Gene Lichnovsky: Piano Man
Ammannsville, Texas, presently a sleepy community in the northern end of the blackland Fayette Prairie, was once a bustling community when cotton was king a hundred years ago. The Czechs were the primary inhabitants from the 1880s onward although the community was named after Austrian founder Andrew Ammann.
Being a Czech community, it had its full, possibly over the top, quota of musicians. In a relatively short period of time the community produced the Ammannsville Brass Band, Ammannsville Orchestra, Ammannsville Jazz Band, Ammannsville New Jazz Band, Ammannsville Dance Orchestra, Ammannsville Old Time Orchestra, Barta’s Orchestra, Kruppa’s Orchestra, Kossa’s Farmer’s Band (Brass and String), and the Alfons Lichnovsky Orchestra.
The Lichnovsky Orchestra was organized, in late 1934, with the founding members being Alfons Lichnovsky, (leader and 1st trumpet), Julius Barta (2nd trumpet), Louis Barta (alto sax and clarinet), Edwin Barta, (tenor sax and claritnet), Joe Tofel (bass horn), Frank Humplik (drummer), and occasionally Hattie Parma sat in on piano. Alfons and Julius were brothers-in-law. Julius and his wife, Clara, are the parents of Melvin Barta, one of the founding members of The Telstars. Melvin still plays his father’s trumpet.
Two of the Lichnovsky Orchestra’s earliest dances were at Schulenburg’s Sengelmann Hall on December 30 and at Billeck’s Hall in Weimar on New Year’s Eve, 1934. In January of 1935, they had at least three dances: the Ermis Hall in Schulenburg, Sengelmann’s again, and the Hollywood Bowl dance platform several miles south of Schulenburg on Highway 72 (now U.S. 77). This outdoor venue advertised the event as a Grape Dance; possibly one of the themed dances of the time where fruit was suspended above the dance floor and if you got caught grabbing some, you had to pay a small fine which was later awarded to someone.
The word got around about how good the music of the first several dances were and bookings came in frequently. In their first full year, the orchestra was playing at the minimum, every two weeks in Schulenburg (Ermis, Sengelmann & City Auditorium Halls), St. John, Freyburg, New Bielau, and at home in Ammannsville at Mensik’s Platform and the KJT Hall.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
That first year they played for two dances that had newly installed electric lighting powered by Delco batteries, one at Ermis’ Hall (Old Highway 90 or Main Street West) and St. John Hall; a tacky dance where dancers were encouraged to wear the tackiest clothing for prizes; and rural school fundraisers in addition to weddings. The following year, 1936, the Schulenburg City Auditorium (Turner Hall before being moved to Wolter’s Park) advertised the Lichnovsky dance with the taunt: You Will Be A Loser If You Miss This Dance!
The orchestra went through several lineup adjustments, including the 1938 departure of Adolph Falke to start his own acclaimed orchestra featuring mostly modern music. The Lichnovsky Orchestra preferred Old-Time music. The orchestra settled into the original lineup with the addition of Henry Schneider and Louis’ son, Edwin. In 1940, Adolph Matocha, Sr. filled the piano position.
With the start of World War II, the band managed to stay together picking up jobs farther from Ammannsville as the bands began to shut down due to the draft. Bookings in Moulton, Appelt’s Hill, and Engle gave them exposure to the Lavaca County area which would unknowingly come into play later.
In 1943 when Julius and Edwin Barta went into the military the band went on hiatus for several years. The Orchestra reassembled in 1946 with the same lineup minus a piano player. The Lichnovsky Orchestra hit the dance hall stages running; and with another war behind them, the citizens were ready to dance like the post-World War 1 crowd did.
The music scene was changing with the popularity of hillbilly music starting to emerge (it would be several years before it was called country). Several distinct styles were gaining popularity on jukeboxes: Country (Ernest Tubb), Country Western (Red Foley), and Western Swing (Bob Wills). Of course to draw larger crowds bands mixed up all the styles to generate a larger fan base (Adolph Hofner).
OLD TIME MUSIC ROCKS
In Central Texas polkas and watlzes were still the favorites of the rural population. Alfons Lichnovsky stuck to what he knew best and kept catering to the older folks in Central Texas that knew and loved the music they grew up on and could identify and sing along with the Czech lyrics (and understand them). The orchestra was extremely popular at the smaller KJT and SPJST Halls (Plum, Holman, Ammannsville, Engle) and was now getting bookings in Lavaca County (Cotton Grove, Wied Hall, Breslau, Moravia) along with regular gigs at New Bielau, Swiss Alp, Ellinger, and the Tri-Association Hall in Schulenburg.
The quantity of available venues ensured that the band only had to travel a short distance. Weddings figured in heavily on their busy schedule as that was the best job: guaranteed pay, food, and friends. A notable wedding that Lichnovskys’ played was the Kubos-Klesel wedding at Moravia, on Monday, July 18, 1949. This union produced Harris, Harlan, and Dennis Kubos (see TPN January 2018).
By 1952, the Korean War and the natural migration of musicians had altered the band lineup. Dennis Cernosek, Henry Kubala, the brothers Edgar and Alton Witt, were now backing Alfons and a teenage piano player by the name of Eugene (Gene) Lichnovsky. In the mid-1950s, Alfons made the decision to slowly retire the band playing only weddings.
GENE ARRIVES ON THE SCENE
Gene was born on the Lichnovsky farm just south of Ammannsville in the mid-1930s. Gene did his duty picking cotton of which developed the hand muscles that would come in useful in several years when he became a musician. When school time rolled around, he moved several miles south to the community of Svetlo between Schulenburg and Weimar to live with his grandparents, the Adolph Bartas. They lived in close vicinity of the school. His uncle, Julius Barta, had purchased a refurbished piano from a musical instrument dealer in Warrenton, east of La Grange. Gene first started pecking out the Beer Barrel Polka playing with only one finger, he then started working on it with two fingers, and in a very short period of time he was playing the song with both hands. Gene was born the same year that his father had organized the Lichnovsky Orchestra so those sounds he heard around the house as an infant seeped into his soul and he practiced as much as he could. His mother related to him that at the age of six months she bundled him up and off they went in a cold norther to the band's gig at Ermis Hall.
At the age of 12 1/2, Gene's piano skills were advancing to the point where his father let him take the stage at a dance at Freyburg Hall. From that performance on he was a full member of the band and played until the band disbanded in the mid-1950s. Gene attended Weimar High School, which had a piano on which he entertained his fellow students on rainy days.
After high school graduation, Gene started learning the trumpet on a $15 dollar cornet and a fingering chart he bought from a relative, Alfred Pavlicek. He soon mastered it, which was another instance of learning something that would come in handy later in life. Gene began playing with other bands such as the Gus Lindemann Orchestra shortly after Gus took over the Ray Baca Orchestra.
During this time, he found his other calling, the printing business. He had gotten a job at the Schulenburg Sticker, then moved to the El Campo newspaper, and later made printing his career in the Houston area.
ARMY NEEDS A TRUMPET
The Korean War had been over for several years, but the military draft was still stirring the pot for young men’s lives and the Army beckoned Gene. After induction, he was trained as a radio operator, of which Gene was the head of his class, learning Morse Code communications. After radio school Gene was sent to South Korea. While stationed there, he heard a trumpeter was temporarily needed in the 7th Division Army band.
Gene walked the several miles in pouring rain to apply, despite having not played trumpet in a year. When he showed up, Gene recognized the man who issued him a trumpet as a member of the Six Fat Dutchmen from New Ulm, Minnesota. He played one song and the powers that be decided that he needed to be in the Army band.
He was later transferred to the 21st Army band at Ft. Lewis, Washington. After his two-year hitch, he came back to Texas and resumed his printing trade this time at the Edna Herald, later moving to Houston to fulfill his printing career.
Gene's son, Joseph (Joey) experienced the same upbringing as he did. With music all around him, Joey soon began learning rhythm and learned guitar and bass. He has stuck with music, as he is still playing guitar and bass in a band in the Houston area. The duet, Joey and Gene, occasionally played instrumental duets at private events.
In 1967, Gil Baca asked Gene to join his group to play trumpet on a special trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C on July 4th. Gil’s band had been asked to perform because of the cultural uniqueness of Ray Baca’s dulcimer. This all-star lineup consisted of Gil, Gene, Ray, Vernon Drozd, Pete Garcia, Norman Barnes, and Brian McWhirter.
This memorable trip was repeated the following year and they got to stay and perform in the nation’s capital for a week.
THAT LITTLE OL' BAND FROM TEXAS
In 1973, the Gil Baca Band returned to perform at the inauguration of President Nixon in Washington at the JFK Center which was an honor; a group of youngsters, mostly from the blackland cotton patches, some of them who couldn’t speak English until school age, performing at one of the finest stages in the nation.
Over the years Gene played piano and trumpet with several bands while attempting to balance family life with the music life. Gene has always kept polka music foremost as he has performed with Adolph Falke, Gus Lindemann, Jimmy Brosch, Harry Czarneck, Texas Dutchmen, Donnie Wavra, Knights of Dixie, Henry Tannenberger, Norman Barnes, The Travelers, and the Hi-Toppers.
Gene also sits in for special engagements such as the release of Theresa Cernoch Parker’s book Jimmy Brosch Remembers 20 Legendary Texas Czech Bands, when he performed with Mark Halata & Texavia. He also tickles the ivories of the grand piano at the Texas Czech Heritage and History Center in La Grange for special events. The love of performing and making people happy keep Gene playing his piano at several retirement centers around Houston even as he is on the cusp of celebrating his 75th year of performing.
Gene has documented his talent by releasing three CDs. On some of them his son, Joey, was the sound engineer and handled some of the technical details as well as playing bass guitar. His CDs are available in the Polka On! Store at polkabeat.com.
The next time you see or hear Gene Lichnovsky please show your appreciation as he continues to share his talents with his fans.
Gene would like to thank George and Nancy Jurecka for their assistance in gathering information on his life.