Muskegon — Polka music was eclipsed by rock and roll in the 1950s, “The Lawrence Welk Show” came and went by the ’80s, and polka was eliminated as a Grammy category in 2009.
Through it all, the Old Timer’s Orchestra in Muskegon played on, making joyfully manic polka music.
But no more. After 77 years, the band is strapping shut its accordion.
Ed Sanocki, 88, who is the last original member, ticked off the factors that led to the final waltz: shrinking audiences, lack of venues and deaths of members.
“All of the above,” he said with a laugh, “it’s a different world. Nothing you can do about it.”
Instead of asking why the group dispersed, a better question might be how it stayed together so long. The popularity of polka was tumbling during most of the band’s existence.
But fans said they never grew tired of it. The songs may have been from the Old World, but they brought a cheerful beat and upbeat lyrics.
“It’s eating, drinking, dancing music,” said Joe Golinski, a retired machinist who, at 81, still loves to dance at polka festivals.
Golinski and others said they were sad to see the Old Timer’s go. It’s not just the music they’ll miss. It feels like a passage of a way of life
The way of life came in 2/4 time with an accordion carrying the peppy beat. Sentimental lyrics recalled family, food and love.
The music began with peasants in the Czech Republic in the 1830s and jumped the Atlantic at the end of the century. A surge of immigrants brought it to the Midwest in steamer trunks laden with musical instruments.
Among those newcomers was Sanocki’s father, Martin. He traveled from Jaslo, Poland, to Chicago before moving to Muskegon to work in a foundry.
Martin, who played violin in a polka band, always brought his children to performances.
Beer was as common as kielbasa at the Polish parties so, after a few drinks, Martin would lay down his violin to rest, said relatives. Ed would pick the instrument up and tinker with it, eventually teaching himself how to play.
It started with a nun
Elvis was discovered by Sam Phillips and the Beatles by Brian Epstein. The Old Timer’s Orchestra was founded by a nun who spoke more Polish than English.
Sister Stanislawa taught music at St. Michael’s, a Muskegon Catholic school stocked with the children of refugees from central and eastern Europe.
She formed a polka band in 1940. Sanocki, who was in the sixth grade, played the violin. Ed Nowak, an eighth-grader, played the accordion. Two other students played the drums and piano.
Because of their pint-sized height, if not stature, they were first named the Pee-Wee Orchestra.
They played at school dances and parties and, after graduating, Sanocki and Nowak stuck with it. They would become the mainstays of the group with others flitting in and out.
Muskegon had a vibrant Polish community, so the band mostly played in town, rarely venturing more than hour away.
They pocketed a few dollars from their performances but not enough to earn a living. They played on weekends while working during the week.
Sanocki worked 43 years at a piston ring plant. Nowak was a butcher at his family market and then Meijer. Drummer Chet Flejszar sold insurance.
Nowak, who died in 2012, didn’t care that polka paid little, said his daughter, Marianne Clarke. He played because he loved the music, she said.
“We always had polka music around the house,” she said.
Popularity soars ...
The band was born just before polka’s heyday — and, yes, there was a heyday.
The music was embraced by American soldiers returning from World War II and nurtured by the advent of radio and records, music historians said.
Major labels such as Columbia and RCA Records produced polka albums and distributed them nationally.
Frank Yankovic, an accordion-playing bandleader from Collinwood, Ohio, made a million-selling record in the late 1940s. Twice. That ain’t cold sauerkraut.
“It wasn’t wild jazz. It was acceptable music,” said Joe Valencic, a trustee of the National Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, Ohio.
The fledgling Old Timer’s Orchestra was just a speck of what was happening in the country.
They played at local dances, weddings and church picnics. They even went to people’s homes, playing in backyards during family celebrations. At farms, they played in the pasture.
They were the most prominent polka players at church festivals in West Michigan, sometimes playing in front of thousands of people. Their most popular songs were “The Blue Skirt Waltz” and “Old Timers Oberek.”
They found steady work into the 1980s, when polka still pulsated from ethnic halls in Muskegon on weekends.
The clubs were a refuge as Slovaks and Slovenians clung to the old customs, they said. At the Polish halls, the air was thick with kapusta, chrusciki and czarnina.
“A few still have dances on a regular basis,” said Sean Kittredge, who replaced Flejszar as the drummer. “Every time we played, it seemed like a decent crowd.”
At 57, Kittredge was the baby in the group. He is a project manager for an insulation company.
The band took a break for several years before Sanocki’s son, Tom, brought it back together in the mid-1990s. He renamed it as the Old Timer’s and played tenor saxophone, becoming the third generation of his family to play polka music.
Around the same time, Tom took over a Muskegon radio show that focuses on the happy, snappy, toe-tapping music. “Polka Melodies” continues to air today.
If Mary Amy Moran had any doubt what type of music coursed through Tom’s blood, it was erased as they planned their marriage in 1989.
He told his fiancée, who, being Irish, didn’t know the first thing about polka, that she needed to learn how to dance to the music before the wedding.
“I love polka music and have since I was a young man,” said Tom Sanocki, 58, a real estate agent. “It’s been in my family and blood for years and years.”
... and then it fades
Polka’s heyday had barely begun when it ended, fizzling out by the 1950s. Like doo-wop and Dixieland jazz, it slip-slided from the mainstream.
As subsequent generations of immigrants became assimilated, their taste for polka disappeared with their accents. They became interested in other types of music.
One culprit: babysitters.
Polish- and Czech-Americans said they learned about polka when, as youngsters, their parents brought them to nighttime dances.
But when the children grew up and attended the parties as adults, they left their kids home. As a result, the next generation was never exposed to the music.
“It’s dying out to a certain extent,” Clarke said. “Like everything else, history changes.”
Clubs had always been the best source of polka music but their dance floors grew emptier.
In Muskegon, the Pulaski Lodge closed after 74 years in 2009. It joined the ghosts of Slovak Hall, Hungarian Hall and a Knights of Columbus.
When the local paper ran an online poll in 2011 to see what music should be played at a summer festival, 250 wanted country while 234 said rock and roll. Of the 410 respondents, 12 wanted polka.
“Everything seems to go down and down. People don’t want to go out,” Tom Sanocki said.
The dwindling audience grew decidedly older. The Old Timer’s slowed their beat so they wouldn’t tire the crowds so quickly.
As polka became more and more associated with one’s grandmother, or busia, it descended into camp, turning squarer than square dancing.
‘The best gift’
The audience weren’t the only ones getting older.
Guitarist Don Smith died in 2010. Nowak passed away two years later. Ed Sanocki is showing his age, sometimes forgetting to recharge his hearing aid. The rest of him was slowing as well, he joked.
“When you’re 88, your fingers don’t move as good,” he said.
It was Nowak’s death that was the beginning of the end for the Old Timer’s, members said. Performances became rare after that.
The band played for the last time in 2014 at the Polish Falcon Club, one of two remaining Polish halls in the city. It was for a paczki party.
The two Sanockis and four other musicians were dressed in identical scarlet shirts and black slacks. The dance floor was a slowly bobbing sea of gray hair.
Tom recorded some of band’s songs on a CD in 2004. He treasures the keepsake along with the fact he helped bring the group back together and got to play with his dad and dad’s childhood friend, who began the band such a long time ago.
“I was able to perform and have a lot of fun with the guys,” he said. “That’s the best gift anyone can get.”