‘Could I have this dance?’
Larry’s Polka Fest marked its 25th anniversary this year of dancing to top-notch live music in rural Lake Benton
Every year on Memorial Day weekend, Larry Olsen’s farm buildings next to U.S. Highway 14 are transformed into a world class dance party filled with the traditions of music, fellowship and enjoyment.
Olsen, who at heart is both a farmer and a musician, opens up his farm site to the public for three days of music and dancing. The celebration, known as Larry’s Polka Fest, marked its 25th anniversary in 2019.
Olsen said he often gets encouragement to host dances more often, and also regularly gets requests to use the dance hall for weddings, reunions, birthday parties and other celebrations.
Since farming is part of his livelihood, however, the dance floor, along with dozens of tables and chairs are put into storage until the next annual polka festival.
“We try to make it a special event that will make everyone want to come back, and that will keep many of them coming back year after year,” Olsen said. “The biggest reason it works is that I have a lot of good volunteer help. It’s turned into everything I’d hoped for when we started it.”
Since the 1990s, he’s expanded from one stage and dance floor to two, a main ballroom and a second ballroom next to the food stand area. Together they enable more people to enjoy dancing at the same time. They also double the number of bands that perform.
Olsen said he has no difficulty filling out a three-day performance line-up. All of the bands are from the Upper Midwest. States represented in 2019 included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota.
A two-member Wisconsin band, which has kept the name Top Notchmen even with just two musicians on stage, has been part of every Lake Benton area polka fest except for its first year.
On Friday afternoon last weekend, they played continuously for two 90-minute sets. Among their selections were the Buddy Knox rock ‘n’ roll song “Party Doll,” the ballad “Could I Have This Dance” sung by performers such as Anne Murray, and the popular old-time dance song “Red Satin Shoes.”
Olsen’s very own Larry Olsen Band followed with an hour-long afternoon set, which preceded a two-hour show scheduled in the evening.
The lineup also had plenty of different music styles. Some of it featured polka music classics such as the “Too Fat Polka” with the humor-oriented lyrics “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.”
Those selections were combined with other music styles such as country hits often featured in line dancing. Everyone wearing cowboy hats raised them high in the air as they stayed in step with the song “Let the Cowboy Dance.”
“We’re known as a polka festival,” Olsen said. “We’re true to those traditions, but our music is more than just polkas and waltzes. It includes almost any songs that are good for dancing, ones that all age groups and family members can enjoy.”
He’s recently noticed a shift in the variety of age groups that participate each Memorial Day weekend, one that gives him reasons to believe that his annual dances with the same kinds of bands and music will continue to attract large crowds.
“We’re definitely seeing more young people,” he said. “I can honestly say that. I started to notice it several years ago, and we keep bringing in more of them.”
He added that younger participants (ranging from children to adults under 50) sometimes attend as part of a group with older relatives. Others, however, are younger participants who attend just because the like the music, dancing, and atmosphere.
Olsen said the polka fest happens rain or shine. Unusually wet conditions this spring made it impossible to park in the pasture area adjacent to his farm site. Instead he arranged for cars to park at the side of a Lake Benton Township road. Because the walking distance stretched to about a half mile one way at peak festival times, organizers provided continuous shuttle service with small-sized buses.
While riding to the dance, Herman Luepke of Luverne and his family talked about their family-wide interest in old-time music. They’re good friends of Larry and Brenda Olsen. Larry and his band played for Herman’s 80th birthday party.
“We’ve been attending every year with my dad,” said Herman’s son, Matthew of Minneapolis. “It’s his favorite event of the year.”
Their family group for the Memorial Day weekend activities in Lake Benton now features three generations. A grandson, preschooler Henry Luepkes, attended his third straight Polka Fest in 2019.
Another yearly participant, Don Hirsch of Sleepy Eye, joined Larry’s volunteer crew for the first time last weekend. He found that it added an extra dimension to how he’s enjoyed being part of it in the past as a guest.
“I’m retired and able-bodied, so I thought I could help out,” Hirsch said. “I’ve always liked coming to Polka Fest because it’s a chance to see so many of my friends. There’s always a big crowd, and everyone’s always happy.”
Another volunteer, Jeff Buesing of Lynd, played as Larry’s drummer for four years. It became his most recent chance to perform throughout the region, something that goes back to 1968 when he helped to start the Cavemen band in Marshall.
“My wife (Mary Jo) and I always look forward to Larry’s weekend,” Buesing said. “Helping at the food stand seems more like fun than work. We see old friends and meet a lot of great people. We also enjoy a dance once in a while.”