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The Party Starter: Don Wojtila

Lead Singer, Schnickelfritz



Wojtila, who's a "very young 60," as he likes to point out, had been playing polka for decades. His dad had moved to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia and settled the family in a little pocket of Slovenians off Buckeye Road before moving to Euclid. His mother was an accomplished pianist and teacher, and music was always around. So, naturally, he picked up instruments and learned how to play Slovenian polka. He made recordings and did TV appearances and played weddings, but it was a side gig, a lovely hobby that filled the time when he wasn't raising his family or running his bakery in Euclid.

"We played variety and Slovenian and we learned all aspects of music, not just polka," he says. "We learned pop for the weddings that we played back in the day."

He'd still be playing with his brothers and assorted musicians at weddings for the most part, catering to a fervent but older crowd, if not for the arrival of the Hofbräuhaus in Cleveland.

"They scouted us and basically that's how we ended up there," says Wojtila. "So we just carried through what we did there. We're a mainstay now."

Schnickelfritz is the de facto house band at the giant beer hall and garden, taking the stage during peak times: weekends, from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. or so.

When you enter the giant hall, for those who haven't yet been, you walk into a packed room filled with hundreds of people standing on benches and bellowing the words to songs at the top of their lungs, clinking their steins and dancing. And Wojtila is the center of it all, singing and playing accordion, dotting the atmosphere with polka standards like "Roll Out the Barrel," "Who Stole the Kishka" and "Too Fat Polka." But alongside those standards come polka variations on "Hang on Sloopy," Bon Jovi songs, even Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass."

It's Oktoberfest and a wedding and a dance party all rolled up into one, every single night.

"It rejuvenated our career because it's not just old-people polka," he says. "We kind of fuse polka with rock and pop. It's a very, very unique situation. It's very fun, something like I've never seen before. As soon as you walk into the place, you're accepted, it's a warm feeling, and everyone is just happy and smiling and dancing. So we have to think very carefully about what we play."

The six-member group holds court amidst the pretzels and sausages and shotskis (basically, shot glasses attached to a ski, filled with your choice of liquor, and downed simultaneously by whomever you happen to be sharing it with).

German beer halls and gardens are enjoying a bit of a renaissance, and so too are the people who play traditional Eastern European music. A couple have opened in Cleveland, and another — Hansa brewery in Ohio City — is slated to join the crowd. Which means more polka than Cleveland's enjoyed in awhile, and that's just fine with Wojtila. It's music for the people, and he's happy to lead the party.

"There was a woman last week who was celebrating her 95th birthday," he says. "And I introduced her and she stood up and waved and the whole crowd applauded and wouldn't stop. It went on and on. It was amazing. That's what this is all about. It's a people place."

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