Polka Hall of Fame pays tribute to the dance

Article - #1 (By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2010)






EUCLID, Ohio -- In this ethnic enclave of 50,000 people, the accordion draws music lovers together, especially at the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum.


"It's good dancing music," said Joe Valencic, director of a new two-hour documentary called "Polka: The Movie" and one of the museum's founding trustees.


Located in a former city hall in this lakeside suburb east of Cleveland, the free museum attracts visitors from the United States, Australia and Europe. Founded in 1988, the hall of fame has been in its current location since 2002.


America's long, wide Polka Belt wraps around Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, birthplace of the music's best-known ambassador, Frankie Yankovic.


"Cleveland is the buckle of the polka belt," Mr. Valencic said, adding that the word polka comes from the Czech word for half-step (although it's also similar to the Czech and Polish words for Polish woman or girl). The polka originated among the peasants of eastern Bohemia, then spread to Prague in the 1830s.


Slovenian-style polka can be heard in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago. Heavily influenced by the Viennese waltz, Slovenian-style polka has a strong rhythm with a slide and glide tempo. The accordion carries the melody, and a band typically has a drummer, a bass saxophone and clarinet.


Slovenian-style polka is "more of a ballroom style," Mr. Valencic said, adding that it's "not as frenetic as the Polish polka," which has more of a hop to its beat.


(Czech- or Bohemian-style polka is popular in Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa. German polkas prevail in Milwaukee, while Polish-style polkas dominate in Chicago.)


Located halfway between Venice and Vienna, Slovenia borders Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. The Slovenian diaspora is concentrated in Clevaland's neighborhoods of St. Clair-Superior and Collinwood, which hold the largest collection of Slovenian-Americans in the United States.


"Eighty thousand people here are of Slovenian background," Mr. Valencic said, adding that there are at least eight shops devoted to the culture, including several meat markets. That's because many Slovenians immigrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, settled in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic and brought their music with them.


By the 1920s, radio stations such as KDKA broadcast programs with ethnic music. By that time, young polka musicians listened to blues, gospel, jazz and Tin Pan Alley, infusing those influences into Slovenian folk music.


In exhibits here, Pittsburgh music lovers will recognize some of Western Pennsylvania's polka legends, including accordionist and broadcaster Sam Pugliano, musical arranger Fred Gregorich, music teacher Gene Casciola, and bandleaders Martin Serro plus Jack Tady and his brother, Dick.


Western Pennsylvanians still hear this music on the weekends when Sharon Ujcich hosts the "Slovene Radio Hour" from noon to 1 p.m. Sundays on WPIT-AM (730) and Violet Ruparcich hosts "Songs and Melodies From Beautiful Slovenia" on McKeesport's WEDO-AM (810) from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.


The polka hall of fame's exhibits are tactile as well as visual. An accordion with a pearlized finish is displayed on a music stand.


"Some children have never seen or tried playing an accordion. They can stand behind it and play it," said Cecilia Valencic Dolgan, a singer and museum trustee.


To Clevelanders, the patriarch of polka was Matt Hoyer, who made more than 100 recordings and whose big hit was "Jack on St. Clair."


Soldiers who returned home from World War II embraced the music; mothers and children took accordion lessons; teenagers stayed in their neighborhoods and attended ethnic dances. Major recording houses Columbia and RCA Victor identified Slovenians as one of the ethnic groups to whom they could sell records, Mr. Valencic said.


"It wasn't wild jazz music so it was acceptable," he added.


In the 1940s and 1950s, every Cleveland jukebox held music by accordion player Johnny Pecon Sr.


And, just as it is now, winning a major recording contract was a huge step. Between 1949 and 1950, Frankie Yankovic sold more than 2 million copies each of "Just Because," released in 1948, and "Blue Skirt Waltz," which came soon afterward.


Mr. Yankovic also translated Slovenian lyrics into English, which allowed people to ask for particular favorites at live performances in ballrooms. But he always played at least one song in the Slovenian language.


Building on his initial success, Mr. Yankovic went to Hollywood, Calif., in 1950 where he did a screen test and played the Mocambo club in the presence of actors Lana Turner, Jane Wyman, Rosalind Russell and Joseph Cotten. Eventually, he made five music videos, known as "soundees," that were shown in movie houses and on television.


Also in the 1950s, Mr. Yankovic hosted a television show that was syndicated in regional markets. Many people remember his hit recording about blood sausage, "Who Stole the Keeshka?"


Earlier this year, the hall of fame opened a special exhibit on the Vadnal family, featuring vintage photos and video clips. Johnny Vadnal's Orchestra won popularity in Cleveland during the 1950s. Anna Vadnal, the family matriarch, insisted that all of her five children learn to play music and they wound up in a band together.


Then, the oom-pah Alpine style of polka arrived from Slovenia in the 1960s and 1970s when two famous groups toured the U.S. The Avsenik and Slak orchestras ignited new interest in Alpine-style polka.


"A lot of our Cleveland-style bands adapted the music of the Alpine sound and play it Cleveland-style," Mrs. Dolgan said.


The cultural exchange continued with U.S. polka bands touring Europe. The Richie Vadnal Orchestra, led by Johnny Vadnal's charismatic son, attracted fans in Slovenia, Mr. Valencic said.


"People still know and talk about him 30 years later," Mrs. Dolgan said.


Polka even permeated certain church pews. The first polka Mass was offered in 1972 in Lowellville, a town between Youngstown, Ohio, and Sharon, Pa. Presiding at the Mass was the Rev. Frank Perkovich. There's even a recording called "Songs and Hymns From the Polka Mass" that sold 300,000 copies.


More recently, at a fundraiser called "Polkas at the Rock," 101 accordionists played in front of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland in 2001.


For about 10 minutes, the musicians played typical Slovenian-American folk songs such as "My Marie Polka" and "Top of the Hill Polka." Then, they went inside for a festive evening.


"We have a good relationship with Cleveland's other music museum," quipped Mrs. Dolgan.

















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