Drumming has always come naturally to Dean Fornoff of Springfield. He’s loved drumming ever since he was in elementary school when he would play around with the drums in his basement.
“If you can count to two you should be able to play drums,” Fornoff said.
Although he’s played in almost 60 bands throughout his nearly six decades of drumming, polka music was always his real passion. As a child he used to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every Saturday morning so he could listen to polka music on the radio.
“What it all comes back to, where it started and ended for me is polka music,” Fornoff said.
To honor his musical achievements, Fornoff was one of five musicians inducted Jan. 21 into the Musicians Hall of Fame during the 18th annual ceremony and jamboree at Ron’s Tavern in Milligan, Nebraska.
In addition to Fornoff, others honored for their dedication to the preservation of Czech music were Alan Brunkow of Western and Leonard Lisec of Dorchester. Honored posthumously were Milo Brchan of Lincoln; and Anton Kvasnicka of Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Musicians were honored for of their dedication and contributions to Czech music.
“That was a real honor because I was not expecting that at all,” Fornoff said.
This is not the first hall of fame for Fornoff, who was also inducted into the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.
His career officially started when he was only 10 years old in 1961. Fornoff’s uncle, Elmer Helwig, was forming a five-piece polka band. Looking for a drummer, Hewlig enlisted his young nephew to join the Double BB Beer Barrel Polka Band.
That would be the first of 58 bands Fornoff would perform with throughout his career, from the Platteview High School band to dozens of polka bands that played across the country.
While farming during the day, Fornoff would often have gigs four nights a week for different bands, especially during the 1970s, where many restaurants, bars and halls had polka performances every week. Over the years, he’s played with noted bands such as Frank Hazuka, Polka Kings, Bobby Z and Polka Joy.
Included in his stops were Sokol Auditorium, the Livestock Exchange Building and many bars which have since closed.
Fornoff would play in his regular bands and fill in for other bands in need of a drummer.
Perhaps the highlight of Fornoff’s career was a trip to Czechoslovakia in 1987 where he drummed with the Omaha Czech Brass Band.
“That was unbelievable to be playing music where it originated in the 1800s,” Fornoff said.
His band was warmly greeted in the old country, where the Czechs were thrilled to see the popularity of their music had been passed on to the United States.
“People were amazed that the culture is still alive in America,” Fornoff said.
Although Fornoff is German, he sees a lot of similarities between Czech and German polka. Both differ from the Polish version, which is played at a slower tempo.
A lot has changed in the polka world since Fornoff began drumming, and he’s seen the popularity of polka music decline over the years. He believes it started in the 1980s when DJs started to become more popular.
“We used to play a lot of weddings and anniversaries in the 1960s and 1970s, but when the 1980s came around the DJs took over,” Fornoff said. “The live music started to fade.”
Fornoff can now count on one hand the establishments that still provide live polka music — one of which is the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Nebraska. The crowds have also aged and Fornoff estimates the average polka enthusiast in Nebraska is somewhere around 70.
Many of the places that used to play polka music every night have closed, most recently The Bohemian Café in Omaha, a Czech restaurant which featured polka music on a weekly basis. Sokol Auditorium, which used to feature polka music every weekend, now only features polka performances once a year.
Despite all this, Fornoff believes polka music is still a crowd pleaser that can get people dancing.
“At weddings, when they play a polka, it’ll get everyone on the dance floor and it’ll liven the party up,” Fornoff said.
Still banging on the same drum set he’s been using for 50 years, Fornoff plays at a variety of parties and events with many of the same people he’s been playing with for decades.
“It’s like a lifetime hobby,” Fornoff said. “I’ve made lifetime friends that I never would have met before,” Fornoff said.