I first started listening to polka music in the early 50's when my friend LeRoy "Buzz" Zemlicka and I would dial in WNAX, a radio station broadcasting from Yankton, South Dakota. The WNAX polka band played on the air every noon hour. Buzz's Bohemian ancestry gave him a handed-down love for this music style, and I learned to like the sound.
I learned to dance the polka from the local farm girls who learned it from their daddies. I thought if you ever skipped as a child you could polka--- you skip forward then whirl about and then skip backward. It sounds simple, but it's not, as your partner has to be in step with you, or you end up with sore toes.
The traditional polka bands were located in Minnesota and had names like" The Six Fat Dutchman" and the most famous, "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt's band. When the "Six Fat Dutchmen" played the Prom ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, Buzz and I ventured all the way from Miller, South Dakota to hear them play.
When my wife Elly and I were first acquainted, we found we had a mutual love for the old style music and traveled to Iron World near Chisholm, Minnesota to the annual polka festival. Myron Floren led one of the bands, and he played the accordion much better then his mentor Lawrence Welk.
This festival was where we first saw the polka clubs. The members dressed in red and white outfits and wore vests covered with state buttons on the front, and the name of their club on the back. They arrived in motor homes, traveling across the nation pursuing their love for the music. They were a mature group. Some used canes to get about, but that all changed when they got on the dance floor and found their lost youth. These dedicated dancers intimidated Elly and me as they whirled around the floor, throwing in a fancy move or two to impress the crowd. Although encouraged by the bandleaders to join in, we mostly watched and listened.
One day we read an ad in the newspaper that said Whoopee John's band would be playing their last concert at the Medina ballroom in Medina, Minnesota, and we both felt we had to attend. I knew there would be tubas helping the drummer keep the beat, and I looked forward to hearing that old familiar "Oomp Pah Pah" sound.
We left home with the temperature at - 30° (yes, that's 30 degrees below zero)!
We didn't even question our sanity since we were determined to be part of the last group to hear Whoopee John's band go down in polka history. Although he had passed away in 1961, his band had remained active for a few years after his death. We checked into a motel in Medina, Minnesota and got the last electrical plug-in for the head bolt heater assuring us that the car engine would turn over in the morning.
Because of the cold weather, the crowd was small and the band leader announced that the buses from Whoopee John's home town of New Ulm, Minnesota couldn't make it to the concert, so they would hold another concert the following week. The next morning in the bitter cold, Elly inquired if we would be coming back the following week. Trying to sound like a Minnesota native I replied "Ya, sure, ya betcha"--- and we did.
© 2004 Maurice Karst
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