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Reel Life: Roll out Frank Yankovic


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When Chicagoan Tom Ciesielka was a fifth grader in Philadelphia he ordered an album of Frank Yankovic polka hits through the mail. The cut "Who Stole the Keeshka?" captured his fancy. Though his musical tastes later turned to Meat Loaf, Ciesielka returned to polka to make Frank Yankovic: America's Polka King, a peppy film tribute to an indefatigable 79-year-old icon.

Raised in a Slovenian neighborhood in Cleveland, Yankovic got his start playing at parties. In December 1941 he opened a tavern, hoping to ensure his band a regular venue, but the next day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Yankovic enlisted in 1943 and suffered frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge but refused to have his fingers amputated. (He regained their use by practicing the accordion as therapy.) After the war, when an appetite for good-time tunes helped spark a national polka craze, Yankovic began writing English lyrics to old-world Croatian, Slovenian, and Polish melodies, allowing American audiences to request their new favorites by name. He earned the title "America's Polka King" at a contest in Milwaukee in 1948; thereafter he logged about 100,000 miles per year on the road.

To tell the story of Yankovic's life, first-time producer Ciesielka--formerly the marketing director of the Museum of Broadcast Communications--got technical tips from documentary filmmakers Tom Palazzolo and David Simpson and start-up funds from various state and federal arts agencies as well as Mrs. T.'s Pierogies and the Zele Funeral Home in Cleveland.

Folklorist Richard March, a consultant on the film, credits Yankovic with synthesizing a "multiethnic blue-collar urban industrial culture" by blending traditional Eastern European dance music and American ragtime motifs. "He sings in one of the most straightforward styles you can imagine," March says. "It's like your uncle Louie trying to sing along."

Yankovic, whose current gig is at the Europe at Night lounge in Mesa, Arizona, will appear at the Chicago premiere of Frank Yankovic: America's Polka King on Thursday, March 2, at 7 PM at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark. Tickets for the screening and a reception are $10. Call 951-6868 for reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Robert F. Carl.

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