Steve Balich: San Francisco’s Polka Tent King
By Sheri Mignano Crawford

Born January 26, 1924 in San Francisco, Steve grew up in the Portola District.[1] It was adjacent to the heavily populated Italian Excelsior district. His love for Italian polkas may have originated with that early influence. His Yugoslavian parents and the Slovenian radio celebrity accordionist Frankie Yankovic nurtured Steve’s love for the accordion. He wanted to play accordion from a very early age but the Depression posed financial hardships on everyone. In 1934 his father was an unemployed stevedore thanks to a west coast longshoremen strike. Nevertheless, he begged for an accordion until his mother intervened. It was unthinkable and unaffordable but sacrifices were made by his parents to make sure that Steve could pursue his dream of playing the accordion.

A 48-bass Wurlitzer accordion was purchased and it arrived with a few free lessons. Eventually, he tapped into North Beach’s Italian accordion manufacturers and teachers.

One of his first teachers was the world renowned Anthony Galla-Rini who was living in San Francisco in the 1930s. He taught Steve for two years; then, Steve studied with the vaudevillian virtuoso Angelo Cagnazzo whose studio on Broadway (next to the Burlesque venues on the Barbary Coast) provided additional instruction. While studying with Cagnazzo, he met the soon-to-be famous accordionist Dick Contino who lived with Cagnazzo.

Just as Steve was perfecting his technique on the accordion, he enlisted in the army as a Private in March 1943 and served until 1945. When Steve returned from the war, he started to play semi-pro baseball in Stockton. He was a “south-paw” pitcher who also played center field. He prided himself in running the 100-yard dash, too. The accordion would have to wait as he explored other possibilities; however, by the summer of 1947 Jennie Gemignani had captured his heart. And even though she “didn’t care much for him at first,” she found that she missed Steve a lot when they weren’t together. They were married July 6, 1947. Contrary to rumors, Steve did not play his own wedding reception gig!

Jennie recalled that they shared a favorite song popular on the car radio at that time. “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” was more than a romantic melody but a touchstone for the Balichs. Even after seven decades together, Jennie always enjoyed going out on gigs with Steve. Their marriage included a lifetime of honesty, kindness, and respect. Their children are testament to that level of devotion. Steve and Jennie celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on July 6, 2017 just two months before he died. Throughout their marriage, they worked as a team in all their endeavors and contributed much to the accordion world.

In the late 1980s once Steve retired from his furniture business, accordion fever only increased. He bought a Petosa AM1100 which became his exclusive musical instrument of choice. In 1991, he was instrumental in the creation of the Cotati Accordion Festival and the Steve Balich, Sr. Band starred in the first annual festival. In 1996, he started the Accordion Club of the Redwoods in Petaluma. It benefited greatly from his dedication as an officer and member. He served as a founder, president, vice president, board member, band leader, caterer, public relations representative, and liaison to other clubs and to the public and in general.

These voluntary activities were balanced with an active music career. He freely contributed his intimate knowledge of and connections with the accordion world. He offered his musical talents and versatile repertoire to attract festival goers who flocked to hear the ethnic music of a bygone era. Steve’s American style polka blended his love of the Italian with the Slovenian dances. His band played regularly at all the social halls such as Verona’s Little Switzerland, Petaluma’s Herman Sons Hall, and numerous Sons of Italy events.

Writing about Steve Balich’s relationship to the rising popularity of the accordion is a little like trying to describe Thomas Jefferson’s role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Simply put, there would be no lively accordion community without Steve Balich having thrown his energy, talent, and efforts into establishing it. His longevity and ever presence built the accordion-loving community in the bay area. He was the heart and soul of the movement to return the accordion to its elevated stature. For that we are thankful. Steve died on October 6, 2017 but his passion for the accordion lives on in those who knew him.

[1] My sources and references derive from unpublished notes from a 2007 oral interview with Steve Balich.

 

(A memorial service is planned in January 2018 around his birthday.)