As we walked up the wooden steps to the Apollo Maennerchor (man-a-kor) club in Sharon, PA, there was something synchronous about hearing muted polka music while entering a century old brick building.
When the door opened however, the scene was a sudden blast of the surreal. The upstairs Festhalle in this club is huge. The Bavarian styled room is complete with wooden beams, a balcony, and a stage. The current band featured musicians of all ages and they bounced out a silly sounding song as brightly colored ethnic dresses spun around the dance floor. The 200 or so people were yelling, laughing, and looking around as if they were expecting something else to happen at any minute.
Maennerchor means “Men’s Chorus” in German. These clubs were not uncommon in the Northeast at the turn of the century and while some of them remain open, many of the singing groups have died off. What strikes me about Sharon’s club is how clean it is. Unlike other ethnic organizations I’ve been to, there was no smoking, water-stained ceilings, or piles of scratch-off tickets.
The National Button Accordion Festival (NBAF) is an annual event that focuses on a particular type of accordion. The button box uses (you guessed it) buttons instead of piano keys. Other differences include; the sound (the reeds are purposely pitched slightly out of tune with each other), they are diatonic (which means they can only play in certain musical keys), and they are historically older (buttons predate piano keys). A good quality button box accordion costs about $4K.
Festival organizer, Ron Pivovar weaves through the crowd in his suspenders and lederhosen. This is the third and final day of the event, and he appears upbeat and positive. He tells me that players and visitors alike loved the food, hospitality and atmosphere at the new Sharon location. Ron has been coordinating this festival for eleven years and chose to change locations this year. “I have been really impressed by the support from the City of Sharon, the Mercer County Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and the Maennerchor Club. They’ve made difficult things, seem easy”
As we finish our talk, the band on stage which is fronted by two 70 year old sisters from Alaska, suddenly plays the “Hokey Pokey” and a large circle of families forms on the dance floor.
Polka styles are as numerous as the countries from which they originate. Each European culture has its own musical approaches and dances (I’m told they are inseparable). As immigrants arrived here with their accordions, the entirety of North America (Canada and Mexico, too!) developed their own variations of this music. Cleveland, OH has its own world-recognized polka genre for goodness sake. Regardless, to the untrained polka aficionado, there is something about this soundtrack that makes everything seem like a joke. I mean it, we couldn’t stop smiling.
While the main festival pulsed along upstairs, we took the back stairs down to the “member “ section of the building. A group of accordion players were jamming on the small stage at the end of the room. The ratskellar ambience was both inviting and (did I mention) clean! With the impressive line-up of foods and the notable array of American micros and German beers, I can see why locals say this place is popular. Someone at the bar tells me, “There’s always music here and it’s always good.”
Despite the German items on the menu, we chose a burger, deep fried pretzel, and French fries called “Max’s Truffle Fries”. All were fantastic.
BTW, Ron Pivovar is a button box accordion historian, repair technician, and song writer. One of his pieces was featured in Fox Films’ 2017 release, “Keeping up with the Joneses”. Over the years, Ron has recorded an impressive thirteen albums. Astonishingly, this is a trifle in the genre of Polka. There are artists with over a hundred.
What is the deal with this music?
If you’re looking for something different to do this Memorial Day weekend, allow me to recommend the National Button Accordion Festival in Sharon, PA. Grab your fun friends, get a nearby hotel room for a night, and check out this crazy scene. I promise that you’ll be talking about this for at least a week.