Polka, button-box music to be spotlight of marathon

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Let's see those stars on "Dancing with ..." do a polka.

Local lovers of this lively couples dance of Bohemian origin can show them how at an eight-hour marathon May 9 at the SNPJ Lodge in North Strabane.

Five button-accordion bands plus one country group will play. Now in its eighth year, the annual Button Box Blast is hosted by the Strabane SNPJ International Button Box Club, a musical organization founded to keep Eastern European ethnic music alive -- and, er, kicking.

But with the audience for this type of music dwindling -- blame age and natural attrition of devotees -- the group is hoping to bring in a younger crowd this year by including the Sounds of Country on its roster of polka- and waltz-playing combos.

"We used to have 17 musicians in our band, but old age, infirmities and death have reduced our ranks to 10," said director Norm Cimino, 74, of Chartiers. "Currently, we play at anywhere between 20 and 25 gigs a year, but we used to play much more before demand started decreasing."

"For those who may not know, the button box is a first cousin to the piano accordion," Mr. Cimino explained. "But instead of black and white keys, it has buttons on both sides of the bellows."

Because button-box bands usually are limited to performing polkas and waltzes, they don't get many calls to play at clubs or weddings. Their season starts in May with the onset of parades, church bazaars, picnics, polka blasts and special occasions, such as Seven Springs' Memorial Day Polka Weekend and ethnic days at Kennywood.

Mr. Cimino's band also takes part in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Pittsburgh, where it won an award this year for Best Senior Music Group; Canonsburg's Oktoberfest and Music in Town Park; and the Washington County Fair.

Carnegie resident Jeff Palastro, music director of the Western Pennsylvania Button Box Club, a nonprofit founded in 1978, agreed that the number of button-box music devotees have been declining.

"When we formed our organization, we had 75 members, which have since decreased to 25, 16 of which are active," he said. "Audience-wise, we recently performed in Cleveland for the Slovenian Junior Choir's annual fundraiser, which used to draw huge audiences in excess of 2,500 people. This year, the patronage has dwindled to between 1,200 and 1,400. At other places we play, we also see a decline in attendance."

Among the Western Pennsylvania Button Box Club members, Mr. Palastro, 42, is joined by his father, Thomas, 72, and younger brother, Gregg, 39, who plays standing bass and tuba.

The ensemble plays traditional polkas and waltzes carried over from Slovenia as well as tunes written in America by Slovenian band leaders, such as the legendary polka player Frankie Yankovic.

"Our band toured Slovenia and also appeared on a local television program in the mid-1980s," said Mr. Palastro, who's been playing the button box since age 7. "In November, we were inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in Cleveland and named 'Button Box Band of the Year' in 2008."

The Button Boxers also have cut four CDs, which will be available for purchase at the May 9 event for $15.

"All the money we get for playing goes into our treasury to help pay for bus trips and uniforms," Mr. Palastro said.

In North Strabane, last year's SNPJ Button Box Blast drew about 500 polka lovers, and organizers hope that the country music band will draw some younger people and swell the audience.

The Button Box Band rehearses and jams with other instrumentalists every Monday evening at the SNPJ Lodge in North Strabane. Admission is free and dancing is encouraged.

"Not only is our Button Box Blast a unique event, but in the next 10 years, this kind of music may not be available live anymore," Mr. Cimino said. "We seem to be a dying art form."

Tickets to the SNJP Button Box Blast are $5, with those 16 and younger admitted free. Ethnic and American food will be sold. Continuous music will be provided by the Yukon Button Box Club, Ohio Polka Pirates, Sounds of Country, Ray Machulsky band and the Western Pennsylvania Button Box Club.

The SNPJ Lodge is at 269 Latimer Ave. in North Strabane. For more, call 724-745-9860.

Freelance writer Dave Zuchowski can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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