Steve Steager, director of the Fremont Middle School Band, remembers growing up in the heavily Czech community of Brainard, where his family listened to a weekly polka show on Sundays, and polka dances were commonplace events.
In high school, he’d pick up the tuba and start dabbling in playing polka himself, until he caught the attention of a Schuyler-based band called the Czechlanders Orchestra, who called him to play a few gigs. After that, he started getting calls from other bands.
Soon, he was gigging regularly — establishing himself as an emerging young player in Nebraska’s polka scene.
“I was 15 at the time,” Steager said. “So my parents had to drive me to my first job where I got paid to play.”
What started as a side job in high school would grow into a decades-long side career as a veteran tuba player who’d play with an array of decorated polka outfits — culminating in his induction into the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame last week.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Steager said of his induction. “It’s a lifetime achievement, to be included with all the outstanding musicians that are in there and wonderful people that have entertained over the years of polka music since its inception back when it first got started here in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”
In 1982, Steager was 18, and playing in the Ernie Kucera Orchestra, often considered to be the number one polka band in Nebraska at the time. He played with Kucera for 15 years, and then stuck around for another five after Michael Brecka took over the band.
In 2003, he pulled back from playing in a regular band, but began taking on a session-type role, filling in for bands in need of a good tuba player whenever his schedule allowed. He still fills in today, and also runs the Prague Czech Brass Band, which was founded by his father-in-law, Adolf Nemec.
“Everybody in the polka business just kind of supports each other,” Steager said. “So if somebody has a player that can’t make it, they call somebody else, and we all just help each other out. It’s like one big family.”
And on Sept. 9, that family put Steager into the Hall of Fame.
The Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame has been in operation since 1972, inducting nearly 150 people who have contributed to Nebraska’s polka scene. Inductees include both living and deceased, both musicians and energetic enthusiasts.
Inductees are chosen by previously inducted members, who receive a ballot in the mail and vote in several different categories, said Ed “Sonny” Svoboda, coordinator for the Hall of Fame.
“They can’t be a young person, they’ve got to be somebody that’s been in the business that has helped promote this music over the years,” Svoboda said.
Steager isn’t the first person with Fremont ties to be inducted. Another popular name was introduced in 1974, when “Moostash” Joe Spellerberg — known for founding Moostash Joe Tours — was inducted to commemorate his long-running polka show on Fremont’s KHUB.
This year, Steager was inducted alongside Charles H. Petrmicl, Joseph “Big Joe” Siedlik and Johnny G. Halama, the latter two of whom were inducted posthumously.
“He has played with several bands. He’s played on my band, too,” Svoboda said. “He’s just a real talented person, and he’s in high demand. I mean, I have a hard time rounding him up when I need a tuba player.”
In his role as the middle school band director, which he’s done for the past 30 years, Steager has also worked to encourage younger musicians to get involved in polka, which Svoboda says is important to help make sure that polka survives in the face of limited commercial viability.
Steager estimates that around 40 of his middle-school and junior-high-age students have been invited to play along with one of his bands at some point. For a while, he even ran a brass band for students to participate in.
He played an integral role in the formation of The Happy Players — a popular polka band made up mostly of current Fremont High School students that has seen impressive success early in their polka careers.
The Happy Players started out four years ago doing gigs at nursing homes and churches and have graduated to bigger things — including an appearance at the National Polka Festival in Ennis, Texas, as well as an album.
And if you ask Fremont High School Senior Jameson Brettmann, The Happy Players’ accordion player, Steager has helped facilitate that rise. When Brettmann first started playing accordion in seventh grade, he practiced frequently with Steager. And it was Steager who brought the four members — Brettmann, his brother Jackson, Turner Blick and Luke Eisenmenger — into the same room to rehearse. The Happy Players, under Steagers’ tutelage, made their debut at the Czech Heritage Days in Prague, Nebraska, a month later.
Beyond that, Steager has helped the band arrange much of its music, and has reached out to his polka network to help them land gigs.
“We owe him a lot. We have a lot to thank him for,” Brettmann said. “We couldn’t repay him for what he’s been able to do for us. He has arranged a lot of our music and because he’s been in the business so long, he’s been able to arrange a lot of our performances.”
In his long career, Steager counts his time with the Ernie Kucera Orchestra as the proudest time in his career.
He can also recall one night that his friends in the polka world never let him forget.
It was 1984, and the tuba player was on stage, this time playing with the Jim Bochnicek Orchestra in Kansas.
When Steager stood up to take a solo, he unknowingly pushed the chair backward from underneath him. When he finished his solo, he moved to retake his seat, only to fall off the back of the stage, tuba and all.
Behind him was his then-girlfriend, now wife and fellow polka musician, who witnessed the whole thing.
“Luckily the chair broke my fall so I got back up and played, missed maybe about three measures of music, and got back up and played,” Steager said. “It was quite a moment. Everybody talks about it when I see all those guys, and they make fun of me all the time.”