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'Polka-holics' out in force for Polka Fest

Couples dance to the music of the Chmielewski Funtime Band during the 35th Annual International Polka Fest held at Black Bear Casino Friday. Bob King/rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Myles Pacyna, 4, (front left) and his cousin Ethan Chmielewski, 6, play along with the Chmielewski Funtime Band alongside with Floria Chmielewski Jr. (left) and Nick Chmielewski during Polkafest Friday. Ethan is the great-grandson of Florian Chmielewski Sr.2 / 3
Friends Tom Wilk and Theresa Bogacki, both of Duluth, dance together during the 35th Annual International Polka Fest at Black Bear Friday.3 / 3

Sorry, Disney. Abigail Mohs has found an idol outside of your pop stars and pretty princesses.

The 5-year-old in the front row at polka fest wore an orange shirt bearing the likeness of Mollie B, star of "Polka Party" on RFD-TV (that's Channel 138 on Charter cable).

The shirt had the polka star's fresh autograph on the left shoulder. Abigail also had a signed photograph beneath her chair.

"She plays on stage and I watch her," said Mohs, who is from Belgrade, Minn. "She's good to dance to."

Mollie B, an Ohio-based multi-instrumentalist, was one of more than a dozen acts featured during last weekend's 35th annual International Polka Fest at Black Bear Casino Resort. The event, organized by the Chmielewski Funtime Band, ran from late Friday morning through Sunday evening.

Abigail was among the youngest of about 400 people at the event by early afternoon on opening day. Her polka fandom might be genetic.

Mollie B, who has been part of the Jim Busta Band, Karl and the Country Dutchmen and Squeezebox, wasn't the only celebrity in the Otter Creek Event Center.

The Dancing Zubaz, also known as The Suspender People, or maybe just Sharon and Ron Meyer, have been attending polka fest since 1988 ("hardcore," according to Sharon Meyer). They also are involved with the Twin Cities-based cable access dance program "Polka Spotlight."

"We always dress alike," Sharon Meyer said.

On Friday they wore matching striped Zubaz pants with suspenders and black and white saddle shoes. The longtime dance duo -- they met more than 50 years ago while roller skate dancing -- are recognizable by the more than 30 coordinating outfits they own.

"What's neat," Ron Meyer said. "We can show up anywhere in the Midwest and know someone."

They're drawn to polka fest by the people and the dancing, they said.

"The dance world is filled with pleasant people," Ron Meyer said.

Theresa Bogacki, 83, was dressed in a lace and pearl vintage dress and was taking spins on the dance floor with her friend Tom Wilk.

"I grew up with this music," she said. "You don't need drugs or medicine when you have this kind of music."

They go dancing once a week and always dress in old-style clothes. Polka fest is one of a number of stops on the dancers' list.

"The Chmielewskis are our favorite," Bogacki said.

The host band played early on Friday and had additional slots on Saturday and Sunday. The Chmielewskis claim more than 100 years as a family band. These days 20-year-old Nick Chmielewski, a fifth-generation Chmielewski, is part of the lineup. He plays drums, accordion, concertina and trumpet.

His repertoire isn't as advanced as his elders', he said.

"It's tough to follow the legacy," he said. "It's great to finally be a part of it and maybe take over the band someday."

Chmielewski said he's been playing on stage with his grandfather Florian Chmielewski since he was 5 years old. According to family lore, Chmielewski children could either learn to play an instrument or learn to milk the cows.

Florian Chmielewski greeted visitors, including Bob Trottier, who travels with his wife from Massachusetts for the festival every year.

"This is accordion country," Trottier said. "Out east is too many horns. ... I'm a polka-holic."

Chmielewski said after 35 years, it isn't too hard to put the event together.

He said he can tell if the event is a success.

"People react and are happy," he said. "If they're having a good time."