Patrons remember Kuzman’s as fixture of local polka scene
By Sarah Lehr
Anthony LaMarca, a musician from Boardman, describes the first time he entered Kuzman’s as akin to “stepping into another world.”
For five decades, the bar and dance hall, located at 1025 S. State St., drew crowds eager to hear polka music.
The establishment is now up for sale after the death of Helen Kuzman last month at 87. Helen’s husband and business partner, John Kuzman, died in 2010.
John and Helen’s nephew, Larry Moffett, also was instrumental in running the business during its later years.
A broker with Metro Group Inc. said a buyer is interested in purchasing the property. The real estate agent declined to give the buyer’s name, but said that person planned to replace Kuzman’s with a similar venue.
For Del Sinchak, a local polka legend, the loss of Kuzman’s marks the end of an era.
For the last 50 years, the band leader has played Kuzman’s more times than he can count. Among Sinchak’s many memories of the place, one experience stands out.
In 1997, the Del Sinchak Band received a Grammy nomination for its album “Let the Sun Shine In.” That year, the musicians returned from California to a triumphant welcome at Kuzman’s. Sinchak recalled the cheering crowd was so dense, he could barely move.
Kuzman’s attracted a loyal, but aging clientele. Sinchak believes big-band music has declined in popularity among younger generations.
Still, he said, Helen and John Kuzman were dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
“John and Helen stuck their necks outs to make sure there was polka music,” Sinchak said. “There were strong years, and there were lean years. They didn’t care if it was slow. They kept doing it.”
Larry Walk, an inductee into the Polka Hall of Fame and host of the “Happy Polkaland” radio show, said Kuzman’s saw its heyday during the 1970s when steelworkers flocked to the dance hall after their shifts.
“It’s going to leave a big, big hole in the hearts of many people around here,” Walk said of Kuzman’s closure. “We used to say, ‘A polka a day keeps the doctor away.’ ”
LaMarca, a member of the indie rock band The War on Drugs, has dragged his friends to Kuzman’s and watched them fall under its spell.
“Their first thought, is, ‘Oh, polka music, it’s kind of corny,’ but then they’re happy and dancing,” he said.
LaMarca noted that, despite their advanced age, many Kuzman’s customers stayed well into the night to drink and dance. At the end of the evening, the revelers would gather in the foyer and attempt to sober up with coffee and doughnuts.
Kuzman’s clientele have remarked to LaMarca how it is unusual to see a young person like him at the dance hall. Other patrons teased the 29-year-old about his dancing and asked why he didn’t bring a date.
LaMarca, who calls Kuzman’s the “best place in the world,” wrote a special letter to The Vindicator in which he praised Kuzman’s as a bastion of regionalism in a country where night clubs and bars increasingly seem flavorless and generic. Polka music, which dates back to the 19th century, took root in the Mahoning Valley among Eastern European immigrants.
Val “The Polka Gal” Pawlowski, host of a radio show on 790 WPIC-AM, says it is impossible to separate the local polka scene from Kuzman’s.
“Helen Kuzman really was the first lady of polka,” Pawloski said.