Vlasta Krsek, ‘Ferris Bueller’ accordionist, remembered as ‘International Queen of Polka’
‘John Hughes created a part for me — queen of the German parade,’ she said in 1986, after the movie in which she shared a float with Matthew Broderick came out.
Vlasta Krsek was the head-tossing, foot-stomping dynamo in the middle of one of the most exuberant movie scenes ever filmed.
As thousands of extras rock out to “Twist and Shout” in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” she bounced on a pedestal and pounded out the song on her accordion, smiling at her parade float mate Matthew Broderick as he lip-synced the number for the crowd. She backed him on “Danke Schoen,” too.
“She was having a blast,” said her daughter Helen Krsek.
Mrs. Krsek was known as the International Queen of Polka, but there was little news coverage when the Berwyn resident died of cancer last August at 83 at the Spooner, Wisconsin, home of her daughter.
Helen Krsek said that not long before her mother died, she made a request: “She said, ‘Helen, don’t make a big thing of it. Just bury me beside my family.’ ”
Last weekend, several of Mrs. Krsek’s accordions were sold at an estate sale at her Berwyn bungalow, according to Kim Chmura of All-Clear Estate Sales in Riverside.
And the most famous of her accordions — the one Mrs. Krsek played in the movie — will be offered for sale by an auction house that specializes in high-end entertainment memorabilia, Chmura said.
Mrs. Krsek, who was born in Prague, was a World War II refugee who became a star, proudly garbed in the traditional Czech folk costumes known as kroje.
“The polka belongs to the world,” she once told an interviewer with the Cicero Life.
But she said it never hurt to try new kinds of music, like what she played in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“She played it with her heart,” her daughter said. “She just wanted to make people happy, and she didn’t want to make people sad.”
Mrs. Krsek charmed Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” She did “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Larry King Live.”
She performed with the Famous Potatoes at FitzGerald’s and with the legendary Frankie Yankovic at the International Polka Festival in Pine City, Minnesota. She worked stages at Taste of Chicago, Park West and Navy Pier. For appearances in Nashville, she spent two months learning to play the fiddle classic “Orange Blossom Special” on the accordion.
Mrs. Krsek and her polka compositions were featured on Chicago radio by deejays including Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. Dahl dubbed her the “Pink Floyd of the Polka Universe.”
She once told the Chicago Sun-Times she liked the accordion “because it’s an instrument like a Stradivarius violin. You can feel your lifetime experience with it. It makes people happy. That’s the most important thing. It’s like a band within itself — such a great sound.”
On liner notes for her record “Vlasta and her Altar Boys,” Mrs. Krsek spelled out her goal: “You know, Bruce Springsteen is known as ‘The Boss of Rock,’ well, I want to be known as ‘The Boss of Polka!’ ’’
She played for President Ronald Reagan, danced the polka with Mayor Harold Washington and performed for Mayor Jane Byrne and Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“All the mayors just loved her,” her daughter said.
And she was a star of the Houby Parade, which celebrates mushrooms and the Czech and Slovak heritage of Berwyn and Cicero.
Her career grew out of loss. In 1978, she was laid off by General Electric. That same year, Mrs. Krsek’s mother died.
“My mother was devastated,” her daughter said. “Then, Pope John Paul came to town, and she watched him, and she thought, ‘I’m going to write a song for him.’ ’’
“I picked up my accordion, used my severance pay and taped the ‘John Paul II Polka,’ ’’ Mrs. Krsek told the Sun-Times.
She said her husband Jan encouraged her, saying, “Vlasta, go do your dream.”
Mrs. Krsek composed polkas for Reagan, Carson, the Chicago Sting soccer team, the Chicago Bears and even her cockatiel Freddie.
“She was her own promoter,” her daughter said, typing out hundreds of letters that opened doors for her to different shows and venues.
Her daughter said “Ferris Bueller” director John Hughes called Mrs. Krsek to ask her to appear in her famous scene, filmed in downtown Chicago at the Von Steuben parade.
“John Hughes created a part for me — queen of the German parade,” Mrs. Krsek said in a Sun-Times interview in 1986, the year the movie came out.
The director asked if she could play “Twist and Shout,” a hit for the Isley Brothers before the Beatles, and “Danke Schoen,” popularized by Wayne Newton.
No problem, she told him.
In an audio commentary for the film, Hughes said Mrs. Krsek “really didn’t realize that we were doing a comedy. I think she thought it was a tribute to Germany or something.”
To keep from falling off the float, she was strapped to it with safety belts. She made $230 for the movie, but said, “I feel like the promotion is priceless.”
Growing up, she was Vlasta Wanke, the “Shirley Temple of Czechoslovakia,” according to a biography on the back of her album. She tapdanced and played the accordion in more than a dozen European movies.
She said she was 6 when she learned to play the “Beer Barrel Polka” from Jaromir Vejvoda, its Czech composer.
During WWII, her family experienced deprivation and danger.
“There was hardly any food,” her daughter said. “She never even liked to watch the fireworks on Fourth of July. It sounded like bombs.”
Mrs. Krsek and her relatives spent four years in a refugee camp in Germany, where she performed for other displaced persons and American GIs.
“There were about 40 different nationalities,” Mrs. Krsek said. “In my music, I try to express all those nationalities together.”
In the 1950s, her family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling near St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village. She met Jan Krsek, who was from Plzeň, Czechoslovakia, at the sausage factory where her mother worked, she told the Sun-Times.
“They started playing accordion together and hit it off, and that was it,” their daughter said.
They got married, and she worked for General Electric and he for International Harvester.
Mrs. Krsek also is survived by a granddaughter.
“She was an angel on that accordion, and I just miss her,” Helen Krsek said. “I was very proud of her anytime I would see her play.”
Mrs. Krsek liked being outside, where she’d laugh and talk with neighbors, her daughter said.
“She’d sit on the steps and call them over and start singing in Spanish for them or in Polish. She said, ‘Be happy. This world is too sad. We need to do more singing and dancing to make people happy.’ ”