Tag Archives: Big Joe Polka Show

Guest-Starring at Omaha’s First Drive-In

May 16, 2018 by
Photography by Durham Museum
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

In the summer of 1972, I discovered the power of a flashlight with an orange wand.

Nobody had ever paid attention to me—an undersized 16-year-old—until I worked at the 76th & West Dodge Drive-In and accepted that mighty Eveready-powered scepter. Cars went where I pointed. Sneak-ins crawling out of trunks trembled in the beam and then marched to the box office to buy tickets. The wallop of authority was mine, at $1.35 per hour, ushering at Omaha’s first drive-in theater.

The manager, Gil, and assistant, Sam (fresh from the Navy in San Diego and owner of a new Nova), ran the joint. It had opened in 1948. That was 15 years after the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. The enticement for Omahans (as a local newspaper ad claimed) was privacy and comfort. “Smoke, talk, take refreshments, all without disturbing others!” Adults paid 60 cents, kiddos were free, and no need to rub against all those germy people in a proper theater. Other drive-ins would follow: the Sky View near 72nd Street and Military Avenue, the Golden Spike at 114th Street and West Dodge Road, and the Q Twin at 108th and Q streets.

Besides the glory of receiving my first paychecks, it was a summer of warm nights and hot snack-bar girls. I was smitten with the shy blonde from Papillion. As I remember, she was the projectionist’s daughter. He toiled with those reels as a second job, getting by on little sleep. The box office ladies were earning a little extra for their families, too. The brunette who completed the snack bar staff returned with her boyfriend on a night off, and their Pinto hatchback with wide rear glass let them display their passions.

I reported for work at 6 p.m. Right away one evening, still new at the job, I was asked to replace the bulb in one of the tower flood lamps. The screen tower had its own self-supporting internal structure and was enclosed, providing shelter for the many pigeons that roosted inside, coming and going through an unknown opening. Carrying a large new bulb during the long climb up the internal ladder, I emerged through a hatch onto the narrow roof and had the unprecedented experience of being untethered and confident above the city. When a couple of early-arriving patrons honked in acknowledgment, it was my first starring role.

Catching sneak-ins before showtime was important and returned several times my hourly pay. Obscured by a tree limb, I sat waiting atop the back fence. Cars drove right up to that point; the driver got out and opened the trunk; and one, two, or three people climbed out. Before they could even take a step, I vaulted off the fence, shook my scepter, and exclaimed, “You’re gonna have to pay!” Seeing grown-ups quiver was gratifying. One Carter Lake motorcycle gang-type wasn’t impressed, though. He snatched away my scepter and chucked it, the beam rotating on its own axis, clear to the snack bar’s roof. Then he walked through the theater and got into a car four rows from the front, near the lot’s exit. Gil called the cops, but the subjects drove away too soon.

One night my friend John Fulmer was visiting to see how I ruled over the place. After dark, we got some action when two kids came flying over the east fence. I chased them back over, and with no firm plan in mind, pursued full speed beyond the property into an open field until one of the pursued turned midstride and delivered a shot of pepper spray. For some reason, before fumbling them, I’d been holding onto the keys to John’s blue Malibu. I made it back to the snack bar, where sympathetic Gil oversaw my eye-washing. Meanwhile, John put on his X-ray specs and found the keys.

The B-movies shown that summer were instructive. Reflecting Sartre’s ill effect on cinema, Vanishing Point gave us existential hero Kowalski in a cross-country chase movie. Star actor Barry Newman was a second-rate Steve McQueen, but the Dodge Challenger excelled in its role. And making for an even better movie, a naked hippie girl rode a Honda! The chase ended when Kowalski crashed the Challenger into a Nevada roadblock, and the audience understood that life is meaningless. The plot creaked like the screen tower’s structure in the wind. No matter, though, the movie achieved masterpiece status by holding over a second big week. Popcorn sales kept the snack-bar girls humming.

At my hiring, no one had mentioned cleanup duties. After getting home around 2 a.m. on weekend triple-feature nights, I was expected back at 8 a.m. to poke around with a steel spike on a long shaft and fill trash bags. Patrons left everything on the ground but their acne. Besides snack bar purchases, they dumped ashtrays, beer cans, diapers, and to limit future diapers, family planning measures.

Old South Omaha Joe, the wizened authority of theater cleanup, soloed on weekdays. Come the weekend, three of us split up the lot. In his 70s—I couldn’t believe such a fossil could still work—Joe and his spiked-stick covered about three or four times my territory. Sunday mornings were the worst, and the closer to noon, the more putrid it all was.

When we took a fresh-air break inside the snack bar, indefatigable Joe capered around to the tunes of the Big Joe Polka Show.

Changing the marquee was a Thursday-night ritual. Our big sign sat on a steel structure near the street. Two of us climbed up with boxes of plastic letters that snapped into metal tracks, and we concentrated on our spelling despite the din of honking horns.

Besides Vanishing Point, Omahans had a taste for material that derived from another French writer, de Sade. In their service came my introduction to porn. Women-in-prison films—“Soft young girls behind hard prison bars”—were nearly mainstream in those days. I thought about reminding Gil that I wasn’t old enough to see R-rated movies, then got a grip and entered the sordid world of Roger Corman, starring Pam Grier. My parents had no idea!

Gil and Sam had been awfully nice, so I felt bad about putting down my scepter and going back to school. The lessons from that summer—handling large mowers, directing traffic, kicking ass, and not being a glutton for free popcorn—stayed with me. I can say that I never misused my authority, getting too bossy or smart when marching detainees to the box office or pranking patrons by faking police sirens in their moment of ecstasy. 

The 76th & West Dodge Drive-In closed in 1983, and retail space occupied the site. Until the other day, I thought drive-in theaters were passé. Then Elon Musk said he wants one at a Tesla charging location in Los Angeles. The outdoor screen would display “a highlight reel of the best scenes in movie history,” Musk tweeted. I presume that among them we would not find any from Women in Cages.

But Musk should think hard about the likelihood of Tesla owners being the only people on earth who don’t litter. Just wait. They’ll open their gull-wing doors and throw out herbal tea bags and energy bar wrappers like other humans. And another point: providential managers like Gil and Sam, hot snack-bar girls like the Papio Blonde, and a quick man with a stick like South Omaha Joe are hard to find. An usher with some attitude is good to have around, too. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Remember the Big Joe Polka Show?!

March 1, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

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.

Polka & Other Highlights

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

As always, 60Plus includes many good reads.

A personal favorite of mine in this edition is the story on polka in Omaha. Many in Omaha will remember “Big Joe” Siedlik and his Big Joe Polka Show, which started on the radio and transitioned to TV.

Music like polka never goes out of style. My husband and I used to love to polka dance; in fact, we met because I took dance classes from him. He held large ballroom classes in Bell’s Hall in Papillion. I paid for the first three classes out of 12. Eventually, I taught dance with him—we taught a giant class at Offutt Air Force Base and smaller classes in private homes. We taught polka, rock and swing, foxtrot, waltz, tango, and cha-cha. We spent many evenings with friends dancing at The Peony Park Ballroom and The Music Box. I still run into people who were in our classes. It was great exercise—I should get back to dancing.

Also in this issue, we feature artist Alicia Sancho Scherich, who lives in Bellevue and was once a pen pal of Mother Teresa. She created a mural titled “World Peace,” which was on display at Creighton Lied Art Gallery in 2017.

Then there’s geologist Allan Jeanneret and his wife, artist Tammy, who have turned their hobby into a business.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nancy Waltman and Dr. Laura Bilek share their ongoing research of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Bone health is more important than many realize.

Finally, in this edition’s Active Living article, we have the story of a group fighting Parkinson’s with rock music and boxing at Life Care Center in Elkhorn. Rock Steady Boxing is a national program utilizing the kind of fitness regimen boxers go through—helping their balance and walking.

Gwen and Ray Lemke, Peony Park 1955

This letter was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.