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August 1, 2021IM -
In lockdown, during the pandemic, the esteemed accordionist Walter Ostanek of Local 298 (Niagara, ON) had to cancel all of his live shows. He says, “It’s been kind of quiet,” but he’s quick to add, “Once it opens up, I’ll be working; I’ll be getting back to music.”
Never mention retirement to the 86-year-old, who likes to say, “I’m not over the hill—yet!” He is planning Oktoberfest gigs in Western Canada and the largest, of course, the nine-day Kitchener-Waterloo festival in Ontario, still slated for this fall.
Born in Duparquet, Quebec, of Yugoslavian parents, Ostanek mastered the piano accordion by age 12. At 16, he formed a band and joined the union. Seventy years and more than 80 polka albums later—plus three Grammys, a star on its Walk of Fame, and a Member of the Order of Canada—he is Canada’s reigning polka king.
The style of polka that Ostanek has become famous for came by way of Cleveland. He had long been a fan of Frankie Yankovic, America’s polka king and master of Slovenian-Cleveland style polka. When he was young, his father took him to Cleveland, the heart of polka country, where he soaked it all in. “I was in awe of the music there. I got a cab to different festivals and watched all the music I could on TV.” He says, “I was like a kid in a toy store.”
Once relegated to Octoberfests and union halls, polka gained wider appeal in the postwar era, becoming popular with dance bands. Unlike brass-heavy traditional polka, Cleveland polka has a lively beat, with banjo, bass, and drums, the occasional sax, and the accordion up front. Like big band music, it appealed to Ostanek.
At 18, he joined Abbie Andrews and the Canadian Ranch Boys, and quickly became a cornerstone of their three-times-a-week radio broadcasts. In 1957, he formed his own country-themed polka band, adding traditional rhythms and old-time dance beats. Once he began recording in 1963, his career took off.
By the late 1960s, Ostanek had become a polka phenomenon in Canada. He went on to host the variety show Polka Time for 24 years. His long-running radio and TV programs included old-time fiddle, folk, and Irish music, and a Newfoundland music show called Music of the Maritimes.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in between a string of recordings, he toured Italy, Austria, Slovenia, and Holland—and has made five tours to Hawaii. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, namely, The Tommy Hunter Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It was an especially productive period for Ostanek who earned several awards and gold records. He and Yankovic, whom he met in 1950, often performed and toured together until 1995, just before Yankovic retired.
Brian Sklar, president of Local 446 (Regina, SK) united the two polka kings for one last tour, with a film crew, which resulted in Frankie and Walter: One More Time. The show, which won numerous awards, was Yankovic’s last project.
Ostanek’s career has taken him from the dance halls to the Grand Ole Opry, where he has played with country artists Ricky Skaggs, Roy Clark, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ronnie Milsap, and Ray Price, to name a few. Laughing, he says, “I’ve met Taylor Swift.” He’s even adapted pop tunes to a polka rhythm.
You can’t play polka and not enjoy people. And from the stage, the ebullient Ostanek radiates cheer. His energy is only matched by the music’s buoyant tempo. He engages easily with audiences, says Local 298 President Steve Kostyk, who was mentored by Ostanek. “Regardless of how he feels at the moment, on the initial downbeat, it’s always a performance delivered with a smile.” He adds, “He’s in his element, whether he’s playing polka, Latin, country, or jazz standards.”
Every year in Western Canada, Ostanek performs with Sklar’s band, the Western Senators. Sklar says, “People line up long before the event is scheduled to start and buy anything with Walter’s name on it. To people under six and over 60, he is a superstar. That’s because there are no unhappy polkas!”
In 2016, Ostanek added another win to his list of awards, claiming the $1 million grand prize in the London, Ontario, Dream Lottery. He felt rich already, he says—with three Grammys and the Order of Canada under his belt—but the windfall came when he needed it most, when his wife required long-term care in a nursing home.
Sklar, whose band has recorded 12 albums and 92 PolkaRama TV shows with Ostanek says, “I hope we get to celebrate his 100th birthday at Danceland in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan, where we perform with Walter every Remembrance Day weekend.”
Right now, Ostanek says he’s content to sit back and wait for the shows to begin. Over the last year, he’s had a chance to enjoy the music he’s made for more than 60 years. He says, “I’m in my ‘man cave’ here at home and I’ve got videos of music I’ve never had a chance to watch. As a busy musician, sometimes, you didn’t have time to sleep.”
On reflection, he says, “It’s been a wonderful career, a great life—but I’m not retired yet. I’ve been all over the world, but you don’t stop dreaming.” Jokingly, he says, “I haven’t picked up my accordion in a while. I might be getting rusty. I have to get back to music.”
In addition to 21 Grammy nominations (and three Grammy Awards), Ostanek has netted awards for song of the year, album of the year, and musician of the year from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, as well as more than a dozen band-of-the-year honors from Kitchener’s world-renowned Oktoberfest.
Other inductions and awards include: