The barking polka lady

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February 9, 2004 // UPDATED 2:51 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

She plays an accordion, but East Bank bar patrons tell pals 'You've gotta hear this lady bark'

At first blush, the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band at Nye's Polonaise Room doesn't appear to live up to its name.

The trio of seniors, clad in matching glittery vests, play polkas, waltzes and fox trots with serious faces and little movement on a small stage in the supper club's backroom bar. If anything, the charming band has a disarming demeanor.

But there is one thing about the polka trio that might qualify as borderline dangerous: the raspy yelp of long-time accordion player Ruth Adams, who turns 72 this month.

The band's long-time drummer and legendary lady's man, Al Ophus, used to be the band's barker until he died last year. At a practice session, the polka trio discovered Adams had a knack for yelping.

Adams breaks out her hilarious yip during the "Barking Dog Polka." The high-pitched growl comes as a surprise. The accordion player barks with her eyes closed and a deadpan expression -- something that helps her constrain an overwhelming urge to laugh.

Adams, a modest woman of few words and teeth, has been a Nye's fixture for 29 years. When asked about her barking skills, she demurred.

Joe Hayden, 61, the band's trumpet player and more outspoken front man, chimed in. "People have heard it before, and they bring their friends in and say, 'You've gotta hear this lady bark.' It's a real good thing for us. Other than 'it's a very authentic sounding bark,' I don't know how you'd describe it," he said.

Adams has taken a few music lessons but learned a lot of songs by ear listening to the radio. Her favorite artists include Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

She plays an Iorio accordion, an Italian electronic instrument with the capacity to make gunshot sounds.

Adams, Hayden and drummer Rick Andin, a newcomer to the band, keep a rigorous schedule, playing four-to-five-hour sets Thursday through Saturday.

The band has attracted national attention with an appearance on ABC's Good Morning America in 2002 and mentions in several publications.

Independent filmmaker Sonya "Sonny" Tormoen of St. Paul had planned a documentary on the band but put it on the backburner when Olphus, the band's star, passed away.

Tormoen has admired the band for years. She cast Adams for a parade scene in the 1999 film, "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a movie about a beauty pageant in small town in Minnesota. She also tapped the band for an appearance on Comedy Central's "Let's Bowl."

"They just love what they do and will do it until they can't do it anymore. Nothing has stopped them," Tormoen said.

Adams, who has been with the band the longest, says she has no plans to retire anytime soon. She says she loves her band and has developed a fondness for her loyal fans. One of her more die-hard fans bakes her a cake each year for her birthday.

"I will keep playing as long as the Lord gives me strength," she said.

She has kept playing despite battling breast and stomach cancer in recent years. Hayden said he urged her to keep playing.

"Instead of sitting home and being down, I told her she's gotta go out and do something she enjoys," he said.

Despite appearing somewhat stiff and serious on stage, the band has an irreverent sense of humor. They maintain a light-hearted Web site (www.wmdpb.com) where they peddle blue panties bearing the band's name and spotlight a fan of the month.

The band travels around the country for polka festivals, playing about 250 gigs a year. Their song selection runs the gamut, from country singers Willie Nelson and Hank Williams to polka star Frankie Yankovic.

"The key to the music business is that you don't want to become stale," Hayden said. "The band has kind of become cultish for the kids, I guess. It's very unusual that young people would like the kind of music that we play. We play music that's 40, 50, 70 years old. It's just a good time without any strings attached or any stigma. A lot of kids think they have to go hear a rock band to be 'in.' Well, these kids don't."

Hayden said he hopes the band can keep playing for another 17 years, at which point he doubts he'll have the lungpower left to blow his trumpet.

Old school

Adams and her band mates are among a handful of eclectic characters at Nye's that give the piano bar/supper club at 112 E. Hennepin Ave. a unique flavor.

Other characters include the bar's namesake and former owner Al Nye, 88, who still stops at the restaurant for lunch; Lou Snyder, who graces the piano bar; and Phil Barker, a long-time bartender and legendary storyteller, among others.

The place started as a small, blue-collar bar in 1949. The bar's first owner, Al Nye, later snatched up more space along East Hennepin, expanding to include a large supper club, which has become famous for its prime rib.

Over the years, it has been a destination for celebrities. Actors Billy Bob Thornton, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Jim Belushi, Tim Allen and Woody Harrelson have made stops at Nye's. More recently, rock stars Har Mar Superstar and Rufus Wainwright have entertained guests with stints at the piano bar.

In recent years, the supper club has become a popular nightspot for both young and old. Most weekend nights the joint is packed with 20-something hipsters and an older crowd looking for some Perogies (Polish potato dumplings) and Sauerkraut.

In terms of d/cor, little has changed at Nye's over the years. The red and gold glittery vinyl booths date back to the 1960s. The carpet has been replaced, but that's about all.

While Nye's has remained a constant in the neighborhood, not much else has. New development has sprung up around all sides with more condos going up all the time.

"There used to be just a gas station nearby. There was nothing around here," Adams said.

Hayden said the changes have brought a whole new set of younger customers to Nye's. "It used to be a workingman's bar. Now, it's become more trendy. The college kids come now. They dance. They know the songs," he said.

Hostess Evelyn "Evie" Radke, a woman with a penchant for purple who has worked at Nye's for 26 years, said consistency has proven a good recipe for the Polish hotspot.

"The neighborhood has changed, but Nye's has stayed the same," she said. "We've got something for everybody."