Thursday, April 9, 2015
By GUY D’ASTOLFO
When “Polka Kings” premieres Saturday (9:30 p.m., Reelz), the Chardon Polka Band — around whom the show revolves — will be finishing up a gig in Cleveland.
But what else would a working polka band be doing on a Saturday night?
“I had [the gig] booked in advance, before we even knew when the show would start,” said Jake Kouwe, band leader.
It worked out almost perfectly, though. The CPB will be at Sterle’s, on the East Side of Cleveland, which is one of their most popular spots. In fact, the series filmed a lot of scenes at Sterle’s.
They will play from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., at which point Serle’s will switch on the TVs for a viewing party.
“Polka Kings” gets into the weird and woolly world of the CPB, which is based in Geauga County and is a regular on Youngstown stages, festivals ... and other places. During a phone interview last month, Kouwe (pronounced Cow-ee) had just finished speaking about his career to a group at the juvenile detention center in Youngstown.
Polka has never lost its foothold in Northeast Ohio, and the CPB plays for that audience all the time. But the youthful act has a comic stage personality that helps it cross genre lines — which isn’t so easy to do for a polka band.
They’ll put a pop tune or a rock classic through their polka machine. What comes out is a party-ready hybrid that is wacky and fun.
Sixteen episodes of “Polka Kings” were filmed between April and October at a variety of locations in Northeast Ohio, and also on road trips to Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. The camera mainly follows the gang between gigs to capture their antics in their quest for stardom.
In the first episode, the band takes a shot at blending some hip-hop into their act with mixed results.
Like most reality shows, “Polka Kings” provides a condensed snapshot of its subjects and with a lot of humor.
The five members of the band ratcheted their stage personas up a notch for the show, but they’re still not far from the norm.
“We are eccentric and weird to begin with, so it was easy to develop us for TV,” said Kouwe. “We already have an onstage personality. Mine is very much the same when I’m off stage, but there is that switch that you flip. I get a little crazier and maniacal on stage.”
In addition to Kouwe, who plays accordion and handles lead vocals, the CPB (as constituted on “Polka Kings”) is Mike Franklin, banjo, bass, backup vocals and yodeler; Emily Burke, saxophone and flute; Paul Coates, sax and bass; and Pops Magooch, drums.
Kouwe & Co. are hoping the show catches on and boosts the band to another level. But regardless of what happens, they will continue on the path they’ve blazed. Getting a television show, Kouwe noted, is no guarantee of success.
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“It’s too soon to say,” he said, “but in the entertainment business, exposure is good. Sometimes you think [a project] will be a hit and then you get no calls, and other times you do something on a whim and your phone rings off the hook.”
Kouwe seems to realize that the fame could even bring out haters.
“If you want to get somewhere in the entertainment industry, you have to be standing up and waving your hands over your head saying, ‘Look at me.’ They might say you got a big ego if you do, but if you don’t they won’t watch you. We love any attention we can get.”
The new reality show isn’t the first national media attention the Chardon Polka Band has received. In March, the band was the subject of a four-minute segment on the NPR radio show “Here and Now.”
Aundrea Heschmeyer of the PolishYoungstown organization has been the CPB’s main contact in the Mahoning Valley for years. She is thrilled to see the band get its own reality show.
“We couldn’t be more excited for Jake and company if they were our own children,” said Heschmeyer. “We’ve always felt very maternalistic about this group because we booked them on one of their first engagements outside of their community.”
PolishYoungstown is all about keeping the Polish heritage alive and appreciates the band’s unique way of doing just that.
“They represent exactly what we are trying to do — a sharing of traditions with a modern twist,” said Heschmeyer. “Thanks to the group’s age and approach, more people, young and old, are actually hearing the music and experiencing how fun it can be. Will [“Polka Kings”] turn it into a national phenomenon? I don’t foresee that, but stranger things have happened ...”
Chardon Polka Band has played at almost every Polish Day festival in Youngstown, and will do so again when the event takes place Aug. 30 at St. Luke’s Church in Boardman.
“They have been beloved from the get-go,” said Heschmeyer. “Their interaction with the audience is unmatched. Last year they played a 35-minute extended song that nearly gave me a heart attack, but the dance floor was full with folks from 8 to 80.”