- Associated Press - Monday, January 22, 2018

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - On a cool November night, the neon letters of the Kato Ballroom sign glow warm in the evening sky. A few falling snowflakes dance around the doorway. Folks hustle inside.

It’s polka night at the Kato, the night KEYC records episodes for the next few weeks of its iconic, and increasingly popular, “Bandwagon” program.

A hand-written sign on the wall says admission is $8, and by the time the music starts, a few hundred souls who plunked down eight bucks will populate the Kato’s polished dance floor, two by two.

Super dancers Laura Malek and Steve Weber will have all eyes on them as they toss and twirl each other like a pair of teenagers. Carol and Marlon Portner will have their eyes on each other - the love birds met here many years ago . and the romance hasn’t died. Kathy Pohlen’s eyes will be peering through camera lenses and keeping an eye on her assistants. Rick Keane’s eyes will be on his sheet music, although the master trumpet player probably doesn’t need it - he can likely play most of these polkas by heart. And Tania Cordes‘ eyes will be everywhere, keeping watch over the food, the bar, the stage, the guests; as owner of the Kato, she keeps her eyes on everything.

Overhead, several sections of sheer fabric accented with white lights gently bow over the dance floor. Bartenders pour beers and Cokes. Old friends exchange hugs and handshakes while band members organize yellowed sheets of music.

Kathy Pohlen fiddles with a few wires and consults with a camera operator.

“We’re having technical difficulties,” she told the Mankato Free Press . “Technical difficulties that seem to happen every time.”

Not that it’s a problem. While Pohlen said the “Bandwagon” staff gets the newsrooms hand-me-downs - which includes cameras that still record on tape - Pohlen’s 20-plus years of experience are more than enough to handle any problems that arise. She’s a part of the great tradition that has kept this show running since the mid-1900s.

“Bandwagon” began in 1960, and was launched to help promote the launch of KEYC itself. It’s often said of the show that it’s “quite possibly” the longest-running television show in the country (if not the world.)

In any case, Bandwagon has been around forever, and its history in southern Minnesota is strong. In the early days, it was sponsored by John Deere, and later Randall’s (the supermarket.) The original host was Earl Lamont, who gave way quickly to Chuck Pasek. Pasek ruled the Bandwagon airwaves from 1961 to 1995. Dick Ginn hosted alongside Pasek for several years as well. Tom Goetzinger took his turn. Today, Cordes hosts the program.

Through the years, the format remained the same: polka music, people dancing, cameras rolling. Watching it today is like looking back in time to simpler days, days when real men and women playing real musical instruments performed real songs, and couples dressed up in their good clothes for a night of fun. The television cameras, it seems, is beside the point . yet, is the point. Without them, this thing wouldn’t exist.

In fact, it almost stopped existing a few years ago.

Without sponsors and with ratings falling, KEYC nearly killed the program. Instead, it cut back on tapings to every other month instead of every month. Also, to stop the financial bleeding - the show had been losing money - Cordes decided to start charging for admission. And a funny thing happened. More people started coming. And the ratings, somehow, started going up.

“We did a survey,” Cordes said. “We asked people if they’d pay, and what bands would they want to see.”

People said they’d pay. And when she started charging for admission, nobody, not even the regulars, seemed to mind.

“In fact, more people came,” she said.

In 2014, “Bandwagon” had a 4 percent audience share. In 2016, that number had jumped to 16 percent.

Remember that scene from “Grease,” at the high school dance, where all eyes are on Danny and Sandra (and later Danny and Cha Cha after she cleverly steals Danny away)? Laura Malek and Steve Weber are the Danny and Sandra/Cha Cha of “Bandwagon.”

They don’t just dance. They are dance. They look like they could transition from polka to swing to tango at the drop of Weber’s cowboy hat. Every movement is smooth and effortless, like they’re floating on air.

“We met here,” Malek said. “And we’ve been dancing ever since.”

They’ve also been a couple ever since.

Weber, from St. Peter, said he’s been dancing since he was a kid. Took lessons as a youngster. Malek, from Duncan, Iowa, said the pair has been dancing at ballrooms around the region since they met at a taping of “Bandwagon” several years ago.

They love coming here because of the atmosphere, she said.

“The people are here to dance,” she said. “At a bar, people are walking around on the dance floor with drinks in their hands. You’d never see that here.”

Every other month, “Bandwagon” night is an event. And no southern Minnesota event would be complete without large quantities of steaming food.

Before the music starts, people wait in line for their turn to fill their plates with scoops of tasty spaghetti out of stainless steel vats. Others grab slices of white bread for pulled chicken sandwiches, accompanied by mashed potatoes and corn. And no one skips those triangle cuts of cheesecake.

“I want people to feel comfortable here,” Cordes says. “I want them to feel welcomed.”

Seems they do.

A man, having just procured a pair of whisky drinks from the bar, is beckoned to a table other than the one his partner is sitting at.

“You’re bringing those drinks to the wrong table!” a woman beckons as he walks by. “You should be bringing them here!”

The man looks over, smirks knowingly, but never breaks stride. At his table, a smiling woman had been watching the exchange.

On stage, Cordes announces the first song: “The Minnesota Polka.”

Few people have seen as much “Bandwagon” as Rick Keane. He plays trumpet for Ray Sands and the Polka Dots, and he’s been blowing his horn at “Bandwagon” tapings for about 45 years.

“When I started, I couldn’t drive,” he said, laughing. “I had to be picked up.”

He loves it here. He said coming here gives him chance to see and catch up with old friends. It’s also a chance to play the music he loves.

“It’s the music we grew up with,” he said. “We all do it because we like to play.”

At the rear of the band, a woman emerges, walking gingerly. She sits, smiles, and tells the story of how, if you think she’s walking gingerly now, you should have seen her in June.

While dealing with sepsis, she had two heart attacks. Two. In 2003, she had kidney and pancreas transplants. She’s also diabetic. She grew up on a dairy farm near Kenyon, and taught music at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School.

She plays saxophone in the band, and has even written some polkas, and as she’s about to get into the rigors of growing up on a dairy farm - an unrelenting task with cows that refuse to stop making milk - she’s summoned.

“We’re gonna get going in a minute, here,” Keane said to Sands as the band members return to the seats and organize their sheet music.

“OK, OK,” she said, “I’m coming.”

For Carol and Marlin Portner, the Kato Ballroom and “Bandwagon” are special.

“We met here,” Carol Marlin said, loudly - because the band is really kicking out the polkas - as she points across the room, “right at that table over there.”

She came with a date. He came with a date. And those two dates, well, hooked up. That left Carol and Marlin dateless. So they danced together . and enjoyed each other’s company. They thought about each other, wondered if they’d ever meet again.

A few weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, the wondering ended.

“I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned around and I said, ‘Will you dance with me?’” Carol Portner recalled. “And the smile I got was the nicest smile I’ve ever seen.”

It was dark in the Ballroom as Carol Portner recalled that day, but it’s possible that, as she told that story - and the two recalled the genesis of their marriage, and as dancers floated across the floor and trumpet players belted out polka melodies and “Bandwagon” guests enjoyed rum and Cokes and soaked up the nostalgia dripping from Kato Ballroom walls - that Marlin Portner’s eyes may have dampened. Just a bit.


Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com

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