Vrazel Bros. retirement
- I pulled this article from the LexisNexis Academic, but it's from the Houston Chronicle of 28 Dec 2008.
The last oom-pah;
After 55 years of making people happy with their Tex-Czech polka, the Vrazel brothers have decided to retire from the stage
BYLINE: TARA DOOLEY, Staff
SECTION: STAR; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 1399 words
WEST - On the kind of gray November Sunday afternoon perfect for couch-side football, polka patrons by the hundreds arrived to take in one of the final performances of the Vrazels' Polka Band. They made their way into a white metal building nestled into the open fields that separated the interstate and the railroad tracks just outside this central Texas town.
Inside the door, a couple collected $8 and dispensed tickets that doubled as raffle numbers. Once in the hall, guests collected a beer or a Coke before taking a seat with the generations of friends and family gathered at long tables encircling the dance floor.
Some fans dressed in pressed jeans and snap-button shirts. Others wore dirndl-like skirts with patterns in red, white or blue - the colors of the United States and the Czech Republic. There were cowboy hats and John Deere caps, boots and heels.
By the stage at the front of the room, band leader Alfred Vrazel chatted with the friends and family. Drummer Thomas Strmiska checked equipment and David Trojacek warmed up his saxophone. Anton Vrazel took to his stool in his green Alpine hat with his accordion.
Chatter and little white lights illuminated the nearly windowless hall. The dance floor was empty.
At 2 p.m. on the nose, Alfred Vrazel launched the band into its first number:
"Let's have a party, party tonight," he sang. "We'll play the music for your delight. Roll out the barrel. Spread out the cheer. We'll play a polka for everybody here."
Before the first notes could reverberate across the room, champion polka dancers Gwen and Lee Roy Petersen hit the floor, sweeping nearly once around before Alfred sang his way to the refrain and the floor could snap into action with the hopping dance steps of hundreds.
The Vrazels' Polka Band played. The people danced. It's the simple version of the band's 55 years of polka success, said Alfred's 81-year-old big brother, Anton.
"It's happy music for happy people," he said.
Making fans happy with music is a formula the Vrazels have mastered as they joined with friends performing polka music with inflections of their Czech heritage. With Anton, 81, on accordion and Alfred, 68, in the role of band leader, the music has taken them and their six-member band to dance halls, folk festivals and country stores throughout much of Texas.
After 51/2 decades of tending farm and ranch land in the Buckholts area by day and playing polka dances when the work was done, the Vrazels have decided that it is time for their polkas to end.
A dance in Elgin on New Year's Eve is the band's final regularly scheduled performance. In January they will play a retirement dance and party at the convention hall in Temple.
"It took a lifetime to get to where we are at," said Alfred Vrazel. "It was a very hard decision. We spent many sleepless nights and prayed over it before we made the decision."
The decision means decades of fans - most of whom consider themselves friends - will tune in to the younger groups playing polkas for a dancing crowd. It also will leave the state bereft of polka pioneers of a music that Alfred Vrazel calls Tex-Czech Polka.
"They are the first generation of that sound," Pat Jasper, the former founding director of Texas Folk Life Resources. "And that is the sound that has taken over. The first generation of that sound will really depart the stage when they retire."
The sound they helped pioneer is a Lone Star state original, crafted out of the Vrazel family's Moravian roots mixed with the country of Texas.
Indeed, heritage is an important ingredient of successful music-making, according to Alfred Vrazel. Or as he puts it: "The main thing is be yourself and do your own thing, and never forget where you came from."
Vrazel's father, Lawrence, came from Moravia in 1903 into Czech-speaking Texas. Lawrence Vrazel farmed about 150 acres that he purchased for $60 an acre. His four sons pitched in even as young children. A photograph in Alfred Vrazel's music room testifies to the youth of the barefoot boy farmers.
From their father's 150 acres, the family of four brothers worked about 1,500 acres at the height of their business. Now it's down to about 1,000 and only two Vrazel brothers, Alfred and Albert, remain in the partnership.
"We were poor, let me tell you," Vrazel said. "None of us wore shoes on the farm back in them days. You just wore shoes going to church on Sunday."
Alfred Vrazel was the first in the family to take up music in about 1952, he said. His daddy ordered him a $32 button accordion from Sears. He taught himself to play by listening to the radio, 78 rpm records and local bands. When Anton Vrazel taught himself to play the accordion, Alfred added saxophone and guitar.
Alfred Vrazel's performing career began at a celebration for a neighborhood farmer who had just completed a new wood-frame home.
"Later we played the small stores around," he added. "There used to be a lot of stores in the country, little grocery stores, and they had a little beer garden in each one of them. We would play there for entertainment, no compensation."
As Vrazels developed into a band of six, Alfred took on duties as the band leader, and both brothers worked at booking jobs - after they farmed fields of cotton, corn, hay and wheat and ranched cattle.
Laddie Barcak first encountered the Vrazels at Bill Mraz Dance Hall in Houston's Garden Oaks neighborhood, a legendary gathering spot of polka lovers until fire destroyed the hall in 2004. Barcak had come to Houston at age 18 from Flatonia. Farm life was not for him, he said.
Though there were many memorable Vrazels concerts, one of the highlights for Barcak was a show in East Bernard that featured the reigning kings of the polka scene in 1967: The Joe Patek Orchestra, Lee Roy Matocha and the Vrazels.
"They were called the Big Three," Barcak said. "The hall was jammed wall to wall to the rafters. Everybody was there."
The Vrazels remain true to the polka tradition, keeping dancers on their feet by playing crowd favorites. But back in the 1950s, they made a few maverick moves. They dropped the tuba from the lineup, adding bass guitar and mixing in some honky-tonk sounds of the country music popular with a younger audience, Alfred Vrazel said. The move altered a music anchored in brass instruments.
"They really brought about some modern innovation with the instrumentation and their arrangements and their drummer," said Carl Finch of the Grammy award-winning alt-polka band, Brave Combo.
At first the Vrazels encountered resistance from clubs owners, Alfred Vrazel said.
"But the audience changed their minds," he said. "People started coming. They like what they heard."
Bands such as Brave Combo continued to tweak the tradition. Even more authentic Czech bands such as The Dujka Brothers Band have added polkas to the canon with Texas flair including numbers such as Pivo and Kolaches, Cerveza and Tamales.
Since the Vrazels announced their retirement in April, a core of Houston-area friends, including Laddie Barcak and his wife, Mary Ann, have traveled to the final shows to cheer the band from in front of the stage in the white and blue Vrazel band T-shirts.
Barcak figures the music isn't going anywhere. Polka radio shows will always play the Vrazels. And Barcak has all the band's recordings.
"I don't like to see it, but I'm happy for them," said Laddie Barcak, 66. "I guess we're greedy. We always want them there."
Anton Vrazel, 81, plans to make more time for family. He figures he missed a number of weddings and family reunions over the years. Once he exits the concert stage, he plans to join in on the festive occasions.
Otherwise, he plans to keep himself occupied with his cattle business and restoring old tractors, he said.
Alfred Vrazel, 68, plans to keep up with polka by continuing with Alfred Vrazel's Polka Show on the radio in Cameron. But he and Bernice are going to wait until after the Jan. 24 retirement dance before they decide what to do with their free time.
Some of it might be spent organizing Alfred's stacked music room, cataloging the recordings, photos, programs and other items collected over 55 years in the polka business.
They may even take in a few polkas from the dance floor.
"I'm going to have to learn how to act," Alfred Vrazel said.
"I've never been through the front door of a dance hall, I don't think. I've always come through the rear. I'll have to get my wallet out and buy us a ticket."
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