By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Seventy-five years ago, at age seven, Polka Dan Zantek began playing the concertina.
On Sept. 16, 2017 Zantek will be inducted to the World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame.
After musical detours with other instruments, Zantek started regularly playing the concertina in Girdwood after the 1964 earthquake, and he has not stopped. Though a broker with Bankers Realty Corp by day, Zantek has travelled extensively to play concertina, particularly Russia and European countries.
Zantek first played Alyeska Resort Oktoberfest in the late 1970s, and he will play again this year on Sept. 29.
Zantek will travel to Merrill, WI for the induction, which will be a highlight in his musical career. Though previously nominated, 2017 will be the year he performs, partakes of a big dinner and receives an award plaque.
“For me, it’s quite an honor,” Zantek said.
The Gazette met with Zantek in South Anchorage to learn about his lengthy career, concertinas and his musical past in Girdwood. He has many interesting stories from when the town was much different.
Zantek’s love for the concertina began as a forbidden romance. His older brother had a concertina that was strictly off limits.
“I remember it was age 7, because it was 1942,” Zantek said. “I really wanted to play the piano accordion, but of course, we’re a poor polack family, and we didn’t have any money. It was unthinkable. My brother Louie had this concertina. He was in the Army and just going back. The last thing he told me was, ‘Don’t touch that thing!’ ‘No, of course not.’ He put it under the bureau. I just watched him. He walked down to the corner and got on the trolley. The doors closed, and the trolley moved. I grabbed that concertina and started playing.”
Zantek taught himself how to play before taking lessons around age 10 from a cousin. Zantek recalls working on tempo during that time. The cousin also helped Zantek purchase his first concertina.
“I bought my own concertina,” Zantek said. “He helped me buy it. He put the money up at the bank, but I had to make the payments. I worked for it. When it got to where I could afford an accordion, I bought one and started playing it, but it was never the same. I minored in piano in college, and I had a lot of fun with that stuff.”
Zantek explained that there are two types of concertinas. A Chemnitzeris the big one, while a Wheatstone is an English model that is smaller and octagon shaped. Zantek prefers the Chemnitzer yet says the fingering on the Wheatstone is tighter due to its size.
“The one I have has almost all of the notes on it. If you wanted to have a full chromatic concertina, it would have to be 130 keys. I’ve only got 104 keys. They do make ones that are fully chromatic. I just never got interested in doing it.”
Zantek helpfully pointed out the difference between a concertina and an accordion.
“Concertinas are all single notes,” Zantek said. “On a piano accordion, on the left, the bass side, one button will give you a whole chord. You’ve got a major, a minor, a seventh and diminished chords. One button gives you the whole chord. On the concertina, you’ve got to make your own chords, and you’ve only got four fingers you can use to make them. You push on one button, you get one note and you pull on the same button and you get a different note. It’s called diatonic. That makes it interesting. I’ve never been able to figure it out.
As Zantek moved on to minor in piano at college, he stopped playing concertina but added accordion and violin to his repertoire. After a reunion with the concertina, he has been playing it steadily for over 50 years.
“I first came here in 1957, and I didn’t have a concertina. I started back again in Girdwood after the earthquake,” Zantek said, “I played pretty steady there in ’64. My old college roommate, he came up the highway. He drove 5,000 miles and brought two concertinas with him and said, ‘You’re gonna play one. Pick one. Choose the one you want.’”
Zantek started playing concertina again in 1959 and has played it exclusively for the past 55-60 years. He still plays almost every day. He enjoys the challenge of the instrument and notes how his technique and repertoire have increased over time.
“I can play music today that I couldn’t play 40 years ago,” Zantek said. “It’s just a fun instrument. A piano accordion has the piano side. It’s all A, B, C, D, E, F, G. It’s simple. It makes sense. Concertinas never made sense to me. I think that’s one of the attractions. It’s a mystery after all of these years.”
Zantek did not give himself the nickname Polka Dan and acknowledges it came from his limited repertoire at the time. The name was bestowed during a day of skiing on Mt. Alyeska in 1964.
“I’m playing concertina in the Daylodge, and all I can remember is polkas because I hadn’t played for a long time. This was the concertina this friend of mine brought up the highway. One day I came off the mountain and I parked my skis and went into the Daylodge. Over the microphone comes, ‘Here comes Polka Dan.’ That was the first time I heard it. Hugh Cruikshank announced it over the speaker system, and it just stuck.”
Zantek played the first Oktoberfest at Alyeska in the late 1970s. A big tent was put up in front of the new hotel. As he tells it, there was no parking, and the tent made it worse. There were two bands rotating onstage. Alaskapelle was a brass type band with a big tuba and horns. Zantek was part of a duo.
“There was myself on the concertina and John Trautner on his one-string bass or gutbucket,” Zantek said. “So we just switched off. We’d play a set, and they would play a set.”
Zantek has played Alyeska’s Oktoberfest almost every year since it started. As the event grew bigger, more bands and musical styles were added. Now he plays about a 1½-hour set. He would like to play more but has other bookings in the region.
During the late 1960s, Zantek was the musician of choice for glacier parties. Locals in a festive mood would gather at the Girdwood Airport. Pilots, Ted Huntley in particular, would shuttle people to Eagle Glacier for a day of skiing, drinking and music.
“The concertina I used on the glaciers is a triple pearl queen,” Zantek said. “It’s a loud concertina. You don’t need an amplifier or anything. We’d go up to Eagle Glacier and cut out snow blocks like you’re going to build an igloo only we’d just build a wall to keep the wind off of you. We’d just figure, hey, you’ve got a nice day and you’ve got some snow.”
“You can ski during the summer on the glaciers,” Zantek said. “It’s nice up there. We’d take a barrel of beer and a bunch of sausage and cheese and all that stuff, go up there and dance on the glaciers. It’s hard packed snow. We didn’t get down to the ice. We’d just fly up there on wheel skis and have a party, and dance and ski and then come back down.”
One glacier party was especially memorable because weather started moving in before everybody could be flown back to the Girdwood Airport. Zantek was the last person on Eagle Glacier, and he thought he was going to be stuck there until the weather improved.
“When you look at the mountain peaks and the clouds start to wrap around the peaks,” Zantek said, “that’s the weather sign that something is happening, and you better get out of there. We started evacuating the glacier because we can only handle three people in the plane at one time. I was the last one, and we were socked in. Ted Huntley came in and landed there.”
“He said, ‘Come on! Come on! Let’s go! Get the beer!’”
“I said, ‘To hell with the beer. Let’s just go.’”
“He goes, ‘No, you get the beer.’”
“So I went back and got the barrel of beer and put it in the front seat in front of me. We couldn’t see. We were just completely socked in.”
“He says, ‘No sweat.’”
“I think it was a Cessna 180,” Zantek said. “He just gunned the engine on that thing and he counted. He counted to about 15. Then he started to lower the plane through the clouds, and we dropped through below the clouds right into the Glacier Valley. We landed and finished up the party at the hangar. That was pretty exciting.”
Sept. 29 Sitzmark – Oktoberfest – Polka Dan plays with Alaska Main Squeeze 5-6:15 p.m., solo 6:15-7:45 p.m.
Sept. 30 American Legion Post 28 – Polka Dan plays with Alaska Main Squeeze, solos during breaks