The Jimmy B Orchestra, Barefoot Becky & The Ivanhoe Dutchmen, and The Sauerkrauts—these bands witnessed the heyday of polka in Omaha.
The musical groups were just some of the acts featured on the Big Joe Polka Show, which aired on dozens of radio stations nationwide for more than two decades. Hosted by Omaha native Joseph “Big Joe” Siedlik, the weekly program showcased performances by some of the region’s best-known and beloved polka bands and orchestras.
For many in the heartland, including immigrants who longed for the music and traditions of the old country, the hour-long show was a staple of their Sunday afternoon family time. Thousands tuned in to enjoy the happy, rhythmic sounds of polka, which Siedlik called “happy music for happy people.” At its height, the program aired on more than 30 stations, including a few in California and New York.
In 2000, the Big Joe Polka Show made its television debut on the newly launched RFD-TV cable network, which devotes its programming to agribusiness, equine and rural issues, and traditional entertainment. The dance and variety program garnered strong ratings among RFD-TV’s audience—estimated on its website at 40 million-plus available households—and ran through December 2010.
Today, thanks to digitization, fans of the toe-tapping, cheerful music genre can watch airings of Big Joe Polka Classics on RFD-TV.
Many people believe there was no bigger champion for polka music than “Big Joe,” who passed away in 2015 at age 80.
Joe Siedlik’s son, Mike, agrees. “He wasn’t a musician himself, but he was a great promoter of all kinds of polka music,” he says from his sign shop in Columbus, Nebraska. “He could play the drums a bit, and a cymbal, more or less for a party atmosphere,” he joked. “But he really appreciated the talent those musicians had and was always promoting them.”
Mike says his dad, who grew up around polka music in his ethnic South Omaha neighborhood, began recording polka performances on reel-to-reel. “I’d tag along with him going station to station, pitching his show. He’d buy airtime, with the condition he’d sell the advertising himself. He became well known throughout the state, and was even asked by the governor to put on a polka dance for the Nebraska centennial celebration,” he says proudly.
Big Joe went on to become a regular emcee for polka dances at ethnic festivals and fundraising events throughout the region, as well as founding Polka Days at Ag Park in Columbus, where he and his wife settled to raise their family. He also founded Polka Cassettes of Nebraska (a mail-order music business) and published Polka World (a bimonthly newspaper) for over a decade.
“At 13, I was helping distribute papers and putting labels on eight-tracks. Dad would hire us high school kids to get the job done…He could get the troops fired up to do anything,” Mike remembers.
He is happy to know his father is still entertaining after all these years: “It makes people smile to watch his show and see their relatives, or even themselves and their friends, dancing away, enjoying the music…saying ‘I can’t move like that anymore!’”
Ed “Sonny” Svoboda, coordinator for the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame, also credits Big Joe for his major contribution to polka: “He was quite a promoter, doing radio station promos and fundraising. He put on the first polka festival at Peony Park. Back then, it was a lucrative business and Joe was passionate about it.”
Like Big Joe, Svoboda grew up in South Omaha. “It was a great place to be raised. The area was full of Czech families and businesses. We lived about a half block from Sokol Hall.” Polka music was a fixture in family life and community in South O, says Svoboda, whose own family emigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia.
Svoboda began playing polka music professionally at age 15, and later took over accordion-playing duties for his musician father in the Red Raven Orchestra at age 18. A Red Raven performance at the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Nebraska, aired on the Big Joe Polka Show years ago.
“Joe was a good friend,” he says. “I only have good things to say about him.” Though Big Joe has not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Svoboda adds, “I expect that will happen, as we have a category for nominees that are [deceased]. Though not a musician, he was a real ambassador for polka music.”
The six-piece Red Raven Orchestra continues to perform, playing annual events including Omaha Oktoberfests, Taste of Omaha, and Fort Omaha Car Club. Occasionally, they still play Starlite Ballroom. Svoboda still plays accordion and books all the group’s engagements. “Mostly, though, we do a lot of assisted living facilities. The folks light up like Christmas trees when they hear the music,” he says. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we like to give back.”
He says it makes him sad to see so few young people today taking an interest in polka music. “I think [those in the industry are] doing a better job in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota and places back East,” where polka dances and festivals have bigger youth turnout. “We need to do a better job of promoting here among the younger generation. Families today are just so focused on their kids’ activities. Cultural things are just getting lost.”
Maybe introducing young kids to polka through Big Joe Polka Classics is a start.
Check rfdtv.com/schedule for program dates and times to view digitized footage of the Big Joe Polka Show.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.