Keith G. Stras – Living Category – Inducted 1999

Portfolio Categories: 1999 and S.

Keith Stras

 

Keith Stras was born in Chicago, on October 9, 1961. At an early age, Stras seemed to be interested in entertaining people. His late Uncle Ned Locke, a 25 year veteran of Chicagoland television and radio, was responsible for Stras being bitten by the limelight bug. Ned, a Circus Ringmaster on WGN’s “Bozo Circus” can also be credited for Stras’ other love, the circus.

 

Stras, half Polish and half Italian, was first introduced to polka music by his Italian grandfather at age thirteen via a live WTAQ radio remote from Chicago’s Polonia Grove during the 1974 Bel-Aire Days. From that day, Stras fell in love with polkas.

 

As the principal host on the Schaumburg High School radio station, is when Stras began spinning polkas. Imagine if you can, walking down the hallways of suburban school to the music of Eddie Blazonczyk, Stas Golonka, and Li’l Richard. Stras claims, “I took a lot of heat from the student body” “Hey is that guy crazy, we want to hear Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith, not some music my grandparents listen to.”

 

It was in his freshman year at age 15 when he was approached by Richard Towalski (Li’l Richard) to co-host a Sunday morning polka program over radio WONX 1590 AM, the show lasted 26 weeks. During that time he was referred to as “Chicago’s Youngest Polka Disc Jockey.”

 

After leaving WONX, he went on his own and purchased a half hour program on WOPA which was aired on Sunday afternoons. During this time, he also formed the SPA (Schaumburg Polka Association), a group of about twenty of his high school friends that frequented local polka events. After graduation in 1979, Stras teamed up with high school pal Jeff Chester and purchased radio time on WTAQ during it’s Saturday Polka Block. “The Polka Review Show” aired for over two years. In addition, Stras was also featured during this time on the IPA radio show with Leon Kozicki and Jerry Drust, which was also heard on WTAQ.

 

In 1982, Lenny Gomulka approached him and asked to join him on radio. The program’s name was changed to the “Chicago Push Show” and Stras co-hosted with Gomulka for over two years. It was also during this period that Stras’ “Polka Review Productions” was responsible for providing Chicago polka fans with over 3 1/2 hours of polka programming each week on WTAQ. Stras and Danny Mateja (Downtown Sound) hosted countless Tuesday evening remotes from the Lone Tree Inn in Niles, IL. It was also in 1982 when Stras presented the “Labor Day Polka Jamboree” at the Sheraton O’Hare Hotel in Chicago which featured 11 polka bands from across the country. The event left Stras financially embarrassed, and it looked as if he would bow out of the polka industry.

In 1983, while attending DePaul University, he again re-entered the polka music industry and teamed up with Rick Rzeszutko (Music Co.) and they started to produce the extremely popular “Polka Get Together Show”, which lasted for 5 years on WEAW, WVVX-FM, WPNA and WCEV. Stras and Rzeszutko were often referred to as “Chicago’s Polka shock jocks,” known for their wild and crazy humor and unique style of polka broadcasting.

 

Keith has an uncanny knack for bringing polka music to new heights, he has developed a unique working relationship with many in the Chicago major market media. In 1985, with the success of the Chicago Bears. Eddie Blazonczyk recorded a polka version of their fight song and an original Bears tune. Stras orchestrated a media blitz which won Blazonczyk a local feature on every major network television and radio station in town as well as several in New Orleans the site of that year’s Super Bowl.

 

After appearing on a live “New Year’s Eve” Chicago television special, Stras was approached by then President and owner of ETC T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert, and was hired as Executive Producer and Host of “Polka Video’s” (a weekly variety, interview program that featured polka music.) It wasn’t too long after this that Stras was in the company of Harry Caray, Walter Payton, Gene Siskel, Frankie Avalon, and Geraldo Rivera to name a few introducing them to the Chicagoland polka market. He also produced the nation’s only polka game shows, “Polka Combat,” “Polka Feuds” and “Name That Polka,” which featured numerous polka band members, DJ’s and polka organization members who would vie for the title of “Polka Television Champs” each year. These shows became an instant success not only in Chicago, but on many cable outlets in Cleveland, Ohio, and also Pennsylvania public television. During its 7-year run from 1986-1993, the program was nominated five times for Chicago television’s prestigious Emmy Award.

 

Stras has staged countless polka affairs and tours and has been honored to serve as Master of Ceremonies for numerous events. Using polka music as his back drop Stras has single-handedly raised over $25,000 for many of Chicago’s Children’s Charities.

 

Stras’ involvement in the Chicago polka industry is legendary. Since 1979 he has been an active member of the International Polka Association. Serving in various capacities from Queen Contest Chairman to Director to First Vice President and ultimately, he served as IPA President for two consecutive terms from 1993-1995.

 

During his tenure as IPA President, Stras was the First President in IPA History to have over 1,000 active members in the organization. He computerized the IPA bringing it up to speed with the rest of the world. His marketing techniques, including 1-800-TO-POLKA attracted increased interest in the meetings and events. It was under his direction that the IPA produced a second major festival. The first ever “Slovenian Polka Fest” was held in St. Louis and the following year in Milwaukee. Stras also kept the IPA in the forefront by reuniting with Leon Kozicki and producing the IPA radio program, first on WCEV and then on WPNA from 1991-1996.

 

Known for singing with various bands, many in the polka industry joke about Stras only knowing one song, The “Red Shoes” polka, a favorite of Stras’, was recorded by and with Casey Homel’s Band in 1994, and much to the surprise of many, three other songs sung by Stras were also featured. Again in 1997 Stras was a featured vocalist on Homel’s last recording. Surprisingly, Stras doesn’t speak or understand the Polish language.

 

In 1995 Stras and wife Camille started K&C Tours, a polka orientated travel and event business. The last four years, K&C Tours have brought the best in our business to Chicagoland to perform: Jimmy Sturr, Eddie Blazonczyk, Del Sinchak, Toledo Polkamotion, The Brass Connection, The Polka Family, Mike Ryba, Pan Franek & Zosia, Scrubby & The Dynatones, Ania Piwowarczyk, “America’s Polka Sweetheart” Stephanie, and several others… In addition, to that impressive list, Chicagoland’s polka groups are always featured as well.

 

Stras’ K&C Tours to date has contributed more than $2,200 to various polka causes to help perpetuate the polka, including the IPA Polka Music Hall of Fame, The Freddy K Jr. Scholarship fund, The Chicago Versatones Fan Club, The Cleveland Style Polka Music Hall of Fame and the USPA confirming his commitment to our industry.

 

In September of 1996, after a two month hiatus, Stras & Kozicki returned to WPNA, in November of 1996, only to find out that they were even more popular than before. “The No Name Polka Show” has become “The most talked about program on radio”. Their unique brand of humor and broadcasting has earned them high acclaim throughout the polka world.

 

In 1998, Stras once again lent a helping hand to the IPA in producing a day bus trip to Polish Fest in Milwaukee, WI. All the net proceeds were turned over to the IPA, which realized a profit of close to $1,000. In November, he served as Master of Ceremonies for the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the IPA in Chicago. His speech featured a riveting synopsis on the future of polka music in the next century.