Carrying on the polka tradition: ‘Polka Celebration’ host Helen Curtin and others bring decades of love for polka to the Valley

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  • Helen Szubzda Curtin of Northampton delves into some of the 300 or so personal CDs she brought with her to play on her weekly show, “Polka Celebration,” broadcast live from the studios of WMUA-FM 91.1 in the Campus Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At right, her husband, Charlie Curtin, compiles a list of the week’s birthday greetings for listeners of the show. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Helen Curtin listens as her husband, Charlie Curtin, as he reads birthday greetings for listeners to her weekly show, “Polka Celebration,” broadcast live from the studios of WMUA-FM 91.1 in the Campus Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Helen Curtin of Northampton announces a dedication on her weekly show, “Polka Celebration,” broadcast live from the studios of WMUA-FM 91.1 in the Campus Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Charlie Curtin reads a list of the week’s birthday greetings for listeners of “Polka Celebration” hosted by his wife, Helen Szubzda Curtin, at WMUA-FM 91.1 in the Campus Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Curtin also answers the phone and takes requests for Helen to play. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Helen Curtin of Northampton plays requests on her weekly show, “Polka Celebration,” broadcast live from the studios of WMUA-FM 91.1 in the Campus Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Helen Curtin of Northampton files one of the 300 or so personal CDs she brought with her to play on her weekly show, “Polka Celebration”, broadcast live. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Charlie Curtin reads a list of the week’s birthday greetings on “Polka Celebration” hosted by his wife, Helen Szubzda Curtin, at WMUA-FM 91.1 in Amherst. Curtin also answers the phone and takes requests for Helen to play. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Curtin’s husband, Charlie Curtin, carts some of her personal collection of CDs back to the car at the conclusion of her weekly show, “Polka Celebration.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hundreds of polka CDS featured during the Polkajammer dance.  Photo by Sarah Crosby

  • Bellini (left) and Zaganiacz (right) Photo by Sarah Crosby

  • The front entrance of the Polish American Citizens Club in Ludlow. Photo by Sarah Crosby

  • Bellini  Photo by Sarah Crosby

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2020 9:14:30 AM

For more than half a century, western Massachusetts has been home to an active polka music scene and there remain stalwart polka lovers turned disc jockeys who for decades have been spinning records, playing everything from local polka tunes to obscure polka songs of yesteryear.

Helen Curtin, a 79-year-old resident of Northampton, has been listening to polka since she was child and her love of the musical genre continued into adulthood as a regular audience member at shows (and later teaching polka dancing). About 35 years ago, she got her start as a polka disc jockey. Now she continues to play polka tunes across the airwaves on the University of Massachusetts’ radio station WMUA 91.1 FM with her Saturday morning show “Polka Celebration” from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

“It’s jolly and it’s spirited, even if you’re having a bad day,” she explained in regards to her love of polka.

Although Curtin jokingly balked at the nickname “Polka Queen” she’s been given by fans of her show, she said she’s grateful to listeners who often call in to make requests. On her show, she features new songs by the polka musicians of today and classic polka tunes.

“I have a section on my program, which I call ‘Collector’s Corner,’ and for 15 to 20 minutes, I’ll give a little history [of classic polka artists and bands],” she explained, adding that she recently spoke about Holyoke native Larry Chesky, a polka band leader on Rex Records who passed away in 2011, and played five or songs of his songs that morning.

But Curtin isn’t the only one keeping polka alive on the airwaves. Billy Belini, a resident of Chicopee in his 70s, and Todd Zaganiacz, a resident of South Deerfield in his 40s, were preparing the stage for a polka dance at the Polish American Citizen’s Club in Ludlow in mid-December, and brought more than 100 CDs of rare polka music to display.

For Zaganiacz, who has a Sunday morning polka show on WHMP from 8 a.m. until noon called “Polka Carousel,” his love of polka was instilled in him by his father, Ed Zaganiacz, who was a clarinetist for the locally-based Eddie Forman Band back in the 1970s through the 1980s. The Eddie Forman Orchestra continues to perform to this day.

Bellini said he got his start as a disc jockey playing polka in the 1970s and also grew up with the music.

“Billy and I are also part of the Polka Jammer Network, an online 24/7, 365 days a year polka network, which started in the early 2000s and it’s a worldwide network … Basically we have a worldwide audience with people all across the United States and in several foreign countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.”

But the polka music scene isn’t what it used to be, Zaganiacz said. At the Ludlow Polish American Citizen’s Club, which hosts polka dances in the fall and winter, he pointed to the large dance hall, saying that in decades past the room would be standing room only with more than 1,000 people. Today, at its peak, hundreds attend dances.

“[Western Massachusetts] is like any other part of the country,” he explained. “It’s not carrying over generationally like it did 20, 30, 40 years ago, but it’s actually still quite vibrant.”

Curtin, who has been going to polka dances since the 1950s, said sometimes she hears from listeners who are worried that live polka shows are on the decline.

“I keep saying this to them, ‘People that used to be there to support you are either in the cemetery or in nursing homes or they’re homebound,’” she explained. “You’ll never have that kind of number because [younger generations] aren’t interested in polkas. The kids aren’t interested. So, we say it is dying.”

Zaganiacz is also a founder of an organization called The Music Zone that archives and restores classic polka records, preserving polka music for future generations.

“Polka music, unlike a lot of the other genres of music such as rock ‘n’ roll, you name it, has never really been preserved,” he noted. “Unfortunately a lot of the master tapes were either destroyed or the artists are no longer with us. We started an organization where we’re actually restoring and digitally remastering recordings that are being released to the public for the first time on CD. Some of these are recordings that are 50 to 60 years old and have never seen anything but a vinyl LP from when it was released.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.




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