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Pilsen heritage rekindled

Staff writer

When Barefoot Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen struck their first notes Saturday at Pilsen Community Center, young and old alike flocked to the dance floor to renew a tradition as old as Pilsen itself — the wedding polka dance.

Alex Stuchlik of Lost Springs once had his own polka band, and often played for wedding and anniversary celebrations in Pilsen. When he and his wife Jean started planning their 50th wedding anniversary celebration, it was natural to draw on tradition.

“That was our idea — that was the old-fashioned way to celebrate,” Jean said. “That’s the way a wedding dance would have been.”

Before World War II, tiny Pilsen was a hotbed for music and dancing, whether for celebrations or regular recreation.

Gene Vinduska grew up and still lives in Pilsen, and he recalls three halls for dancing in the 1930s.

“We had three dance halls in this town then. The Catholic church had a hall downtown, there was hall a mile east, and then the Starlight was built in I think 1937.”

“My dad and my uncle had the hall east of town years and years and years ago,” Robert Novak of Lost Springs said.

Rudolph Svitak built the Starlight Ballroom in part from lumber he got from a Wichita ballroom. The Starlight was known throughout its history for its dance floor.

“It was a floating wood floor,” Mary Ann Conyers, Svitak’s granddaughter said. “It just moved to the music, like it felt it, too.”

“That was a floor to die for,” Hallie Novak said. “You could dance on that and it was so easy to get around.”

Pilsen not only had dance halls, but bands to play in them.

“At that time we had the two home bands, The Blue Aces and the Pilsen Dance Orchestra,” Vinduska said. Vinduska joined the Blue Aces when one of the members quit.

“Henry Steiner was the leader, he played tenor sax,” Vinduska said. “Originally his brother Edmund played sax, and his younger brother Hubert played trumpet. Skeeter Makovec played trumpet, Paul Bezdek played drums, and Paul Hajek played accordion. When Edmund quit I played his sax part on trombone.”

Larger bands that traveled the Midwest playing large weekend events made Pilsen a frequent midweek destination.

“They would play these little towns on weekdays just to pay their hotel and gas bills,” Vinduska said.

Vinduska described a typical wedding celebration of the era.

“The women went there a day ahead of time, preparing, baking stuff, and the next day was the wedding,” Vinduska said. “Mass was at 10 a.m., and then you went over to the old hall west of the church. You had a few beers and you ate. Then they’d take the tables away and the older women would wash dishes, the younger girls would dance and the band would play. You had music from 11 all day, except when the band was eating. You danced all afternoon, then you ate supper, then the guys would go home and do chores, the women would clean up, and then everyone would dance some more.”

World War II drastically altered the music and dance culture in Pilsen.

“It ruined it,” Vinduska said. “So many guys got drafted out of here, which hurt the local bands. You couldn’t get tires, gasoline was rationed, so the bands didn’t travel.

“The guys that were left here had debt from the Depression, so they all went to the defense plants and made big bucks there. The crowds went way down because all the young people were gone.”

The war did provide a temporary boost when Delavan Air Base opened in western Morris County in 1943. Vinduska said the airmen were frequent visitors at the Starlight Ballroom.

“They showed up in their pilot outfits — if you were a local boy you didn’t stand a chance. By the end of the war I’ll bet there would be 200 of them here some nights,” Vinduska said.

The Starlight Ballroom survived the war and continued to operate into the mid—1980s. Polka and waltzes were the only music played.

“They had modern music once a week for awhile, but they dropped it because they got some bad elements coming in, so they restricted it to polkas and waltzes,” Vinduska said.

“Once in awhile all the bands I played with would sneak in a modern number, and Frank Svitak would be up there and he’d say ‘Hey guys, cut that out.’ He didn’t go for that,” Vinduska said.

One lasting tradition apparently unique to Pilsen celebrations is the serving of hot dogs and buns midway through the evening.

“Never, never,” Dorothy Grothusen of Ellsworth said when asked if she had encountered the practice elsewhere. “This is the only place in the world, and we’ve been to Nebraska, we’ve been to lots of places.”

Hot dogs and buns were passed out at the Stuchlik anniversary. Traditional dances like the Hokey Pokey were played.

But the most anticipated and poignant moment of the evening came when Alex stepped on stage. A veteran of many Pilsen appearances with his own band, as he played along with his accordion, the rich tradition of music and dance in Pilsen was for a few moments back in full bloom.

Last modified Aug. 16, 2012

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