With introductions hardly over Walter Ostanek pointed to the plastic bag on the table, “ They tell me I have to walk a little more. Those are my new running shoes. ”
A youthful Walter Ostanek (Ladislav Walter Ostanek - born 20 April 1935) looks forward to his 80th birthday celebration. Known internationally, the Canadian Polka King three-time Grammy award winner and his band continue to entertain audiences at Marineland Game Farm in Niagara Falls Ontario, during the summer months. Active in the community Walter is often asked to play at church gatherings and special events where everyone welcomes his musical presence. Mothers of small children who hear him play have applauded the entertainer as the best babysitter they ever had.
It takes a while before the new kid on the block gets known around the Community. An only child, Ostanek, started playing his button accordion when he was nine years old, with some coaching from a border at his house on a farm in Port Robinson. Later he moved on and up to purchase an 80 Base Hohner piano accordion. As a student, he was asked to play at school functions. A seasoned musician, Ostanek was always committed to pleasing his audience. It's a commitment earnestly expressed by how he strives to make friends with as many people as possible — including other entertainers and those he honours. And it's obvious he's still at it. Habitually welcoming, he invited me to sit with him and his morning coffee friends in the mall.
The conversation is lively. He recalls how in early times when he worked for Canadian Tire on Queenston St. in St. Catharines dreaming of playing in the Abbie Andrews Band. Performing at the UAW Hall and other locations they also presented in a weekly engagement on CKTV. He believes when he auditioned he won his spot by playing with his heart and soul instead of relying solely on the musical notes. As Ostanek reminisces, the name Frankie Yankovic surfaces often. “ Frankie and I had a life-long friendship ” says Ostanek, “ and Frankie was the first Grammy winner of Polka music. ” Smiling at his audience as Yankovic did, Ostanek went on to win three Grammy awards.
We got to talking about style. Being in the public eye Ostanek is naturally conscious of appearance and dress. He shared his experience with working in a men's clothing store selling suits.
“ The suits you see today are so tight, and the coats have a crease at the sides when you button up, and so do the shirts. ”
I gathered it's about having the right fit. Ostanek draws a connection between fashion, style and entertaining the public and feels that musicians need flexible breathing space so they can reach out and connect.
Ostanek told me about sitting with Johnny Cash at a party. Cash asked him how he too could become a polka, king. Ostanek recollects Cash's loaded question. The Canadian replied, “ The first thing you have to do is buy an accordion.” Cash replied, “ Fair enough! ” And that was the end of it.
Ostanek looked at me directly, “ I try to be positive and look at the good side whenever I can. ”
Then his voice changed to disappointment recalling his meeting with Mickey Rooney. Standing in line, the gentleman who stood in front of Ostanek had waited for months for the chance to meet Mr. Rooney and get his autograph. Rooney looked at him and blurted out, “ Keep the line moving. Can't you see I'm busy? ” Ostanek grimaces a little at the memory of Rooney also refusing to give him his autograph until Rooney's wife finally prodded her husband to sign.
Ostanek waited sixty years to meet Roy Rogers, and that happened on The Fifth Estate. The King of Polka had a twenty-minute spot on the show with the King of Cowboys.
I asked Ostanek what he thought about achieving life's goals?
If you only have many spoons and a two-foot thick concrete wall in front of you and if you keep gnawing at the wall eventually you'll get through it.
Since my chat with Mr. Ostanek I too went out and bought a pair of running shoes for myself now that it's almost Summer. Perhaps unconsciously my purchase was a little symbolic act of an imaginary walk in Mr. Ostanek's shoes — a remarkable journey indeed!©