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The Founder of Jolly Al's Oompah Band Plays 'Happy Music for Happy People'

November 28, 1987| Reflections showcases county residents who have an interesting life story and gives them a forum to tell it in their own words. and

Al Srnka left behind a North Dakota grain farm when he settled in Orange County nearly 20 years ago -- but not the European music he learned on a button accordion at age 14. An accordionist with a repertoire of Czech and German music, he played Los Angeles Polka Palace intermissions, met his wife , Bertha, organized a Czechoslovakian Roman Catholic Mission to congregate Czech immigrants in Los Angeles and sunk some money into Huntington Beach real estate -- all the while wintering in Los Angeles with friends during the '50s. He moved his family here in the late '60s and went into Westminster real estate sales (he proudly cites his 1975 award for the fastest-sold house listings in his listing in the 1986-87 Who's Who of California).

In 1970, he formed Jolly Al's Oompah Band. His daughter, then age 10, became the band's alto sax player, and the music is now carrying him into retirement. At 58, his six-member ensemble includes two Czech immigrants musically educated at Prague University and a drummer who cut his teeth on Chicago polka bands. October is their busiest month--but Srnka and band don't languish the rest of the year: there are weddings, hockey playoffs, banquets, private parties and promotions for car dealerships. The following remarks were taken from an interview with Srnka in his Garden Grove home by Times staff writer Nancy Reed.

I enjoyed the accordion as a kid back in North Dakota because it's something you can play by yourself, without accompaniment. It was like a little orchestra in itself. I have always liked happy music. It is still our slogan: "Happy music for happy people."

There are three things you have to have today to play German music. You've got to have the electronic accordion, you've got to have lederhosen and you've got to play the chicken dance. People want that dance about two or three times an hour. Everybody does it, up from the littlest kid to the oldest grandpa. You flap your wings, wiggle your rear and clap. We played for a woman recently for her 90th birthday who had loved dancing all her life, but now is confined to wheelchair. She was up there doing her chicken dancing sitting down.

The time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, fasching , is called the party season in Germany because they used to stop dancing during Lent. So we play for lots of parties then--it is like the German Mardi Gras.

We do waltzes, polkas, Rhinelanders and German marches and the Herr Schmidt, which is very similar to the Mexican hat dance. And, of course, strange as it may seem, we do tangos. Most people relate them to Latin music, but it originated in Middle Europe and it just spread.

We do a lot of Christmas parties, like the one we did for the president of an insurance company up on Spyglass Hill. Those are generally big parties. And those people have such big family rooms--they are as big as our house. For those people it is usually 50% European and 50% music from the '30s and '40s. They are more sophisticated. They don't let themselves go as easily as the others.

We could not get over it--one time when we played at a Yorba Linda house for a wedding reception. When we got there, we saw the people coming in with torn jeans and old shirts, and I said to Bertha, "I have never played for a bunch of hillbillies in my life."

They had a big dinner with corn on the cob, lamb chops, baked potatoes, a typical farmer-type dinner. Everybody was having a heck of a good time. When it ended at midnight and the guy gave me the check, I noticed he was an attorney at law. He says the rest of the people were attorneys, district court judges, circuit court judges. And here we thought they were a bunch of "Oakies" and "Arkies." They just wanted to let their hair down.

I do this more for the fun than the money. My daughter likes jazz, but she does like this kind of music, too, which is unusual for a young person. So I think when I am gone, someone will carry on.

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