“The Squeezettes” polka band is working to help save the state dance

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- In the post-World War II era, the names Lawrence Welk and Frankie Yankovic were as familiar as Robin Thicke and Justin Bieber are today. However, they are fading from memory -- just like the polka music they played.

The accordion music is one of the Midwest's cultural touchstones, but it's slipping away -- but not if one Milwaukee band has anything to say about it.

Polka music is as much a part of Milwaukee as Laverne and Shirley.

The sitcom's song could be the theme of "The Squeezettes" an irrepressibly fun and undeniably quirky band -- a creation that could only happen in the hotbed of polka.

"I think it's very special in Milwaukee, because it's almost in every nook and cranny. It's kind of contagious music," Pamela Scesniak, who plays the piano accordion said.

"It's part of Milwaukee's heritage. It's part of our heritage. It's extremely Midwest," Mike Chaltry, who plays the tuba said.

The five-member group has been doing polka their way for the past eight years -- but who's counting?

"My husband says it's my mid-life crisis," accordion player Linda Mueller said.

Just like their thrift shop clothing...

"We have a hell of a thrift store wardrobe," lead singer Chanel le Meaux said.

The band is making what's old, new again.

Polka came out of eastern Europe and took the 19th century by storm.

"I think you only have to count to two. It's simple," drummer and vocalist Mike Eells said.

"It's that driving oom pah pah thing. Even if you have no rhythm and no talent whatsoever, you hear that and you (dance)," le Meaux said.

You can guess why they're called the Squeezettes.

"The accordion. How can you not smile when you're playing the accordion. It's the greatest instrument," Mueller said.

The squeezebox cuts through the clamor.

"It really captivates you," Scesniak said.

So does the eccentric cast of characters.

  • Pamela Scesniak plays piano accordion
  • Mike Chaltry plays the tube
  • Mike Eells plays drums and sings
  • Linda Mueller  plays the accordion
  • Chanel le Meaux is the lead singer

The Squeezettes assemble once a month.

"Cute little ladies playing accordions? You can't beat that," le Meaux said.

Inside the Old German Beer Hall, the crowd sways and swings as the band plays and sings. They still play the dusty and fusty standards.

"100 years worth of music. Old tangos, waltzes, polkas. Obviously, many of them are quite old," Chaltry said.

Amidst the lively, boozy concerts, there is an inescapable fact that polka is breathing its last breath.

"It looked old fashioned, I guess. It's slowly dying. It's been slowly dying over the years. You don't see new people getting into polka. You go to polka parties and it's all old people out there dancing. They're having a great time, but the crowd is slowly dying out, and it's not getting replaced, so part of what we do is keep it alive," Chaltry said.

They believe the key to saving the genre is incorporating it into the mainstream so the Squeezettes have effectively "polka-ized" pop, from the Beatles to the Bangles to the "99 Red Balloons" -- a Cold War era protest song sounds like a hot hit with the tuba and the erstwhile accordion as the accompaniment.

"They're taking songs that we already know, but they're making them polka," 28-year-old Jamie Oehlrich said.

"It's not like the normal -- when you go to a bar and it's techno. You can go out and dance to it. It's real dancing," 24-year-old Aubrey Griffiths said.

"We'll play a cover tune that really everybody knows, but when they hear it with the accordian they're like -- woah!" Scesniak said.

"Is that? They are not playing 'Melt with You' by Modern English. Oh. Yes. We. Are," le Meaux said.

It is a free-wheeling show that's both offbeat and upbeat. You don't listen to polka. You participate in polka.

"I've got my mic now. I can do 'free-range' tuba. I can go out in the audience at the end of a show sometimes and keep playing with them," Chaltry said.

"I think just it's our instrumentation that's so unique that people are so surprised, people wake up and listen," Eells said.

For decades these instruments have been pigeonholed as corny and kitschy.

"If you would have told me two years ago I would be singing in a polka band, I would have been like, psst no!" le Meaux said.

Yet, here she is, belting it out from behind the mic with the Squeezettes -- somehow making polka fun again.

"Polka adds to that, because we do have that fun factor. It just kind of amps it up. It's good music. Unlike Blues which may make you sad. You listen to our music and you're like, 'ya da, da da da.' So it just keeps you going," le Meaux said.

The Squeezettes are a band that indeed takes chances, and breaks a few rules. They are indeed the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.

"I think just by being out there and playing it is what keeps it alive," Eells said.

3 comments

  • Mike Eells

    Great segment overall! Nice camera work, editing, sound. Your camera man stuck around til the bitter end and got some great moments and interviews with the crowd. The music actually sounded pretty good, and that room has terrible acoustics! Thanks for taking the time to showcase something very Milwaukee! 🙂

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