Vrazels: Playing for Our Friends
The Vrazels' Polka Band played for their friends from 1953 to 2009. In those 56 years, which was for the most part weekends only, the Vrazel brothers performed a minimum of 3,600 engagements. Add that together: it would be like playing music every day for NINE continuous years. This concept boggles the mind, and as mentioned, that is a minimum number.
So, if you would consider that on average over the years, a hundred couples would hit the floor per dance, that would add up to 360,000 couples having the time of their life. Of course, this is just an underestimated wild guess, for on January 24, 2009, the band gave its final performance in Temple, and over 1,600 of the band’s friends showed up to hear for one last time If I Were a Bird.
How did they get to be so popular? “By being a band for the people,” Alfred Vrazel said. “It’s important to connect with your audience. We always tried to involve the audience in a sing-along and visit with them as much as time would permit during our breaks and between songs. And we never had a play list. We played whatever the people requested and liked,” he said. “They bought the ticket, so we played what they wanted.”
MORAVIA TO CAMERON
The Vrazels trace their roots back to Moravia in what was then part of the Austrian and Hungarian empire and is now part of the Czech Republic. Arriving in Galveston in winter of 1903, the Vrazel family settled in the Czech community of Marak, northwest of Cameron where they began sharecropping and later after their natural thriftiness payed off, they bought their own land, which is still cared for to this day.
The only music in the 1930s household was a battery powered radio, that Anton remembers his father ordering from Montgomery Ward. The world of music opened up for the Vrazel Brothers (Anton, Lawrence, Jr., and Alfred) as the Grand Ole Opry, the Czech Melody Hour show from Temple, and occasionally, Joe Gavranovic out of Rosenberg and Adolph Hofner from San Antonio filled the young lads' heads with different sounds, voices, and music in that little board-and-batten farm house in the midst of cotton fields.
Another source of gaining an education of the outside world, was the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Alfred was looking through the 1952 catalog and spied a Hohner two-row button accordion for $32. He knew he liked music but had never thought of really playing an instrument, but for some reason, he knew he had to have that accordion. Well, his father bought it for him, which for sure cut into the meager family income. When he received it, it felt so natural in his hands that in very little time he was playing along with the songs he heard over the radio. That accordion now resides in Alfred’s music room, literally, on a pedestal.
After gaining confidence, Alfred and three of his cousins, Leo, Louis, and Ladis Vrazel formed The Vrazel Playboys and began performing at small clubs around Marak, Cameron, and Taylor.
The Playboys played for tips or less. “We’d pass the kitty and one time I got 18 cents,” Alfred said. (That woud be equal to $1.70 in 2018). This probably was the origin of the Vrazel Band motto, "Playing for our friends." At a small place near Taylor, they played for hamburgers.
Their early set lists included Fraulein, At the Spring, and If I Were a Bird. The band was a string-based group, meaning an electric bass and rhythm guitar. Living within an hour’s drive of many Czech-speaking communities (Alfred & Anton spoke only Czech until starting school), the Czech songs were loved by the crowds and many a Czech sing-along were heard in the old wooden halls. Despite being well-versed in Czech, some local polka venues refused to hire the Vrazel band because they didn’t have a tuba, so the going was slow at first.
To get their music out to the local people, radio station KMIL in Cameron was just getting started (1955) and it was popular to have live music performances on the air (television was basically non-existent in rural Texas). The Vrazels went to church on Sunday mornings in Marak and then drove to KMIL for a 1 pm, live 30-minute radio performance. After stopping by the house(s), they then headed to the Wagon Wheel Inn, in Beyersville (southwest of Taylor) to play for a dance.
The Vrazels are a consistent, stick-to-it, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" kind of group. The songs that they played at the final show in 2009, were the same songs with only a few minor adjustments for instrument change. As for the radio show that they started in 1955 well, Alfred who was the announcer, just forgot to quit doing the show. It is now 2018 and he still does a weekly show on KMIL, (now in its 63rd year of continuous broadcasting). Alfred started prerecording it after out-of-town bookings picked up. The Vrazels played the Wagon Wheel every Sunday for several years and at the SPJST lodge in Holland, they had a frequent Sunday engagement during the mid-1960s.
MUSIC IN MARAK
The Sts. Cyril & Methodius Catholic Church in Marak is the Vrazels' home parish. At the yearly picnic, the Vrazels have for decades played for the afternoon’s entertainment. For years they set up under the shade trees beside the church. Recently, the church built a special open-air pavilion for them and named it appropriately the Vrazel Polka Pavilion. It came in handy at the 2018 picnic since it rained.
As the Vrazel band grew in popularity, the bookings kept coming in. Anton, who handled the scheduling, would not turn anybody down except for three reasons: (1) already booked, or (2) it was during the week, or (3) it was during Lent or Advent. Anton said that the people were nice enough to call them to play, how could he turn them down. The Vrazels had a standing rule not to play during the week, with exceptions (holidays), as they all had full-time jobs working the 1,500 acres of corn, cotton, and cattle.
After Anton decided to join the band on piano accordion, Alfred picked up the saxophone. Their brother, Albert, agreed to be the one to cover the farm chores on the weekends and the wives agreed to help. Alfred said that without them the Vrazels' Polka Band would never have lasted very long. The wives knew the importance of the music to the men and it served as a respite from the business of farming. Alfred said, "We might have been making 40 to 60 dollars total each night, and the way farming was we probably lost three times that much on the farm.” You old farmers would understand that wry statement.
The dances became farther from Marak as their audiences became aware of their excellent music. The network of SPJST halls began picking them up: Elm Mott, Holland, Bryan, Snook, and Dallas began booking them. Of course, there was plenty of opportunities in their own backyard: Cameron’s National Hall, Tom Sefcik’s Hall, Cyclone Hall, Moravian Hall in Corn Hill, Dessau Hall, and Buckholts’ SPJST hall. Speaking of Buckholts, the Vrazel family also managed the Lodge Hall in Buckholts from 1957 to 1971. “Our wives stayed and ran the dance hall with our brother, Albert, and his wife. We played many New Year’s Eve dances there,” Alfred recalled.
In 1958, Anton and Alfred tried an experiment. They made a tape of their band and drove to Bill Mraz’s Ballroom and made a “cold call” on Mraz thinking the tape would impress him. Alfred still remembers the exact moment walking into the hall and there was some guy joking around with his band on stage and they wondered if they were at the right place. This was their first time encountering Jimmy Brosch and His Happy Country Boys presenting their uniquely funny stage show. The tape worked and the Vrazels began being booked into the legendary Bill Mraz Ballroom rotation of fine Czech dance music.
TEXAS POLKA FAMILY
“People in other parts of the country ask me what the polka industry in Texas is like. I tell them it’s like family. Once you make a fan they’re very loyal. People followed us all over the state. They thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles to come to one of our dances,” Alfred said. Other polka bands are also considered family. “Texas polka bands in general get along and promote each other very well.” The Vrazels were one of the Big Three (others being Lee Roy Matocha Orchestra, and the Joe Patek Orchestra) at a festival on Father’s Day in June 1967 in the old Riverside Hall in East Bernard. This event was possibly the first jam session involving other bands playing simultaneously. The jam is now a standard high point of any gathering of orchestras. Alfred was so into promoting a friendly environment with other bands that he never used the term “battle” dance. “I always said we were working with another band because battle means fight. Each band is there to perform at its best, not fight,” he explained.
By the 1970s, the band averaged 125 dances a year. That is twice every weekend bouncing between Dallas, Houston, La Grange, Holland, Waco, and West. They played in Washington D.C. several times for special festivities honoring their Czech heritage.
The band's equipment was getting larger for the larger halls, unlike in the beginning, when Alfred said, “We had one amp, one microphone, and two little speakers we hung on the side of the stage on twenty penny nails.”
This pace was kept up for the next two decades, as large festivals such as Ennis and West took shape, and the annual Big Three dances continued every year. The Vrazels had the honor of representing Czech-Texas polka at the statewide Texas Folklife Accordion Kings events.
For five years, the Vrazels shepherded 500 to 600 Texians to Las Vegas for the polka festival. By the time the new century rolled around the excitement of going to play somewhere had begun to wear off (47 years!) and thoughts of retiring had begun to stir.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
The Vrazels' Polka Band has been a family affair for many years. The original Playboys had been brothers Alfred and Anton; and their cousins, Leo, Louis, and Ladis Vrazel. Another brother to Anton and Alfred, Lawrence, soon started and stay with the band for 12 years. George Strmiska joined the Vrazels around 1959, and his two sons, Thomas and Patrick, followed their father’s route and played with the band (over 30 years) until the end in 2009. Thomas married Alfred's daughter, Cindy, and their kids, Matthew and Jessica, would join the band from time to time. Albert Heselmeyer joined in 1975 and stayed to the end. David Trojacek started in 1998 and stayed to the end. While we were crunching numbers, the final night in January 2009, the Vrazels had the experience of having a total of 198 years of playing music on stage.
Just because a band retires, that doesn’t mean they sell their instruments and find rocking chairs. They just retire from getting in their vehicles every Saturday and Sunday and driving untold miles to play and driving back usually in the early hours of the morning. Since retirement the Vrazels have played one-off performances and available members have sat in with the bands playing at the Marak picnic. The 2018 picnic, with the Praha Brothers featured, during intermission, a short set where Alfred, David, and Albert H. performed with Bernard Strmiska (Thomas' and Patrick’s brother), and Justin Everett (Anton’s grandson).
Alfred reflected, “I have to give much credit to our band members. We were always fortunate to have talented and Christian people play with us. We all had the same background and grew up on farms. We were a tight group and I hope it showed on stage.”
The Vrazels’ success is also due in part to the wives. “A lot of credit goes to our wives for their support. I never could have done this without Bernice,” Alfred said, adding that they celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary in 2018. Bernice said she never would have asked Alfred to give up playing in the band. “I knew he loved it too much; that would be like taking part of his life away,” she said. The band wives need their own recognition for loving their husbands and recognizing their importance in the Texas Czech culture. A special thanks to Albina (Anton) Vrazel, Bernice (Alfred) Vrazel, Cindy (Thomas) Strmiska, Alice (Albert) Heselmeyer, and Kathy (David) Trojacek.
Although some of the musicians read music, they all played by ear and not by notes, and were self-taught. Their music renditions are the most emulated by other polka musicians.
The Vrazels' Polka Band has received almost every award possible that a band which represents a culture both in character and music can receive. The most recent recognition was being inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame at the South Texas Polka & Sausage Festival in March.
The Vrazels made their first recording in 1959 and went on to build an impressive discography: 20 45-RPM records, nine 8-track tapes, 13 albums, three videos, six cassettes, and 10 CDs. The CDs are still available for sale at VrazelsPolkaBand.com.
“That’s a lot of music,” Alfred said. “We gave it our all.” And if you ever attended a Vrazel dance you know the fans gave it their all back to the Vrazels.
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