Polka for the folka
- Michaela Bancud
- Portland Tribune - Features
Think fun and fast, not Lawrence Welk, for Mexican-themed blowout
Nobody bowls anymore, and sociologists are alarmed. To hear them tell it, America's sense of community, killed by TV and car culture, is kaput.
But witness a trio of gonzo Portlanders: Bridgid Blackburn, Ted Eugenis and Larry Smith, three nonconformists who swear by the power of polka music and kielbasa to enhance life's pleasures and bring folks together. Each year they throw a polka party to spread the word.
The biggest misconception about polka music is that it's dull, they say.
'We challenge anybody to dance three polka dances at full speed and say it's not fun,' asserts Eugenis, a computer programmer.
'It's really hard not to smile,' warns Blackburn, an interior designer when not pushing polka.
Adds Eugenis: 'People also think it's like Lawrence Welk. That's a slower style. There really isn't one style of polka. That'd be like saying, 'Here's a Def Leppard song. That's what rock 'n' roll sounds like.' '
Every year since 1985, this polka cartel has summoned far-flung and local polka advocates for an appealingly odd night of food, music and big hair. This year's theme is Polka de Mayo. In other words, polka with a generous dose of Mexican culture.
'The polka party is a very elastic concept,' Smith explains, dressed in a leisure suit and white leather shoes. 'A lot of things can fall into it.'
For the second year, the party is being held at the Norse Hall, a grand old gathering place ostensibly devoted to Scandinavian culture. Frequented by a group called the Sons of Norway, the Norse Hall's house drink, usually mixed by Audrey, the hall's 82-year-old bar manager, is the 'Horny Viking.'
The hall is used for a variety of other activities such as pancake breakfasts, Latin dance lessons and bingo. Blackburn, who doesn't have a drop of Scandinavian blood, is a card-carrying member.
Throughout the evening's party, prizes are awarded for winners of the kielbasa toss, the cabbage pass and best costume. Polka videos are shown. Portland Brewing supplies $2 beers, and Salvador Molly's catering pushes the culinary envelope with the 'Mexi-Scan Wrap.'
Polkacide, a hard-core polka band from San Francisco, headlines the musical lineup. Tropicante, DJ Woijee and local accordion duo Sampsonite and Delight-ya also play.
'You'll see teenagers at the party with their arms crossed who are just too cool for polka,' Blackburn says. 'By the end of the night they'll sidle up to the table to buy a Polkacide T-shirt.'
Some of polka music's other leading players, according to these passionate 'polkateers,' are musicians like Frank Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones and Lenny Gomulka, among others. Crossover polka sensation Brave Combo may be the most recognizable name to the polka neophyte. Many polka musicians today hail from cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Erie, Pa.
Inspiration for Smith's band, the Polka Doubts, came in part from the John Candy-Eugene Levy act, the Schmenges Brothers and the Schmenges' film 'The Last Polka.'
'Everything can be seen through a polka prism,' Blackburn says without a hint of irony. 'It's amazing to see the light go on when a person frees their mind to accept polka.'
The polka party is simply contagious, Smith says, and it's about style. 'It's an attitude. It's best to make the effort to get dressed up.' (Polka makeovers by stylists from the Lisa Bradford Salon are available in the early part of the evening.)
Stuffiness gets a good flogging, of course.
'It's absolutely not pretentious,' Eugenis says. 'And if there are any pretentious people there, you'll know them. They'll be the ones in black.'