Poster Chmielewski Funtime Band
Chmielewski Funtime Band in 2017.
Minnesota's World Stage

Chmielewski Funtime Band still going strong after 137 years

The family that plays together — well in this case, it just keeps on playing and playing and playing together. As in 137 years and still positively counting.

Now including its fifth generation of a Polish-American family, the Chmielewski Funtime Band ranges in age from nonagenarian Florian to college student Kati and tours relentlessly, putting on 150-plus concerts annually across the country and on the high seas.

The repertoire is dominated by a genre that Florian calls "happy music": polka.

"We tell people we can convert any song into a polka," said band leader Patty Chmielewski, citing the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." "But we'll do waltzes and older country [music] like Jim Reeves for older audiences, and if there are kids, we'll do 'The Hokey-Pokey.' And we've always gotta throw 'The Chicken Dance' in there."

The usual lineup includes Florian on accordion, daughter Patty on saxophone and her son Nick on accordion, concertina, drums and trumpet. Kati sings and plays drums when she can join the group while studying ("sometimes I'll skip classes," she said, chuckling) at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The band's most recent Minnesota gig was on New Year's Eve at the Cloquet VFW, where Florian performs on his own the first and third Wednesday of every month. He also pops up, accordion in tow, at assisted-living centers almost every day. Small wonder, then, that Patty calls her dad "the Energizer bunny."

"He doesn't stop," she said.

It has ever been thus. Following in the footsteps of grandfather Frank, who played fiddle beginning in 1882, and his fiddle-playing sons Nick, John and Tony (Florian's dad), the Sturgeon Lake, Minn., native launched his musical career in 1945 playing accordion at a local wedding dance. He then recruited brothers Leonard, Jerry, Chester and Donny to form the Chmielewski Brothers Orchestra.

Chmielewski Funtime Band
Florian was inducted into the International Polka Association in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2015.

After a stint in the Air Force, Florian moved into television, producing The Polish TV Party on Duluth's WDSM. Its successor, The Chmielewski Funtime Television Show aired in syndication for 35 years beginning in the early 1970s, garnering more viewers than All in the Family and the NFL in Minnesota markets. KQDS-TV in Duluth is updating more than 1,500 of those shows with plans (but no specific date) to air them.

Florian also launched the Chmielewski International Polkafest in 1978 in Pine City, and it's still going strong despite an inauspicious debut off-stage. Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, who stood 6-foot-4, "bent over to get a torch from a 5-foot-2 fellow and it fell on his suit," Chmielewski recounted. "The flames went all the way down to his shoes. "A few days later, he asked me to meet him, and I showed up and he was smiling. He said, 'After that [incident], 11 attorneys called me, and since you're such a good friend I told 10 of them to get lost.' A couple of weeks after that, his wife called and said, 'Thank you. I hated that suit.'"

Over the years, the Funtime Band recorded 40 albums and toured the world; one of Florian's proudest moments: "teaching people in the Bahamas how to polka."

In the late 1980s, the Funtime Band won nine "Minnies" at the Minnesota Music Academy Awards over a three-year period. Florian was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and the International Polka Hall of Fame in 2015. His story unfolds in the book 0 to 90: From Farm Boy to Fly Boy. From Senator to King of Polka. In 90 Quick Years.

For this man and his clan, all the world's a stage. He's equally comfortable playing before a handful of senior citizens and at bigger events like a boat ride down the Mississippi or a party for Control Data in Prior Lake.

Oh, and he had a far-from-mundane "day job" during 26 of those years: serving in the Minnesota Senate.

Florian was also a dairy farmer, and that played a part in Patty's embracing the family tradition.

"I fought this tooth and nail all along," she said. "I wanted to be a mom. People ask, 'How in the world did your dad get all y'all to play?' Well, we had a dairy farm, so when we came of age, it was 'milk cows or play an instrument.' So we didn't milk cows."

This prompted quite the transformation.

Chmielewski Funtime Band
Patty and Kati Chmielewski.

Then: "I was shy till I was 20-something years old," she said. "Being the youngest I never got a word in edge-wise."

Now: "I'm kind of that bombshell. I get everyone involved, stand on tables. I tell people that now I'm making up for lost time. Dad and I banter back and forth. I'll ask, 'What's your favorite rock group?' and Dad will say, 'Oh, it's in South Dakota. It's called Mount Rushmore.'"

Rolling out the barrel at an earlier age, the next generation didn't need the threat of cow-milking to hop on board this band's wagon.

"I recorded my first CD when I was 3," Kati said. "I spent a lot of early birthdays on the stage."

She learned early on about the loyalty of Funtime Band fans.

"People come up to the stage and say, 'I was on your TV show; I danced on it.' And at the State Fair last year, a lot of people said they came just for us."

Kati's favorite gigs, though, just might be at nursing homes.

"We always play the classics because it really brightens their day to sing along," she said. "One of my favorite things is to bring so much joy to the people who don't get out much."

Recently, though, she was surprised by encounters with much younger sorts, while working at Grandma's in Duluth's Canal Park.

"It was kinda crazy. I'm just walking by a table and the people said 'Chmielewski Funtime,' and I went, 'Wait, that's my family,'" she said. On another occasion, "A diner stopped me and said 'you might be the only person on campus with a Chmielewski T-shirt,' and he was awe-struck.

"The band has shaped me so much as a person. I find comfort being on stage. Performance is kind of my favorite thing to do. I'm gonna do it as long as I can."

That's a sure indication that for the Chmielewskis, it's 137 years down and maybe even more to go.

Upcoming Event:

Saturday, Jan. 25, 6 p.m.: Lindstrom City Hall (13292 Sylvan Ave.)

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