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Polka legend in 70th year

Eighteen-year-old Florian Chmielewski played his first gig in 1945, at a Sturgeon Lake neighbor’s wedding dance.  He had been playing the accordion for all of three months and knew six songs, including My Happiness, Johann Pa Schnippen (you know this one if you ever schottisched) and another schottische to play the couple down the aisle. He varied his repertoire throughout the event, and the crowd didn’t catch wise. He earned $13 dollars and never looked back.

It was the beginning of a distinguished career which has led him into two diverse directions. Like many musicians, he has had a second career:  From 1970 to 1996, he was a Minnesota State Senator.  Along the way he has established and/or consulted on several polka fests, performed many ecumenical polka masses and toured the U.S. and many foreign countries. The Chmielewski Funtime Band won nine out of 11 polka awards in the 1988 and 1989 Minnesota Music Academy Awards (Minnies).  They have performed in the Bahamas for a cultural exchange mission, and at the Minnesota State Fair and the Hostfest in Minot, N.D., which is America’s largest Scandinavian Festival.

Florian carries on a family tradition. He says, “In the late 1800s, my grandfather Frank came from Poland with a violin in his hands. In 1911, my father Tony started the second generation, playing the violin and button box with his brothers, John and Nick, who both played the violin. John bought a dance hall, and they performed every week.”

Florian developed his musical talents further from 1952 to 1954. While stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Shreveport, La., he had a regular radio show, sharing the mike with Hank Williams and other established performers.

He was back on the family farm, milking some 50 head of cattle and preparing to run for county commissioner, when Florian and family made an appearance on Cloquet radio. After only three performances, two on the radio and one at a local tavern, he found a Duluth TV crew waiting in his yard to offer them a weekly show called Polish TV Party. They appeared eight times a week as what Florian calls “the whirlwind” began with the evenual hit show Chmielewski Funtime Band.

This year marks his 70th anniversary in the music business. A celebration is planned for May 29-31 at Grand Casino in Hinckley.

Polka music has always been known as happy music, and nobody exemplifies that better than Florian.

“If you love what you’re doing, it isn’t even work,” he said.

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