Journal Sentinel Article

01/30/11

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The following article was written by Lee Bergquist
posted on June 11,2005 for Journal Sentinel website:

Verne Meisner wrote, played polkas like no other

He was 66 and lived in Waukesha. His death was attributed to complications of melanoma.

"He was a heavyweight in the polka world," said John Pinter, president of the Wisconsin Polka Boosters Inc.

"Frankie Yankovic was the Godfather of all polka music. Verne was almost as big as Frankie Yankovic was."

Meisner was elected to five polka halls of fame, including the International Polka Hall of Fame in Chicago and the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame.

As news of his death spread, WTKM-FM (104.9) of Hartford, a station specializing in polka and country music, began getting calls for requests to play Meisner polkas, said Maureen Hornung, the station's traffic manager.

Meisner and son Steve toured Europe, the East Coast and frequently played in Las Vegas and Branson, Mo.

In Wisconsin, Verne Meisner performed virtually anywhere polka music was played. He and his band played the first Summerfest at the lakefront in 1970. The Meisners were fixtures the last 14 years at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Verne Meisner bridged the gap between post-World War II traditionalists such as Yankovic, who was one of his idols, and the modern polka players, said Steve Meisner.

"When most people think polka, they think simple," Steve Meisner said. "His writing, his style was more progressive."

"He had his own style of playing," said Bryan O'Donnell of Franklin, a concertina player and contemporary who jammed with Verne Meisner on many occasions. "I wish I was as talented as he was."

Meisner was influenced by the popular songs and dance music of the 1960s, and as a musician trying to support himself, he spent countless hours playing pop and dance songs at venues such as Lake Lawn Lodge in Delavan.

"I think the reason he was so good is that he had a little slower beat to his music," said Pinter, 69, a winner of many dance trophies. "He got people to dance."

Grew up in musical family

Meisner grew up in a musical family in Whitewater and started playing professionally at 11. His formal training ended after 12 lessons with a local accordionist.

His brother, Henry, who became a car salesman, would promote his brother by plastering playbills around Whitewater, and his parents would bring him and a cousin to play in local taverns, according to Bob Ullenberg of Milwaukee.

He once asked Meisner how he played a polka song that was at once the same and different from others. "He told me 'my instrument tells me how to play it,' " Ullenberg recalled. "In that way he was like a painter."

Over his career, Meisner published 30 singles, 20 CDs or LPs and five videos, many of them in collaboration with his son. He also produced five videos and wrote more than 60 songs. Steve Meisner estimated that his father sold more than 1 million copies of his work during a 57-year career.

His most popular songs were "Memories of Vienna," a waltz and "El Rio Drive," written for the street on which he once lived in Menomonee Falls.

Ullenberg, an accordionist himself, called El Rio Drive "spritzy." O'Donnell said the song connects with audiences "because it's so uplifting - we play it all of the time because it's just such a happy tune."

"My dad had a knack for writing a song that people would remember," Steve Meisner said. "He was a genius with melody."

Often played together

Verne and Steve Meisner played in their own bands but often played together. Verne Meisner was never troubled by polka's drop in popularity, his son said, and was able to compensate by moving outside Milwaukee, and often the Midwest, to play 250 dates a year.

Talent and a strong work ethic kept him on the road. When his nose was stitched up after a car accident, he told doctors he had a gig to play and left with a wad of gauze on his face, his son recalled.

In a 1993 profile in The Milwaukee Journal, writer Jim Hazard described Meisner this way:

"The big-shouldered man, who can play a waltz like nobody else, comes across as one very solid package. Wrapped tight in that package are his valuables: music, family and a turning point in his life when he knew it was time to quit drinking or die."

Once, at a bar in Ely, Minn., the bartenders lined up shots along the entire front of the stage for the band to drink. His father "believed it was a requirement of the job to accept the drinks because the drinks paid for the band," Steve Meisner said.

"People just loved him and that can be a crutch."

He started missing jobs and hit bottom in 1986 as he teetered close to death from alcoholism when his son got a call from his dad at a motel on S. 27th St.

Verne Meisner, then 46, decided he was going turn his life around. He checked himself into a treatment center and when he got out, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Meisner didn't drink for 17 years.

After that, he occasionally slid backward. But in the last six months, he stopped drinking, telling his son he wanted to live.

The father and son played their last date together at Serb Hall in April.

Verne Meisner is survived by sons Steve, of Whitewater, and Daniel, of Seattle; a daughter, Michelle Bush, of Milton, Wis., a brother, Henry, of Whitewater; and a sister, Donna Borger of Horicon.

 

He was 66 and lived in Waukesha. His death was attributed to complications of melanoma.

"He was a heavyweight in the polka world," said John Pinter, president of the Wisconsin Polka Boosters Inc.

"Frankie Yankovic was the Godfather of all polka music. Verne was almost as big as Frankie Yankovic was."

Meisner was elected to five polka halls of fame, including the International Polka Hall of Fame in Chicago and the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame.

As news of his death spread, WTKM-FM (104.9) of Hartford, a station specializing in polka and country music, began getting calls for requests to play Meisner polkas, said Maureen Hornung, the station's traffic manager.

Meisner and son Steve toured Europe, the East Coast and frequently played in Las Vegas and Branson, Mo.

In Wisconsin, Verne Meisner performed virtually anywhere polka music was played. He and his band played the first Summerfest at the lakefront in 1970. The Meisners were fixtures the last 14 years at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Verne Meisner bridged the gap between post-World War II traditionalists such as Yankovic, who was one of his idols, and the modern polka players, said Steve Meisner.

"When most people think polka, they think simple," Steve Meisner said. "His writing, his style was more progressive."

"He had his own style of playing," said Bryan O'Donnell of Franklin, a concertina player and contemporary who jammed with Verne Meisner on many occasions. "I wish I was as talented as he was."

Meisner was influenced by the popular songs and dance music of the 1960s, and as a musician trying to support himself, he spent countless hours playing pop and dance songs at venues such as Lake Lawn Lodge in Delavan.

"I think the reason he was so good is that he had a little slower beat to his music," said Pinter, 69, a winner of many dance trophies. "He got people to dance."

Grew up in musical family

Meisner grew up in a musical family in Whitewater and started playing professionally at 11. His formal training ended after 12 lessons with a local accordionist.

His brother, Henry, who became a car salesman, would promote his brother by plastering playbills around Whitewater, and his parents would bring him and a cousin to play in local taverns, according to Bob Ullenberg of Milwaukee.

He once asked Meisner how he played a polka song that was at once the same and different from others. "He told me 'my instrument tells me how to play it,' " Ullenberg recalled. "In that way he was like a painter."

Over his career, Meisner published 30 singles, 20 CDs or LPs and five videos, many of them in collaboration with his son. He also produced five videos and wrote more than 60 songs. Steve Meisner estimated that his father sold more than 1 million copies of his work during a 57-year career.

His most popular songs were "Memories of Vienna," a waltz and "El Rio Drive," written for the street on which he once lived in Menomonee Falls.

Ullenberg, an accordionist himself, called El Rio Drive "spritzy." O'Donnell said the song connects with audiences "because it's so uplifting - we play it all of the time because it's just such a happy tune."

"My dad had a knack for writing a song that people would remember," Steve Meisner said. "He was a genius with melody."

Often played together

Verne and Steve Meisner played in their own bands but often played together. Verne Meisner was never troubled by polka's drop in popularity, his son said, and was able to compensate by moving outside Milwaukee, and often the Midwest, to play 250 dates a year.

Talent and a strong work ethic kept him on the road. When his nose was stitched up after a car accident, he told doctors he had a gig to play and left with a wad of gauze on his face, his son recalled.

In a 1993 profile in The Milwaukee Journal, writer Jim Hazard described Meisner this way:

"The big-shouldered man, who can play a waltz like nobody else, comes across as one very solid package. Wrapped tight in that package are his valuables: music, family and a turning point in his life when he knew it was time to quit drinking or die."

Once, at a bar in Ely, Minn., the bartenders lined up shots along the entire front of the stage for the band to drink. His father "believed it was a requirement of the job to accept the drinks because the drinks paid for the band," Steve Meisner said.

"People just loved him and that can be a crutch."

He started missing jobs and hit bottom in 1986 as he teetered close to death from alcoholism when his son got a call from his dad at a motel on S. 27th St.

Verne Meisner, then 46, decided he was going turn his life around. He checked himself into a treatment center and when he got out, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Meisner didn't drink for 17 years.

After that, he occasionally slid backward. But in the last six months, he stopped drinking, telling his son he wanted to live.

The father and son played their last date together at Serb Hall in April.

Verne Meisner is survived by sons Steve, of Whitewater, and Daniel, of Seattle; a daughter, Michelle Bush, of Milton, Wis., a brother, Henry, of Whitewater; and a sister, Donna Borger of Horicon.

 

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