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Remembering Stas' Wisniach


Dom Polski: Dance Hall Days of Detroit's Polonia

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Remembering Stas' Wisniach

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May 23, 1923 – January 12, 2007

Trzymaj sie blisko Boga.....Niech Bog obdarzy Ciebie i Twoich kochanych szczesciem i laskami potrzebnymi.

Stanley John (Stas') Wisniach was born on the west side of Detroit on May 23, 1923, in a flat above a grocery store. He was the son of Walter and Pelagia, or “Pearl” (Blachnia) Wisniach. Walter’s family immigrated from Lodz, Poland. Pearl’s family was from Michigan City, Indiana. The family spoke Polish and celebrated Polish traditions, and they walked to services from their home on Chopin Street to Our Savior Polish National Catholic Church on the same street. Later in life, Stas' often shared his vivid memories of hearing the snow crunch underneath his feet as he walked with his family to church on Christmas Eve.

Walter worked as a die setter at the Ford Rouge Plant. After losing his right hand in a factory accident, Walter was determined that neither Stanley nor his younger brother Joseph would ever work in a factory. Thus, Stanley studied the accordion and Joseph studied the violin. Although Joseph had more of a scholarly mind and abandoned the violin for the world of chemistry, the young Stanley was destined to become a musician. He was a musical prodigy, and he ended up working as a professional musician for 74 years. He received his training on the accordion from private instructors starting when he was about six years old and formed his first orchestra at age nine. The boys played at neighborhood cultural events and then in the clubs around the west side of Detroit.

Stas', as he later became known, studied privately for many years and, at only twelve years of age, won a talent competition sponsored by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Music Company located on Broadway in Detroit. This brought him much fame and recognition. He received a brand new accordion and a week’s engagement at the Michigan Theater. On his accordion, he delighted audiences with such classical numbers as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “La mazurka di Migliavacca” (The Mazurka of Migliavacca). He received formal training at Cass Technical High School which, at the time, was compared to the Juilliard School of Music, and where students declared a major. Stas' majored in music at Cass Tech, studying clarinet, saxophone, violin, drums, piano, and theory. Simultaneously, he studied at the Detroit Institute of Musical Art. When he graduated from the Institute in 1945, Stas' was the first and only student in the history of the institute for whom the accordion was recognized as his major.

Stas' was one of the most prominent bandleaders of Detroit’s west side during the Polka Era of the 1940s and early 1950s. Among his contemporaries were reed man Stanley Adamus (1922-1988), violinist and saxophonist Johnny Sadrack (1919-1989), and trumpeter Ted Gomulka (1919-1998). These four were among the most well-known of all the numerous west side bandleaders of their generation, and they carried the torch for the tradition of live music at all Polish-American events. Everyone who grew up in the west side Polish neighborhood (the area around Michigan Avenue and Livernois) during their era knew that when a Polish wedding was to take place, one first called either Adamus, Sadrack, Wisniach, or Gomulka.

Along with his colleagues in the early part of the twentieth century, Stas' continued the tradition of Polish folk music by performing live music at neighborhood and community events. He and his contemporaries were the creators of a new genre of folk music, i.e., American-Polish music, which was the melding of Polish folk music with American instrumentation and style. The repertoire of this idiom, which is based on Polish folk tradition, includes the polka, waltz, krakowiak, polonaise, kujawiak, oberek, mazur, mazurka, and tango. However, throughout his 74-year career, Stas' performed virtually every kind of ethnic music and was known as a specialist in world music. His broad repertoire always included his first love—classical music—as well as show tunes, popular, blues, and religioso pieces.

Most musicians of Eastern European descent altered their names by anglicizing them during the 1940s and 1950s in order to survive in the music industry, as gigs were more plentiful if the hiring party could easily pronounce the bandleader’s name. In addition, because there was a stigma attached to being a member of an ethnic group back then, many altered their names in order to be more accepted in certain circles. In all cases, it was a matter of survival in the industry, and such name altering was not then and is not today looked down upon. However, as a testament to Stas’s pride in his Polish heritage, he refused to alter his name and, in fact, adopted an even more ethnic-sounding name, shortening his name from Stanley to Stas'.

Stas' is best known for his role as orchestra leader on WXYZ Television’s Club Polka show, which aired during the early 1950s on local Detroit channel 7. It was one of television’s first programs. Stas' was such an amazingly talented accordionist that one night, executives at WXYZ, who had heard of his talent, went to hear him performing with his orchestra at the Tip-Top Inn on Proctor at Kirkwood on Detroit’s west side. Upon hearing him play, they hired him on the spot to lead the orchestra on the new television show. He was placed on staff at WXYZ, where he remained for over ten years, performing also on the Soupy Sales show and Harry Jarkey’s The Fun Club, a children’s program.

Throughout the years, Stas' performed for thousands of events and taught countless students at his own music studios in Detroit. Among the private parties at which Stas' played were parties given by Bobby Vinton and his wife and the wedding of Jimmy Hoffa’s daughter. He also recorded in the 1950s and 1960s on the Sweet-Tone (Detroit), T.A.R. (Toledo), and Dearborn record labels, as well as on his own private label, Staff. Later in life, he released two CDs—one in 1998 and one in 2001. Some of his musical recordings are also included on two separate CDs as counterparts to the book Horn Man: The Polish-American Musician in Twentieth-Century Detroit by Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo, released in October 2003 with distribution through Wayne State University Press.

During the mid-1960s, singer Leszek Kobylinski of Poland invited Stas' to be a member of the Jan Wojnar ensemble on Kobylinski’s recording of the album Sentimental Journey to Poland, a collection of folk ballads all sung in Polish, which was released on the Monitor Records (New York) label. The Monitor label folk recordings have become part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. The Sentimental Journey to Poland album has been converted to CD format and is now available through the Smithsonian Institution by calling 1-800-410-9815 and asking for CD #00605. Artist and writer Richard Kubinski, who wrote the album’s liner notes, stated, “This album will stir you with its haunting rhythms of favorite Polish tangos, and the nostalgic grace of A Little Bit of Warsaw. Let the poetic, lace-like charm of the lyrics settle in your heart and the romantic, continental-styled sound of these original arrangements by Jan Wojnar take possession of your hearing. Even a casual listener is bound to become an enchanted traveler.” Stas' stated that the ensemble did not rehearse for the recording and sight-read the complete score. Yet, Stas’s work on this recording represents some of the finest musicianship ever recorded.

In 1966, Stas' moved to California, where he performed professionally for 35 years. It was while in California that on two occasions Bobby Vinton, an extremely proud Polish American, hired Stas' to perform for private parties at his home when he and his wife were looking for an authentic proponent of Polish folk music. Stas' made such a great impression that he was later invited to perform at the ceremony at which Vinton was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Stas' is an icon of Detroit. He was a respected member of the Michigan Accordion Society. He was also a member of the Friends of Polish Art (a nonprofit organization dedicated to the propagation of Polish and Polish-American art and culture, and an affiliate of the American Council for Polish Culture). He was also a proud member of the Polish American Historical Association and was president of the recently formed West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society.

In October 2003, following the release of the book Horn Man: The Polish-American Musician in Twentieth-Century Detroit, Stas' was interviewed on National Public Radio by WDET’s Celeste Headlee. Subsequently, many feature articles about him appeared in such publications as The Observer & Eccentric, The Oakland Press, The Polish American Journal (Buffalo, NY), The Polish Weekly (Hamtramck, MI), The Polka News (St. Charles, MI), and The Post Eagle (Clifton, NJ), among others.

In February 2004, Stas' was selected by a group of panelists to receive the Michigan State University Museum’s State Heritage Award, which is administered by the MSU Museum in conjunction with the Michigan Council for the Arts and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. An informal awards ceremony took place on February 27, officiated by State Representative Aldo Vagnozzi and Steve Stolaruk, president of the Michigan Accordion Society. Stas' was presented with a legislative decree signed by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and State Representative Aldo Vagnozzi. A formal awards ceremony took place in August during the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, where Stas' received another legislative decree signed by Governor Granholm in recognition of his many years of accordion playing. In addition, Stas' was awarded a grant under the Michigan State University Museum’s Traditional Apprenticeship Program to tutor a young accordionist in the art of accordion playing from February through August 2004.

On Tuesday, February 24, 2004, during a performance at the Post 10 P.L.A.V. (Polish Legion of American Veterans) at 11824 Jos. Campau in Hamtramck in celebration of Paczki Day, Stas' was interviewed by WJR News/Talk 760 AM-Radio commentator and producer Rachel Nevada for her “Rachel Around Town” segment of The Frank Beckman Show, which airs Monday through Friday from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Ms. Nevada, a producer of The Frank Beckman Show, previously had been with The Mitch Albom Show for eight years. Her feature story garnered Ms. Nevada many prestigious awards. In March 2005, she won Best Feature Award in the Radio News medium for her story, “Paczki Day at the Post 10 P.L.A.V. in Hamtramck with Stas' Wisniach,” in the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Awards competition. She received her award at a ceremony in Lansing on March 8, 2005. The Poletown Polka Player story then took Best Feature in the regional judging by the Radio Television News Directors Association in the Edward R. Murrow Awards. Poletown Polka was judged the Best Feature of the Year in an area encompassing Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which included numerous major stations. It went on to the national competition in RTNDA to compete for a national Murrow. The story also took second place at the Associated Press awards in April 2005.

In March 2004, Stas' was invited to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of a panel of speakers at the joint conference of the Society for American Music and the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. The program was chaired by Louise Spear of the Grammy Foundation.

Stas' was unanimously named Farmington/Farmington Hills Artist-In-Residence in April 2004, and in May he was selected by the board of directors of the Michigan Accordion Society as the 2004 Honoree.

Not only was Stas' a great musician and distinguished artist, but he was also a great inspiration to many individuals. In 1943, he was the victim of a tragic fall of 27 feet from a tower during basic maneuvers during World War II, from which he suffered a broken back. As a result, he was placed in a body cast for a year. Although he managed to live a relatively normal life afterwards, he always suffered from excruciating pain, which he simply learned to endure. In 2001, he lost his ability to walk, but he did not let that disability interfere with his profession.

In September 2001, just prior to returning from California to perform for the black-tie gala kicking off the “Polish Presence in Detroit” exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, part of the Detroit 300 celebrations, Stas' underwent emergency surgery for spinal stenosis, which left him unable to walk. It was anticipated that after therapy he would regain his ability to walk. However, such was not the case. He made it to the event and gave a beautiful performance, but five and a half years and dozens of rehab sessions later, he was unable to walk and remained wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Even so, his faith, perseverance in the face of adversity, and his undying commitment to and love of his music propelled him forward.

Stas' performed gratis for over a year at Luigi’s Italian Trattoria in downtown Farmington, and then at Fonte D’Amore in Livonia, where he entertained audiences with his amazing technique and heartfelt renditions of Italian and other ethnic numbers, as well as classical, popular, blues, and show tunes. Most recently, he was performing gratis one Saturday a month at Big Apple Bagels in downtown Farmington. He was scheduled to perform there on Saturday, December 23, 2006, but had to hire a fill-in due to hospitalization. Since returning to the Detroit area in 2001, Stas' never charged for his performances. He desired to give back to the community for all with which he had been blessed. He supported and promoted young accordionists and on several occasions invited them to perform with him at special events. He featured them and then gave to them any payment that was offered to him for his performances.

When he returned to the Detroit area in 2001, Stas' made Farmington his home town and was a proud and involved member of the community. He gave the gift of his music to the students of Our Lady of Sorrows school at its Geography Day, as well as at the church’s Bavarian Festival. He also performed for Farmington/Farmington Hills seniors at various events at the Costick Activities Center and was a favorite of the Sisters of Mercy at the McAuley Retirement Community in Farmington Hills. Included among the other gratis performances Stas' gave were performances at the University of Michigan—Dearborn’s class on Polish Immigrant History in April 2003 and the Ford Motor Company’s “Diversity” celebration in September 2003 and August 2005.

Stas' was the host of a talk show, Stas’s Positive People, which aired on the Southwestern Oakland Cable Commission’s Channel 12 in Farmington, Farmington Hills, and Novi, on which he showcased people in the community who were doing positive things. Among the individuals Stas' interviewed were Farmington Hills’ Thaddeus C. Radzilowski, Ph.D., former President of St. Mary’s College at Orchard Lake, Michigan, and President & Founder of the Piast Institute in Hamtramck; Farmington High School opera prodigy Shekinah Brown; and Deacon Tim Sullivan of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, founder of the PBJ (“Peanut Butter and Jelly”) Outreach Program in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, which provides food, shelter, clothing, counseling, and spiritual comfort to Detroit’s homeless. Stas' is a star of the documentary film, Dom Polski: Dance Hall Days of Detroit’s Polonia (April 2007).

Stas' Wisniach leaves behind three children, six grandsons, one granddaughter, a brother and sister-in-law, and a multitude of friends. He was a master of the accordion and one of the most unselfish, dedicated, faith-filled, and generous individuals in the community. He supported numerous charitable organizations, among them the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Disabled Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. One of his proudest moments was becoming a member of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in 2002. He loved God and the Church, and he was a devout follower of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their teachings. In July 2006, he received praise for his CD recordings via a letter from the Vatican, along with special blessings from Pope Benedict XVI. Stas' lived for his music and his faith.

A funeral Mass for Stas' was celebrated by Rev. Charles Fox at Our Lady of Sorrows on January 16, 2007. Vocals and keyboards were by Deborah Frontczak and included “Ave Maria,” “The Servant Song,” “Serdeczna Matko” (Dearest Mother), and “Witaj Królowa Nieba” (Hail Holy Queen of Heaven). A musical tribute during visitation began with a recording of The Polish National Anthem by Stas' himself. Virtuoso bayanist Pavel Vasilev, Music Director of The Music Centre in Dearborn Heights was featured performing “Asturias” (a Spanish piece) and a less familiar version of “Ave Maria.” Trumpeter Wally Duda, long-time friend and fellow Polish-American musician, performed “Jak Szypko Mijaja Chilwe” (How Quickly Time Passes) and “Serdeczna Matko.” Military honors followed, with Wally Duda playing Taps. Arrangements were made through the Heeney-Sundquist Funeral Home in downtown Farmington. Interment was at St. Hedwig Cemetery on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn Heights, not far from Stas’s first music studio.