The Last Polka

shmengebrothers-2With the seasonal change upon us, harvest festivities are underway.  And as I sit at my laptop, pressured to complete my weekly post, I find it difficult to concentrate.  That’s likely because I’m away at a conference all week, which translates into speakers and workshops during the day, and the local Pubs, restaurants, and in-room frivolity at night.  Tough to accomplish much.

Add to this the fact that I’m in the region of Waterloo Ontario, both a densely populated university town, and high tech corridor (home to Blackberry and other emerging tech giants), the air is electric.

The purpose of my ramblings are not to promote tourism, well not entirely, they are however, an effort to highlight another, incredible aspect of the region.  In fact this week, we will be treated to an early, pre-emptive peek, at a historic annual tradition.

Oktoberfest.  Ontario style.

Yes, the most famous of all Bavarian traditions, right here in good old Ontario Canada. While the original world-class festival takes place in Munich Germany, Waterloo Region has been hosting their own Oktoberfest event since 1969.  Beginning the Friday before Canadian Thanksgiving, the festivities run for 9 beer-fueled days.  Billed as the second largest Oktoberfest festival IN THE WORLD, next to Munich, the event draws an estimated ¾ to 1 million visitors annually.  That’s a lot of beer.

And I just happen to be in town.

Granted I’m a few weeks early, but as part of our conference, we are being treated to a traditional Oktoberfest evening, Bavarian themed dinner, keg-tapping, polka music and German dancers, the works.

How am I supposed to get a Blog post done?

Difficult, but if I keep it short, murky, and semi-inspired, I may pull one off, in between steins.

I visited Munich as a kid, but they had a stubborn rule against serving beer to 12-years olds, so I could not truly appreciate the wonder of Oktoberfest.  To compensate, in my university years I did attend Waterloo’s festival, back in a day I could down a pitcher of Bavarian brew in seconds flat, and I survived the experience.  Wonderful times.

But today, as I stare out my 7th floor window, trying to ignore the repeated texts on my phone asking where I am because my pint is getting warm, I think back to a special year, a year that stands out for me – as far as Oktoberfest goes.  The year was 1984.

Why?

Because in that year, the Master of Ceremonies, the tappers of first keg of Oktoberfest, were none other than – the Shmenge Brothers.

Who?

Yosh and Stan.  Immigrants from the fictitious Eastern European country of ‘Leutonia’, the Shmenge brothers were the guests of honour for Oktoberfest 1984 in Waterloo Ontario.

shmenge_1984_octoberfestAlso known as Eugene Levy and John Candy of SCTV (Second City) fame, the Canadian icons gained notoriety in the 80’s portraying the ethnic Shmenges, culminating with their HBO Special ‘The Last Polka’ a mockumentary documenting their retirement from the Polka business.  If you ever have the opportunity, the Last Polka is a phenomenal comedic accomplishment, transcending both time and lederhosen, to remain a musical classic.  The Shmenge brothers took the virtual Polka world by storm with their ensemble, ‘The Happy Wanderers’ and their weekly television program by the same name.  With Stan (Levy) on the accordion and Yosh (Candy) on the clarinet, their captivating catch lyric “cabbage rolls and coffee,  mm mm, good”, transcended the polka universe and sent them soaring to the top of the polka charts.  Look out Beatles, stand down Elvis, the Happy Wanderers are in the house.

 To say I have an affinity for these guys is like saying I enjoy a cold beer on a hot day.  Unnecessary.  If you’ve followed my online presence at any time, you at some point noticed my avatar was a curious photo of two dudes in ethnic costumes. Stan and Yosh, my inspirations.  In fact, for those keeping score, before Solsbury Hill, ‘Polka, Perogies and Procrastination’ was the name of my site.

cabbage-rolls-and-coffee-tshirt

My creation, currently sold out.

 

 As the son of Eastern European immigrants myself, the Shmenge brother’s passion for culture, their dedication to tradition and affinity for their homeland, was like a mirror looking at me.  Indistinguishable.

I can write a dissertation on their attributes, but the Shmenge legacy requires more. One must see, experience, drink in the passion, to truly appreciate the genius of this comic duo.

This 1 minute clip will crystallize the experience.  Just a taste. Eugene Levy and John Candy’s appearance on the David Letterman show, in 1985.

I count myself blessed in many ways.  As I experience my pre-Oktoberfest gala, traditional keg-tapping, schnitzel and sausage supper, the first polka of the season, I think back to the era of the Happy Wanderers, a time when pride in one’s heritage was at a pinnacle.  Polka and lederhosen, the pulse of a brilliant nation, the legacy of diversity. Oktoberfest – Waterloo style.

Our culture, traditions, our ancestry, define us.  In a world of rampant conformity, taking a step back and acknowledging who we are, where we came from, sets us apart from the masses.  Clothing, tattoos, ear piercings are but a disguise. We must look deeper.

John Candy and Eugene Levy did just that.  Their laughter, vitality, and more importantly their message – that it’s the differences that make us stronger, not the similarities, resound as loudly today, as they did when Joanie loved Chachi. 

In hopes there will never be a Last Polka, and to a bountiful harvest, I raise my glass.

Eins… zwei… drie…

I’m off for my luke warm pint.

Until next time.

 

17 thoughts on “The Last Polka

  1. Thanks for bringing back some distant memories. I was/am a fan of both John Candy and Eugene Levy and our family attended Oktoberfest in Waterloo any times in the late 70’s early 80’s. I have no eastern European roots. We all just loved the music, food and fun.

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    • You won’t be disappointed! I have the original VHS release, but I believe the entire movie is up on Youtube. My brother-in-law used to always comment that the brief scene where Yosh and Stan are playing with their train set in the basement, was filmed a house my brother-in-law owned in Toronto at the time. His claim to fame. Thanks for commenting!

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    • Actually I sat with Americans during our Oktoberfest dinner this past week, and of course I couldn’t help adding my Yosh and Stan trivia to the conversation. Several at the table knew SCTV well, I was a bit surprised myself. I recall vividly watching the first season when it came out, hilarious to this day. Cheers Theresa!

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  2. You have me fangirling, Mike! This was a stupendous post! I am really envious that you are experiencing the Oktoberfest and that you are in Canada but you paid tribute to two of my favorite characters from one of my favorite shows in the 80’s. SCTV and the Schmenges! I remember staying up late at night to watch Dave Thomas, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, et al getting up to some craziness. Who can forget Richard Harris on Mel’s Rockpile? Johnny LaRue’s exercise routine or Guy Caballero? On a more serious note, you made a salient point that resonates in today’s current cultural climate. Why can’t we celebrate our differences? Why can’t we be true to ourselves and who we are on the inside? Maybe we can, someday. Raise a glass for me, friend!

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    • Second City had a huge influence on me growing up, I recall watching the very first season. You’re right, the characters they came up with memorable, and hilarious to this day. I occasionally call someone ‘Sid Dithers’ for no real reason, and most have no idea what or who I’m talking about. Although I love them all, Levy was probably my favourite, and he’s from my home town of Hamilton Ontario! His new show with Catharine Ohara, Schitt’s Creek, is great, just watched most of the second season last night. Thanks again for the kind words Susan!

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      • I started to watch Schitt’s Creek and then got pulled away for whatever reason. I am going to make a point of starting to watch it again. Catherine O’Hara is another favorite of mine. Of course, in addition to Sid, how can we forget Sammy Maudlin, Jackie Rogers, Jr, etc? I have to say one of my favorite skits was the Five Neat Guys. Their greatest hits albums were hysterical. BTW, have you seen some of SCTV’s collaborative efforts with the wonderful Christopher Guest?

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      • 5 Neat Guys are hilarious, I still see Rick Moranis’ goofy smile every time I think of them. Jackie Rodgers, what a character, Martin Short (another one from my home town) is fantastic. My wife briefly met Marty last year when he spoke a conference she attended, she got him to sign his book ‘I Must Say’ for me. Fantastic book. I plan on dedicating an upcoming post to him, he is truly an inspiration. And yes, I own all 3 DVD’s; Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and Waiting for Guffman, all incredible comic masterpieces. Levy’s two left feet are perfect. I could go on an on!

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  3. Loved this. Great memories of German polka music and dancing. I have wanted so much to go to the Octoberfest in Munich. Two things stop me again this year – the expense and the fear of terrorism. Sigh, perhaps one day I can participate in other Octoberfests like in Ontario. The we can meet up and hoist a pint or two.

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    • Yes, I imagine the atmosphere in Germany will be somewhat guarded this year. How unfortunate, but I’m sure the festivities will still be awesome. It was wonderful getting a small slice of Oktoberfest last week. If you get the opportunity, Waterloo’s Oktoberfest will not disappoint.
      I will be in Florida in a couple of weeks, I may just have to hit the German pavilion at EPCOT for a stein or two. Cheers and thanks for commenting!

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