Let the polka festivities begin
Pulaski Polka Days is half-step-hopping into its 43rd year
By Rachel Sankey
With polka standing tall as the official state dance of Wisconsin, it would be a shame for there not to be a large annual polka festival celebrating its existence – thankfully, there is one; Pulaski Polka Days.
The polka festival is returning for its 43rd year, with originator Harold Otto at the helm.
A bit of history
Otto said polkas have been a huge part of his life since he was four years old.
“I used to go along with my dad and mom to go to polka dances,” he said. “Started at the Cinderella Ballroom in Appleton, and then they just got involved in it more and more. And now here we are today, 43 years (later). It’s fun, you know, keeps you young.”
Pulaski Polka Days started on a Sunday in 1979, at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church.
From there, the festival expanded to a two-day event – Saturday and Sunday.
At the time, Otto said he also used to do a radio show with WGEE on Sunday mornings from six until seven, which also played a huge role in launching the festival.
While the festival now happens in July, Otto said it originally started in September.
“It was on Labor Day weekend,” he said. “We did that for a couple of years, and then we went to Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and that’s how it really took off – and then we got other bands coming in.”
Now, the festival runs for four days – Thursday through Sunday.
Each year, Otto said a plethora of bands play different styles of polka music to reach everyone in attendance – from Polish, German, Slovenian and more.
“When I book bands, I do what the people want,” he said. “It’s not what I want. That’s how we got this going.”
More than just a band
This is Cynor Classics’ second year performing at Pulaski Polka Days.
Bob (Bobby) Cynor said he has been involved in polka music alongside his father since he was a child, and took over the band as a third generation after his father could no longer play.
“It was in the family, I grew up listening to dad,” he said. “It’s just in our blood. I started out by using butter knives to drum against the edge of a record player. When I was seven years old, my dad needed a drummer. He had me play, and from then on I was hooked. Me and my brother Bernie took over the band in the late ’80s/’90s and have been playing ever since.”
Cynor said the band first performed last year at Polka Days, and said the experience was nothing short of phenomenal.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I mean, to get up in front there and play with the people; the electricity, and crowd, the dancers and the setting. We were on cloud nine all day playing.”
This year, Cynor said he and the rest of the band are looking forward to experiencing that same feeling again.
“It’s a three-hour ride for us to come, and to see the people from our area come there, is big,” he said. “Last year when we played there, I don’t know who had more tears in their eyes – me or the people that were from our area to see us play there for the first time. It was an honor and a joy.”
To the members of Cynor Classics Polka Band, Cynor said polka music is happy music.
When Cynor and his brother lost both of their parents within a 15-day span in 2020, he said he contemplated whether to keep going with the band.
“So many people wrote us letters that told us to keep the music going, to keep the heritage of our mom and dad,” he said. “So we did, and this year is just overwhelming. It’s a great gift that dad and mom gave me.”
While the Cynor Classics Polka Band prepares for its second year at Pulaski Polka Days, the DynaVersaStickToneAires prepare for its third.
However, they’ve attended the festival before.
“We set up our equipment at our campsite and provided pregame and after hours music,” leader and drummer Aaron Slivinski said. “We were new at the time, so it created a buzz, and we enjoyed being the party spot in the campground.”
Slivinksi said he and the rest of the members of the band are friends, and would get together and hang out at polka festivals all around the country – all of them in their own respective bands at the time.
When they realized each of them were considered the “young guy” in their bands, Slivinski said they decided to form their own group.
As the band prepares for this year’s performance, Slivinski said everyone is pumped to again be part of the atmosphere and the people.
“We love that Pulaski is a very unique festival with the camping aspect, as well as the people,” he said. “Wisconsin is a place where polka music is truly alive and well, and Pulaski is the best atmosphere of any polka fest in the state.”
For the DynaVersaStickToneAires, Slivinski said polka music means carrying on a tradition.
“Most of what we play are songs from our favorite polka bands we grew up listening to,” he said. “It may not be original, but it’s nostalgic for us and our listeners, and we try to emulate the energy that set the best bands in the golden era of polkas apart.”
An abundance of activities
Pulaski Polka Days doesn’t stop at the music.
A slew of different activities are offered from Thursday to Sunday, and this year, Otto said the festival is bringing in something new.
On Thursday night, Otto said the World Concertina Congress will be hosting an open three-number concertina session.
Any and all players are welcome, and can sign up to play by contacting Joe Fojtik at (262) 639-0439.
Other activities include the annual Miss Pulaski Polka Days contest, fireworks, free polka dance classes, a kids’ fun area, arts and crafts, a vendor fair, a porkie & pancake breakfast, Sunday church service and the Polka Day parade.
This year, Otto said Pulaski Polka Days will honor Grand Marshal Gary Raymakers, as well as Pulaski-native Deedra Irwin for representing Pulaski in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China, as a biathlete.
To add onto the festivities, the Pulaski Area Historical Society Museum will have its grand re-opening at 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 23.
An event with a reach
Pulaski Polka Days are meant for everyone, Otto said, with a great community feel – whether you’re a native or traveling from afar.
“We get people from all over the United States,” he said. “It’s a family event. People bring the children; the younger ones are dancing with their grandpa, or grandma, or brothers and sisters and friends. It’s an event that draws everybody. Everyone is happy-go-lucky.”
After 43 years, Otto said his favorite (ongoing) memory is all the support Pulaski Polka Days has received over the years.
“It’s just great how many people come,” he said. “We get thousands of people that come out here. It’s great to see the support and what a little village here can do.”
Rachel Sankey is the associate editor of Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected]