March 28, 2014 by billysparrow
I’m not sure where I picked up my copy of Susan Orlean’s “Saturday Night,” a collection of essays about what people do on that night of the week (and when I’m not sure but have a general idea of when I got it, I just go with “somewhere in Ithaca”). The immensely talented Orlean spends time observing a wide variety of people doing a lot of different things in the book, but it was the fifth chapter, “Polka Dancing,” that piqued my interest.
I grew up seeing my fair share of polka dancing, not because of any Polish or German heritage but because of the yearly summer festivals at Hunter Mountain that I went to with my family in the summers of my youth. Nearly every weekend brought a different festival, and when we began renting a house for the entire summer after years of just going up to a resort for a week at the end of July, we went to a bunch of them (German most frequently, because it ran longer than the others). I was mainly interested in going for the pizza and the funnel cake, but eventually the music started seeping its way in, largely via my mother, who was an avid Chicken Dancer who had her own chicken hat.
I am grateful that someone recently began posting old clips from Hunter Mountain so I don’t have to struggle to explain what a packed dance floor doing the Chicken Dance was like.
Anyway, that’s all to say that when I hit the “Polka Dancing” chapter of “Saturday Night,” I was very intrigued. I had seen such dancing at festivals, but I didn’t know that there were actual indoor places where these things happened. And as I read Orlean’s description of the fashions of Cecelia and the rest of the denizens of Blob’s Polka Park in Jessup, MD, I was much more than intrigued. I wanted to go. Immediately.
“[W]hen you drive down the long winding driveway and walk in the door on a Saturday night, it feels as if it’s miles from anyplace else. Some of its regulars observe that Blob’s has this odd effect–once you’ve put on your polka clothes, and driven up Max Blob Road to the hall, you feel transported in some indescribable way. They say that without really thinking about it, they’re in the door, dancing the Silver Slipper to Heinrich and the Rhinelanders, wearing something made maybe even out of Chinese satin, and feeling in the thrall of something remarkable.”
“Immediately” took a little while, mainly because Jessup, MD, isn’t easily accessible for a man reliant on Greyhounds and Amtraks for out-of-state travel. But I do have some friends from in and around the Maryland area (and I should note that they were friends before I even knew where Blob’s was, lest you think I pursued their friendship solely because of their proximity to Jessup), and in 2000 (June, I think), thanks to my friend Abby, I stepped inside of Blob’s Park for the first time. It was a quick trip (we got a late start and got lost on the way), and Abby seemed maybe a bit frightened of both the hall and my desire to go there, but it felt good to be there and to have that Blob’s ticket stub in my possession. Some people want to see the seven wonders; I’m good with a polka dance hall.
I do not dance myself, but you don’t have to be a dancer to enjoy the polka dance floor. The full polka dance floor, with older couples shuffling along, sons gamely trying to keep up with their mothers, and the hotshots making sure everyone sees their moves, is a glorious sight. It’s a scene of constant motion, of joy and unfettered glee, punctuated by trumpet blasts and accordion fills. It is one of those times when you can truly see what music can do to lift a person. Sure, you can see that at a rock show or in a jazz club if you take the time to look for it. But you cannot avoid it in a polka dance hall. It is there, in your face and leaping into your heart. The person who can look at a polka dance floor and feel nothing is a person who does not know the full ecstasy of living.
I found myself in Jessup again about six years after, on a trip with my mother, but I could not convince her to drive down the road where the correctional facility was so we could go to a polka dance hall after she’d spent six hours driving in a car (and here I thought parenthood was about sacrifice and selflessness…I keed, I keed). But a few years after that (which was itself a few years after it looked like Blob’s was closed for good), I gently nudged another friend, Jesse (who had actually briefly worked at Blob’s as part of their Haunted Hayride), in the direction of Blob’s, and I wound up back there with him, his wife, and one of his daughters on a Sunday afternoon. And there was line dancing.
And here’s the only known shot of me on the Blob’s dance floor:
A few months ago, I came upon the news that Blob’s was closing again, and this time it looked like it really was for good, with demolition imminent. So I figured one last trip was in order. I looked at their schedule, saw that Brave Combo was playing, and figured, well, let’s see if my friend Jesse would be into a return visit. He was, and that’s how I finally got to see a pretty packed Blob’s Park on a Friday night. And do the Chicken Dance on the Blob’s Park dance floor. Something to cherish. Please note that is a sarcasm- and irony-free statement.
And after some camera battery issues and a quick dash to the supermarket for reinforcements during intermission (and in between holding my own in a polka-centric discussion with the older couple from Massachusetts at our table), I was able to capture some of my last night at Blob’s on my camera.
I also recorded a little bit of Brave Combo’s version of the “Hokey Pokey,” but this guy got the whole thing, so I’m going with his video.
So, you might be asking yourself, why does the closing of Blob’s Park mean anything at all to me? Well, first of all, let’s give me a hand for being able to intuit what you’re asking yourself. But to address your question, the polka hall is a dying thing. Sure, there are still some scattered across the country, but the number seems destined only to go down, not up. Several of the ones that managed to stay open in the last few decades, like Blob’s and the recently deceased Bayway Polish Home in Elizabeth, NJ, had opened up their doors to non-polka bands and other kinds of dancing in a futile effort to stay afloat (I suppose there may be a larger issue of the decline of public dancing, but I’ll let someone else tackle that one). Also, be careful not to confuse the ironic German beer halls built in cities because people like drinking beer in large mugs with polka dance halls. There will occasionally be bands playing at such places but, at least in my experience, hardly anyone is paying attention to them, and even fewer are actually dancing.
And so the sight of a dance floor filled with couples bouncing and twirling around to a polka or an oberek will gradually fade from view. And I think that’s sad. I’m not sure why I feel that way. I suspect it’s tied to those summers at Hunter Mountain, and feeling like as the polka dance floor goes away, so too goes another piece of my youth. And I fear that polka music, surely one of the happiest of the musical genres, might wind up being relegated to the dustbins of history (or, at the very least, the bins of records at the foot of my bed).
I don’t expect many of my fellow 37-year-olds to feel the same. Or most people under the age of 60 for that matter. That’s OK. But someday, whether you want to admit it or not, you will need a polka. You will need that rhythm. You will need that bounce. And I hope you find it, whether in the speakers of an old record player or a dance hall at the end of a winding road somewhere in America.
But after this weekend, you won’t find it in Jessup, MD. The last polka will be played at some point Sunday night, and then Blob’s Park will be no more. But it was a good run.
So I salute you, Blob’s Park, for your polka service. You fought the good fight. Thanks.
(And thanks to Susan Orlean, Abby, and Jesse, too.)