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‘Therapy Tuesday’ polka party dies after 23 years

Rudy and Mary Varga dance at the last "Therapy Tuesday" polka party at Stardust Banquets in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

You’ve heard of the last dance.

The last polka party has come for senior citizens who’ve gathered for nearly a quarter century to dance their troubles away.

Almost every Tuesday since 1993, a group of polka fans has met in Chicago for a morning of lively dancing. They’re so fond of it, members call their get-togethers “Therapy Tuesdays.”

“Polka music is happiness,” said Lou Dedo, an 86-year-old retired Coast Guard worker and widower who credits polka for fending off sadness after he lost his wife, Rose.

But the crowd, which used to number about 200, has lost an estimated 143 members since the dances started at Albert Zaucha’s Major Hall, 5660 W. Grand, near an old Polish landmark, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr parish. The parties featured the acclaimed polka musicians known as the Pensionaires.

The group eventually moved north to Stardust Banquets, 5688 N. Milwaukee. Death and illness began to pick off dancers. At some recent meetings, the head count — even with a $5 cover charge — dwindled to about 15. A reduced corps of Pensionaires played.

Pensionaires band members “Big Al” Kwiatkowski (left), Roman Travers, Frankie Berendt and Tim Keating perform at “Last Polka Party.” | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
Pensionaires band members “Big Al” Kwiatkowski (left), Roman Travers, Frankie Berendt and Tim Keating perform at “Last Polka Party.” | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

On Tuesday, 30 polka lovers trekked a final time to spin around the floor to numbers like the “Pretty Girls in Chicago” polka. A Stardust staffer said the dances had become too small to turn a profit.

“This is the last ‘Therapy Tuesday,’ ’’ said Jeanne Pytel, 88, a retired Motorola assembly worker.

Polka was the soundtrack to their lives. Many grew up near “Polish Broadway” at Division and Milwaukee, where they recall beer cost a dime, sandwiches were free and you could hit a tavern — and polka band — every 50 feet or so. Polka-dancing helped them meet boyfriends and girlfriends. It led to courtship and marriage.

“Those were the days,” said Jeanne’s husband of 69 years, Edwin Pytel, a drummer who played with famed concertina player Eddie Zima. Pytel put down his drumsticks earlier this year to retire from the Pensionaires.

Now, polka has helped them accept life’s losses. Many have said goodbye to unimpaired vision, driver’s licenses and a full head of hair. They’ve lost husbands, wives. Some have outlived children. Thanks to modern medicine, they’ve said hello to new hips and knees.

They’ve scattered to the suburbs from old parishes including St. Hyacinth, St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Innocents. Many don’t like to venture out after dark.

George Baranowski dances with Mary Scully at the “Last Polka Party.” | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
George Baranowski dances with Mary Scully at the “Last Polka Party.” | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

But polka parties worked at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays. If one ignored the gray heads, the final Therapy Tuesday felt like a Polkapalooza. When one man asked where they used to go for good beef sandwiches around Chicago and Western, somebody shouted out: “Kowalczyk’s!”

Many appear years younger than their age. George Baranowski, 92, who lives in Portage Park, didn’t drive to the polka party, where he danced off and on for three hours.

“I ride my bike,” he said.

“I still love to dance,” said Mary Scully, 96, of Des Plaines, an insurance company retiree. She picked up a friend who doesn’t drive and chauffeured her.

Eleanor Rylko, 86, of Old Irving Park, a former Zenith assembly worker, credits her health to dancing. “I’m a three-time cancer survivor. I’m a tough broad,” she said, before taking a break from polka to line-dance to “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Eleanor Rylko, a three-time cancer survivor who credits her health to polka, dances with a partner on Tuesday. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
Eleanor Rylko, a three-time cancer survivor who credits her health to polka, dances with a partner on Tuesday. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

The Encyclopedia of Chicago defines polka as “the common secular music of Chicago’s European ethnic communities.” It draws others as well.

“I’m the only Filipino,” said Gerry Crisostomo, 86, a retired car dealer who twirled around the floor with his 80-year-old Polish-American girlfriend, Maria Wojcik. He likes polka, he said, because it makes “my blood circulate.”

“We met so many nice people,” Jeanne Pytel said. “It’s like almost a big family.”

“My children love the Polish music,” Edwin Pytel said. “But they don’t want to come out and dance.”

The Pensionaires — Roman Travers, Tim Keating, “Big Al” Kwiatkowski and Frankie Berendt — performed the crowd’s favorites.

Rudy and Mary Varga, 86 and 84, respectively, smiled with recognition when the band played Frankie Yankovic’s “Blue Skirt Waltz.”

“I dream of that night with you,

Lady when first we met

We danced in a world of blue,

How can my heart forget

Blue were the skies, and blue were your eyes,

just like the blue skirt you wore.

Come back blue lady, come back,

Don’t be blue any more.”

Mary Varga wore blue when they met. They’ve been married 64 years.