Johnny Menko was born in Windsor Locks, Connecticut on June 13, 1915, and lived in Warehouse Point, Connecticut, during his earlier years. At the age of nine, Johnny was already paying the violin with Polish records on a phonograph.
Johnny graduated from Enfield High School in Thompsonville, CT, studied music at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and graduated from Bay Path Institute in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he majored in Business.
Johnny Menko started the Orchestra with his two brothers, Joe on accordion and Tony, on trumpet in 1936. Known as the Menko-Wezowic Orchestra, it consisted of four musicians: the Menko brothers and their neighbor, Theodore (Ted) Wezowic, playing the drums. The group was very successful, playing mostly in the northern Connecticut and western Massachusetts area.
By 1938, the orchestra enlarged to seven men and the name changed to the Blue Bells Orchestra. At this time, Wasyl Szykula, the Singing Carpenter from Windsor Locks, Connecticut, joined the group and has been with it to the present. They gained popularity, not only with polka fans, but also with younger people, playing modern music for school and sports dances and carnivals.
During 1949, the orchestra increased to nine musicians and vocalists; Florence Krol and Irena Menko joined the aggregation. A year later, Flo dropped out and Josephine Menko joined Irena. ‘They were the dual vocalists known for years as “Jo and Irene”. At this time, the group became the Johnny Menko Orchestra, Hartford’s Smartest Polka Band. Two musicians joined the orchestra. Ray Polisky and Bill Kantorski, each playing in the band more than 35 years. Johnny’s nephew, Bob Menko, has been the band’s drummer for 25 years.
Most of the music, written and arranged by Johnny Menko and Bill Kantorski, gave the orchestra a unique sound — a sound that has not been duplicated by any other polka band.
Johnny Menko and his orchestra had their own radio show from 1949 to 1955. It was sponsored by Balch Motor Sales of East Windsor, Connecticut and aired over WONS (now WPOP) Hartford, Connecticut, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on Sundays. The orchestra also filled in for Stan Ozimek’s Polish Program direct from the Polish National Home in Hartford, Connecticut.
During this same period, in 1951, the band broadcast from the Pine Meadow Restaurant in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, for 26 weeks on Wednesday evenings. Wasyl Szykula produced these shows.
Because of the interest of Polka musician and promoter, Chet Ososki, the orchestra started to record in 1950 for Karo Music Co. of Manchester, Connecticut, coming out with two hits — “Our Special Polka” and “Fireside Polka.” In 1955 and 1956, their first two long-playing records were released by Fiesta Record Co. of New York. Other records by Eurotone International Ltd. of New York, by Rex Record Co. of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and by Rola Record Co. of Forestville, Connecticut, followed.
One great spot for the Johnny Menko Orchestra was the Cavalier Restaurant in Willimansett, Massachusetts, where the group played for two years every Sunday afternoon from 1951 to 1953. These dates featured a radio broadcast direct from the stage, emceed by the Polish Rhyming Announcer, the late Andy Szuberla, over radio station WACE in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Television programs also originated from the Cavalier Restaurant over WWLP, Channel 22 out of Springfield, Massachusetts, with Frank Knight as Master of Ceremonies.
The most popular spot the orchestra played frequently was the Quonset Restaurant in Hadley, Massachusetts. Off and on, the orchestra had been there for over 30 years. In the 1970’s, the orchestra returned to television, appearing a number of times on “Polka” over WHYN, Channel 40, in Springfield, Massachusetts, with Frank Knight again doing the honors as Master of Ceremonies. Most recently, the orchestra video taped three polka shows which are now being viewed on cable TV.
Johnny retired as leader of the orchestra on March 6, 1977, and his brother Joe, without missing a beat, took over the responsibilities of the band under the name of The Menko Orchestra. Johnny Menko continued playing in the Menko Orchestra which completed 50 years of musical entertainment on March 6, 1987.