- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

BELLE VERNON, Pa. (AP) - He’s been playing violin for more than seven decades, but John Huchrowski believes his staying power isn’t because he’s the best.

“I’m not a musician. I’m a stylist,” said the 87-year-old Rostraver man, who also has a passion for ham radio, pigeon racing and bottle collecting.

The spry and personable entertainer - he still jumps around on stage, sings, tells jokes and does magic tricks - performs often at polka dances as a guest, having spent his career immersed in his Polish heritage and the musical genre.

“Polka people are friendly,” he said, recalling how he started his life’s work at a time when local taverns were community gathering places and often hired live musicians.

“It’s not like that today. You’ve got to hustle them, you’ve got to advertise, you’ve got to give away free tickets,” he said. “It was the era. It was not me or my band.”

Although he no longer plays unless he’s out performing with a band or as a strolling musician, when Huchrowski was young, his father set an alarm clock that ticked off the time he was required to practice.

To this day, he said he can’t stand to use an alarm clock.

“I saw the kids sled-riding and playing softball, playing sports, right in front of my nose, and I’ve got to play this lousy fiddle?” he said. But once he was older, “something locked in. All the tunes that were difficult got better.”

He performed with the Westinghouse Memorial High School orchestra in Wilmerding, from which he graduated in 1946, and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.

Huchrowski said during his time with the group, they’d be rewarded with a hot roast beef dinner every year, but when someone asked if he could play polkas, the gig paid real money.

“I think I made $35. My father made $22; he thought I was a millionaire,” Huchrowski said.

His fondest memories are of the 1940s and 1950s.

“After the war, entertainment everywhere. Every tavern, every saloon, every joint, had at least a piano,” Huchrowski said. “If you just played an instrument six months, you could go out and get a job and get a $20 bill.”

Since then, he’s headed four bands, played with countless notable polka artists and earned a certificate of achievement from the International Polka Association.

From 1956 to 1966, Huch-rowski lived in southern California and played with many performers and co-owned Pomona Polka Town, where he performed with Grammy Award-winning accordion player Frankie Yankovic.

He returned to western Pennsylvania, living in East McKeesport later in life with his wife, Lorraine, until about 15 years ago, when they moved to Rostraver.

“I wasn’t happy in California. Polka business was great; I just wasn’t happy,” he said. “I’m used to smoke - I lived in Wall, Wilmerding and Pitcairn - smog was different.”

He and Lorraine met at a dance in Monroeville 32 years ago, and “he doesn’t like to dance, which is funny,” she said.

“He likes to be in the limelight, and I like to be the wallflower,” said Lorraine Huchrowski, 72, a retired office clerk with Chrysler Financial. “I’m content to just stand on the outskirts and enjoy him entertaining.”

They moved to Rostraver because it enabled John to keep a loft of about 20 pigeons in their yard, she said.

He collects glass bottles and baseball cards, and socializes on ham radio. He’s had the same handle since he graduated from high school and jumps on the airwaves every day.

“They know my voice on the air. … You cough, and I know you,” he said.

His wife said she’s glad he’s continued to play music and keep up with hobbies.

“It keeps him active, keeps him going,” she said. “He can’t stand just sitting in the house. I think he’d rot. He likes to be among people, he just loves to entertain.”

Frank Powaski of Irwin, polka DJ and promoter, said everyone in the polka business knows John, and for good reason.

“I call him the ‘old goat,’ and he takes it in stride. … Fiddle players are few and far between now,” said the 70-year-old host of the polka program from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday on 620 AM WKHB and 5 p.m. to sign-off Fridays in the summer on 770 AM WKFB. “He’s one of the remaining that I would consider tops in the area, playing the fiddle.”

If he had to do it over again, Huchrowski said he might have gone to Nashville and made more money.

“Even today, I could play Nashville when I’m drunk, and you’re walking over my face. C’mon, there’s no technique there,” Huchrowski joked. “But I didn’t do it because nobody asked me.”

Music, especially polkas, has a hypnotic effect on him, melting away his worries and giving him the energy to relate easily to members of the audience.

“You see that heart-warming smile, that’s it - you’re paid in full,” he said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1sUD00I

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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