By Gary E. McKee
When you want to create an event to promote polka, who ya gonna call?
Musician, arranger, bandleader, vocalist, national festival director, international polka hall of fame
trustee, and radio disc jockey, Danny Zapletal of Ennis, Texas knows the polka world. One of his favorite ways to promote the music is on the KBEC Polka Party show, from 9-11 am, on 1390 KBEC out of Waxahachie and online at kbec.com. It’s a job he inherited from legendary polka DJ
Johnnie I. Kracja, who was recently honored by the Texas Czech Heritage & Cultural Center (TPN December 2016).
“It was a tremendous honor to be chosen by KBEC to follow in Johnnie I.’s footsteps,” DZ said. “Those are very big shoes to try and fill. Johnnie dedicated over 48 years to being at the station every Sunday to host his show, and did a fantastic job playing all the requests. Johnnie had a huge following and I just hope that I can continue in the same fashion of playing good polkas and waltzes every Sunday morning.”
Taking over for a legend can be worrisome, but DZ said the listeners have embraced his show. “After doing the polka show for three years I cannot ask for a better response than what I have received,” he said. “I do have a different format than what Johnnie had, but I feel it’s best to
have your own identity. I like to play as much music as possible, by as many different bands as possible. There are so many great bands from the past and from the present. I try to play them all
including many bands from the Czech Republic. I truly have a lot of fun doing the polka show.”
DZ pre-records the show on Thursday nights in his home recording studio from requests that
he has received, mostly through email (firstname.lastname@example.org). This is not DZ’s first appearance behind a radio microphone. He got his start as a polka DJ on Internet radio station WRJQradio.com out of Wisconsin five and half years ago. When it came time to choose a theme song, DZ went with Oh Clara Polka.
“We (Czech & Then Some) were working on the Texas Tribute album to Ernie Kucera and I have always liked his recording of the song,” he said. “We decided to put it on the recording and got a great response from our fans. It’s a fun song to play and not many bands play it. It has good drive to it. The crowd always responds well when we play it. It’s one of my favorite polkas.” And, when he took over KBEC Polka Party, there was only one choice for the theme song - Oh Clara Polka.
DZ continued to do the WRJQ show along with the KBEC Polka Party, until he got word the station wouldn’t be able to continue all its programming.
“I appreciate Aaron Schuelke giving me the chance to be on his station without even knowing who I was. WRJQ is the best 24/7 polka station. I think I can say I brought a lot of Texas listeners to the station,” DZ said.
Aaron at first was going to shut down the station completely because of growing job and family
commitments, but the fans spoke. “I started getting emails and phone calls from the listeners telling me their disappointment that the station was no longer going to be on air,” DZ said. “After visiting with Aaron and letting him know how many calls and emails I was getting, he said he was getting the same on his end, so he came up with a plan to keep the station on the air.”
Unfortunately, the station had to cut some of its special programming like DZ’s show. “I’m glad Aaron found a way to keep the station going playing polkas and waltzes 24/7. I still listen to
the station every chance I get,” DZ said.
TEXAS POLKA CHEERLEADER
Another new polka assignment DZ accepted last year was to the board of trustees of the International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame based in Chicago. His job is to make recommendations to the board on hall of fame inductees and music awards by artists from Texas and Southwest U.S. DZ leads a group of electorates from this region who get to vote on the final
DZ worked with Mollie B and Ted Lange of SqueezeBox, and a team of Texas Polka News volunteers to host a Super Bowl Polka Party last year at SPJST Lodge 88 in Houston to
introduce the IPA and raise funds for the association that will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary.
This January, during National Polka Month, DZ, TPN, and a team of Texas polka supporters once
again gathered to raise funds for the association while celebrating Carl Finch’s (Brave Combo) induction into the hall of fame and the 20th anniversary of Czech & Then Some, led by DZ. The dance was held Sat., Jan. 21, at the KJT Hall in Ennis. (See the photos).
HAPPY BIRTHDAY CATS!!!
Not the Broadway musical, but the Ennis-based Czech music ensemble that celebrates its founding 20 years ago. To clarify, CATS is the acronym for Czech & Then Some, a seven-piece, multi-ethnic orchestra. The nickname came about when leader DZ’s wife, Yvonne, got tired of filling her calendar space with “Czech & Then Some” and started abbreviating it to reserve days for performances or practices. The actual name is a descriptor of the Czech music they play, and the “then some” refers to the other ethnic polkas and country music they play.
CATS started out when Joe Betik, a good friend of DZ and David Slovak, asked David to play his accordion for his sister’s 50th wedding anniversary. David recruited DZ, David Trojacek, Louis Valek, John Marek Jr., and Andy Mikula to assist him. The band didn’t even have a name, but after that gig, they realized that there was some musical chemistry happening. Soon afterwards, Joe Lansfeld, the president of KJT Society #35 in Ennis, as well as DZ’s father-in-law, hired the band to play for their annual KJT membership recognition dance. That confirmed it.
As the band evolved playing countless parties and festivals around North Texas, the band members kept developing new arrangements to old standards that they presented to great
acclaim around the Central Texas Polka Triangle (Ennis-San Antonio-Houston). What sets CATS apart is the use of the full arrangement of all the songs they play as opposed to just playing the chorus rendition of a song.
In 2012, CATS was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as part of “The
Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna” celebration. On a recent return trip to D.C. they were blessed to play at the Czech Embassy’s Open House. Most of the visitor activities, including the music, had been set up outside, but a rainstorm drove them inside, where CATS performed “au
natural” without mikes and amps.
Part of the attraction of CATS is the musical diversity of the musicians. In addition to polka and waltzes of German, Czech, and Cajun extraction, they have backgrounds from big band, country & western, Tejano, jazz bands. The family connections enhance the vocal harmonies and with two females at the microphones, singing, in addition to playing sax and clarinet, it creates a unique sound in the polka world. Every member of the band is a multi-instrumentalist and are
The youngest member of CATS is Josh Zapletal (2012), DZ’s son, carrying on his dad’s and grandfather Raymond’s tradition on trumpet. John Schumacher, bass and vocals, came to
the band after having played with The Czech Harvesters a few years before; Zeke Martinez (2007), percussion and guitar, has a background in Tejano music.
Jennifer Slovak (1998), David Slovak’s sister and recently Zeke’s wife, plays saxophone and clarinet. Michelle Slovak (1998), DZ’s sister and David’s wife, played with Harry Czarnek and
the Texas Dutchmen.
David Czarnek, (2010) who plays sax and clarinet, came to the band from his father’s band, the Texas Dutchmen, and has a background of big band, jazz, country, and rock.
David Slovak (1997), accordionist and piano, played with the Henry Rejcek Polka Band and Czech Harvesters before founding CATS with DZ.
DZ grew up in a house filled with polka as his Czech dad, Raymond, had his own polka band in Ennis from 1960-1969 - the Music Masters, then played in the Texas Dutchmen when the family moved to Houston, and his German/Czech mother, Pat, was a pianist for the Jodie Mikula Orchestra for 25 years. One of DZ’s earliest memories is of being at home with a plastic toy
trumpet imitating his father. Raymond had learned music while attending St. John’s Nepomucene Catholic High School in Ennis, where he played with several Czech bands while still in school. He also taught Kenneth and Nick Mikula the fine points of playing trumpet.
In his early teens, DZ joined the Dutchmen with a real trumpet. “My first actual job was playing with Harry Czarnek and The Texas Dutchmen on Dec. 9, 1978 in Needville,” DZ recalled. “I think we played for a wedding that day. I was 13 years old at the time.”
Through the years, he continued to play with the Texas Dutchmen, as well as help out a few other bands before cranking up CATS.
Harry Czarnek’s Texas Dutchmen had a lot of influence on CATS, mentoring young DZ and Michelle. Gene Patalik and Harry were like second fathers to them, and Gene’s son, “Sonny,” was DZ’s accordion teacher and fantastic trumpet player and arranger. CATS plays many of Sonny’s arrangements today at all of their engagements.
Living in the Zapletal house meant you were also involved in promoting Czech heritage. DZ’s dad was one of the co-founders of the National Polka Festival, which has been held on Memorial Day Weekend for many years. The festival celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016. DZ served for 18 years as the director of festival. Michelle has been the secretary of the festival for over 15 years keeping Czech heritage alive in Ennis.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Ennis area has a plethora of young Czech bands. “I think that comes from the musicians growing up listening to Johnny Mensik,” DZ said. “Johnny’s style is a little bit different and jazzy, which catches the interest of the younger folks.