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Polka festival opens at Cranberry Elks Lodge

From left, Alex Meixner Band members — saxophonist Mike Fortunato, drummer Tommy Halla and accordionist Alex Meixner — play to a packed house at the Cranberry Elks Lodge 2249. William Pitts/Butler Eagle

CRANBERRY TWP — Every seat in the house was filled at the banquet hall of the Cranberry Elks Lodge 2249 on Route 19 on Thursday night for the welcome party for the International Polka Association’s annual festival.

This year marks the Association’s 55th annual festival, and the third year in a row that it has been held in Cranberry Township. Prior to 2020, the festival had been held in Buffalo, N.Y.

The headline act on opening night was the Alex Meixner Band, a four-piece polka band based out of New Braunfels, Texas. In addition to Meixner, who was inducted to the IPA’s Hall of Fame in 2022, the band also featured Mike Fortunato on saxophone, Rory Hoffman on guitar and Tommy Halla on drums.

Meixner injected plenty of local color into the performance, at one point asking whether members of the crowd were Pittsburgh Steelers fans or Baltimore Ravens fans. Naturally, only two people in attendance chose the Ravens.

The band performed a mix of old classics, such as the theme to the Benny Hill Show, as well as their own originals, such as “Why Die Thirsty?”

According to Chris Bogdon, who serves as second vice president of the association, it was a simple matter to snag Meixner and his band for the show.

“He's a good friend of mine. I play in polkas. I play in a band myself,” Bogdon said. “He's from Texas and he's playing in Ohio for an Oktoberfest. And I asked him to come play the welcome party, and he did.”

The ones in attendance at the Elks Lodge weren’t the only ones who had a chance to listen to Meixner and his band. The crew from the Polka Jammer Network internet radio station was on hand to stream the show to a worldwide audience.

While the Cranberry Elks Lodge hosted the opening night concert, the rest of the polka festival will take place at the DoubleTree Hotel in Mars from Friday, Sept. 1, through Sunday, Sept. 3.

According to Bogdon, who is also secretary for the Cranberry Elks, no fewer than 10 polka acts are scheduled to play at the festival over the weekend, coming in from as far away as California.

Among those booked for the show are Klancnik and Friends, Lenny Gomulka & the Chicago Push, and Polka Country Musicians.

“There's gonna be polka bands by the pool party, polka bands in the ballroom for dancing and then polka bands in for the Polka Mass,” Bogdon said. “And it's all open to the public.”

All proceeds from Thursday’s opening night event will benefit the Cranberry Elks and their associated charities. This includes proceeds from ticket sales, which cost $17 each, as well as sales of 50/50 raffle tickets and basket raffles.

“A lot of what we do, we do to benefit veterans,” Bogdon said. “We are a nonprofit organization that benefits veterans. That’s our number-one charity.”

The Cranberry Elks also offer multiple scholarships, including a recently-introduced $1,000 scholarship for students entering trade school.

This story was updated at 1:50 p.m., Friday, Sept. 1 to include Bodgon’s given name: Chris. A previous version of this story identified him as Phil Bogdon.

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