I must admit I was shocked Sunday while checking my Facebook news feed to discover a status update from my friend Joy Cardin (yes, that Joy Cardin, the morning show host on Wisconsin Public Radio). Her post said “Just drove by the Rosendale church. A sign out front said "Polka Service". The parking lot was packed or I would have stopped just to see if it was what I imagined.”
This was followed by a string of comments from folks who, like Joy, seemed to never have heard of a “Polka Mass” or “Polka Service”.
I’ve known Joy and her husband, WISC-TV morning show news anchor Rob Starbuck, for more years than I’d care to admit, and I know they’re both solid ‘sconnies. Joy is from Appleton, which is a suburb of my hometown of Hortonville, and Rob is from the Ripon area. Or, at least, I know for sure that he worked at WCWC Radio in Ripon before moving on to the glamour of TV, first in Green Bay, and for the past 25 years or so in Madison. So I was surprised that Joy wasn’t familiar with the Polka Mass.
At the top of this post is a 2007 photo taken by Kathy Lotaweik for the online publication On Milwaukee dot-com. It was taken on the south side of Milwaukee at the annual St. Helen’s Parish summer picnic, a huge gathering which has featured a Polka Mass for years and years. My friend Ralph Thull’s band The Goodtime Dutchmen (from Kewaskum) are performing at the mass. That’s Ralph on the accordion. I can’t tell for sure from the photo, but I’ll bet my long-time friend “Tuba Dan” Jerabik (from Ripon) is behind that big shiny tuba in the back row. Dan’s been their tuba man for years. And his son Dan, also a tuba player (and master of a couple dozen or so other instruments) has a very popular band called “Copper Box” which you’ve probably heard of.
Having been a polka musician from my high school days in the early 60’s through the mid-80’s, I’ve played my fair share of Polka Masses. Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of the bands I worked with, the Wisconsin Dutchmen, played a Polka Mass at the Sacred Heart Parish in Oshkosh every year at the annual parish picnic, and then we played another 3 or 4 hours so the huge crowd could dance. That gig was a big one, just as big, I’m sure, as the huge St. Helen’s Parish Picnic in Milwaukee.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting with my friend Ray Konkol, one of the state’s better-known concertina players (with whom I had the pleasure of working with on Ray Dorschner’s Rainbow Valley Dutchmen for many years), and Ray told me that just about every Sunday in summer his small polka combo is booked for a Polka Mass followed by a parish picnic.
I thought EVERYBODY in Wisconsin knew about Polka Masses, and was surprised at the comments on Joy’s status update from folks who were not aware of them, but seemed intrigued by the concept. One of them posted a clip from a Wikipedia article about the Polka Mass, but, as with many things on Wikipedia, the article was full of errors that any experienced polka musician could point out. The article claimed that the Polka Mass was originated by a Milwaukee priest in the 70’s, but there are plenty of us who have played in Polka Masses way back in the 60’s, at parishes all around the state.
On any given Sunday (or late Saturday afternoon) in summer in Wisconsin, I’ll bet there are at least 40 or 50 Polka Masses being offered all around the state. And – for all you good ‘sconnies – maybe some day Rosendale will be better known for its Polka Services than for speeding tickets!