The National Polka Festival, an annual music festival held each May in Ennis, Texas, was first organized in 1966 by Raymond Zapletal, Len Gehrig, and Joe Liska, in conjunction with Jack McKay, head of the local Chamber of Commerce. As the largest Czech polka festival in the United States, in the 2010s it attracts approximately 50,000 people who join together in dancing, singing, and celebrating Czech cultural heritage every Memorial Day weekend.
The tradition of Czech polka music spread throughout the Lone Star State soon after the first large groups of Czech immigrants began arriving in the 1850s. Three other major waves of immigration during the 1870s, 1880s, and early 1900s helped give Czech culture a strong presence throughout the Southwest. Most Czechs settled in Central and North Central Texas, where they set up farms, schools, social and cultural organizations, and newspapers to help maintain their language and ethnic identity.
For these new Texas Czechs, music played a vital role in their day-to-day lives. Dancing was an important part of this musical culture, providing entertainment, exercise, and recreational time with the family. At first dances were held in private homes, but as the Texas-Czech population grew, several organizations began building dance halls which regularly hosted dances and other celebrations of Czech culture.
Ennis, which is about forty miles south of Dallas, is one of the most northern Czech settlements in Texas. The town has four large Czech fraternal halls, three of which participate in the festival—the Knights of Columbus, the Sokol Activity Center, and Katolicka Jednota Texaska (Catholic Union of Texas) known as the KJT—which provide centrally-located venues for all the festival’s music and dancing. Because it has maintained a thriving Czech culture, Ennis is ideally suited for hosting the National Polka Festival.
The festival kicks off on Friday with a dancing competition, followed by a King and Queen contest that evening. The parade starts on Saturday morning at 10:00 A.M. and includes clowns, cheerleaders, bands, floats, and horses. The festival also offers traditional food, dancing, costumes, music, arts and crafts, and a horseshoe tournament. On Sunday, Mass is held at 10:00 A.M. at the Knights of Columbus, followed by more dancing, food, and music at all three halls.
Typically the festival features anywhere from eight to fourteen bands performing different styles of polka music, ranging from traditional to modern. Participants have included Grammy-award-winning groups as well as bands from across the United States and as far away as the Czech Republic. A few of the more popular groups include Grammy-award-winning Brave Combo, Czech and Then Some, the Jodie Mikula Orchestra, Dujka Brothers, Texas Dutchmen, the Czechaholics, and the Ennis Czech Boys.
The National Polka Festival focuses on involving the entire family in the weekend’s events, thereby encouraging all generations to better understand and appreciate Czech history and culture. The influence of Czech musical traditions can be seen throughout the Southwest, as traditional Czech instruments and song styles, including the accordion and the polka, have been incorporated into Texas-Mexican conjunto, East Texas zydeco, and even western swing.