When the barrel finally stopped rolling, there were more beers than tears. Pierogi muffled harrumphs; sweet chrusciki trumped bitter reality. Leave crying to the country fans. They didn't call it the Polka Party Express for nothing.
For some 30 years, 1,600 Sundays and 64 versions of the Beer Barrel Polka, the delirious 2/4 timekeeping of Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk, Joe Oberaitis (and his accordionic case of Polkaitis) gamboled in the air above Tampa Bay. Community radio stalwart WMNF-FM 88.5, a nonprofit dependent on listener donations to survive, dedicated a chunk of weekend programming to an antiquated genre that challenges rap for tributes to besotted hedonism.
Beer, blunts, Lawrence Welk, Lil Wayne: Not that different! But, alas, local fans of sudsy Central European swing — which hasn't been truly popular since just after World War II, when a surge of Polish refugees relocated to America — now will have to get their polka fix somewhere else.
On March 20, the last triumphant oompah of the Polka Party Express belched into radioland. Mr. and Mrs. Wackie, the two-hour show's cutely rambunctious hosts for the past three and a half years, provided the final "whiz-bang, hot-dang pollllllka party" for an average listener audience of 15,000 to 20,000 fans — or, in their polska parlance, Polkateers.
Those were the show's best numbers in its three-decade run, which commenced in the early '80s with a quiet, somber one-hour show by a guy named Beachy Bruce. So the show's end wasn't really a matter of lack of interest. It just turned out that dedicated audience just wasn't dedicated enough, said Wackie Jackie Z., a.k.a. 52-year-old Jack E. Zolnierowski, construction manager by day, master of the mazurka on weekends.
"We just couldn't inspire people enough to give to community radio," he said on the show's last night, later telling his live audience: "I got a little tired of begging you."
"It's up to the people," said Leslie "Mrs. Wackie" Clark, 51, a vocal coach and former theater performer. She explained that WMNF requires each show to bring in donations. And, although the Express pulled its weight, the fundraising got to be too much. As Mrs. Wackie told a caller: "We didn't get enough support to keep the show on the air."
The Wackies "never made a dime off this show," said Zolnierowski. "In fact, it cost us a couple thousand a year." For him, it was always a labor of love, as the Rochester, N.Y., native and lifelong drummer has recorded with such polka superstars as "the World's Polka King" Li'l Wally.
So the Wackies' adieu was both gently scolding and wildly celebratory. Whooping and hollering masked occasional tsk-tsking. And, at the very least, the show smelled sublime, with Beverly Ely, of Pierogi Delights in Hudson, providing appropriate eats. "It's like we're losing our heritage as Polish people," she said, stirring a pot of steaming kapusta. "I feel like I'm going to a funeral."
A few listeners trickled in to pay respects, tap a toe to Happy Louie's Clock on the Wall Polka and gnosh a pierogi or three. Karen and Steve Dobosz of Largo have been listeners for decades. On fall Sundays, they put football on the TV, turned the volume down — then cranked the Polka Party Express. Goodbye, John Madden; hello, Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push.
"We grew this show and competed with the NFL," Wackie Jackie said when told of the Doboszes' autumn ritual. "I'm pretty proud of that."
Callers from all over the country — many listening on the Internet — dialed up to say goodbye. One of those was Zolnierowski's father, Ed, who got his son hooked on polka. "Here you go, Dad," the DJ said, somberly cueing up Oberaitis' Polkaitis, which Zolnierowski co-wrote, adding lyrics about his father.
WMNF program director Randy Wynne said he's all for the right person stepping in and taking over the polka show, but so far there are no viable candidates. Besides, Wynne said, "Following those guys? That's tough."
Married for 12 years, the Wackies are looking on the bright side: At least they'll have Sundays free: "We're going to have fun," Mr. Wackie said. "Bikini time!" Mrs. Wackie added.
As for Steve Dobosz, he likes his Sundays just the way they are: "I've never heard a bad polka and I've never heard a sad polka."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.