The last polka.

4921919060_d599233fc4_zJolly Joe Timmer is with Freddie now.

The Lehigh Valley’s most successful polkapreneur died yesterday at 85. And in a perverse and deeply personal way almost totally unrelated to his artistic contributions, I miss him.

By the time I moved to this area in 2002, Jolly Joe had carved out a mini-empire in the world of Lehigh Valley entertainment. Depending which hat he had on at any given time, he was:

– The host of a weekly 90-minute local cable TV show, The Jolly Joe Timmer Show, on which he showed polka videos and chatted with random guests.

– The operator of Jolly Joe’s Polka Grove, a small party hall for rent in the sticks north of Bethlehem. His wife, Jolly Dottie, worked the concession stand. Like any good local businessman, Jolly Joe knew how to make his properties work for each other: Many of the polka videos aired on JJT’s show were filmed at the Grove, and each episode featured a commercial urging viewers to “call today for shindig dates and rates!”

grove– The promoter of polka concerts at venues other than the Grove — most notably at the Westgate Mall, a moribund shopping center at the edge of the city of Bethlehem. The busiest that mall ever got was during the polka concerts, which says quite a bit.

Damned if it hasn't been exactly eight years since I took this picture, to the day.
Damned if it hasn’t been exactly eight years since I took this picture, to the day.

– The owner of Sunny WGPA, an AM radio station broadcasting a mix of national talk radio and, you guessed it, polka. Ads for WGPA are visible behind Jolly Joe in the TV screenshot at the top of this post.

– The owner of a small store on the Southside of Bethlehem selling polka records — including some by his own band.

(Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that hat. Jolly Joe was also the drummer for a polka band bearing his name, which, I think, continued to gig on its name recognition even after he’d stopped playing.)

There had been nothing like The Jolly Joe Timmer Show on the cable stations I knew in Massachusetts. As an auslander trying to make my way in a new home, I became a regular weekly watcher, along with my young children.

Of course, the low-budget cheese factor was part of the appeal. Even in an obituary, I would be lying not to admit that.

When he wasn’t showing polka videos, Jolly Joe would take live callers and chat at length, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a guy talking to his monitor made for lousy TV.

On other occasions, he would invite packs of Cub Scouts into the studio and insist on speaking to every single camera-shy one; I’m here to say that five minutes of JJT interviewing Scouts was the longest half-hour of television I’ve ever watched.

At the same time, I recognized that Jolly Joe was part of the Lehigh Valley’s DNA. He was a lifelong Bethlehem resident, a local celebrity, a star entertainer and a successful businessman. He was popular here for a reason. So I watched and watched, hoping that strands of the local identity would begin to rub off.

Local polka band the Mel-O-Dee Aces playing a Jolly Joe polka hoedown at the Westgate Mall, 2007.
Local polka band the Mel-O-Dee Aces playing a Jolly Joe polka hoedown at the Westgate Mall, 2007.

The Lehigh Valley, as it turned out, was changing underneath both of us — and for a while, Jolly Joe was probably more keenly aware of it than I was.

For one thing, the polka crowd was aging into senescence. You never saw people under 60 on the dance floor in Jolly Joe’s locally filmed polka videos; they simply weren’t there.

What you did see in nearly every video, and I’ll long remember this, were pairs of seventy-something women dancing together — presumably because their husbands had predeceased them. Pathos is the furthest thing from the soul of polka, but it was easy to feel a little sad at the sight of that.

At the same time, a growing number of people from New York and New Jersey were moving into the Valley, willing to trade an hour-plus commute for an affordable suburban home. They made the region younger, richer and more populated, and they voted with their dollars to make it more sophisticated in terms of chain shopping, restaurants and entertainment.

(There were some of us who moved in from other places, too. But the 212s tended to get the attention, which was fine with us.)

The Valley’s entertainment scene began to sprout attractions and destinations that would have seemed unthinkable when I moved here. (Indeed, I’ve taken a special kind of pleasure from watching provincial long-timers pooh-pooh each idea, only to have them take root, blossom and succeed.)

We got a shiny new ballpark in Allentown and an extremely successful Triple-A minor-league team to play in it, plus a handful of open-air concerts there. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs regularly rank at or near the top of minor-league attendance.

We got a similarly shiny hockey rink and AHL team in downtown Allentown — finally replacing Lehigh University’s small Stabler Arena as a viable big-name concert destination.

We got an arts complex, including several marvelous music stages, in the former Bethlehem Steel mill by the Lehigh River in Bethlehem.

Shonen Knife at the new Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.
Shonen Knife at the Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.

It takes more than just country and classic rock to fill all those stages, and it feels like the region’s taste is expanding in turn.

Snoop Dogg, O.A.R. and the Flaming Lips are among the headliners at this year’s Musikfest, the annual Bethlehem music festival where Jolly Joe Timmer used to rock the polka tent each year. Not to be outdone, the Great Allentown Fair — whose headliners typically run to country, classic rock, and the Disney soubrette of the season — has booked Deadmau5 as a headliner this year. Modest Mouse has played the new stages at the old steel plant two years running, and sold out at least one of the shows, if not both.

(The Valley’s Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants are pretty well gone, so you’d be hard put to get a plate of schnitz und knepp after the shows. But you can get good Thai, Ethiopian, or handmade Chinese dumplings.)

It was worth watching Jolly Joe to get to know his Valley, because you can better appreciate where you are if you know where you came from. I will never qualify as a long-timer here, but I’ve picked up enough roots to be able to fake it.

My kids, in contrast, have the Lehigh Valley pedigree I lack. One was born here, while the other one moved here before he was old enough to form conscious memories of his birthplace in Massachusetts.

They will never really know Jolly Joe’s Valley, having grown up in a place with shiny ballparks and hockey arenas and Apple Stores.

But they still remember — and I think they long will — the show they used to insist on watching every Thursday when they were little … the show with the smiling old man, and the same four ads every week, and the polka videos that used to set them to exaggerated projectile-pogoing around the living room.

See, I was only partially watching Jolly Joe to be part of the Lehigh Valley. I was also watching to be part of my kids’ lives. My kids dug it, and we could share it, and talk and joke about it every week, and even go on one memorable occasion to one of JJT’s multi-band polka festivals at the godforsaken Westgate Mall.

One of those kids will be a high school sophomore in a month’s time. The other will start middle school. The smiling old man we used to watch is gone. And the Westgate Mall … well, nowadays, it’s probably a real nice place to get some thinking done.

So I’ll wallow in the past for a couple more hours. It was a provincial place, that Valley, and I never felt entirely comfortable there; but there were good memories to be had.

By tomorrow night, I’ll have snapped out of it and come back to today’s Valley.

I’ve got tickets to the IronPigs.

My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.
My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.

4 thoughts on “The last polka.

  1. Nicely written. As an allegedly sophisticated outsider it was easy to make fun of Joe and his show; I applaud you for recognizing him for what he was, a symbol of the (former) local culture.

    What’s a “212”?

    1. A 212 is a person from New York City or its immediate environs. The name refers to the area code traditionally associated with The City.
      (I am not sure that is a widespread coinage — I kinda wrote it on the fly — though it has become culturally common to refer to a place by its area code, i.e., “Gonna be a blisterbitcher this week in the 610.”)

      I have read that, in tourist areas of the Berkshires, a “212” is local slang for a pushy, demanding or obnoxious person — since most such people in the Berkshires are summerfolk from NYC.
      I cannot verify that firsthand … though, clearly, I enjoy the story enough to repeat it. 😉

  2. You missed your chance to buy a 250 watt AM radio station for 95k – Then again, I’m intrigued by the new format –

    He intends to keep the station in Bethlehem for the time being, but plans to change its format to “Ameripolitan,” which includes Rockabilly, oldies and country music.

    “We’re going to play all good, upbeat music,” Crumbliss said.

    That also includes some polka. “We’re not going to forget our polka listeners,” said Crumbliss.

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