A Midsummer Night’s Polka Party
By Laurie A. Gomulka
As summer draws slowly to an end, the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society reflects with fond memories on the event that will live on in many hearts for years to come: its Fifth Annual Summer Social Event, and we remember with gratitude all who made the event a huge success. The Polish Park Picnic Party held on the evening of Saturday, July 27, at the Msgr. Hunt Knights of Columbus hall in Dearborn Heights recreated an old fashioned park picnic like those of days past, when the bands were as big as the summer days were long, and when folks actually dressed up for picnics.
Everyone in the family and often even the neighbors piled into the car and drove way out to the suburbs for 50 cents a carload on a Sunday afternoon. The picnics lasted all day and into the wee hours of the morning. The air was heavy with cigar smoke and filled with the scent of cotton candy and grilled hot dogs and kiełbasa. Beer signs and posters advertising local businesses hung from jute twine strung up high in the tents and the gazebos where big-name national polka bands like Frank Wojnarowski, Gene Wisniewski and the Harmony Bells, and Marion Lush played for dancing couples, who kept the floor shaking all day and all night long. Local bands such as Staś Wiśniach, Johnny Sadrack, John Zelasko, Clarence Witkowski (“Clare Wite”), John Chrzasz, and Walt Cieslik performed every weekend at the park picnics. Some of the parks at which picnics were held were Warsaw, Belvedere, Broadway, Pardee, Wanda, Liberty, Bredow, Eastwood, Clinton River, Edgewater, Pulaski, Dodge, Bonkowski, Green Glen, and Jakubowski.
The park picnics were very dear to the local Detroit band leaders’ and musicians’ hearts. Detroit clarinetist Ted Lach wrote polkas entitled “Warsaw Park,” “Eastwood Park,” and “Rouge Park.” Like some of the park names suggest, streams or branches of rivers that flowed through green, grassy knolls seemed to run for miles. You could swear you saw Poland on the other side. Ducks floated happily along and called out to one another, and wildflowers grew along the water’s edge. You felt a freedom that only nature can offer. The picnics often were sponsored by automotive locals, musicians’ unions and clubs, or religious groups. They were family events that fostered friendship and interaction with one another on a personal level. It was a time when people socialized and got to know each other well.
The awesome New Brass Express polka band came down from Bad Axe to perform for approximately 230 dancers who attended the function on July 27, and those musicians nearly blew the walls off the hall! They were smoking hot, as hot as one of their signature numbers, “Burning Ring of Fire,” and the dancers nearly sent that dance floor up in flames! Guest performer with the band, Chicago’s Tony Blazonczyk, evoked memories of his father, polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk.
A very special part of the evening was listening to memories shared by veteran musicians who were invited as honorary guests: Don Biess (trumpeter), Betty Guminski (trumpeter), Walt Cieslik (accordionist), Tim Rothermel (drummer), Ernie Skuta (trumpeter), Frank Wienclaw (violinist), Syl Wienclaw (drummer and Honorary Master of Ceremonies), Clare Witkowski (accordionist), and John Zelasko (accordionist). These musicians are legends who paved the way for today’s polka bands. We’re indebted to them for the legacy that they’ve left us and the tradition of polka music that we continue to enjoy today.
The picnic food, picnic games, and buzi (kissing) booths, just like at the old fashioned picnics, all helped to make this one event that will live on and go down in the books as one of the best events the Society has ever held. We’re grateful to all who helped make it such a success, especially to our veteran musicians-our honorary guests-and to all our polka booster friends. This one hit it out of the park, so to speak, and everyone can’t wait to do it again!