The National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum mourns the passing of Chairman Emeritus and co-founder Tony Petkovsek. Tony brought new life to the Cleveland-Style Polka. Just when polka music seemed played out, young Tony arrived on the scene in 1961 with a daily radio show that revived America’s good-time sound. He inspired new and classic bands to record albums. His polka tours brought attention to Slovenia and took the happy music around the world. Tony’s Thanksgiving polka weekends still attract a thousand fans. His music events and causes made him an important community leader.
Tony grew up on Addison Road in the shadow of Cleveland’s Slovenian National Home. He listened to the polka bands, juke box and radio playing in his father’s tavern, the Birch Bar. Tony was surrounded by music and dreamed of becoming a disc jockey on the radio. When he was fresh out of broadcasting school, Tony was invited by radio host Rudy Menart to join his Slovenian show. FM radio was new and gave more air time for polka and nationality programs. Tony soon went solo with his own polka program and took the lead in revitalizing the Cleveland-Style scene.
He began his show in 1961, playing polka and Slovenian music for two hours a day, six days a week. He was a major promoter of the polka genre. Tony featured classic Cleveland-Style polkas and waltzes by established performers, such as Johnny Vadnal, Johnny Pecon, Eddie Habat, Kenny Bass and Frank Yankovic, America’s Polka King, but he also encouraged young bands and introduced new songs. His shows included album debuts, opinion call-ins, on-location shows, interviews and contests and even recipes with Alice Kuhar and news from Slovenia with Duke Marsic. Tony introduced the new folk sound from Slovenia by groups like the Avsenik Quintet and the Lojze Slak Trio. Beginning in 1963, his Thanksgiving Day dance expanded into one of the country’s largest polka weekend festival.
Nationality pride and low airfares inspired Tony to lead the first polka tour in 1967 with the Richie Vadnal Orchestra. He partnered with Kollander Travel and top polka bands to take the happy sound around the world, from Slovenia, Croatia and Europe, to exotic destinations, such as Hawaii, Australia and China. Thousands were able to rediscover their ethnic roots. Tony also hosted American concert tours of leading bands from Slovenia, such as the Slak Trio.
Tony’s Polka Village opened in 1971 with a radio booth, record shop and a music studio with veteran performer Frank Novak teaching the diatonic accordion during the craze for button box that Tony touched off.
He emerged as an important figure on the nationality scene and in Cleveland civic circles. Tony was also instrumental in creating the Old World Festival, the United Slovenian Society and the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum. In 1991, when Slovenia declared independence, his radio marathons for United Americans for Slovenia, encouraged listeners to phone into the White House to demand U. S. recognition of the fledgling democracy. He was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1991.
His sincerity, his dedication to the polka and nationality communities, and his gift for helping us reconnect with our nationality roots, will be greatly missed by everyone. Tony will lie in state at the Slovenian National Home, 6409 St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, Friday, February 22, from 3:00 to 8:00. The next day, Saturday, February 23, there will be a Mass of Christian Burial at noon at St. Vitus Church, 6019 Lausche Avenue, Cleveland.