Polka Museum dances to a fading beat

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Brighton Park museum helps celebrate the glory days

By Mark Guarino | Special to the Chicago Tribune

There is no line to get into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame and Museum, no audio tour or docent. But there is Dave Ulczycki.

Ulczycki is always ready to guide polka enthusiasts and just the plain curious through the museum that’s located atop Polonia Banquets, a century-old dance hall at 4608 S. Archer Ave. in Brighton Park.

There, tucked above the stage in a series of brightly lit rooms are artifacts, photographs and plaques honoring the history of polka music in Chicago.

“I love this music. But it used to be bigger many, many years ago,” said Ulczycki, the association president.

Polka music evolved in Chicago because of the dance halls opened by Eastern Europeans who wanted to preserve a key component of their culture.

“[Dance halls] were significant throughout the city,” said Peter Alter, curator at the Chicago History Museum. “They were meant to perpetuate at least some variety of homeland culture — whether it’s a true understanding of what homeland culture is or … some American-Chicago version.”

“This was one of the original places,” said Ulczycki of the dance hall at 4604 S. Archer Ave. “All the top bands played [here].”

Faces from that golden era line the museum walls.

Since 1968, the association has inducted musicians, club owners, producers and others who have popularized the music into its annual Hall of Fame. The honorees are voted for by the association’s 700 members, located across the country.

There are genuine polka stars on the walls: Jimmy Sturr, Wladziu (“Li’l Wally”) Jagiello, Marion Lush, Frankie Yankovic and Eddie Blazonczyk. They are orchestra leaders and Grammy Award winners best known to an older generation who danced to their music at large halls like Polonia Banquets or at the Polonia Grove, the outdoor dance floor and lush gardens once located next door.

“You had something going on every weekend at different clubs,” said Ulczycki, 65, who remembers when he first encountered the outdoor dance hall with food and live music under the stars.

Growing up on a farm in Mokena, Wis., and moving to Chicago when he was a teen, Ulczycki said he “had never seen anything like it.”

Polka music has quieted some on the Southwest Side, as Hispanic immigrants have largely replaced Eastern Europeans who moved to the Northwest Side or to the Southwest suburbs.

While Polonia Banquets may have a polka dance booked one night, there might be a Mexican wedding the next.

Ulczycki said that while the association still sponsors polka dances across the city and suburbs, attendance is down. It’s a struggle to generate excitement from a younger generation, he said.

“That’s the stumbling block,” he said. “What do you do to promote it to younger people?”

Even the annual three-day August festival, now in its 41st year, has been moved from Chicago to outside Cleveland, a more central location where Ulczycki says the association can reach more people. Last year the festival made its first profit in five years, he said.

Although the association has seen interest dwindle, the museum collection continues to expand. It was housed in its own building at 4145 S. Kedzie Ave., until that became too expensive to maintain, Ulczycki said.

Polonia Banquet’s owners donated an upstairs space, which the collection is outgrowing. But it will expand into additional rooms to accommodate the instruments, letters from U.S. presidents, photographs of bandleaders, costumes, sheet music and thousands of 78 r.p.m. recordings.

Ulczycki, who is retired, spends much of his time grooming the collection and opening its doors to anyone interested in discovering the musical legacy it documents. He is convinced the music will grow on young people if they will give it a chance.

“To me, once they come out to [a dance], they come back,” he said.

The IPA museum is open by appointment. Call 312-315-2215 or visit internationalpolka.com.

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