Helgets, Flor, among World Concertina HOF inductees
NEW ULM - Concertina music seized the day and night as local musicians Leon and Johnny Helget, LeRoy Flor and five others came from as far away as Buffalo, New York to accept induction into the World Concertina Hall of Fame at the Best Western Plus in New Ulm Saturday night.
Besides the local trio, Ron Urbanczyk, Richard Drongoski, Craig Ebel, and the late Dale Pexa and Wenzel Fischer joined the elite concertina group.
Hundreds of concertina music fans attended the event, listening to honorees perform on stage, shaking hands with them and telling some of their favorite polka music stories.
Born on the north side of New Ulm, Johnny Helget began playing a button accordion at age 8. He played at bars and wedding receptions in his teens including a gig at Shorty’s Bar on North Minnesota Street in New Ulm, the night before Polka Days.
“My mother Mary taught me to play. She played the organ and button accordion,” Helget said. “When I was 13, my dad John bought me a double-reed concertina. He said if I learned to play it, he’d buy me a better one, which he did, a triple-reed, Pearl King for $160.”
He fondly recalled Polka Days in New Ulm more than 50 years ago.
“It went all night. It was quite something,” Helget said.
He traveled far and wide to play polka music. The list includes much of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Deadwood, S.D., as far away as Fort Ord, California, a former U.S. Army post on Monterey Bay of the Pacific Ocean coast. At Fort Ord, Helget wrote the “New California Polka” while performing with a Mexican musician.
“There were a lot of fun times, but a lot of hard work too,” Helget said. “My wife LaVonne deserves this award more than I do. She did all the van driving and made meals for the bands.”
Johnny Helget worked at the New Ulm Country Club for 57 years.
Leon Helget, Johnny Helget’s first cousin, was born on a farm south of the Stark ballpark where he tended cows, pigs and harvested corn, beans, and alfalfa. Now he lives next to the ballpark.
“My dad Art Senior played a concertina with Clem Helget and my uncle Frank Rothmeier,” Leon Helget said.
“My uncle Henry called it a duck, a flowing style of playing, with my hands flowing over the keys like duck’s feet,” Leon said about his style of playing the concertina.
One of his first gigs was playing at a big wedding reception in a large hall above the Sleepy Eye Police Department.
Another favorite memory of Helget was playing in DeSmet, S.D. “People really came out to see us. They were nuts for old time music because there wasn’t much of it out there.”
Leon’s favorite description of a polka musician is a man with $5,000 worth of equipment in a van who drives 100 miles to make $50.
In his 80′s and still playing his unique style weekly as assisted living and nursing homes, LeRoy Flor performed with many local bands including Babe Wagner, the Six Fat Dutchmen and others. Always willing to play music for people because it made him feel good to know it was pleasing others, Flor has been playing for more than 65 years.
Flor’s daughter, Marie Geschwind said her earliest memories of her dad were of his playing and singing “You Are My Sunshine” even if he had a long day of farm work.
Urbanczyk traveled to New Ulm from Buffalo, New York with his trumpet player. His latest band, “New Direction” performs “Chicago honky” style with a bass guitar, trumpet, concertina, clarinet and drums.
Perhaps the most versatile musician to be honored was Ebel. Growing up in a musical family, he played drums for four decades with styles of polka, rock, Big Band and country. Learning to play the Chemnitzer concertina in 1982, Ebel recorded an album playing the concertina, drums, piano and accordion. He has dedicated his life to promoting polka music.
In 2003, Ebel started DyVersaCo, a Minneapolis-based polka variety band that plays a wide variety of music including polkas, waltzes, schottisches, country and Cajun. The 6-member band includes a trumpet, saxophone and electric guitar.
Pexa was a band leader on public stages for 51 years, plus 22 years on radio and television. He helped establish “The Czech Area Concertina Club,” furnishing it concertina and horn music. He helped create the New Prague High School Band, performed at the 2012 Minnesota State Fair and promoted a number of young musicians.
Born in Germany, Fischer taught himself to play the concertina. Coming to America with his family in 1901, he performed in dance bands, sold concertinas, gave lessons and farmed. A member of the “Slim” Kalz Band, his music was hand-written.