The Dick Rodgers Story
Dick became interested in polka music while growing up watching and listening to his dads 7 piece orchestra. His dad, Joe, played drums and violin and was active in the band business from 1925-1945. Dick took piano lessons while in high school and taught himself to play drums and concertina.
The Dick Rodgers Orchestra, organized in 1945 while Dick was a senior in high school, was comprised of himself and a few of his high school classmates. Some of the original members included Leonard Nowak, Chester Nowak, Warren Johnson, Ed Peterman, Lloyd Wielgus, Gene Franz, Dick Kuklinski and Edmund Konopka. Dick Metko became a permanent member of the band in 1958.
Mr. Frank Joswick, principal of the Pulaski High School , allowed the boys to play during the noon hour in the gym. They were then hired by the Sinclair Oil Co. to perform at the local oil companys meetings.
Their first public dance job was at the Caroline Ballroom in Caroline, W1. Within a few years, the band was doing live radio broadcasts from WMAM Radio in Marinette, WI.
Photo. Back l to r. Dick Rodgers, Leonard Nowak, Pat Kadlec, Ed Peterman, Warren Johnson. Front l to r. Gene Franz, Lloyd Wielgus, and Chester Nowak.
In 1949, Dick first recorded with the Pastel Label in Chicago , IL . His first 2 - 78 rpm records were Josie Polka, Lets Be Happy, Who Loves You Polka and Good Humor Laendler. In subsequent years he recorded with Pfau, Decca, Jay-Jay, Gold Star and finally, Polkaland Records.
From radio and recordings, the next step was television. In 1955, their first live telecast originated from WMBV-TV, Channel 11 in Marinette, which later moved to Green Bay and changed its name to WLUK-TV.
On August 18, 1951 Dick Rodgers and Joan Birr were married
Their wedding dance was at Green Valley with music by Romy Gosz and his Orchestra. Romy is pictured with couple on right.
In 1958, Dick Metko joined the band creating a new sound and adding versatility to the band with concertina/accordion duets.
Photo. Back l to r. Al Johanek, Elgene Nuhlicek, Dick Rodgers. Front l to r. Ed Peterman, Leo Valenta, Warren Johnson, Don Holewinski.
Dick Rodgers, Concertina. Thoughout the 1050s Dick led the band from the piano with occasional concertina features.
Back from left. Elgene Nuhlicek, Bernie Hoppe, and Dick Rodgers. Front from left. Don Holewinski, Warren Johnson, Ludger Karmen, and Emil Yindra.
Dick and his Orchestra started with Channel 11, went to Channel 2, WBAY-TV, for 11 years, then ended with WLUK-TV, Channel 11. The program began as a half hour show later expanding to a full hour and continued until 1978 for a total of 23 consecutive years. At the height of its popularity, it was carried by 17 different stations throughout the Midwest .
In 1967, Dick was chosen Orchestra Leader of the Year by the Wisconsin Orchestra Leaders Association. He was inducted into the International Polka Hall of Fame in Chicago in 1976, the first person from Wisconsin to receive that honor. He became a member of the World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame in 1996, and, on November 2, 1997, Dick was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.
Back, l to r. Dutch Van Enkenvort, Glenn Richmond, Tuba. Front, l to r. Emil Yindra, Leo Valenta, Warren Johnson, Merlyn Pawlitzky, Dick Metko, Steve Rodgers, Dick Rodgers, and Dave OBrian, Announcer.
Photo. l to r. Steve Rodgers, Dick Metko, Dutch Van Enkenvort, Duane Westphal, John Valenta, Warren (Slim) Johnson, Merlyn Pawlitzky, Glenn Richmond, and Dick Rodgers.
The Orchestra engagements, on a regular basis, included ballrooms throughout the Midwest including Wisconsin, Upper & Lower Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, with occasional appearances in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, California and Connecticut. Tours also took the band to Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Hawaii.
Ballrooms most frequently featuring the band were the Caroline Ballroom,Cinderella at Appleton; Susters, Denmark; Laacks Hall, Johnsonville; Plesheks, Shawano; Schmidts and Colonial Ballrooms, Wausau; Chet and Emils, Birnamwood; Roubals Hall, Wallace, MI; Riverview Ballroom, Sauk City; and Rondevoo, Milwaukee.
In 1976, Dick relinquished leadership of the band to Fritz Willfahrt who took over the orchestra. Dick, however, with 2 or 3 musician friends, continued to entertain for parties, anniversaries and special occasions until he suffered a stroke in 1995. As the saying goes, a born musician never quits.
Dick married Joan Birr in 1951. They have 3 sons; Steve, Dave and Tom and a daughter, Chris, all of whom are musicians and carry on the Rodgers legacy. Dick was in the insurance business for 35 years until son, Steve, took over the agency in 1988. Dick continues to maintain his interest in and love for music and attends several musical events a year, as often as health and weather permit.
By Joan Rodgers.
Photo. Back. l to r. The Rodgers Family, 1993. David, Steve, Tom, and Chris Rodgers. Front. Joan & Dick Rodgers.