Polka Go-Round with Das Ist Lustig
Das Ist Lustig, Das Ist Lustig, Das Ist Lustig, if you say these words fast, it sounds like a steam locomotive. That is the energy of a Das Ist Lustig show. For the uninitiated, Das Ist Lustig (DIL) is a multi-faceted, music-oriented entertainment troupe with the prime ring mistress, Valina, and her husband, Ross Polka, generating smiles and laughter from the audience; who are sometimes part of the show. Assisting them at times are different musicians and dancers selected to enhance the experience.
In the 1930s, there was an entertainment troupe from Central Texas, Niemeyer’s Entertainers, who could deliver an evening of laughter, music, skits, and entertainment with a German/Czech slant that was more than a dance. Das Is Lustig is carrying on this tradition in a German/ American version.
IT ALL BEGAN...
A little background on how DIL came about: Valina was born in Houston to a native Houstonian mother who has German and Alsatian ancestry and a father born in The Netherlands, who has Dutch, Italian, Scottish, and probably a bit of everything else ancestry. Ross was born in Houston to native Texan parents who have German ancestry on both sides of their families.
Valina would sing to herself in the crib and later to the birds in the backyard. To accompany her singing, she began dance lessons at the age of three and learned how to perform on a theatre-styled stage. When school time came around Valina began participating in school choirs throughout her education. Her parents had an organ around the house and of course Valina was drawn to it, especially after learning her G-G-Grandfather had been a concert organist.
By age 13, Valina was more interested in running track, and singing in choir, so she gave up organ and piano lessons. Graduating high school, Valina wanted to live in The Netherlands for a year and attend school as an exchange student so she could learn Dutch with a goal of working for Royal Dutch Airlines.
Ross was running on a parallel track, singing songs with his dad and tinkering around with “things that made music noise.” He had a toy accordion to squeeze and began singing in school choirs when he became of age and receiving music lessons after school. Ross’ dad had assembled a kit organ and he began playing on it as well as tinkering with it when he wasn’t learning the guitar and the piano accordion that also resided at his house.
This was all before the age of 10; at 10, he was given the choice of what instrument he wanted received lessons on. He chose the piano accordion with the 120 bass buttons. Ross was diligent and determined in his accordion lessons in addition to choir class. At that time, Ross was studying accordion with Terry Cavanagh, Steve Habermacher, and Lynlee Alley. He was trained on the Palmer Hughes music books, and that meant a variety of music, even polka.
As his proficiency advanced Ross was invited to sit in with Alpenfest a few times in those teen years to give him a taste of stage work. Ross graduated high school and went on to Houston Baptist University to take voice classes and then attended the University of Missouri in Kansas City, so he could major in accordion and minor in voice.
UMKC had an excellent accordion program at the time, established by Joan Cochran Sommers, Professor Emerita. This was the only place in the United States and possibly the world that had collegiate level accordion courses. He graduated in 2000 with a Bachelors of Music in Accordion Performance.
While at UMKC, Ross switched to a Bayan accordion, a button chromatic instrument popular in Russia. It has buttons on both sides, and the capability of playing complete melodies on both sides. Unlike the piano accordion used in so many folk music ensembles, the Bayan is used in concert settings, either as a solo instrument, or part of an orchestra. Ross was also proficient in the bass accordion which (has the musical range of a cello or double bass) has piano keys on the right side only.
When the accordion orchestra from UMKC would travel to Europe to perform, Ross’ mechanical skills were put to use with basic repairs when needed on the instruments. He carried a bag of tools and spare parts while the group was touring. Ross paid for all of his college tuition, and room and board by working at Show Me Audio in Kansas City where he maintained sound equipment, and he helped with sound at events.
Ross served as choir director in churches in Kansas City and back home in Texas. When he was back in Texas, he repaired stringed instruments at H&H music store for a few years before getting a job at UTMB Houston managing records. The job was not fulfilling, and definitely didn’t provide any challenges based on Ross’ years of study in the field of music. But it paid the bills and gave him weekends off to keep his musical chops in order.
Ross' and Valina's parallel track was narrowing. Although they never formally met as youngsters, both attended multiple Germanfests, Oktoberfests, and Wurstfest with their parents. They both went to Rudi Lechner’s Restaurant and The Bavarian Gardens Restaurant from time to time to listen to a local German band, Alpenfest.
Ross can recall seeing a girl in a folk dress at a choir competition during UIL. Most likely, that was Valina headed to a Dutch Folk Dance performance after competition. They unknowingly had several mutual friends over the years, including one of Valina’s best friends in elementary school. That girl was later a good friend with Ross in high school and her mother was his high school choir director.
Around the age of 17, Valina spotted Ross across the room at a German club one evening when folk dancers and a German band performed. Excited to spot another young person in the club, a handsome guy at that, she asked Ross to dance. He told her “No!” ...he didn’t dance at the time.
Ross and Valina did not know each other, but they had many mutual friends. “I had been talking for about six months with everyone I was close to about my wish to start a band," Valina recalled. "I was at Wurstfest when my friends Mary Anne and Jimmy Clay gave me a sticky note with Ross’ information on it, saying they had run in to him there, and asked him if he would like to play in a German band. He said, 'Absolutely,' and gave them his contact info. We met face to face at Tomball’s German festival in March 2007.”
Ross had a day job and choir work. Valina was doing handyman odds and ends (sheetrock prep, texture, painting, and cleaning) during the day with Mike Stroup (who was a Western Swing guitarist. She spent evenings and weekends bartending, coordinating entertainment for Tomball’s German festivals, MC-ing and performing at a few weekend German festivals, teaching polka dance lessons, and doing promotions for a couple of Western Swing bands.
Valina toured for two Oktoberfest seasons (2004-05) with Terry Cavanagh and the Alpine Express. She was their official “dancing fraulein.” Her tasks were to teach polka to audience members, help with merchandise, lead the audience participation songs, wear the famous “Franzie the Chicken” outfit (see TPN 10/2017), be the back half of “Milka” the bier-giving cow, and singing a few back-up vocals.
Ross and Valina’s paths kept crossing. They decided to see if they could get an act together to entertain the audiences and feed their love of music. Somewhere along the way (2007) between rehearsing together and discovering they had soooo many common interests, such as love of nature, live music, traveling, and funny movies, they realized they had a good thing going and they fell in love.
In June 2007, Das Ist Lustig had its first performance, a couple of 30-minute sets that were very audience-participation dependent. Encouraged by the response, they worked hard to add enough music to do a two-hour show at Westfest in September. While there, they took the opportunity to take a few turns around the dance floor to Brave Combo’s music, giving Ross some of his first experiences on the dance floor.
Their early stage show, which consisted of accordion, cowbells, washboard, boombas, and a lot of audience participation clicked and they were booked into their first Wurstfest show in November 2007. To continue on their roll they got engaged a week later.
Valina said choosing a name for the band was easy. Das Ist Lustig (as performed by Alpenfest) was one of Valina’s favorite songs. Das Ist means “that is” and Lustig means “amusing, fun, silly, goofy.” When a German or Austrian says, “Das ist lustig,” they are describing something that tickles their fancy in a positive way. They chose the name to honor Alpenfest as one of the big inspirations for them. The band never worried about it being difficult for Americans to understand. They wanted to send a message that the product would be traditional and as authentic as they could make it. DIL hoped the public would remember their weird name, and look forward to seeing a show that would make them laugh, smile, and come away with gladness in their hearts.
DAS IST WUNDEBAR
They kept working on new music, learning Christmas music for the upcoming season. With the help of Mike Stroup, they had their first Christmas performance in Tomball in Dec 2007. In May, 2008, Ross and Valina were married. Valina left most of her odd jobs to focus on promoting and managing the duo, allowing time for Ross to focus on music when he got home from his regular job. More songs were added, more percussion instruments were added, a few other musicians were invited to join, and jobs started becoming available. One of the powers that Das Ist Lustig exudes is a collage of musical instruments. When you see the latest show, you will get to hear an autoharp, tuned cowbells, multiple accordions, an Alpenhorn, a carpenter’s saw, and a Bavarian xylophone. The table upon which the xylophone is mounted was built by Valina’s father and painted by her mother with traditional images. And then there is the boomba which is based on a Bavarian teufelsgeige (Devil's Fiddle), which were rods with attached pots, pans, springs, washboards and other noise makers to scare away evil spirits and works fine as a rhythm instrument when they do not have a drummer.
While we’re talking about boombas, the instrument played an integral part in the birth of Das Ist Lustig. Valina remembered: “Let’s go back about 20 years, when I first saw Alex (Meixner) at Wurstfest. He was playing with his dad’s band, and they had this crazy-looking drum thing on a stick with cymbals and clackers and bells. Alex would set his accordion down, and play the thing as a feature. I was intrigued and wanted to get my hands on one.
"Fast forward a few years (2005 I think) when Alex decided to have a 'Boombas playing contest' in the big tent. He called me and three other ladies up to the stage to try. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that thing and interpret the music with it. I had my hair in a ponytail, I got excited about the music getting faster and faster, and I did the ponytail twirl. I won the contest.
"I decided that I needed one of those drumsets on a stick right away, so I ordered one from the guy who made Alex’s and started learning to play it for real. Haha, I guess Ross and I can honestly say if you don’t like our band, blame Alex Meixner. I don’t know if I would have gotten the idea