Preserving One Facet of St. Pete’s Cultural Heritage: The Polish-American Society
Tucked between the Coast Guard Station on one side and the Army Reserve Training Center on the other, the Polish-American Society of St. Petersburg is a throwback to a different era. Monika Smolarczyk, the club’s secretary, tells me that at one time, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Hungarian, and Polish clubs were all located within a few blocks of each other on Beach Drive SE in St. Petersburg’s charming and eclectic Old Southeast neighborhood. That was back in the 1950s and ’60s, when from January through April, St. Petersburg was a mecca for snowbirds escaping the cold. The private social clubs offered camaraderie, networking, music, dancing, and great food. Each had hundreds of members during the season.
Today, the Polish-American Society is the only one left in this location, still going strong after 66 years. Club members are on a campaign to make sure it stays open by reaching out to a younger, more diverse crowd. Although decades ago most club members were Polish, today that is definitely not the case. “Everyone is welcome,” says Monika, who is actually the only current member who was born in Poland. She is the director of marketing at UPC Insurance in downtown St. Petersburg.
“I had just moved into the Old Southeast neighborhood and looked across the way to see a sign on one of the buildings that said Polish-American Society,” she says. “It was Easter Sunday and I thought, ‘I just have to check this out.’”
Mid-Week Stress Break
In mid-April, I stopped by the club for a visit on ‘Thirsty Thursdays,’ a new weekly event club members started to raise awareness about the society and entice new people to join. Frances Gatz and Roger Telschow, who live in the Old Southeast, are in charge of the kitchen. Chuck Majewski mans the bar – the club has a full liquor license and also offers Polish beer. “We were taking a walk one night and saw the club and were surprised – we had no idea it was there,” says Roger. “Frances was always trying to get me to go dancing, so we decided to give it a try. The intimacy of this place is so rare in our world. I think people are hungry for community and they will certainly find it here.”
Dancing is a big draw for club members. The club has an enormous floating dance floor, second only to the St. Petersburg Coliseum. In fact, a few years ago, in collaboration with the Coliseum, the Polish-American Society began offering its own version of the Coliseum’s popular weekday ballroom tea dances. Dances at the Polish-American club are on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, and a bargain at $10, which includes the lesson.
Dancing is what attracted Alice and Don Kohler, who have a condo on North Shore Blvd. in the old Northeast and a home in Maryland. They’ve been coming to the club for over 30 years. At first, they just stopped by between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, during a visit with parents at the holidays. “One year, Don was looking through the phone book for a place where we could go dancing and he found the Polish-American Society,” says Alice. “We’re not Polish, but we love dancing, especially the polka.”
After Don retired from Lockheed Martin, the couple began spending January through April in St. Petersburg and the rest of the year in Maryland. “When we’re here in St. Petersburg, the club is the center of our lives,” says Don. “When we’re back at our home in Maryland, our focus is our grandchildren.” The couple, who have been married 55 years, have four children and 15 grandchildren. Don is now in charge of maintenance on the club building, as well as member communications. Alice is the main cook for the club’s regular Sunday dinners which are held weekly from 2pm to 3:30pm, followed by dancing from 3pm to 6pm.
St. Pete’s Version of Dyngus Day
My visit to the club was also a few days before Dyngus Day, one of the biggest social events on the club’s calendar. Don and a few other members wore big red and white buttons with a Happy Dyngus Day slogan on it. “Do you know what that is?” Don asked. I had to confess that I’d never heard of it. “It’s the day when everyone’s Polish,” he quipped.
Later, I Googled Dyngus Day and learned that it’s a big celebration to mark the end of the Lenten season and all of its religious restrictions. It’s not that dissimilar to St. Patrick’s Day or Fat Tuesday in New Orleans. According to various internet sites, the tradition of Dyngus Day actually dates back to pre-Christian practices, with the sprinkling of water as an ancient rite of spring to symbolize purification, and the carrying of pussy willow branches – the first buds to appear after winter’s end. Over the centuries, the celebration evolved into a form of flirtation with the boys pouring water on girls and tapping them with pussy willows.
St. Petersburg’s celebration is a little tame in comparison. No one throws water and the pussy willows stay in their vases. But club members decorate the hall in red and white, the official Polish national colors, and they host a traditional Polish dinner with kielbasa, sauerkraut and pierogies, followed by polka music and dancing with a live band.
The largest Dyngus Day celebration in the US takes place in Buffalo, New York, but other big cities with sizeable Eastern European populations hold them, too, like Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and South Bend, Indiana. This year, some 30,000 people attended a Dyngus Day parade and festival in Cleveland. I’m not sure that would happen here, but who knows?
Learn more about the Polish-American Society at www.polishsociety.org or stop by 1343 Beach Drive SE.