful career in radio out of practically nothing but exuberance.

Zebrowski, who fancies elaborate ruffled shirts and dinner jackets, broadcasts live from his very own studio—located at his Richfield mini-estate and linked by cable to the transmitter of WZAK-FM, 93.1. At 5:30 a.m. daily, A.W. and his family wake the dead with a blast of Polish polka.

Zebrowski, a mound of a man born in New Jersey to Polish immigrant parents, still speaks with a broad accent and often breaks into Polish on the air. At the mention of the word “polka,” the eyes light up in the big, florid face, the voice rises in pitch and volume and that ponderous body seems to float a few inches above its chair.

“It’s-a live music! I don’t care what nationality you are, once you get in that group, you get wild sooner or later. It boils your blood. It gives you that pep and you have to jump up. I don’t care who you are, king or queen or anybody.

“I come here to the studio every morning at twenty to five; 5:30, I go onna air. I got a bad heart, and sometimes I come over here I can’t see the microphones. I play one or two polka, I’m a different person— I just become like a nut or something!”

Yes, the Baron knows that one is not responsible for his actions when in the presence of the polka. It sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking, and sooner or later, it gets to the “nut” in all of us. I can testify to it.

Being a hopelessly mongrelized 10th-generation American weaned on rock and roll, I always classified the polka right down there with the Living Strings, Andy Williams and Eddy Arnold—not that they had anything in common, except that my mother liked them all; so naturally, I avoided them like the plague. To be caught with a polka record in one’s collection— well, it just wasn’t too hip, you know? Anyway, it was terrible music, and nobody but old folks danced to it anymore.

But time goes on and things change. Try as I might, I couldn’t get excited about Alice Cooper or the New York Dolls. So I started listening to everything else but rock. So why not polka? Even though I had officially damned it to musical hell years ago, a lot of people seemed to insist on listening to it anyway. Should be good for some grins, at least.

Little did I suspect the truth: Prolonged exposure to the polka wears down one’s resistance. Neither the aloof musical snob nor the world-weary cynic in me could stand up to the onslaught of a cookin’ polka band.

One Saturday night not long after I began to check out the polka people, several of us were putting away drinks in Stash’s, a dumpy little neighborhood bar on East 65th off Broadway. The Harmony Knights, decked out in matching plaid shirts, were raising the roof with chorus after chorus of polka. I gazed in amazement at the dancers whipping past our table. Our waitress was dancing with a girlfriend, putting on quite a display of kicking, stomping, hip-swinging and twirling.

“A Polish bar is like a person,” philosophized the friend who had shown us to this hidden den of revelry. “It’s moody. You know, I can’t polka unless I’m feeling good.” He was doing his best to make sure we all felt good.

My friend has blond hair well over his collar. He likes to smoke dope, listen to Black Sabbath, and play softball and polka. The bar sponsors his softball team. They take a lot of razzing about their long hair, but they win most all their games.

“They call this place the sewer,” said his sister with a smile. “Once you get in, you can’t get out.”

The drink was doing its work; music and dancers were blending into one endless polka.

“It’s true, most polkas do sound alike,” said our friend, springing for another round. “But it doesn’t really matter.”

And it doesn’t. The polka is like any other good-time dance music:

Can you dance to it? Give it an 85.

You never can tell what will happen when there’s a polka in the vicinity, as evidenced by the following (possibly embroidered) account from the archives of A.W. Zebrowski:

“I used to have orchestra in Cleveland that was all girls. Polish Sweetheart Orchestra. Once around 1950, we play Christmas or New Year’s downtown for people. There were lots of big people there, people who own factories, millionaires. When we get upstairs, there’s all these people, ladies dressed beautiful, diamonds and everything.

“I’m lookin’ at my girls and sayin’, ‘We gonna have hard works over here.’

“I said to the band, ‘I don’t know * what the heck we start it here, so let’s start a Strauss or something.’ So we started play a Strauss waltz, longhair music, but everybody just * stay there silent, drinking. So we started play polka.

“I’m-a tellin’ you, once we started playin’ polka, all night there was nothin’ but polka. Oh God, they got so wild! A few of them even cracked their heads, honest to God. You know those people, when they start to drink, they drink.

“Don’t ever write what I’m tellin’ you, but about 12 o’clock we see something we never saw in our. lives. Nude womens! I never believe in my life.” Well! Perhaps we could attribute such, um, out-of-character behavior to unfamiliarity with the heady polka — like the high-school kid who’s had too much to drink his first time out. For most aficionados, however, there is no such thing as an overdose of the polka. Experience, in fact, only seems to mellow the high.

If there’s one hopelessly strung-out polka-head who should know, it’s Henry Broze of WXEN-FM, who’s been spinning his battered collection of polka albums on various local stations since 1933, off and on (his current morning show is opposite part of Zebrowski’s). All those years of polka have been good to Hank, who at 60 shows no signs of slowing down. One of his recent projects has been organizing the mammoth Nationalities Festival on the Mall, which last year drew an estimated half-million people over a four-day span.

Broze has a loosely defined job in the Personnel Department at City Hall, where I experienced him one afternoon. I use the word advisedly. Usually given to bright Hawaiian-style floral print shirts, on that day he looked more like a modern American Indian than a Polish-American. His bronzed face is framed by near-shoulder length hair, which he dyes black, and set off by orange-tinted wire-rims. He wore a bright red plaid shirt with a string tie, clashing plaid pants, and an incongruous tweed sport coat.

Like his dress, Hank Broze’s mind is a patchwork of unlikely projects. Last year, the Nationalities Festival expanded beyond polka bands to include Spanish-American bands, soul bands, and just about anything else that could conceivably be considered “ethnic.” Two years ago, at Broze’s urging, Cecelia “Cilka” Valencic — a classically trained Slovenian singer who is married to Plain Dealer reporter Bob Dolgan — made a polka album with members of the New Wave, a lounge rock band. It failed, ‘laments Broze, because it was “five years ahead of its time.” His latest impossible project is to organize the traditionally provincial ethnic radio stations around the country into a cooperative “network,” with the aim of putting polka back on the top-40 charts.

Broze, who led his own band for many years, views the polka as total-involvement theater. “Whenever I played with my band, I had to change clothes at intermission. I was dripping with sweat. And I wouldn’t even be aware of it. I didn’t even see the audience. It all just became part of the happening. When good musicians are really into it, it’s like they’re not even up there any more. They’re not playing anything. It all just becomes one entity. The music is the performer, the performers are the music. People are lost out on the dance floor.

“A stranger might think it’s weird, walking into that, but you don’t need grass — you can get high on the polka.”

While few polka people would offer such an extravagant account of the experience, what Broze is talking about is one of the most enduring and powerful attractions of the polka: namely, its communal essence.

Ever since the first generation of “hyphenated Americans” arrived here—many during the great waves of immigration around the turn of the century—any place where polkas could be played and danced has served as a gathering place and a refuge, a cultural center.

For the past 13 Thanksgivings, the Slovenian National Home at 6417 St. Clair has been the scene of one of the year’s biggest polka bashes. We were there last year, along with upwards of 2,000 other merrymakers. Beer-bellied dads in ancient suits, their wives in party dresses and high heels, teenagers in minis and pants suits. Most of them seemed to be either trying to get to the bar or just coming from it.

The excuse for this revelry is the anniversary of Tony Petkovsek’s show on WXEN. Tony calls him WXEN’S Tony Petfeovsefe: Would you self “Cleveland’s Polka Ambassador,” but perhaps he should consider switching it to “Emperor.” Besides broadcasting his show from Tony’s Polka Village, his combined music store-gift shop-studio on East 185th, Tony writes about all these things in his Sun-Press column. Some of these enterprises, no doubt, are underwritten by the polka travel agency (you heard me right) of which Tony is vice-president.

The Tony Petkovsek Radio Club, which organizes the annual anniversary party, had, not surprisingly, named Tony as master of ceremonies.

At one point during the evening, the Ambassador—resplendent in a white peasant blouse with red trimmings—mounted the stage (back-dropped with glittering silver stars) and introduced a “button box jam.” At this signal, eight musicians, ranging in age from approximately six to 60, each cradling a curious little instrument resembling an accordion, launched into a spirited polka.

“That’s my boy in the front,” proclaimed a woman standing next to us.

I was thinking that it was Thanksgiving night and wondering what could drag all these folks out of their houses and into a dance hall. “Going to a polka dance isn’t like going out,” says one observer of the phenomenon. “It’s like coming home.”

And so it is. Polka spots are among the few places you can go these days and still see fathers dancing with daughters, mothers with sons, sisters with sisters, even grandparents with grandchildren. At a recent taping session for Polka Varieties, producer Walt Masky counted five generations of one family in the studio audience. Dancers appearing on that particular show ranged in age from 10 to over here.’

Polka Varieties, now in its 18th year, has become an institution unto itself. “The dancers on this show become stars,” says Paul Wilcox. It’s the Polish American Bandstand. One couple met on the show, were married on it three years ago and have celebrated their anniversaries on it ever since. One of the early “house bands” on the show was none other than Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks, who in the early ‘50s — through a combination of showmanship, promotion and sheer determination — brought the polka to the attention of a national audience for the first time.

The world’s most famous name in polkas grew up in Collinwood, played in many a neighborhood Slovenian tavern, owned a steak house bearing his name on Euclid Avenue and now spends his weekdays with his mail and his memories in his South Euclid home. In this photo he’s with Lawrence Welk, in this one he receives an award from Frank Lausche. On weekends he still sings with the band, traveling to places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Colby, Kansas, to run through his hits.

Young Frank, a second-generation Slovenian-American, played his first wedding at the age of eight. At the time, his instrument was the “button box,” a small diatonic accordion best suited to traditional European folk melodies. The modern piano accordion, in fact, was so difficult for him to learn that he nearly gave it up before quite suddenly “catching on.”

There is a folk wisdom that the second generation rejects its ethnic heritage, and the third reclaims it. Most of Yankovic’s peers were into American pop music and thought his interest in the polka rather strange, but fearless Frank didn’t let that stop him: He had formed his own band and was playing out-of-town jobs by the time he was out of high school.

When the major record companies refused to discuss his polkas, Yankovic got together with some local musicians and cut 32 sides in one day at Cleveland Recording. He had already enjoyed some local success with a couple of 78s released on his own label, Yankee Records. Now Yankovic, preparing to depart for service in World War II, left the new masters in the custody of Fred Wolf, Cleveland Recording president and one of the sidemen participating in the session.

Soon, however, the shellac shortage hit the recording industry, and Wolf disposed of the masters in a deal with a New York company, Continental Records. “He got $3,000 for the whole package,” groans Yankovic, “the royalties, publishing rights, everything. I’ll bet Continental made themselves $200,000 on those masters. They’re still selling some of those records today.”

While this classic music-business rip-off scenario was taking place, Yankovic’s detachment was pinned down in freezing weather at the Battle of the Bulge. He came out of it with severe frostbite of the hands and feet, which led to gangrene. The doctors wanted to amputate, but Yankovic decided to take his chances.

Needless to say, he won. The fortunate outcome of this perilous period: Columbia Records was sufficiently impressed by the success of the Continental sides to sign Yankovic immediately upon his return. He remained with Columbia for 23 years.

In 1948, Columbia, anxious about a rumored musicians’ strike, called Yankovic into the studios for two quick sessions. He kept asking to cut “Just Because,” a country-and-westem tune his band had been getting good response with, but the Columbia man wasn’t interested. Finally, with five minutes of studio time left at the end of the sessions, he relented.

A few months later, to everyone’s surprise, the song became a top-40 hit, selling close to a million copies. Yankovic followed it up with “Blue Skirt Waltz,” a Bohemian folk tune with new lyrics by “Stardust” lyricist Michael Parrish. It turned into his biggest success and still outsells everything he’s done since.

***

That did it. Soon Yankovic and the Yanks were off on tour, playing places like the Mocombo on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas — to audiences more accustomed to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bob Hope.

“Well, to be honest with you,” confesses Yankovic, “I didn’t feel good at all going in there. I thought to myself, ‘What’s a polka band gonna do in Las Vegas or Hollywood?’ But well, I said, they want us, so let’s go. So we went out there and just played our music. We didn’t do anything different from what we usually did. And I’ll tell you one thing — in a matter of minutes, we had the people in the palm of our hand. We had people gettin’ up that never danced the polka before. They wouldn’t let us off the bandstand.”

In 1957, Yankovic participated in what may be one of the most outrageous promotions ever conceived, taking on none other than the Duke Ellington Orchestra in a battle of the bands. A Milwaukee audience established, once and for all, the superiority of polkas to jazz. “Of course,” Yankovic charitably admits, “we wouldn’t have had a Chinaman’s chance if it had been in the South someplace. But Duke Ellington laughed about it. He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, Frank, I never heard five guys put out so much music.’ “

In 1968, after producing some 30 albums, Yankovic was quietly dumped by Columbia. RCA followed suit four years later, and since then, the major labels have withdrawn completely from the field. This probably has less to do with any decline in the polka’s popularity than with the proportion of profits generated by the relatively small polka market as compared to huge markets like rock, country or “easy listening.”

Locally, the slack has been taken up by one John Gayer, the proprietor of Delta International Records. Gayer, an aerospace engineer thrown out of work by government spending cuts, works out of the top floor of his parents’ home on East 31st Street near St. Clair. But he does all his recording at Audio Recording, a good facility, with Vlad Maleckar (the engineer who tapes the Cleveland Orchestra’s radio concerts) at the controls.

Gayer has about 30 albums by local bands in his catalog. Among his hottest items these days are several reissues by the late Johnny Pecon, whose stature on the Cleveland polka scene has ranked with Yankovic’s—though he never achieved the same national recognition. Pecon, who worked for years as the head custodian at Cleveland City Hall, developed a distinctively smooth Slovenian accordion style. Many considered him to be among the finest musicians, as such, in the polka field. Just days before he succumbed to cancer on March 2, Pecon received a moving tribute from 26 bands and over 3,000 fans at the Slovenian Home.

***

John Gayer has enjoyed enough success with Pecon and other artists to enable him to expand recently into eight-track cartridges. He has gone to some effort to bring the recording and packaging of polka LPs up to industrywide standards and discourages bands from recording vocals unless they’re halfway presentable. Up to this point, independent polka labels have been best known for their notoriously second-rate product.

Following my interview with the ebullient Gayer, I staggered out to the car with more polka albums than I thought I would ever need. Without thinking about • it too much, I flicked on WMMS and caught the B-52 guitars of Uriah Heep. After about four bars, I figured nothing could be worse, so I went with a cartridge by Gayer’s latest find, a handsome, big-voiced Polish kid named Joe Oberaitis.

Well, there’s Slovenian polka, the kind mostly identified with Cleveland and played by Yankovic and Pecon — comparatively restrained, graceful, lyrical — and then there’s Polish polka. The Polish band uses horns, speeds up the tempo and generally drives. I’ll take it over Uriah Heep any day. Oberaitis, as it turns out, finished third in the Polka Varieties audience poll, taken at the end of last year. Runner-up was Markic-Zagger, a Slovenian band; first place, surprisingly enough, went to a German band—that of Hank Haller, regulars at the Hofbrau Haus.

The Hank Haller band on stage is a sight to behold, to say the least. Haller himself is a chubby-faced, curly-haired, bespectacled little elf with an accordion. His band — which includes another accordionist, a tuba player who doubles on string bass and two other horn players — is clad in lederhosen and little feathered caps. Haller’s wife, Mary Ann, singer and ornament of the band, carries a bright green parasol. They play a mixture of German drinking songs, traditional folk tunes, polkas and American pop songs. One suspects they have a rock number or two tucked away in their repertoire, should the occasion call for it.

Haller is one of the many local performers who have helped make Polka Varieties one of the longest-running shows of its kind anywhere. “We’ve maintained tremendous ratings,” says Paul Wilcox, who has emceed the show from the beginning, “even against baseball and football. We even syndicated the show for a year in 35 major cities.

“Sure, we do a lot of cornball stuff,” he admits. “We leave mistakes in. It makes us sound more human.”

Lately, Polka Varieties has taken to organizing its own “polka tours.” The scam was originated by Kollander World Travel — Tony Petkovsek, V. P. For the past five years, the company has conducted pilgrimages to such ethnic homelands as Spain, the Carribean, Florida and Hawaii (where Don Ho customarily joins the visitors for a few numbers). One or two Cleveland polka bands accompany the tourists.

All this would call up appalling images of culture shock, were it not for the fact that the band normally confines itself to the airport lounge, the hotel, and perhaps the airplane. One local band, however, did make a brief public appearance in Morocco, where they were well received by the natives. (It was their first taste of American music.)

And American music it is, as Kollander’s first expedition to Slovenia discovered in short order. One day in the early ‘60s, the eager contingent of polka tourists disembarked at Ljubljana—capital of the Yugoslavian province of Slovenia and a city of a quarter-million inhabitants. After scouring the town, the faithful were dismayed to discover that not one polka band was to be found! What they did find was lots of strip joints and lots of terrible European rock bands playing five-year-old American hits.

So much for the ethnic homeland. Not to be discouraged, however, the intrepid Clevelanders set up their equipment and proceeded to turn the Slovenians on to the polka. Not too surprisingly, they liked it, and the tours are now a regular event. In fact, the Vadnals, one of the best-known local bands, have recorded two albums on a Slovenian label and are reported to be selling well there.

If that’s not ironic enough for you, consider the experience of Father George Balasko, the parish priest at St. Patrick’s in Hubbard, Ohio (between Youngstown and Sharon, Pennsylvania). Balasko visited Slovenia in 1968, soon after the Vatican officially approved instrumentation (other than the organ) for the Mass. Invited to witness a “folk mass,” he heard the Slovenian priests strum guitars and sing American folk tunes like “Michael,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”—with Slovenian lyrics, naturally. He sums up the spectacle: “They missed it.” So it was left to Balasko to invent the Polka Mass—or, as he calls it, the “Mass of Christian Joy:

A Slavic Folk Liturgy.” This mind-boggling phenomenon combines traditional polka melodies played by a live band with new lyrics appropriate to the various hymns of the Mass. Although dancing is considered strictly taboo, the congregation does of course join in the singing, led by a small choir. Conducted within the echoing depth of a cavernous church, it all sounds a bit like Ray Conniff gone ethnic and Catholic all at once.

Since Balasko celebrated the first such event in May 1972, the Polka Mass has grown into a movement:

The priest has staged 20 others himself and has requests for help in the production of many more. Father Frank Perkovich, a priest from Minnesota’s Iron Range, has taken his own Mass on the road, so to speak, and has an album out.

The current polka revival does indeed have its avant-garde wing. Besides the Polka Mass—which Zebrowski, for one, will not play on the air due to his belief that it’s intrinsically sacrilegious—there is a Chicago polka band which features a string section, including three country-style fiddles. A young Detroit button box player mixes polkas with fairly sophisticated light classics. And there is a flashy young show band from Martins Ferry, Ohio, called the Jolly J’s— who come complete with music degrees, spiffy costumes and intricate choreography.

Yet even with these experiments and its new youthful audience, the resurgence of the polka, after 20 years of stasis, reaches into the past at least as much as into the future. The polka evokes continuity from generation to generation. It evokes the cultural community of the “old neighborhood,” even though the old neighborhood is changing or has moved out to Euclid or Parma. In a complex, often threatening age, the polka offers simplicity, comprehensibility and security. It talks about what’s real for its audience—the neighborhood, the bars, the family, good friends, good times.

That’s a lot of reality for a lot of people—a quarter of a million Greater Clevelanders among them. “These are people who never lost their roots,” observes Bill Randle. “They always knew who they were.” Now, in 1975, it’s becoming legitimate to be publicly proud of who you are.

In short, somehow it has happened that the polka’s time has once again come. Why? The Jolly J’s lyric sums it up best:

People may not change when we get through singin’, But, when we’re singin’ songs, troubles may seem lighter.


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