By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
TV, radio, record sales and show after show after show--the people couldn't get enough of this polka stuff. Frankie traveled in his own van with his name in big letters on the side, making friends (and, to this day, usually staying with them in lieu of hotels) and sitting shotgun with a portable typewriter, pecking out hundreds of letters to fans with one finger as the miles rolled by.
The band won 'em over in Vegas, killed 'em at the Mocambo on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where the stars came out to dance the two-step 'til the wee hours. And Frankie met 'em all. Elvis: "A nice kid. I liked what he did with 'Just Because.' Course, it wasn't our style." Sinatra: "He's a hell of a nice guy. But don't get him mad."
Traveling was an exciting thing in those days. There was the time Yankovic and crew hit a flock of geese in Pennsylvania: "We couldn't stop; I said, 'Keep going, the farmer'll kill us.'" The time the van and the trailer it was towing started sliding back down an icy Colorado mountain: "The boys all jumped out; I stayed with it. Thank God it didn't go over. Otherwise, I'd of went down with it!"
And Frankie was no chump in the looks department; those raging blue eyes were quite a burden. "I always said, if the trailer could talk, we'd be in trouble."
Outside of the Midwest, there weren't a lot of polka bands plying their trade. Frankie and the boys had things pretty well sewed up, but then, in the early Sixties, rock 'n' roll made dancing polkas something for the older set. The jobs were not as plentiful as they had once been, yet Yankovic could always count on the weddings, the lodges, the ethnic festivals--the parties that had been there for him all along. "I liked rock 'n' roll. I thought it was good, but I wasn't crazy about it," Frankie says with a shrug. "Teenagers like it; you can't take it away from them."
Life moved on. He divorced, remarried, had two more kids. And he kept playing. The running theme in Yankovic's life seems to be: The More You Work, the More You Can Play. Work means money, of which he and his little accordion have generated quite a bit. "Oh, yeah. We used to do $250,000 a year a few years ago, but we blew it," he says with a chuckle. "Good times, gambling, going out every night. I'd take the whole damn crew out to after-hours spots, have steaks, whatever you want to eat and drink. I'd run a bill $300 or $400. I don't regret it."
Dusk is falling on Europe at Night.
Big, shiny American cars are pulling into the parking lot of this Mesa restaurant, cars containing the retired, the vacationing, the faithful. They have come--many have been coming for years, decades--to dance the polka, while their beloved Frankie belts out the numbers of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, America's Polka King is, as they say, loading into the club. The back door of his wagon is open. For the millionth time, he pulls the black accordion case out, followed by the two wooden boxes of official Frankie Yankovic merchandise. There is no roadie, no management to help out, not even a busperson to lend a hand. He's played here for a month out of each year for the last decade; the help knows him simply as good ol' Frankie.
He lugs the merchandise cases up to the front of the club, sets up shop between the two sofas of blood-red crushed velvet, next to the picture of Nikola Tesla. Beneath Tesla's stern image, it says: "Invented Electric Power was a Serb! Yugoslavian we are proud of him." (Europe at Night is run by Mr. and Mrs. Krstic, who are, in fact, Yugoslavian.) Frankie crouches over his wares, setting things up just right. Tapes, videos, CDs, the America's Polka King Apron, the Happy Frankie Hanky.
People are coming in. Couples approach the King like an old, dear friend. He greets them all warmly, many by name, as he fields requests to "come out for dinner," "see the new place," "stay with us next time you're in town."
Frankie settles down to a remote table for some soup, a glass of red. The backing band comes out and warms up the crowd with country standards. Yankovic doesn't look tired, seems not to care that, on this Wednesday night, the place is less than full. There is no such thing as a bad crowd for this man.
Then the King makes his way to the stage, slightly stooped but with an undeniable force that seems to grow more determined as he steps up to the bandstand and straps on his instrument. He sits, greets the people, his people, launches into "Blue Skirt Waltz." Or is it "Just Because"? Who cares? He's bellowing out the words, pumping the accordion. The back-up band looks bored, a far cry from "da boyce" who used to bounce to the polkas like pistons. Bodies begin to fill the dance floor--maybe not fill, but the ones who are out there are smiling at each other, and at him. And that's the way Frankie likes it.
Long live the King.