Polka Date September 2021. Polka Music came into my life on a jukebox at the Lakeside Café in Schulenburg. I was of bicycle age and taking a break from fishing in the lake next to the café when someone put a coin in the jukebox and played Peanuts. I was instantly mesmerized and rushed to see the name of the music which was so energetic. Being raised in a non-polka household, this was like music from another planet, the monies scrounged from picking bottles along the way to Lakeside went directly into the jukebox to hear Peanuts. My parents and I traveled in a roadside diner’s era. A good many of them had remote jukeboxes at each table and it was magic when Dad gave me a coin to put in it and from the big jukebox in the corner Bob Wills would come blaring out. I was mesmerized by flipping the little arms back and forth to change the pages of the selections, also the Bakelite buttons to push for the song, sometimes they glowed.
For you young’uns who might be unfamiliar with a jukebox, they were machines that were an off-shoot of the nickelodeon, of which the TV channel is named after. Nickelodeons were coin-operated machines that for a nickel, you could watch a several minute long movie, which in the 1900s was quite a technological advance.
The first coin operated machine was developed in the late 1880s with the highly descriptive name “Nickel-In-The-Slot Phonograph”, the only drawback was that it could only play one music cylinder at a time, it was several years later that disc records were developed.
Due to technology’s slow advance in perfecting the mechanics of selecting a record from several dozen choices and playing it in a sometimes harsh environment, jukeboxes came into vogue prior to 1940. Before then the only opportunity to hear music in a public location was via a live band or a radio. This limited the listener’s choices option as well as the musician’s promotion of a new record.
The origin of the term “juke” is shrouded in mystery, some claim it goes back to Shakespeare (Oxford dictionary: to move about); most likely it originated in the Southern U.S. to describe a wicked or disorderly establishment, a juke joint. When the term juke came into popular usage to describe dance music machines, the public moral’s police jumped into action and demanded the government investigate. The U.S. Department of Commerce spent a lot of time investigating and decided that the word “juke” was not so bad (similar to the fruitless F.B.I. investigation into the lyrics of the song Louie, Louie). As music technology increased in the 1930s the term “home jukes” got attached to a record player that could change records automatically. For several years the commercial juke trade tried to not use the word “juke”, but the term stuck describing commercial machines. When World War II rolled around, soldiers carried the term around the world with them, reminiscing in a foxhole about dancing with their girl to their favorite song played on a jukebox.
The majority of jukeboxes were not owned by the location but rented from a jobber whose job was to maintain and stock his boxes. Jobbers were usually disc jockeys, sometimes musicians, who knew the area’s taste in music and had a lot of spare time. In local Texas music, the most well-known jobber was Charlie Fitch from Luling, he not only influenced the taste of music in Central Texas by having a large jukebox route, he also had his own recording studio and record label, Sarg Records. Fitch could record local musicians such as Willie Nelson (his first record), Doug Sahm, Henry Brosch Orchestra, The Moods, Adolph Hofner, Jurecka’s Orchestra, Lee Roy Matocha, and a dozen more and have their songs pressed with his label and in a speedy fashion have them in area jukeboxes and record stores.
In the 1960s Schulenburg the jobber was Wesley Heffenbrock. He also rented jukeboxes for parties, I remember renting one for a party at the Community Center in town; for $25 you could give him a list of songs that you wanted, he would stock the box, deliver it, and retrieve it. To me it was also a touch of heaven to walk into his garage with stacks upon stacks of records everywhere.
Once jukeboxes became widespread, a local band could cut a record (easier back then, fewer lawyers); get copies to a jobber who knew where to and not to fill the boxes throughout the area with it by knowing the clientele. That the new song could be heard by hundreds or thousands of folks in the surrounding area every day versus taking a chance with a radio station that might play it, once or twice a day made the musicians money. This was demonstrated in the late 1940s by Bailey Mahlmann, a pianist with the Benny Murski Orchestra of Brenham, who along with Lee Leissner (Texas Rhythm Boys) wrote and recorded The Brenham Waltz which was a big hit on KWHI radio. The positive feedback to the station (handwritten letters), encouraged Mahlmann to press more copies of the song and get them into the hands of local jobbers who filled jukeboxes across Washington and surrounding counties, and soon many folks were humming the song, buying the record, and attending the Benny Murski dances. The same circumstance was a common occurrence in the 1940s thru the 1960s across the U.S.
The popularity of polka was boosted tremendously by the ability of the Majek, Kurtz, Machart, Patek, Shimek, Brosch, Migl, Hofner, City Polka Boys, Ellinger Combo, Hub City Dutchmen Orchestras and many more to gain popularity via the jukebox to sell their records. The boxes introduced new bands to people throughout rural Central Texas which attracted potential dance ticket customers.
To be continued....