It may have seemed a little out of character at a high school band parade to have a man playing polkas on his concertina, but what else would one expect from a musician who’s been delighting audiences around the area for nearly seven decades.
Luverne Wanous of Owatonna, MN kicked off the Harry Wenger Marching Band Festival recently as grand marshal doing exactly what he loves—playing polka music on the “squeeze box” as he refers to it. “That’s my kind of music,” said Wanous.
As he rode on a convertible through the parade route, Wanous found many people cheering him on, with some even giving him a standing ovation. “I’ve played for some of their weddings and anniversaries,” he reflected.
“It hit my vital organs,” Wanous said of being chosen grand marshal. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think of being honored like this. I don’t know how to explain it – it meant the world to me.”
Music has been an integral part of Wanous’ life ever since he began playing concertina for a Christmas program in grade school. He attended a one-room school house for eight years near Owatonna before eventually graduating from Owatonna High School in 1953.
In 1958, Wanous purchased a new handmade concertina from New Ulm, MN. He continues to use it today.
He was still in high school when he began performing at the Steele County Free Fair. Wanous, 82, has lost count, but he thinks it’s about 70-straight years that he has played at the fair. “I’ll be back again this year,” he said, noting he will be playing all six days of the fair.
Wanous has a grandson who graduated from Owatonna after playing in the band for several years. “I enjoyed ribbing him that the band would have sounded better with a concertina,” he said with a smile.
The veteran polka king said there were no such music programs when he went to school. “I learned to play by ear, and it was all self-taught,” he said.
He now marvels at the quality of music performed by high school marching bands. “I think there is some super talent,” Wanous said. “I admire the kids for the teaching they are getting,” he added.
In the late 1950s, Wanous formed his own seven-piece band that played at weddings and ballrooms for many years. Sadly, Wanous said, the popularity of old-time music is waning, as is ballroom music in general. He rattled off a whole list of ballrooms around the region he used to play at that are no longer in business, many of which have even been demolished.
But, Wanous doesn’t miss a beat as he still performs around the area at many nursing homes and celebrations. Recently, he traveled to the Brainerd area to play at a 75th wedding anniversary. He plays at about 120 jobs throughout the year.
“Playing comes from the heart,” Wanous said. “When you can see so many people have fun, that’s what makes it so special.”
For most of his adult life, Wanous farmed 1,000 acres south of Owatonna. But, make no question about what his priority was. “Playing concertina came first, and farming came second,” he said. “I couldn’t live without music.”
Wanous found being the grand marshal as a “true honor,” and one of the highlights of his career. He thanked the Wenger Corporation for making it all possible for him.
Just like his music, his real feelings come from the heart.
“I’m proud to be honored,” he said.