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Paglia: Polka beat leads to more memories

| Thursday, July 28, 2011

The news about Gene Turtzer, of Charleroi, being part of an award winning polka band, Bud Hundenski and the Corsairs, stirred some bittersweet memories for Turtzer and another longtime area musician, Frank Podroskey.

Like his brother, Gene, the late Joseph (Jimmy) Turtzer also was an excellent bass player and performed with a number of bands in this mid-Mon Valley and beyond.

"He loved playing (music) and performing with those bands," Turtzer said of his younger brother.

"He played the trombone in the (Charleroi) high school band but took to the bass because that's what I was playing when I started performing professionally.

"He came to me one day and said, 'I want to learn to play (the bass).' I taught him some basic chords and he picked up the rest on his own with a lot of dedicated practice. He was a quick learner, self-taught and became very good at it."

One of Jimmy's first public performances came in June 1961 as part of a band that played at the annual installation banquet of the Parent-Teacher Guild at Saints Cyril and Methodius School in Charleroi.

Others in that group displaying their musical talents at the Charleroi Elks Club were John Brandeburg, Tim Myers and Vince Lepori.

"Jimmy got a big kick out of that gig," Gene Turtzer, who has performed professionally for more than 50 years, recalled with a fond smile. "He came home very excited and kept telling me, 'They liked us. They were applauding very loud.'"

Similar reactions came later as the younger Turtzer moved on to other bands and other venues.

"Jim played in our band, Junk-It, in the late 1960s and early '70s," said Podroskey, a Monongahela native now living in Clairton.

The first edition of Junk-It, according to Podroskey, who played trumpet, included Danny D'Alessandro (bass), Alan Hassick (guitar), Jerry Paul (vocals), Johnny Van (saxophone), Jeffrey Spriggs (Hammond B3 organ) and Paul Berinsky (drums).

"We were quite successful for a short run of about three years," Podroskey said. "We played at the Sons of Italy and Veterans of Foreign Wars in Charleroi, Our House in Bethel Park, LaStella's on Banksville Road and scores of other venues throughout the Pittsburgh area.

"This is the band that Jim initially played in. He took Dan's place when work related issues caused him to have to leave," he said.

Podroskey, a 1964 graduate of Monongahela High School, said he and Turtzer became "very good friends" during that time.

"He was a quiet, humble guy who did his job with the band very well," Podroskey said. "He was dependable and a true professional. He was a tall, good looking young man and he had great stage presence with that blond-brown hair and glasses."

Podroskey also remembers that Turtzer performed occasionally with the second edition of Junk-It.

That aggregation also comprised Bill Solomon (organ and vocals), Chris Mascara (bass), John Verlitch (trombone), Johnny Allen (sax and vocals), Hassick, Podroskey and Bill Vogel (drums) and several other drummers.

"We played many of the same venues as the first edition of the band," Podroskey said.

The Sons of Italy in Charleroi, one of the most popular clubs in the Mon Valley for many years, called attention to itself in an advertisement in The Valley Independent on Friday, April 30, 1971 this way: Dance to the Fabulous Junk-it-Band every Wednesday Nite, 10:30 to 2:30 a.m. and starting Sunday, May 2, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Other entertainment in the area that weekend included Shag and Kenny and The Clevelandairs at the Italian Hall in Belle Vernon; John Bogus and His Melody Kings at the Slovak Club in Roscoe, Patsy and the Tumbleweeds and Johnny Molek and the Silver Stars at Belle Tavern in Belle Vernon, and The Supremes at the Twin Coaches in Rostraver Township.

A year earlier, on Sunday, July 21, 1970, Junk-It shared the spotlight with several other bands at the inaugural "Music, Peace and Love Rock Festival" at the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium in Monongahela.

The Tim Sanders Productions gathering also featured Affections, Confusions, East and Blues Band, Exceptions, Gold, J.C. Blues Band, Raven Blues, Rush, Shooo, University Blues Band other unlisted musicians.

"That was an unforgettable experience," Podroskey laughed while holding a copy of the newspaper ad touting the festival.

"It was a hot and sticky day and there were hundreds of people swarming to the aquatorium to hear the bands and seek relief along the (Monongahela) river bank."

Podroskey also recalled that Gene Turtzer played bass for Junk-It several times.

"Gene filled in for his brother when Jimmy developed health problems," Podroskey said. "We had charts (arrangements) for our entire repertoire, and Gene read them so well.

"He brought a lot of experience to the group. We developed a lasting friendship professionally and socially."

Podroskey began playing professionally in 1961, three years before graduating from high school.

"I started playing in polka bands in the area in those early years," he said. "I'll never forget my first play-for-pay job. It was with Steve Urchick and The Harmoneers at the Friendship Lounge in Richeyville. The other musicians were Jim Georgulis, Ray Spisak and Al Wrublesky, who plays for the Civic Light Orchestra in Pittsburgh. That was a big deal for a kid like me, a teenager still in high school."

Podroskey said he also had the opportunity to work with one of his classmates, Jay Chattaway, who later became a successful composer and arranger on the national level with Maynard Ferguson (the theme for the Sylvester Stallone "Rocky" movies), Chuck Norris and Star Trek.

"Jay and I organized a Big Band sound orchestra in high school that was called The Astronotes," he said. "Vince Arquillo, Dan Margone and Bob Cecchini also performed occasionally as guest artists with the band. Playing with other bands during that time, I also had the pleasure of backing such artists as The Four Freshmen, Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, The Temptations, The Jaggerz and Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners. Among the leaders of those great bands were Don Glasser, Al Pierson, who now directs the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, Bill Brandt, Jess Wilson, Frankie Barr and Stuart Arnold (Arnold Orsolini)."

Podroskey is "semi-retired" after teaching for many years in public, charter and Catholic schools. But he continues to utilize his experience and talents as a professor of trumpet California University of Pennsylvania.

He and his wife Linda also are partners in Pod-Pro Music Productions, a business launched several years ago to promote their musical endeavors.

Part of the husband-wife team's ventures is Pittsburgh Big Band Legends, a group that holds open rehearsals - "all musicians are welcome" - Mondays at 7:30 p.m. at the VFW on Pittsburgh's Southside. The band has performed at such venues as LaRoche College, The Chadwick, Laurel Highalnds Campland, The Baltimore House, St. Thomas a'Beckett parish picnic and numerous private social gatherings.

"We also have a trio called Frank and Friends and perform on select dates at Nino's restaurant in Laurelville (near Mount Pleasant)," Podroskey said.

The Podroskeys also do disc jockey work. She is known as Lady L and has worked car cruises, Oldies events, summer picnics and class reunions. She will be featured at a June 4 dance at the VFW on the Southside.

Additional information about Pod-Pro Music Productions is available by email at .

Gene Turtzer also mixes his assignments as a musician as bassist for Bud Hundenski and the Corsairs and Lou Zigarelli's Big Band Memories orchestra. He's been with the Corsairs nearly 44 years and shared in the group's national recognition as they were named recipients of a 2011 Polka America Corporation Excellence Award. They gained the Best Polish CD honor for their album, Resurgence!.

Gene and Jimmy came by their musical talents and penchant to perform because of their father, the late Joseph A. Turtzer.

"Dad played trumpet and trombone with some of the best bands and orchestra in the area for many years," Turtzer said. "He had a deep love for music and enjoyed every time they took the stage. He loved seeing people have a good time."

Among the venues at which Joe Turtzer performed was the legendary New Danceland in East Monongahela. It also was known over the years as The Palace restaurant and night club, Payday's and Club BeBe. Some oldtimers insist there was an original Danceland, but initial newspaper ads about the club came on Friday, Auigust 31, 1934. Appearing in The Charleroi Mail and The Daily Independent of Monessen, those notices called attention to "Floor shows every nite ... California Harmony Boys, Best 6-piece orchestra in the Valley, on Saturday night ... Drinks and Dancing ... New Danceland, East Monongahela."

The popular night spot, also referred to as a "roadhouse" in some circles, featured top entertainment through the 1930s. According to newspaper ads from that era, the performers included but were not limited to the following: Fan dancers Jean Carr and Lila LaVelle (who also used bubbles in her act), the Evans Sisters, Betty Daye, Doris Dean, Sonny Ludwig, Tommy Barrett and his Orchestra, Peggy Manning ("outstanding girl singer who has toured throughout the country"), masters of ceremonies Dave Jeffrey, Lee Simmons and Paul Murphy, Dick Allen's NBC Band, Schultz and His Night Hawks, Ad and Lib ("famous radio impersonators"), rhumba dancer Marcella Devoe, Will Lamonte's Orchestra, Steppin Fetchit Jr., Jackie Brown and his Original Fraternity Boys, LaMont and Del Ruth, the New Danceland Collegians.

Many of the entertainers were billed as being "direct from Chicago or New York or Cleveland" or some other exotic venue across the United States.

The New Danceland also lured customers with such specials as "Our 25 cents (at all times) real Italian spaghetti and meatballs," "Our modern 40-foot bar," and a Tuesday, December 31, 1935 "New Year's Eve Frolic ... comedy, surprises, thrills ... two bands and shows" for only $2.50 per couple. Amateur Night also was a favorite of the club's audiences as well as the contestants, who competed for cash prizes of $5, first place, $3, second, and $2, third.

Additional information was always available by calling Monongahela 9980.

Joe Turtzer, an employee of Corning Glass Works in Charleroi, was only 48 when he died on December 14, 1958. His son Jimmy, who worked as an assistant manager at Pennsylvania state liquor store system outlets in Washington County, also died at an early age - 44 - on June 27, 1986.

Both men left this earth too soon but they wrote special chapters in the history of music and musicians in this mid-Monongahela Valley.

It's a legacy that Gene Turtzer and Frank Podroskey, and hundreds - perhaps thousands - of others. perpetuate so well in emulating their predecessors.

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(If you have memories to share or a story idea, contact Ron Paglia at ronpaglia@verizon.net or c/o The Valley Independent, Eastgate 19, Monessen, PA 15062.)

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