Thursday, September 6, 2012


Don Haderle
On the first Sunday of every month we attend the Polka Boosters’ dance in Sacramento at the Eagles’ Hall where Polka Power plays. We usually have 60-100 folk attend, but lately there’s been a splattering of new folk which is comforting. The music is always fantastic and the afternoon (2-6pm) great fun with Danny Fitterer on accordion, Donna Seibert Clay on sax and button box, Mark Seibert on drums, and Stefan Kochishan on sax and clarinet providing vocals. In the last year the crew has added a lively rock & roll number - we all assemble in front of the stage and boogie in unison en masse with an occasional solo dancer strutting out. My break dance solo of the worm, which resembles a chunky piece of bacon convulsing, took top honors one afternoon, rendering the band speechless, disrupting the flow of music.

We had a cataclysmic event – Little Switzerland in Sonoma closed its doors in December. The history of Little Switzerland is nicely encapsulated in an article in the Sonoma Press Democrat. For decades they have provided a Sunday polka dance, which was THE spot for polka folks in the North Bay (i.e., those folks north of San Francisco). Little Switzerland was a restaurant bar with a great dance floor. When I was a kid in the 1950s there was a park across the street which served the Swiss clubs in the Bay Area where we would compete against other clubs in gymnastics and then retire to the restaurant where my dad would relax with a beer or two before we headed home to San Francisco (this was in the era where a couple of beers wouldn’t earn you a DUI). So the place has long enduring memories for me. The present owner, Alina Garcia, was doing a great job of sustaining the regular dance program, but fell victim to a divorce which sapped her funds. Consequently, the bank foreclosed and took possession of the property. No one has stepped forward to continue the tradition, so its survival doesn’t look very good.

In February the venue moved to the Sonoma Moose Club, which now hosts a Sunday evening dance with the same bands that played at Little Switzerland. The first dance was jam packed, but thereafter attendance has fallen off. The long-time Little Switzerland regulars miss the ambiance of the old place and their reserved tables which carried decades of memories of friends who once were. We took in Polka Power in May at the Sonoma Moose, which had about 80 people including Alina who we hadn’t seen in 6 months. The dance is held in a hall with a slightly raised wooden dance floor surrounded by tables with an adjoining dining room and barroom. The music is just as good as ever, so come on out!

Swiss Park in Newark, 40 miles south of San Francisco, is a wonderful old wooden dance hall with adjoin barroom. For decades there were regular weekend dances and Swiss events. Alas, the audience for this has been dying out. Nonetheless they still have dances a couple of Sundays each month, but you need to consult their calendar to figure out when they’ll be. The Internationals play there a couple of times each year, Karl Lebherz plays there once or twice a month, and Swiss Park has just begun experimenting with other bands, including Steve Balich who played in May to a good crowd that loved the music. Tom Casazza, who drums and vocalizes with Steve, replaced the Internationals’ long-time drummer – but, luckily Tom still performs with Steve.  Steve always said, “I’m not a polka band.” He’s right. He’s more than a polka band. He plays sweet Italian and American music, peppered with an occasional polka. We hope to catch Steve at the Croatian Hall in Milpitas in June and will definitely see Steve and Jenny in Cotati at the Accordion Festival in August.  

Gail & I belong to the San Jose German Club (SJGC), which also has 4-6 dances each year. The San Jose German club is in downtown San Jose. Their clubhouse is an historic building dating into the 1800s.  I have photos of my father with the San Francisco Deutsche Turn Verein (DTV) participating in gymnastic meets with the San Jose Club in the early 1930s. Gymnastics is no longer part of the agenda for any of these German clubs, though you can see the anchors in the floors that held up the apparatus. The clubhouse endured a devastating fire about 10 years ago and has since been renovated. It has an active, but aging membership (this is a problem for all of our clubs).  The club has strong membership in many of its interest groups (abteilung) – Karnival, Schützen, Choir, and more. Sacramento, likewise, hosts a German Club in the Turn Verein Hall. And they have 4-6 dances each year with a multi-day Oktoberfest where the Gruber Family Band has been a mainstay for years. Karnival is quite extensive – I’ll give you an earful in a subsequent article. To list all of the German clubs out west would take an entire article – Anaheim (Phoenix Club), Beaumont, Las Vegas, Phoenix (AZ), and, and.    

There are two chapters of the Nature Friends (NF) in the Bay Area, a German club with a penchant for hiking (Berg Frei!). We belong to the chapter in Oakland which sits on a couple of acres with an outdoor dance floor used when the weather is good and an indoor clubhouse and dance floor when the weather is not so good. Oakland NF had its Maifest outdoor with Joe Smiell, Jr. playing to a good crowd of a couple of hundred. Many thanks to the Schmidts, Uhers, and the other dedicated individuals who organize and work these events. Erik Rosin, a delightful young man with lots of dance friends, used Facebook to entice his friends to come to the event – as such there were lots of young folk who were blown away. I’m sure that Erik, who performs with the schuhplattler group, wowed his buddies with his dance prowess. We hope to see them again. Knowing Erik, we will.

The San Francisco NF chapter has its clubhouse in Mill Valley. They too held a Maifest which attracted lots of people. For some reason the young people are quite attracted to that lodge – I suspect that its location in the beautiful Muir Woods has something to do with it. Joe Smiell, Jr. played that event as well. He certainly carries on the tradition of his father, Joe Smiell, Sr., who passed away earlier this year. 

So where else have we been? In December we headed to Phoenix where Tony Blazonczyk and New Phaze performed at the Pulaski Club. These guys are great! Tony and crew did a great tribute to Eddie B with a performance that brought tears to our eyes. We had a great crowd on Saturday night and slightly less on Sunday. The snowbirds don’t flock to Arizona until after Christmas – so we expected a light audience. But the crowd that was there was lively. Marla Carney and Joe Lengyel joined us for the weekend and a couple of days in Palm Desert. Marla lives in Homer, Alaska now and broke away from the halibut and ice for a little polka and fun. As usual, we were delighted to see Ron and Grace Bachara - Ron was smugly decked out in vintage Eddie B wear. Ed and Carolyn Dulude had a lame excuse for their absence. Tony and the boys are really great musicians and great guys. Tony works the room between sets and shares stories with everyone. We’re definitely going to try to get these guys back. Dave Bonczkiewicz and the entire crew did a great job putting on this event.

On the weekend of December 17 we enjoyed the Gruber Family Band at Teske’s German Restaurant in San Jose. During the winter they play indoors at Teske’s. There’s a small dance floor, but ample for the dancing crowd. As you may recall, Al Gruber and his wife Christina owned and ran Little Switzerland for decades. Al has retired, but his kids, Toni and Peter, together with Toni’s kids (Michael and Martin), continue to bring us wonderful music. The Gruber Family Band plays at Teske’s, Sonoma Moose, Sacramento Turn Verein, and many other places. The band played a two day event at the Fontana Slovene Hall in May (Memorial Day weekend).  We heard secondhand that the event was well attended and the Southern California crew loved the band from up north (what’s not to love?). They were joined by Stan Blout, Frank Rote, Bill Swetkar, and Fred Sonoff for a few sets. We hope that Erik Woods repeats the event next year.

In January Polka Power played at the Pulaski club in Phoenix and the Greenfield resort in Mesa thanks to Sue Flores who promoted the event. Sue does a terrific job each year of arranging for great music in the Mesa, Az area. We are grateful for her passion and look forward to her agenda each year. She already has most of the 2013 season arranged with Squeezebox, Music Connection, Polka Power and many more. The band was well received at both venues with packed dance floors. At Greenfield we get to see many of the musicians and their spouses who attended the once-annual Stodola polka weekend at Skyranch in Temecula, Ca. We were delighted to see the dancing duo Potsy Jenovic and Nancy Glass in our area again. The band and friends joined us for a couple of days before the weekend at our house in Palm Desert, where the girls and Joe Lengyel hit the spa while Danny Fitterer and I golfed. Donna whipped up some margaritas and I burnt the hamburgers and hot dogs, but nobody cared.       

In early February Bobby Kravos and Mark Habat visited Joe Bajuk in Daly City. Bobby and Mark were between gigs on Walter Ostanek’s winter tour, which was heading to Arizona. We caught up with them at Joe’s house along with Mary Saber and Donna Seibert Clay and headed to San Francisco’s Fisherman Wharf for lunch and a glimpse of the harbor sea lions and seals that hold hostage a few floating docks off of Pier 39 – Bob can’t seem to get enough of these critters. Along the way we carved our way through the fog to Twin Peaks, where on a clear day you have a beautiful view of the city, but that day you had a beautiful view of the fog. This is the real San Francisco.

The next evening we trundled to the San Francisco Slovene Hall where the Joe Bajuk Trio (this band renames itself for every event), starring Joe, Anthony Krische, and Stefan Kochishan, performed for PUST. The barroom was rocking with jammers – Fred Mlakar, Kay Newburg, Michael Kramer, Mark Habat, and another ½ dozen musicians. We dined (yum, blood sausage!) and danced. The dance hall was filled. Mark and Bobby joined Joe and crew on stage for a set and tore the house down.

We missed the Halvorson’s Southwest Polka Party in Las Vegas held every year in February. They sold out and had to turn people away – mind you, they have seating for 1200! I chatted with Ed and he advises you to call Lois NOW (480-218-7009) and reserve your chair for 2013 – you don’t need to send any money until November or December. 

In late February we joined Stephanie and her Honky Polka Band which performed at the Phoenix Pulaski. Stephanie was accompanied by Wayne Sienkowski, Eddie Madura, Wally Pacura, and our own Dave Bonczkiewicz. The music was great – I mean GREAT! Stephanie continues her winsome ways to the delight of the crowd who appreciated honky style – you don’t get better than Stephanie and Wayne whose honky rhythm was perfect.

In March, we gathered at the Fontana Slovene Hall where Polka Power played for the weekend. It was great to see old friends, including the Stodolas, Stan Blout, Carol Hixson, the Swetkars, the Pages, the Fuhrmans, the Olsons, Joann Leppsaar, and so many more. We took special delight in seeing Harold and Fern Scheel. Harold suffered a mishap last year, which almost took him out. He has recovered and was dancing (a little slower than before). It was wonderful seeing them both. And it was great seeing Ralph and Anne Barnard, who have been absent due to Anne’s reckless activities (Anne races cars and other silly things). And, of course, the music was great. Thanks again to Erik Woods for arranging this.

At the end of March we headed to Laughlin, Nevada to catch the Veritones and Sylvia’s Band performing at a 3 day event at the Tropicana Casino Hotel. The hotel has an outside entertaining area which was used on day 1 (April 29), where the bands played for free for 6 hours.  On days 2 and 3, the bands played inside in a nice room with a stage and an inlaid dance floor. The bands alternated hours for 4-6 hours. A buffet was served in the first hour inside the hall. The room holds 200ish comfortably – slightly over 100 attended this inaugural event. Joyce, the organizer at the Tropicana, is going to try to repeat the format a couple of times in 2013. I’ll keep you posted. Both bands were terrific. The Veritones is familiar to folk in Arizona, where they play at the Pulaski in Phoenix, Greenfield, and many other venues. They are a wonderful Polish band that I wrote about awhile back, led by David Bonczkiewicz. Sylvia’s Arizona Dance Band plays regularly in Arizona – they played great Slovenian and American melodies and we danced and danced.

To fill in the gaps between polka events, we headed to the Sierras a dozen times for skiing (and Gail casinos), went to umpteen track meets where the grandkids ran, golfed, hiked, skied, and cavorted. I’ll bore you with two quick stories.

Story 1: on January 3rd, I hiked to the top of Castle Peak, which climbs to 9,000 feet overlooking Donner Pass and the distant Tahoe Basin. The temperature was a balmy 63 degrees. No need for snowshoes or skis – all weather hiking boots fit the bill. The little snow that had fallen in early December had either dissipated or turned to ice. On my ascent I encountered Tom Stienstra, who is the outdoors writer for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. We made the final ascent together on the north face, which is fairly steep and covered in packed snow crusted with ice. We needed Yaxtrax and poles to negotiate the ice. Atop the mountain one has a spectacular view of the Sierras and beyond. The absurdity of this is that there we were in the dead of winter and no snow in the high Sierras. The snows finally arrived in fits February through April. To amplify the absurdity, it snowed the first week in June in the Sierras.

Story 2: at the end of April I dropped Gail off at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas where she hooked up with Mary Saber for 4 days while I tootled off to Zion National Park in Utah to enjoy the outdoors. Gail & Mary have kept quiet about their activities except for the night that they went to the Donny and Marie Osmond show (Gail & Mary are quite wild!). And I missed all of this while I climbed the steep rises in Zion and enjoyed the nighttime stars.

Summer is approaching and polka slows down out west. To help you plan there a few extraordinary events. “Polka Power” plays at the Fontana Slovene Hall on the weekend of September 15.  "The Great American Polkafest" will be staged again this year at Circus Reno October 29-30, where Polka Power California, The Gruber Family Band, and the Steve Balich Polka Band will perform.

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