From Off-Beats to Hobos, These Guys Carry On Polka Tradition

Now it stands to reason there doesn’t seem to be anything strange about a polka band being formed by high school students in the middle of German/ Czech Texas in the 1950s. However, for a group of them to be performing together in the new millennium under similar circumstances is pretty amazing.

The Schulenburg Independent School System (SHS) had a robust music program in the last half of the 20th century. The marching band was usually over 100 members strong and was well known for its halftime shows. The highlight or darklight of the shows occurred when the stadium lights went off, and the musician’s head lamps were switched on as they moved into shapes that complimented the songs performed. The school band was under the direction of Billy Jacobs and later Claude Marty. Marty had his own his own combo and performed away from the school settings. Thursday night school band practices were held several hours after the last class of the normal school day. Driving your family or your own car to school was a rarity in the 1950s; the majority of rural band students rode the school bus home to do the chores and then returned by car for band practice or had a part-time job in town.

Circumstances worked out that a small group of budding musicians started jamming during the spare time between class and practice. During their experimentation, they found out that playing rock-n-roll, which was the current craze, was as much fun as the old-time polkas and waltzes they grew up with around Fayette County. The original members of this little informal combo were Barbara Beyer, Walter Hermis, Willie and Leo Rainosek, Nathaniel Loth, Larry Krupala, and Johnny Barton.

The Future Farmers of America staged competitions among town chapters to promote the many differenct facets of shaping the youth of America. Being young and ambitious, Walter Hermis (saxophone), Johnny Barton (trumpet), Leo Rainosek (drums) Larry Krupala (saxophone), and Elton Kaase (trombone) formed a five-piece combo and named themselves The Off-Beats. Theater director I. E. Clark wrote a skit which involved them and their music. They entered the Area III competition (20 counties) and traveled to Brenham for the contest. At various times in the 1900s dances were held that were called either barn, tacky, hobo, or calico dances and it was permissible to wear denim or “less than tasteful” clothing. Since this was a hobo-type competition, they wore fun hats and loud clothing, (i.e. not ties, white shirts, and slacks). The Off-Beats won second place being beaten by a Jerry Lee Lewis imitator.

As a warm-up for the FFA competition, the previous weekend The Off-Beats renamed themselves the Shorthorn Off-Beats, the shorthorn being the school mascot, and played two dances. One was a benefit for the Catholic schools and the other was a dance for the public-school band parents' club. Nathan Loth, one of their schoolmates, joined the band and traded in his trumpet for a new tuba that the band department wasn’t using. Nathan also built a trailer as a class project to haul their gear around. The Shorthorn Off-Beats began playing traditional polkas and current pop songs at private parties and fundraisers around the area.

Ben Sustr, SHS coach, administrator, and polka dance instructor; was a member of the Schulenburg JayCees. He played an influential part in obtaining venues for these young men to showcase their talents and the rich musical pool that is in the Schulenburg area. The Off-Beats returned the favor five decades later and performed at the memorial service for Ben.

After graduating from school, they dropped the Shorthorn part of the name and kept playing as the Off-Beats. Freyburg’s Guentert Store had a patio out back where the band would play. They were also regulars at the Schulenburg K.C. Hall and at the Tri-Association Hall in Wolter’s Park. They played at the St. John picnic and at a C.Y.O. fundraiser in the St. John Hall. Band gigs included public dances, weddings, and family reunions in Shiner, Eddie’s in Smithville, Tin Hall near Houston, Club 71 in La Grange, and Old Ocean (Freeport area). The band opened their sets with the Schneider Polka and kept the floor filled with music for all generations.

It is suspected that the Off-Beats kept on playing music after graduation because they saw America’s need for good music as 1958 was the year Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army. Following Elvis’ return to civilian life in 1960, the Army then drafted the members of the Off-Beats to take Elvis’ place.

The history of American music is filled with the dissolution of great bands by the forced call of duty to America (the draft). The United States had kept the draft alive after the Korean “police action” to ensure a military force would be available as the Cold War with Russia ramped up.

The draft of 1960 put an end to the Off-Beats, but most of them continued their love of music after their return to civilian life. Nathan Loth played with the Henry Brosch, Rudy Kurtz, and Adolf Migl Orchestras over several decades.

Johnny Barton and Walter Hermes teamed up and played with Alvin Linharts’s Sugarlanders. Johnny kept his trumpet lip in shape by playing with the Randy K Orchestra, Jimmy Brosch and the Happy Country Boys, the City Polka Boys, and formed his own band, the Houston Polka Boys. After moving back to the Weimar area, he joined Jim Hluchanek’s Four Dots playing weddings and festivals in Central Texas. Johnny also played with the Happy Playboys led by Leo Heinrich. They played at senior citizen centers in the area bringing smiles and memories to folks who were unable to travel.

From the early 1900s there has been a loosely organized group of musicians that have called themselves The Shiner Hobos. Over the decades, the Hobos have consisted of musicians who loved to play music but either their bands were no longer together, or they were unable to commit to a steady performance schedule with a full-time band. The Hobos provide an outlet for their musical desires by not requiring but encouraging attendance at their shows. Following the credo that polka music is happy music; the Hobos wear humorously mismatched clothing and have as much fun as possible entertaining and interacting with the crowd while playing darn good dance music. The band has intermittently broken up and reformed over the decades whenever a new leader was found.

In the late l980s the Hobo band became alive once again, attracting band-less musicians. Before long, Larry Krupala, Nathan Loth, Johnny Barton, and Walter Hermis found themselves together (along with others) on the same stages that they performed on as the Off-Beats almost a half-century previously. Also reuniting decades later were the similar costumes that they wore in the FFA contest. The Hobos continue the tradition that keeps the music of Central Texas alive and dancing.