From the desk of W. J. Onufer…
I would hope by now that there is no doubt about my Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror street cred. And while I look like a big, schluppy, middle-aged, white guy, I do, in fact, write the Tales of the Vampire Hadley Price books. I’m an author who writes about Vampires and have several fictional books out on the topic. Hadley Price is my ideal woman. She’s one kick-ass, super-cool, Vampire lady. And I’m the lucky dude who gets to write about her.
Inspite of my middle-aged, white guy, schluppiness, there is something in the way of a nerdy cool-factor in that. Sci-fi/Horror/Fantasy street cred well in place.
Please keep that mind as I relate my experience with something that totally lacks a cool-factor. This thing could be said to be the very manifestation of that which is uncool.
I’m talking here about Polka music. Yes, Polka music.
What, exactly, is my connection to this? And why am I saying something about it?
Currently on Netflix, there’s a new biographical movie called, “The Polka King”. It stars Jack Black as the real-life Jan Lewan. He was a Polish born American immigrant who came here (the USA), started a Polka band and, within that world, became quite famous. He was also a guy who ripped-off people to the tune of five million dollars in a Ponzey scheme to finance that rise to popularity. It’s all there in the movie.
No, I’ve never met Jan Lewan. But allow me to give you a little insight to what happens behind the scenes in the world of Polka music. As the movie portrays, it’s not all happy-slappy dorky music and jolly, seemingly mindless smiling faces. It may be Polka music, but it’s also has it’s darker side of the entertainment business.
My association with Polka music started in 1980 when I got my first radio job at a local AM station. As the new guy, I worked weekends, running the mixing board and cueing vinyl records for two live Polka music programs. They each would come in and sit behind the mic at the talent table. They did the talking and I did everything else.
One of those guys was easy to work with. The other wasn’t. They have both since passed away. And I won’t identify who either one was. Here in New England both were well-known, high-profile figures in the promotion of Polka Music that went back to the 1940s. One of them was a Polka musician. In his elder years he became a regional media celebrity- primarily in radio -who was all about Polka music.
It was then, with that guy, in his elder years, who I had shouting matches with when the microphone was turned off. On the air he was everyone’s kindly grandfather. One time, we had some listeners show up at the station. They were on-air contest winners and were invited in for his live show. With those people, in house, that elder guy played the cute old man. And they ate it up.
But that cute old man was a tyrant when it was just him and me in the studio and no one else. Granted, I was a cocky kid just out of college who would have much preferred being a disc jockey at a power house FM rock station. It took this gig as my first radio job in the hopes that I would move on at some point to another station and into the FM DJ chair. (The short version? Best paid plans. It didn’t happen.) And he was a Poland-born immigrant Polka music curmudgeon, at the end of his life, with decades of experience in the Polka music promotion behind him. He and I were not a great mix. Even with that- and with the perspective of hind sight -I was always professional in the studio. I never did anything that warranted his childish rants at me. He used to yell and bang on the table. He even threw things at me. Getting beaned in the forehead with a pencil or a wad of paper was something they didn’t cover when I went to the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. The guy was awful. Yes, behind the scenes, everyone’s kindly grandfather was a big Polka jerk.
A few years later, I was employed at another AM station. (Sadly, I never made it to FM). There too, I ran the mixing board for two different (not with the same guys as the other station) weekend Polka music programs. It was now the 1990s and the same time period dramatized in that Netflix movie, “The Polka King”. The two I associated with on those two different Polka programs at that station were great to work with. Could it be that I was a few years older and a little more mature than my experience with that first station? Possibly. (Likely.) At this station, it was Polka music but it was fun doing radio with those guys.
It was there and then that I saw the barrage of paper promotional materials promoting Jan Lewan litter the table in the talent booth of the guys I worked with at that station. And every single one of those promotional materials were tacky as hell. Low-class, no-class. Get a complimentary copy of his new album for air-play and also receive mega information about his mail order business. It was quite obvious to me at the time that Jan Lewan was exploiting the Polish pride banner as he tried to sell crass, really cheap, and over-priced Polish-themed garbage trinkets. I also couldn’t help thinking at the time that this guy was a Jimmy Sturr wanna-be. But he had no where near the class, professionalism and good reputation of Jimmy Sturr. Everyone knew that the real “Polka King” is Jimmy Sturr, not Jan Lewan
So now, years later, it’s 2018. I work at still another AM station that doesn’t have any Polka music programming at all. I haven’t heard any Polka music nor even thought about for a very long time. And I see this movie on Netflix. “The Polka King”. And it stars Jack Black. Surely it would be a comedy. I had just enough experience with Polka music to know that there’s a lot of material for parody. But no. It wasn’t a parody. It was about a name I haven’t heard in quite some time. Jan Lewan. The tacky trinkets guys. And this is a film about his life. Scam people for millions of dollars and they make a movie about you- to the tune of a Polka beat.
I will name two people specifically in my association with Polka music. One of the Polka music hosts on that second radio station I mentioned was a guy named Louis Dusseault. His stage name was “Happy Louie” and he was Polka Grammy nominee. He was a major band leader in the Polka world here in New England. I’ve also briefly met Jimmy Sturr on two different occasions. (Multi Grammy Winner) While Polka music has it’s darker side as any part of the entertainment business does, there are legit players out there. Working with Louie and meeting Jimmy Sturr were great experiences. Both were truly nice guys in person.
Of course, my experience with Polka music is years behind me now. I’ve exchanged by Polka nerdiness for Vampire nerdiness. Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror ‘R’ us in several novels. I exchanged music for books. Truth be told, once I got past the perceived un-coolness of Polka Music, I do have to say that it was a few years of fun being in radio at that time. It’s sort of the message of Polka Music. Yes, we’re not cool. But we have fun doing it.
Hmm…I’m thinking about contacting Jimmy Sturr to see if he’ll do a Vampire Polka. Or better yet, the Hadley Price Waltz.