Beer drinkers swing to former teacher's Bavarian polkas at Hofbrahaus

| Monday, July 6, 2009

A former high school science teacher dressed in lederhosen and playing the accordion would seem to be an unlikely candidate to rock the weekend crowd at one of South Side's hottest bars.

But that's exactly what Joe Grkman, 56, and his Bavarian oompah bands have done at Hofbrahaus since it opened four months ago.

"It's really all about having fun," said Grkman of Peters, a retired chemistry and physics teacher at Bethel Park. "The next day people might say, 'Did we really see guys in lederhosen singing 'Freebird,' or was it the beer?'"

Hofbrahaus, located along the Monongahela River at South Side Works, hired Grkman's groups as house bands on weekends. On Thursday, he's part of the ShotSki Trio; Friday it's Alpen Glow; and Saturday he's one of the Bavarian Brats.

A tamer dinner crowd enjoys the music earlier in the evening, but 20- and 30-somethings are dancing on their table benches as the night closes, often knocking liter glass mugs together while singing along with toasts.

"There might be four 25-year-old girls dancing with a 75-year-old man," Grkman said, taking a sip from his Hofbrahaus mug of beer. "And no matter how much fun people are having, we're having more on stage."

Grkman played on weekends at Penn Brewery in the North Side for 20 years until management changed — at almost the same time Hofbrahaus was looking for weekend entertainment for its German beer hall. Grkman's last show at Penn Brewery was earlier this year.

"It just sort of fell into place to work here," he said. "We had a great run at Penn Brewery and really enjoyed our time there too."

Grkman's band plays "traditional beer hall songs," including "Roll Out the Barrels" and "Alice," but breaks out into more mainstream crowd favorites such as "Sweet Caroline" and "Hey Baby (If You'll Be My Girl)."

The night shows usually start after 9 o'clock and last until 1:30 a.m. His wife, Denise, doesn't mind that he spends so much time with his accordion.

"She'll come down fairly often and watch," Grkman said. His son, Mike Grkman, 32, performs with him on the weekends. His daughter Lindy's 5-year-old son Benjamin has his own set of lederhosen.

"All the guys in the band, I grew up with," said Mike Grkman of Canonsburg, who switches between bass and keyboard. "For my dad and myself it's great, because we get to do this with family."

Mike Grkman's son Luka, born less than a month ago, has two small accordions waiting for him.

"The best part of the job is seeing people happy and making people happy," Mike Grkman said.

Joe Grkman, who is of Slovenian ancestry, has been playing the accordion and belting out tunes since he was 14, when his father, Joe Grkman Sr., started a polka band. Since then, the family band — called Grkmania — plays at heritage festivals and celebrations.

A set of lederhosen from Germany can cost as much as $1,000, Grkman said.

"Polka and Western Pennsylvania, they go together," Grkman said. "But that's different than what we do here at the Hofbrahaus. Here, we do more Bavarian beer-drinking polkas."

Grkman retired from teaching in June 2008 after 35 years.

"Anytime I play, I usually see four to five former students in the crowd," Grkman said. "It's great. It's like a reunion. It's nice to see them accomplished in their careers — and they're having a good time."

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