“Happy music for happy people.”
That’s how Jennifer Woita, a member of the Starlite Event Center, described polka music and the community of polka-lovers found in Saunders County.
The Starlite Event Center, formerly the Starlite Ballroom, has been home to various polka shows and dances since its founding in the 1960s. Though much has changed in the last half-century, the local community’s love of polka has remained constant.
One local musician who has made a life out of polka music is Mark Vyhlidal, from the Fremont area. Vyhlidal has played with his group, the Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra, since 1974.
Vyhlidal said that a large settlement of Czech people lives south of the Platte River, in addition to the German and Polish settlements that contribute to the love of polka in the county.
“It’s always been sort of a tradition. It’s been a heritage thing,” Vyhlidal said. “These songs have been around for hundreds of years, many of them.”
Vyhilidal said his parents used to take him to polka dances when he was young and he did the same with his children. He said watching the bands play has always been a great release, and it’s something to keep Czech heritage alive.
The Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra’s performances vary between traditional songs and original music written by Vyhlidal, but the central joyous sound of polka is never lost.
“The people like to have a great time. They love to dance,” Vyhlidal said. “You’ll have people that are 80 or 90 years old out there dancing. It’s great exercise for them. I’m not much of a dancer, I’d rather be on the stage.”
Another local musician, Barry Boyce of Yutan, has played polka with the Barry Boyce Band since 1989.
Boyce said his polka band has a party atmosphere which appeals to younger crowds.
“We play a lot of different bars, so we get a lot of the younger ones that come in and they look and go ‘Oh no we got a polka band playing here’” Boyce said. “And then all of a sudden the beat starts going, and their foot starts tapping and they really enjoy themselves. Sometimes it’s beer-induced, too.”
As with most things, this polka community has been impacted by the pandemic.
Boyce said he had 20 gigs canceled between March and May last year, and after that, he stopped counting. Vyhlidal said that for seven or eight months there was very little going on in the form of live music in the area. The two have performed on occasion since the beginning of the pandemic; however, with vaccination rollouts, they are optimistic about playing more soon.
Woita said the event center has been waiting to host more events out of caution for the typically older age group that attends.
Woita said that the Starlite Event Center is hoping to start hosting polka dances again this spring and summer. They have already scheduled a date with Vyhlidal and his orchestra for an “All-Star Polka Show” on July 11th.
“They are a dedicated group,” Woita said. “If there’s a polka dance, they’ll come from quite a ways away to go.”