Polka King Joe Hanak rules at Breckenridge Oktoberfest
BRECKENRIDGE – Dapper and gallant, Polka Joe Hanak held court at a special table reserved for him in front of the bandstand at the Breckenridge Oktoberfest Saturday. Longtime fans brought their babies up to see him; young women came up to get their annual kiss from him. Without playing a note, he managed to represent the spirit of Oktoberfest – beer, music and pure joie de vivre.The 82-year-old Hall of Fame Polka King almost didn’t make it to this, his third Breckenridge Oktoberfest. Back home in the Florida keys, Polka Joe underwent major heart surgery this past May, and had to take it easy for a while.
But other than having to adjust a bit to the high altitude, he showed no signs of wilting under the strong Colorado sun. Wearing a red wool Tyrolean vest and Tyrolean cap decorated with medals from Oktoberfests he’s played for in countries all over the world (Australia, Argentina and of course Germany, to name a few) he kissed the ladies, greeted the men, kissed the ladies, talked to reporters, hugged babies, posed for pictures and kissed the ladies again.”I love people. It makes me feel good to be around the young people here in Breckenridge,” he joked, ” In Florida, they’re all old.”Because of his recent surgery and a muscle pull in his arms, he played a small wooden button accordion that was over 100 years old. “My father bought me this accordion over 60 years ago,” he said, apologizing for not having the larger, 120-bass accordion that he usually tours with. Audience members loudly assured him that he got more music out of the old “button box” than most get out of a deluxe 120-bass piano accordion.Polka Joe reckoned that he played his first Oktoberfest when he was about 9 years old. “It was in Chicago, back in the days of the gangsters,” he recalled. “I played with my father.”
Polka Joe continued performing with his father for 68 years. “He died when he was 94, and he was playing up until the day he died,” he said.”Music has always been in our family,” he added. “It kept us from starving during the Depression.” While he talked, Polka Joe strapped on his wooden accordion. “Would you like to hear a little music?” he asked the crowd, as they gathered around.
With his wife, known as “Polka Lil,” proudly looking on, Polka Joe played an impromptu concert for an adoring audience. Starting with the “Too Fat Polka,” he launched into that old favorite “In Heaven There is No Beer,” and ended with a special serenade, “Dark Gypsy.”Listening, it was like traveling back in time and experiencing the very beginnings of a tradition. It was like seeing the original representative of an artform, not yet quite lost.Keely Brown can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at email@example.com.
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