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This Polka Band Could Be Your Life

On Bravo's fashion design competition Project Runway, host and supermodel Heidi Klum always greets the contestants with the tagline, "In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out." That is the nature of fashion. In the short documentary, The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band - a 27-minute valentine - really-first-time director Sonya "Sonny" Tormoen shows that operating outside of fashion can sometimes guarantee the kind of staying power money and fame can't buy.

polka_band.jpgThe Ruth Adams Band, self-mockingly termed "The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band" on a banner that graces the stage of Nye's Polonaise Room in Northeast Minneapolis, has been the house band for more than 30 years. The septuagenarian founder of the band, Ruth Adams, is known for her accordion riffs and imitation of what sounds to me like a cocker spaniel's bark in "The Barking Dog Polka." On trumpet is The Kid - 60-something Joe Hayden, a transplanted Chicagoan with a lovely Chicago accent and an expansive way of talking that folds you into his riches-to-rags (make that polkas) stories about the band. The man who gave Joe his nickname is 88-year-old Al Ophus, the band's tempo-challenged drummer.

The genuine love between the band members sweetens their sometimes sour notes and endears them to the regulars, and a cadre of hipsters and yuppies, looking for an old-fashioned good time in the way-back machine that is Nye's.

Tormoen, a film student, became intrigued by this band and was urged to dive into the deep end of filmmaking by her screenwriting instructor because of Al's advanced age. By following her curiosity, she captured for posterity a slice of Minnesota history that has now begun to fade. Al died four months after Tormoen's film wrapped in 2003, and thus, this film is a vital record of a genuine character.

Tormoen gives a brief history of Nye's and shows mainly young professionals drinking and laughing along the length of the bar. I was startled by the sound of barking, and found out only after a few anxious minutes that it was Ruth. The music the band plays doesn't get much camera time and is recorded poorly, so it's hard to understand what the cool kids find so entertaining. However, when Tormoen turns the camera on Al, we see a man who mixes with staff and patrons alike, flirting with all the girls and grinning his wide, thin grin. The relatively new manager of the club, Harry Kaiser, clues us in that Al stocks the toilets by choice and was hurt when Kaiser wanted to relieve him of the task.

ruth_polka.jpgWe get to watch a recording session at the makeshift Mystery Ranch Recording Studio, mainly one-take tracks of 60 songs. Perfection wasn't the goal, though what was still has me a bit puzzled. Ruth is disturbed by Al's deteriorating drumming skills, but she doesn't make a fuss. I guessed from her odd, short hairdo that she might have recently finished chemotherapy, but the film was well advanced before I found out I was right. As the bandleader and a female musician who came up when that was relatively rare, there's a lot of story in her life. I was frustrated not to hear more from her. On the other hand, I could have done with a little less of the talkative Joe, whose words were less than the sum of their parts. But I sure did like the sound of his voice, like a WGN-TV announcer from my childhood.

Ultimately, though, the film develops its focus and feeling in a way that really drew me in. It was a touching moment when Tormoen ran the last recording of Al singing, an impromptu to her at his home. It's very satisfying to see that his drum kit, covered with signatures, was installed above a doorway in Nye's.

I don't know if I'd like to hang at Nye's. Now that I'm well into middle age, I don't seek out relics as much as I feel like one. But there's an undeniable charm to the place and to the band that goes on playing together because they love it. I'm glad I visited Nye's and the Ruth Adams Band in this warm, sweet film.

The Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival is Friday through Sunday, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, at the Davis Theatre, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave., in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. There will be about 100 short films ranging from two to 27 minutes in length. The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band shows with four other short documentaries on Saturday at 3 p.m. Best of the Fest selections as determined by audience votes and the festival director's favorites will be shown Sunday at 9:30 p.m.


Posted on September 27, 2006

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