POLKAS. American polka music evolved as a hybrid of folk songs and dances brought by European immigrants, with influences from other musical expressions. The term has come to encompass waltzes, schottisches, quicksteps, mazurkas, and other ethnic dances. Cleveland has been called "America's Polka Capital" and was identified with a particular style of polka music that has been widely copied. The polka was a European sensation before it swept America in the 1840s. The dance and its variations were already in the repertoires of local musicians by 1845, when JACKSON LELAND penned a quickstep for his Cleveland Brass Band. Lively polkas and romantic waltzes were popular throughout the Victorian era. Two typical titles by area composers were "The Put-in-Bay Polka" (1871) and "The Irresistible Schottische" (1885). The city's orchestras presented such songs in parades, recitals, and summer concerts at ROCKEFELLER PARK, Kelley's Hall, and HALTNORTH'S GARDENS. GERMANS and CZECHS played their own versions at social events and performances of groups such as the ST. CECILIA SOCIETY Orchestra, Cleveland Gesangverein, LUMIR SINGING SOCIETY, and FRANK HRUBY's Great Western Band. European folkloric themes were the rage at the turn of the century, and mandolin clubs flourished. The first tamburitza groups were established among Cleveland's CROATIANS and SLOVENES at this time.
Accordions probably came to Cleveland the same time as polkas. Early accordions were button-operated, with diatonic tonality capable of only major scales. These were often called button boxes or cheese boxes, a term thought to have originated in Cleveland. Chromatic and piano models with greater ranges and key mechanisms were prevalent by 1900. Accordionists were in demand among nationality groups for weddings, dances, and parties. Rudimentary bands were gradually formed with the addition of a piano, strings, brass, or woodwinds. Some groups added banjo and drums, and by 1920 the first polka bands appeared. Each nationality had its own musical style, and most bands were talented enough to play for different audiences. Czechs and Germans preferred rousing oom-pah beats; Slovenians, smooth, gliding renditions; ITALIANS, staccato rhythms. POLES emphasized wind instruments; Croatians used more guitar and tamburitza; and HUNGARIANS highlighted violins and the cimbalom. Parish and community halls opened as cultural and entertainment centers. Dances were held regularly at places such as Our Lady of Lourdes Hall on Broadway and Knaus' Hall on St. Clair. Nick Shkorka, Anton Mervar, and John Mikus manufactured accordions, and John Bencic specialized in tamburitzas. Instruments were also ordered from Europe.
The phonograph and RADIO created an unprecedented boom in popular music in the 1920s. Polkas and waltzes were still played, but the ethnic bandleader might be called upon to perform an occasional turkey trot or Charleston to please younger dancers. Second-generation ethnic Clevelanders appreciated commercial music as well as their own culture's sounds. New York record companies catered to ethnic audiences with imported discs and nationality music series. Records were distributed nationally via catalogs, neighborhood music shops such as those lining Broadway, and even furniture stores and jewelers. Anton Mervar contacted record companies to issue a Slovenian series with Cleveland artists. The Matt Hoyer Trio became the first Slovenian ensemble to record in the U.S. From 1919-30 the group made 100 instrumental arrangements for the Victor and Columbia labels. Hoyer reworked old polkas and folk songs and updated them with banjo accompaniment. Songs such as "Jack on St. Clair" set the tone for Slovenian bands in America. The Victor Lisjak and Louis Spehek orchestras also recorded for the labels. Dick Mates performed for Czech series, and Jan Kapalka for Polish series.
By 1930 nearly every major nationality had a regular broadcast on Cleveland stations WGAR, WHK, WJAY, and WTAM. Several producer-announcers, including John Lewandowski, Henri Broze, and Martin Antoncic, remained popular well into the 1960s and 1970s. These programs served as showcases for polka musicians. At the insistence of local musicians' unions, live music was used almost exclusively, giving performers valuable exposure for bookings. Radio favorites during the 1930s and early 1940s included accordionists Frank Novak, Eddie Simms, and Lou Trebar, bassist Geo. Wisneskey, Joe Sodja on the banjo, Emil Hronek on the vibraphone, and pianists Art Broze and Wm. Lausche. Instrumentalists frequently worked on different nationality shows. Lausche made numerous recordings with Victor and Columbia, sometimes joined by a studio orchestra and his sister Josephine and Mary Udovic as vocalists. He "Americanized" Slovenian tunes with dance-band arrangements and pioneered the polka sound that would become associated with Cleveland. Lausche's original compositions, such as "Cleveland, the Polka Town," became polka classics.
The Depression dashed the nationality record industry, but musicians kept busy. Dancers were willing to part with a quarter to forget their troubles at neighborhood halls, taverns, and the nationality villages at the Great Lakes Exposition. Cleveland bands rushed to record, especially when radio restrictions were eased after the start of World War II. Joe Kusar continued the Hoyer button-box style, and Emery Deutsch performed Hungarian melodies. Jerry Mazanec and Jerry Pobuda gave Czech numbers a fresh sound. Joe Sodja's orchestra tried for American listeners. Boys who grew up with records, radio, and neighborhood musicians were forming bands and playing for weddings, church socials, and lodge picnics.
Frankie Yankovic was a bandleader while still a teenager in Collinwood's Slovenian settlement. His early releases, engineered at Czech announcer FREDERICK WOLF's Cleveland Recording Co., sold rapidly and earned him a contract with Columbia in 1946. Dancers welcomed Yankovic's approach—fluid waltzes and slower polkas that were simpler than the Chicago Polish style and less
foreign than the Milwaukee German sound. The Yanks hit the charts in 1948 and 1949 with 2 million-selling arrangements, "Just Because" and "The Blue Skirt Waltz." Yankovic toured extensively, sometimes giving 300 performances a year, including in Cleveland. He was crowned "America's Polka King" in Milwaukee in 1948. He staffed his band with versatile musicians, such as Johnny Pecon. Many Yanks alumni formed their own successful bands. Johnny Pecon's orchestra was considered the leading exponent of the Cleveland polka style. He is thought to have established the dance sequence of 3 polkas, followed by 3 waltzes and 3 other numbers. Record deals were offered to Cleveland-style groups led by Pecon, Johnny Vadnal, Kenny Bass, Georgie Cook, Eddie Habat, Pete Sokach, and others. The Polish-style bands of Chester Budny and Ray Budzilek also signed with major labels.
Polka fever broke nationally ca. 1950. Cold-war America wanted hearty, wholesome songs reminiscent of old values. Major entertainers scored polka hits. The absorption of the polka into popular music showed an acceptance of the multicultural identity of America. Polka fans packed music spots such as the Golden Goose on E. 123rd, the Rendezvous Bar on W. 25th, the Gaiety Inn in Collinwood, the Bowl Ballroom on E. 93rd, Grdina's Twilight Ballroom on St. Clair, and the Metropole Cafe on E. 55th. Parish halls and centers, such as the SLOVENIAN NATL. HOME, the Polish Women's Hall, and Karlin Hall, sponsored weekly dances where teens could mingle with "their own kind." Outlying recreation grounds, musicians, and promoted polka music.
ROCK `N' ROLL and increased TELEVISION viewing were blamed for the polka's decline, but the big labels were dropping polka performers as early as 1953 because of overexposure. Neighborhood youth dances practically disappeared after 1955. Polka music maintained followers in strongly ethnic cities such as Cleveland, where bandleader bars were popular. Polkas reached a low point in the early 1960s, when a wide-scale scorn for working-class ethnicity prevailed, particularly in the media. Yankovic's comic hit "Who Stole the Kishka?" was ridiculed as a prime example of ethnic low culture. Several factors led to a polka revival after 1965. FM radio provided more air time for nationality programming, and 2 stations, WXEN and WZAK, presented all-ethnic formats. Announcers such as Joseph and Betty Bauer, Leslie Dus, and Frank Pitrone produced shows 7 days a week. Tony Petkovsek, Jr., began an expanded daily polka program in 1961 and emerged as an important figure in the revitalization of Cleveland's polka scene. He included album premieres, opinion call-ins, on-location shows, interviews, contests, and even a polka history segment by Don Sosnoski. The recordings of 2 groups from Europe introduced a fresh, commercialized folk sound and new melodies to Cleveland airwaves. The Avsenik Bros.' Alpine renditions inspired bands such as that of Duke Marsic. Lojze Slak's folksy diatonic accordion touched off a button-box craze. Both ensembles appeared in Cleveland.
John Gayer's Delta Intl. was Cleveland's leading polka record label. Over 40 albums were released from 1963-78, featuring Pecon, Lou Trebar, Al Markic, Al Tercek, and a new generation of entertainers such as Richie Vadnal, Hank Haller, Wally Chips, Joe Oberaitis, and vocalist Cecilia Dolgan. Some bands produced their own albums and, for a small investment, had them pressed and packaged. The days of million-selling hits were over, however. Most releases were for 1,000 albums, and sell-outs were rare. Distribution was limited because chain stores no longer handled polka recordings. Yankovic was the last Cleveland polka figure on a major label.
Polkas made a strong comeback in the 1970s. The fans of the 1940s and 1950s were middle-aged, and polka music offered a pleasant, nostalgic refuge. Ethnic pride was growing in Cleveland, and polka events became important, including the All Nations Festival on Hanna Mall, Oktoberfests, and Old World celebrations. The Polka Mass was first presented in Lowellville in 1972, with polkas and waltzes rewritten as hymns. A dozen polka broadcasts emanated from northeast Ohio. Anthony Zebrowski alone hosted 33 hours a week. Timko's Polka Place on E. 156th St., Hofbrau House on E. 55th, and Brookstate Inn in Parma were the top-drawing polka nightclubs. Two polka monthlies were published, Polka News & Events, by Peter Cassara, and Polkarama, by Jack O'Breza, Jr., plus a newspaper, Polka Scene, by Bob Falkowski. The button-box mania among Cleveland's Slovenians spread to ethnic communities as distant as Alaska. The instrument could be learned by rote, and contests and festivals boosted participation. By 1985 there were 16 clubs in Cleveland.
Polka music suffered setbacks in the 1980s. WXEN and WZAK bumped ethnic programming in favor of disco formats, and polka disc jockeys were forced onto low-powered stations or into retirement. WEWS canceled "Polka Varieties." Rising orchestra prices forced small establishments to drop live music. Yet Cleveland was still called "Polkatown, U.S.A." There were over 100 polka bands in the area by 1996, plus button-box clubs, tamburitza ensembles, choruses, folk dancers, and brass bands. Yankovic received the first Grammy award for best polka album in 1985. The Cleveland-style Polka Hall of Fame opened in Euclid in 1986 with national membership and annual award ceremonies. Polka events were fewer, but musically strong and well-attended. New bands were being organized by the youngsters that were raised in the polka-charged 1970s, ensuring the continuation of this uniquely American musical form into the next century.
Dolgan, Cecilia V. "Button Box Clubs in the U.S." In Slovenski Koledar `86 (1985).
Dolgan, Robert, and Frankie Yankovic. Polka King (1977).