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50 years later, Polka Joe still fielding requests

It’s a Sunday morning at the Magic 105.5 WMGH radio station, and Joe “Polka Joe” Manjack is fielding a string of song requests.

There’s one for a Lansford woman celebrating a birthday, and another from a local group of listeners who call themselves the “Kielbasi Posse.” Firefighters stationed at the Aviano Air Base in Italy also have sent in their weekly request, and so too, has the Boilo Bunch.

Leaning into the microphone, Polka Joe asks listeners to put on their “polka dancing shoes” as he takes The Magic Polka Machine into second gear.

His voice and delivery style is recognizable, a staple of Sunday mornings in the Coal Region and beyond. Manjack reaches thousands of listeners and his popularity has even led to songs written in his honor - all of them, of course, are polkas.

Manjack has been providing his “polka magic” for half a century.

“I never knew I’d be on the air for 50 years,” he admitted. “I always attribute that to the good Lord giving me some talent I never knew I had.”

Folks are invited to celebrate Manjack at “Polka Joe’s 50th Anniversary” beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Lakeside Ballroom, 40 Crystal Lane, Barnesville. Ticket information is available on www.wmgh.com. Doors open for Manjack’s live broadcast, followed by The Pennsylvania Villagers from 1 to 3 p.m. Eighteen-time Grammy Award winner Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra will perform from 4 to 7 p.m.

And between 3 and 4 p.m., Manjack will be recognized with awards.

But Manjack insists that he isn’t the star of the show. Rather, he said, it’s those who tune in every Sunday.

“I thank the listeners every week because they are the show. I’m pushing the buttons and playing the polkas but without those people emailing me or adding the comments” it wouldn’t be a show, he said. “I’m just the guy in the middle who passes the information on.”

Manjack’s interest in radio and broadcasting started early. As a 10-year-old living in Tamaqua’s Dutch Hill section, he watched as the WSVB-Tamaqua station was being built just blocks away. The station went on the air on June 14, 1965.

“I remember the day,” he said.

At that time, he said, FM radio was relatively new, and not many had access to it.

But Manjack’s father, Joseph, had a radio capable of picking up the frequency - 105.5.

“My father would drag the table radio to the porch with a cord, and all the neighbors would gather around to hear the music and the news from the station a couple blocks down the street,” he recalled.

One day, the group decided to walk to the station. Owner Jim Reichard invited them inside.

“I was amazed, seeing the dials and lights flashing, the records playing. I was 10 years old,” Manjack said.

Almost every day after school, he’d stop by to watch. One afternoon, an employee asked Manjack if he’d like to play the next record.

“I sat down on the chair, and I knew exactly how to do it. How to cue it up, push the buttons and make it work,” he said.

He learned programming and engineering, and began studying for his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license. He tested in Philadelphia.

“I was 15 years-old and I passed. I was all excited and we went to the zoo to celebrate,” he laughed.

A few weeks later, he had a job at the radio station after school and on Saturdays. Thinking he needed a radio name, he came up with “JJ Michaels.”

“I’d go to (Tamaqua High) school the next day and the kids would say, ‘Hey, I tuned in to listen and I wanted to hear you - Joe Manjack - but there’s an older guy on there and his name is JJ Michaels’,” Manjack said. “They didn’t recognize it was me.”

In the days as JJ Michaels, he wasn’t playing polka music. He was spinning records of easy listening tunes, and reading news, advertisements and weather forecasts.

The station was sold in 1971, and its call letters changed to WZTA.

Manjack - still a teen - wasn’t hired right away.

“Then in 1974 - 50 years ago - I went back to see if there were any openings,” he recalled.

As luck would have it, the station needed someone to play an hour of country music on Saturdays - and an hour of polka music on Sundays.

“I knew the polkas because we used to listen to them,” Manjack said. “We always had polka playing.”

Manjack’s mother, Margaret “Marge” Manjack, listened to the WZTA polka show even before her son got on board.

“She used to take halupkies and pierogies to (the host). That’s what we’d have for Sunday dinner. She’d make extra and take a platter down to him,” he said.

The show was called the Dominic Vitelli Polka Hour, and was sponsored by Vitelli’s Anthracite Service Center in Brockton.

People didn’t immediately receive Manjack.

“They’d complain and say, ‘You’re playing bad polkas,’” he remembered.

People wanted to hear ethnic polkas - the Polish and Slovak songs.

Manjack took the cue and shopped for records. He picked up music by Happy Louie, Eddie Blazonczyk and The Versatones, and Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra.

“Then I started going to the polka dances in the area - the church bazaars, the fire companies, block parties, places like Postie’s Grove in Still Creek,” Manjack said.

He’d pick up more and more albums from the bands that played and soon had quite the collection.

“Then that one hour turned into four,” he said of the show.

The name was changed to, “It’s Polka Time.”

Within that time, the station was sold again, with its call letters changing to WCRN. Manjack assisted engineers and helped install a new studio and transmitting equipment.

And then, in 1987, the station was sold and became WMGH (Magic 105.5).

The polka show would stay - only it needed a new name.

Manjack came up with “The Magic Polka Machine.”

He’s been with it Sundays - or “Polka Sundays” as he calls them - from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ever since.

He’s gone from records and tapes to compact discs, and now stores all his music digitally.

While technology has changed, his show really hasn’t.

Each morning he welcomes listeners of with his familiar intro: “Ladies and gentlemen, it truly is Polka Time.” And then the songs begin.

He receives between 70 and 75 requests for polkas each week. Some start arriving by email on Thursdays.

He reads every one, taking time to wish happy birthdays and anniversaries; sending shout-outs to folks, or sharing that a listener is in the midst of making a pot of halushki.

“When I do mention a birthday or an anniversary, that person is a star for 15 seconds. When they hear their name, they are automatically a star,” Manjack said.

He’ll also find ways to edge in some old fashioned antidotes or Coal Region references. A recent weather forecast called for cold temperatures, and Manjack called it a “two babushka night.”

He said he likes to keep the show fun, and that’s why he steers away from talking about serious or divisive subjects.

After all, he said, polka music is happy music. He coined the term “polka medicine” because many tell him the songs makes them feel better. He knows the music is reaching shut-ins, nursing homes and hospitals, and that, in turn, makes him happy.

Many Magic Polka Machine listeners have been with Manjack for years. He’s gotten to know what kind of songs they enjoy.

“There are always the regulars, every week. But if you listen, there are always new people,” he said. “I’m amazed by it.”

Listeners are coming from different areas, too. After WMGH was acquired by CC Broadcasting in 2020, the show began playing live on Sunny 1100 WGPA-Bethlehem. It also became available to stream on www.wmgh.com.

“We got the internet about four years ago,” Manjack said. “That was a big step forward for the Magic Polka Machine.”

As the show began airing online, he noticed many groups were forming and requesting songs.

Manjack rattled off the names: The Kielbasi Posse, The Kishki Crew, Polish Pan Dancers, Boilo Bunch, Fire Polka Pals, The Halupki Brigade and the Sauerkraut Crew.

Requests have arrived from many states and countries, and folks often tune in when they’re vacationing.

“They were listening to the show on a cruise ship in Barcelona, Spain,” Manjack noted.

Asked how the moniker “Polka Joe” came about, Manjack isn’t sure. He believes it was just a nickname that stuck.

The Pennsylvania Villagers wrote the song, “DJ Polka Joe” for Manjack about 25 years ago, and more recently, The Fezziwig Express released “Our One and Only Polka Joe.”

One of the lines in the latter sings, “He’s the man of the hour, he’s got polka power. He plays the old ones, the new ones, and everything in between.”

He’s also been asked to record his voice for inclusion in other polka songs.

“People recognize me as the Polka Guy. It must be the voice,” Manjack said.

For the most part, he broadcasts live from the studio. But the show often goes on the road, too.

“I like going out to the people,” he said. “Some love when I get out there. I’m amazed when people show up.”

In addition to his show, he is also the studio engineer for WMGH-FM (Tamaqua) and WLSH (Lansford).

“I love the engineering part of it,” he said. “Installing the studio equipment and maintaining it.”

Manjack also delved into television, and serves as host of Pennsylvania Polka on WVIA, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Looking to the future, Manjack said he has no plans to leave the Magic Polka Machine. The show doesn’t feel like a job. It’s more like a part of his life, he said.

“That’s not in the forecast right now. I’ve been doing this since I was 15, It’s part of my life. You can’t just stop, you know?” he said.

And if - and when - the time ever comes, you can bet that Manjack will exit the show with the words he signs off with every week:

“Remember: God loves you and all polka people.”

Polka Joe Manjack, popular host of the Magic Polka Machine on Magic 105.5 WMGH, is shown inside the studio. He celebrates 50 years of playing the polkas, and a party featuring his live broadcast and performances by the Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Villagers will be held Sunday at the Lakeside Ballroom in Barnesville. Tickets information is available on www.wmgh.com. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS
Polka Joe Manjack, popular host of the Magic Polka Machine on Magic 105.5 WMGH, is shown inside the studio. He celebrates 50 years of playing the polkas and a party featuring his live broadcast and performances by the Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Villagers will be held Sunday at the Lakeside Ballroom in Barnesville. Tickets information is available on www.wmgh.com. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS
A photo taken of Polka Joe Manjack in the 1970s is shown. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
A photo of Polka Joe Manjack from the 1970s hangs inside the Magic 105.5 WMGH studio. Manjack is celebrating 50 years of playing the polkas. A party for “Polka Joe” featuring a live broadcast of the Magic Polka Machine and live polka music will be held Sunday at the Lakeside Ballroom in Barnesville. Ticket information is available at www.wmgh.com.