WADSWORTH, Ohio – Each Tuesday morning, Gene Kovack walks into the Wadsworth Community Television office carrying a well-worn shoebox filled with 14 videotapes.
The box has been repaired so many times with duct tape that it’s nearly unrecognizable. The white-haired, 83-year-old Kovack can’t even recall what type of shoes it once held.
He hands the box to director Johanna Perrino and makes his way into the small television studio, where he unpacks an accordion and meets 93-year-old Joe Gabrosek, who has already placed his accordion on a table.
Neatly dressed in jackets and ties, they sit behind the table, stare into the main camera and .
“Welcome to Polka Time Again from the studios of WCTV in Wadsworth, Ohio, with Gene and Joe,” Kovach says as he introduces the program.
For the last 23 years, Kovack and Gabrosek, friends since their days dancing with their wives in the early 1970s, have been visiting the studio to share polka videos with an enthusiastic, polka-starved audience.
The senior citizen VJs and polka celebrities recently recorded their 1,200th program, and WCTV touts Polka Time Again: Memories of a Sunday Afternoon as the longest-running public access show in the country, perhaps the world.
The one-hour weekly program is seen in an estimated 1 million households on public access channels in Ohio and North Dakota — not to mention their worldwide fan base thanks to the show being available online at https://my.viebit.com .
“There are very few polka personalities . who have been able to maintain a presence on TV as long as they have,” said Joe Valencic, president of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum in Euclid. “They are important in perpetuating the music and giving it a showcase on television that few have done.”
One day while Kovack was taking accordion lessons with mentor Frank Spetich in the early 1990s, they began talking about the old television show Polka Varieties.
They both missed the program, which showcased local and national polka bands performing in a studio with people dancing.
The show had been broadcast on WEWS in Cleveland for decades before going off the air in 1983.
Kovack decided they should revive the program — or at least something similar. Wadsworth residents are permitted to produce their own television show for free on the city’s community access channel.
So he and Spetich hosted the first Polka Time Again on April 12, 1994. That initial show was 17 minutes long and, unlike Polka Varieties, featured videos as opposed to live performances.
On the second episode, Gabrosek, who also studied the accordion with Spetich, took over as Kovack’s co-host.
They host the show for free.
Kovack and Gabrosek, who both live in Wadsworth, grew up with the sounds of polka in their ethnic families.
Kovack is half Slovenian and half Slovak. Gabrosek is Slovenian.
“The melodies. The songs,” Gabrosek, who still plays the accordion three times a week, said about why he loves the music. “When I was real young my folks would take us to the Slovene Center (in Barberton). The music I grew up with is polka music. It’s in me to like the sound of the nice fast polka and the waltzes.”
The passion is evident during the show.
While the videos play, they chit chat with each other but their eyes are fixed on the monitor in the studio as they watch the bands perform and couples twirl around on the dance floor.
When they recognize someone dancing, they share memories.
Even though Kovack and Gabrosek lug their 23-pound instruments into the studio each week, they never play on the show. The accordions are just props.
Why? Well, they can’t come up with a definitive answer. They just haven’t, instead opting to focus on videos.
Kovack, who’s married to Darlene Kovack and retired from running the shipping department at a local Babcock & Wilcox facility, is the jokester.
“If you want to get my good side, I’ll turn around,” he tells a Beacon Journal photographer who came to the studio to take photos.
During the show, he often tells humorous, embellished stories of growing up in the Mahoning Valley. There’s the one about the fishing buddy who put worms in his mouth to keep them warm. (That’s a joke.) He also states that he exercises religiously — at Easter and Christmas.
Gabrosek, who’s married to Ann Gabrosek and retired from Packaging Corp. of America, plays more of the straight man, sharing reports on local polka happenings. On a recent episode, he talked about a trip to the Slovenian Sausage Festival in Cleveland.
“They crack themselves up,” said Perrino, who started at WCTV in 1992 and has directed the show from the beginning.
As for the videos, Polka Time Again isn’t broadcast in 4K. Or even hi-def. Many videos are dated and feature muted colours recorded on long-ago VCRs. Some show obvious videotape wear and tear — like their audience.
Kovack and Gabrosek lament that polka hasn’t caught on with younger generations. That’s why they slip in the occasional video from Slovenia featuring young, pretty women.
Kovack estimates that he has about 2,000 hours of music. His collection of videotapes is so vast that Polka Time Again rarely shows the same video twice.
Devout fans from as far away as Canada and the Netherlands mail in videos, and polka bands from around the world send in DVDs for the show.
Kovack isn’t up to speed with the new technology and Perrino will copy the DVDs onto videotapes for him.
Before each show, he watches the videotapes at home, cueing each one to the precise second and writing down a song list for Perrino.
The hosts don’t have a favourite video or performer.
“They’re all good,” Kovack said.
The show hasn’t changed much from its early days.
Each program begins with the song Polka Time Again by the Frank Stanger Polka Band.
Kovack and Gabrosek sit in the studio — other than the rare occasion when they broadcast from location. Perrino sits in the control room.
As the hosts chat, she slips a tape into the VCR and waits for them to introduce the video before hitting “play.” As the video ends, she alerts them, “Stand by.”
Kovack and Gabrosek are rock stars . make that polka stars in the industry. Many polka bands have stopped by the studio to perform, including Ron Sluga, Bob Kravos and the Boys in the Band and Moscow Nights.
The hosts have been inducted into the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum as honour roll recipients and this year served as grand marshals for the Blue Tip Parade in Wadsworth.
“They’ve brought so much notoriety to Wadsworth,” Perrino said. “This is a niche. Nobody is doing something like this.”
Kovack and Gabrosek have no plans to call it quits.
“It’s still fun for me,” Gabrosek said.
Perrino jokes that she has a special gift in mind for Kovack if they can make it to 2,000 episodes.
“We’ll get you a new shoebox,” she said.
Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com