Ernest Broeniman Interview




Ernest Broeniman is the director of Dorf Kapelle, a famous polka band in Wisconsin. He talks about his early life and interest in music, especially polka and how he was influenced by music in Germany and Austria. Later, Broeniman discusses his involvement in the Viennese Ball, from how he was introduced to the event to their current involvement and what they play at the Ball. Dorf Kapelle and their works and organization are also discussed in length.


Interviewer David Alexander Vodenlich


April 15, 2019


Expunge up to 2:10. Due to technical difficulties the audio recorder recorded a
conversation that was with the IT support staff trying to set up the conference phone for the interview.

DV: Ok, I am here with a Mr. Ernest Broeniman, who plays for Dorf Kappele, in the sounds of Eau Claire Oral History Project. And, it is 4/15/2019, at approximately 4:05pm, I am going to take Mr. Broeniman through the participation agreement. And let’s, uh, keep it going.

DV: So uhh..

EB: I am not a musician in the band, I’m the Band leader.

DV: The Director?

EB: Yes.

DV: Ok, thank you, just a quick distinction. I did a little bit of research on your band and I
couldn’t exactly figure out what… are you technically the, uh, Creative Director? Or the Band Director?

EB: Both.

DV: Both? Alright. [light phone problems, turned up volume on conference phone handset.]

EB: I am the arranger, the, uh, manger, the director, and the only thing I don’t have is hiring the personnel. That job is given to somebody in the band, who knows other musicians, and she puts it all together for us. When there’s a performance.

DV: Alright.

EB: So that’s what her job does.

DV: Alright.

EB: I just get the contracts, write the contracts, write music, umm, get up on stage with the folks, and uh call the tunes, and we go through couple evenings of playing like we did Eau Claire, for about four hours, and entertain everybody, and everybody is happy, and we go home, and come back the next year. DV: Yeah, done deal. So, I just need to ask you a list of approximately six things, just to make sure you understand that this is being recorded…

EB: Yep.

DV: And that this will be a donated, uh, file to the sounds of Eau Claire project. So, do you understand that this interview to be at least 30 minutes long and will take no more than two hours-time?

EB: Well, uh, I guess so, but let’s keep it around 30 minutes ok? Hehe.

DV: Yeah that’s alright, I don’t want to keep you too long.

EB: Alright.

DV: Uh, your participation in this process is voluntary, and that you understand that you are free to decline to answer any questions, or discontinue the interview, any time you want?

EB: I understand that.

DV: Uh, this is, uh, being recorded and a transcript will be created.

EB: Yep.

DV: A copy of this recording will be provided to me, which is you in this situation, with the transcript so anything we talk about here will be written down in the transcript, you will get a copy of it.



DV: Uh, you will have 14 days to, un, within receiving your original recording, and transcript of this interview, so if there’s anything you want to change, anything you want to, hehe, redact, anything you want to get rid of, you have 14 days to do so.

EB: Ok.

DV: Uhhh, you understand that you are choosing to donate this interview to the university archives at the University of Wisconsin: Eau Claire?

EB: Yes.

DV: And, uh, if you have any questions, or comments, or concerns, about this whole process you, can either call me on my cell, or you can refer your comments to, Dr. Daniel Ott, who is a lecturer in history at the university, he is the first person you spoke to before me.

EB: Ok.

DV: Ok, so uh, I’ll just get into it then. So, I kind of want to start off talking about you, just your early life, a little bit of background information, you can be as brief or as long as you want, it doesn’t really matter to me…

EB: Ok.

DV: So, uh, if you could just tell me kind of, where you grew up and how you got into music.

EB: I was, um, I was born in, um, Horicon Wisconsin, and I uh, attended grade-school, a one room school with about eight kids, uh, which was about fifteen steps away from our house, because my dad was a cheesemaker and uh, the school and the cheesemaker, uh, cheese-house were connected, one to the other, not physically but in the same vicinity. And uh, I went through grade-school, one through eight, grade-school, and uh high-school at a place called Horicon Wisconsin. Where the famous marsh is. And I did not take band, my freshman year because I did not know it was available to me. And then I was in study hall, and the band practiced on the stage where the study hall was, and I just sounded kind of interesting to me, so I went up to the band director and said, “I would like to play an instrument”. And he said, “we need tuba players” or I brought home a tuba and starting working, And, uh, that was what I uh played the rest of my life. I was a tuba player in concert bands, and Polka bands, and symphony orchestra’s, all varieties of places, where they would need somebody to play tuba. That’s what happened, that’s
where I started, and uh, that’s how it happened.

DV: So, you didn’t immediately get into playing polka, did you? You just kind of…

EB: Oh yeah, that was one of the first things we did, we meaning, three of us, there were three young people in the high-school that had interest in this. There was an accordion player, a drummer, and myself. We called ourselves the Rock River Dutchmen. Because the river went through our town in Horicon Wisconsin. We called ourselves the Rock River Dutchmen and there were three of us, my dad would go down to bowl, and he would drop me off, we’d buy a record, listen to the record, and then repeat the record. We didn’t use music, we didn’t, we didn’t, we didn’t use music because we didn’t know what music was. We just knew we could play what was coming out of our, are uh, out of our hearts. By listening to something, that somebody else created, and duplicating it. Because that was it.

DV: Um

EB: And when I finally got through high-school, I decided that music was the thing I wanted to do. Also at the same time, I was, I was picked up as a tuba player by many different polka bands that was going on at the time, that was the main music of the 50’s. Uh, Rock and Roll has not arrived yet, and the only thing you ever did when you went to a dance, it was a polka dance. And I was able to latch onto a couple polka bands and uh earn some money at the same time, I remember making about five dollars a job at that particular time. Yeah so uh, this proceeded through high-school, and I would say the latter two years of high-school I did that, and then uh college I played my way through high-school playing the horn with all sorts of different bands. That uh, kind of paid my tuition, it paid my rent, so uh actually, that was my job. I didn’t have to work at a gas station or a supermarket to uh, to uh work at, I had a job playing my horn, which was a lot of fun first of all, met some great people, out in the audience as well as players on stage with me, I really enjoyed doing that, because this was what I thought I wanted to do. And as a result of that, I got a degree in music from Oshkosh, and my first job was teaching band chorus and Orchestra at a place called Manitowoc Wisconsin. So, I was there for three years, and I came to a little town called Hortonville Wisconsin, where I do reside now, because that is where my wife came from.


EB: After so many years in Hortonville, I was offered a job in a place called Plymouth
Wisconsin, as band director and so, I went ahead and took the job in Plymouth where I started the first high-school German band probably in the state of Wisconsin, and it’s still going, there is a movement of young band directors that are interested in this kind of music and have their kids play this music. So that’s the long and short of it for me.

DV: Well I’d say you captured pretty much everything I wanted to talk about, in that first uh, that first part. I do have one question, about that, there was a, uh, I found a, uh, news article a while back, like 2015, of a, I think it was at Plymouth, there was a, band teacher that was retiring after like 20-30 years and he uh, said that you were his mentor. Do you think there is a lot of people around that could call you their mentor?

EB: Maybe one or two. [Laughing] I don’t know, I uh, I don’t know, I don’t keep track of
people, you know I’ve had a lot of student teachers they seem to like that, uh the colleges, they seem to like putting in student teachers with me. And I uh, when they came in, I would give them a lot of responsibility, and if I had, if I had three band classes, they were liable to get one of those bands to work with, and I would carefully watch the rehearsals and things like that to make sure everything was going pretty well. And so, uh, maybe somebody in that particular, someone in particular, someone in that age is probably retiring now, and thinking of me as one of their guys who helped them along, that is uh, that is impressive, I’m happy for them.

DV: Alright. Alright let’s just get on to the Viennese Ball then, what was your first introduction to the Viennese Ball? Who hired you, who…

EB: Ok um first of all let me tell you that, uh, one of my former students, came with, working with the Viennese Ball Committee, and uh they had a band come in from Milwaukee, some older guys that came and played polka music, for the Viennese Ball and they were going to retire. And so, they didn’t have a band. And the lady working with, uh Ada Bors, her name was, they said “why don’t you get Ernie’s band?” So, we went all the way over to Eau Claire, from near Sheboygan County, to play for the Viennese Ball. And it seemed like an awful long way to go, and so we said that was fine, we’ll come back in two years rather than, uh, another year. So, I sent another band that I knew, that I knew would be successful there on stage, at Eau Claire to go and play it, and when they got all done they said “oh, we don’t want those people, we want you to come back.”, and that was thirty years ago, and we came back for those thirty years. So that’s
how it all happened, simple as that, I guess what we did, is we had a bigger variety of music to play other than, uh, polka music, and we had some other things people would like, other music that was going on at the time, that we made ourselves, and then we played. So, I think that’s uh, what you’re getting at. In this question, you asked me.

DV: Have you kind of kept a plethora, of stuff you play, every time you come, or has the music kind of changed over the years?

EB: Generally, it’s the same. Because, well, let me say, maybe, it’s about 25% the same.
Because mostly I’m an arranger, I arrange music for bands, and uh also in this band right now, I don’t stand in front of the band any longer, my son does that. He’s also a very sharp guy who knows what tune to play when, and he has a daughter who has a glorious voice and she if a featured vocalist in the band. So, I let him run that band, and I make suggestions what he should play, and he already knows, because he’s reading my mind, and then next year, for example, for Viennese he might have an idea for his daughter to sing a song, and I might take some time on my computer and write and arrangement for that girl, we’ll practice it, and if it’s in the wrong key we’ll move it, and uh things like that so uh. I’m also and arranger, I call myself half of an arranger, and not like the pros are. So, we manage to get the music to come out right.

DV: When you say that you arrange things, you remember the old, uh, the old venue, that used tobe played in?


EB: Oh, that was a wonderful place to play. You mean the building that got torn down?

DV: Yeah, the one they torn down a while ago.

EB: Oh, that was a marvelous place to have a Viennese Ball. You had, you had your stage, and you had your audience right there. This, they, that was all torn down. But what they have now, it works. That old stage, and that older building they tore down, it was built for that kind of thing, it was built for the Viennese Ball, it was, it was, it was, just beautiful. And uh, I uh, I wish it was back, but it’s not going to be back, we’re going to be in that venue. That’s how it is, you got to live with it.

DV: Yeah, well uh, in terms of the music, we were talking about, is there any sort of set up to the band that differ between where you play and how you play?

EB: Can you ask that question again?

DV: When you’re setting up the band, do you have to set up a band differently, depending on where you’re playing?EB: No. It’s always the same.

DV: It’s just the same setup?

EB: The back row is uh, it’s made up of, what do they call the engine of the band, it’s the
drummer, the bass section, and there’s the trombone section, 2nd row is carrying the lead, and the harmony, and the front row is like the woodwind players who play the twinkle stuff. I shouldn’t say twinkle stuff but uh, it’s more “melodical” its more fill. That still is on top of the other melodies that are going on. It’s a style that’s done in Germany. That’s why I choose to do this kind of thing, because I love the music from that country. And in particular, a band of the day, called Ernst Marsh. Uh it was a band that uh, that became very, very popular over there and we kind of play those same arrangements. Uh because they are so beautiful. They are very pretty, they are not the same as the polka music you hear in Wisconsin. It’s very sophisticated. Um, and the arrangements are excellent, the arrangers who do this are excellent, and they’re way ahead or me as far as arranging, because they uh, they’ve done that for all their lives [unintelligible]
because I want to hear the song. I’m not always 100% perfect with my arrangements. But those other arrangements are published and we can buy them, and I have in my back cellar here, four filing cabinets full of music that I have purchased over the years. 600 copies of arrangements that we can choose from. So, that’s where my music comes from.

DV: So, do you take a lot of influence from Germany and Austria? And you play a lot of…

EB: Absolutely. They invented this stuff and by god we have to play it. The Austrians are more in turn of having a small ensemble, say maybe three our guys, with a lady as a vocalist. The Germans would have a band of say sixteen seventeen eighteen twenty people, that’s how it would be in Germany. But these same kinds of these bands are in Austria, but most of these band are in Germany. The band I’m talking about was created by a leader by Ernst Marsh. Ernst Marsh passed away some years ago and the band was taken over by Ernst Hutter. A marvelous band, I heard the band over in Germany, and I also heard it in Carnegie Hall in New York City. Some years ago, when I heard that they were going to be in the United States, in New York City, and I heard the band and it was wonderful. If only we could play like that, it was just fantastic.

DV: Alright well thank you, so if you were to reflect on he Viennese ball and your participation in it what would be the top two thing you would take away from it?

EB: The people. Number one, the people. The people come to the Viennese Ball to have a good time, so we look at the crowd and we read the crowd, and we say they’re ready for this song now, they’re ready for that song. One of the songs that we do, that they always ask for, is uh, called the um, I can’t think of it, I can’t think of the title, but it’s the song where the audience does the polka, then they go from one side of the room to the other. And then the music plays the polka, and they come from one side of the hall to the other, they just love that. They also like another song we play called, Alice, “Who’s Alice”, they like that one. And uh actually they’ll dance to anything, it’s the only place anymore in Wisconsin where people that people come and dance to anything, and everything. Most of the places we play we’ll being playing as background music, as well and answer to, and this is just fantastic because people participate. They just get in there and dance and have a good time and hoot and holler and it’s just really good, it’s really excellent, all that with tuxedos and formals, it’s amazing, have you been to the ball?

DV: Uh we have free tickets to it because we worked on this project.

EB: So, you went?

DV: Uh I did not, I didn’t go, I had a job interview.

EB: Oh well good for that, you should’ve gone, and if you didn’t do it this year, in the years coming up to this. We should be coming next year, we’ll be playing next year.

DV: Well I guess I have to go then, right?

EB: You can come up and introduce yourself. I probably won’t be on stage, I’ll probably be backstage, my son is onstage with the band.

DV: I mean yeah, I would love to but uh, we’ll see what I’m doing in a year’s time.

EB: Well stick around in Wisconsin, it’s a good place to stick around.

DV: Alright, just um, I have about one or two more things if uh, if you want to keep it to about thirty minutes.

EB: Sure, it’s no problem.

DV: So, um, basically, what I’m hearing is that you take a lot of pride in what you do, so is there like a personal meaning of the Viennese Ball to you? Is it just the people? Is it just the music?

EB: It’s everything. It’s the whole conglomeration of everything. It’s getting there which for us is about two-hundred miles out of our way. And we don’t ever travel that far except when we go to Milwaukee to German fest, to play for German fest. But we have to go across the state, most of us, a lot of us, come from Sheboygan county, the rest of us come from around Appleton area. And Fond du Lac area. We come across the state to play, so it better be special for us to come and play. So, we, I uh have a band, a personnel director who knows who to pick to play at certain events and we seem to be going with the same folks who want to come and play at Eau Claire every year. Because it is so unique. I hope that answered your question.

DV: No, yeah, that is exactly what I’m looking for. I’m talking German in school so I was
listening to some of your music on SoundCloud. And uh, my grandfather was very much intopolka, so I was very uh, it was a sound I hadn’t heard in a very long time.

EB: Well if you listen between the Wisconsin polka bands, and the rest of the polka bands going around this country, you’ll see a band that is maybe three four or five people big, that’s the size of a band. Because financially people can hire a five-piece band. Financially. And we come along with a sixteen seventeen people, you don’t get a lot of folks hiring a band with sixteen seventeen people, unless it’s kind of a special thing. And as a result of that, we wouldn’t sound very good if we went with a band of five-people, you have to have as many people as we have to produce the sound we want to produce to fill the hall and that’s where we get our sound for the folks blending it with all this music. We could go with a few less, but I go with the full ensemble. With musicians that uh we use, it makes the color of the band, it makes us big, rather than going up there with two three guys and playing and play badly, which is what’s happening with the polka world right now. There’s two people out there that shouldn’t be having horns in
their hands at all, as far as I’m concerned. It’s, we want to have a good musical project. Let’s put it there, leave it at that. We want to have a good musical product that people are proud to hear. Listen to. And it’s a big variety of sounds, we can produce. As a result of having that many people. It doesn’t always sound the same, you are not going to hear an accordion player in a band, and a banjo player, and a drummer, and a tuba player. The same droning sound all the time, you’re going to hear a variety of stuff, you’re going to hear clarinets, trumpets, you’re going to hear trombones, baritones too, and you’re going to hear the whole scheme. Everything. And you’re going to be very happy with it because it’s nice, it’s nice to hear. You’re going to be hearing concert band, at a concert. So that’s where I’m coming from. And I’m going to stick with it.

DV: Well I uh, I hope you continue being able to do what you do. I understand that your band, Dorf Kappele was created in 1993, if I have my sources, right?

EB: Oh, well, how many years ago was that? We’re about thirty years old. Where ever that takes us. About thirty years old.

DV: Well I was actually going to ask you, you were actually talking a little bit about hiring
practices, have you always opted in to have the bigger band? Over the last thirty years or has it kind of been just a recent thing that you decided?

EB: Nope. It’s always been, it has always been the full band. People want the full band, but, we do a ten-piece band, if people can’t afford the full band. Which means we play with two clarinets, two trumpets two baritones, two trombones, tuba and a drummer. That gives people the option of having a little bit cheaper band, ten-pieces, as were they to have an eighteen-piece band, it doesn’t have the same sound, but still you’re giving them a product that is musical and it’s German. And that’s where we’re coming from.

DV: So, have you always played the big band at the Viennese Ball?

EB: Always.

DV: Every single time?

EB; Always.

DV: Because I guess that’s what people like then.EB: we won’t ever go without, we won’t ever go with a ten-piece band there. It’s us, it’s what we are. We’re a big band, we play big bad music. And I mean we don’t always play polka all the time. The music we play will come off as a big band piece.

DV: Yeah.

EB: From the older people there, they want to hear Journey and stuff like that. We play that so. We play to that crowd as well as the other ones. And they are those songs that people like to hear and ask for again, and again, and again. So, we’ve made friends, that’s, there’s no question about it. I just, less than an hour ago, we got an invitation to come back for next year. Making it year thirty-one, you know, it doesn’t get better than that. Most bands don’t even last twenty years. Here we are thirty-one years out here. Going back to play the same job we played way back when. I think that’s phenomenal.

DV: Well, uh, that’s about twenty-eight minutes right now, so I’ll just leave it up to you, if
there’s anything else you want to say, about the Viennese Ball, anything about your band in general, speak no or forever hold your peace I guess.

EB: I guess, I guess, I’m going to say that all these years we’ve being coming to Viennese Ball we’ve had a wonderful time, and wonderful audience, audience participation, best part of this is, when everything is done, and its 1’oclock in the morning all the kids who were out their performing in the orchestra, and the choirs and things they all get up in our hall, we don’t play for them, I conduct them singing, we sing god bless America, we sing Ein Prosit, and we sing and all those wonderful voices at the university come in front of our stage at 1’oclock in the morning and stand there, and everybody sings, as a group and it’s phenomenal, I just get thrills when I stand up in front of those kids, and we sing god bless America, and Ein Prosit, and all those things. That we can do as a choir, and all those choir kids and musicians that are in this university at this event they sing from their heart and soul and it to me that, when can’t I come back and do this again? That’s where I’m coming from, and by god we got asked back, and we’ll come back for the next one. So, I’d like to see, and thanks for calling, wherever this is going to go, whoever’s going to listen to this, I hope they enjoy hearing it and wished they would come and hear the band wherever we are, Eau Claire especially. They should come and see the band. What a wonderful event that the university has, and we’re planning on doing it for ever and ever and ever.

DV: Well, I just would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me, and kind of
reminisce a little bit.

EB: Oh, I did a lot, didn’t I? I could go on for another couple of hours, but I won’t. Thanks for asking ok?

DV: Ok well have a good rest of your day. And you will be receiving a transcript and a copy of the recording in the days to follow, and you will have fourteen days to redact them.

EB: Ok.

DV: Thank you.

EB: Ok thank you, goodbye.

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