A Merry Reunion…
John Evanina looks back at his musical career and realizes he has seen and done quite a bit. Evanina is the founder of The Pennsylvania Merry Makers, a legendary polka band that was widely popular in The 570 and beyond. Today, the Enyon resident is a member of Joe Stanky and the Cadets playing trumpet and singing, as well as Reflection, a duo with his fiancé Columbia Agostinelli who spend their time entertaining residents in senior centers, nursing homes and those in assisted livings through song and dance. Through the years, Evanina has heard his music on AM radio and his polkas have been released on vinyl and eight tracks, cassette tapes and CDs. Evanina and the band will celebrate the release of their latest record, The Pennsylvania Merry Makers Reunion, with a one-time only polka dance on June 30 in Mayfield. The 16 tracks are all arranged by Evanina and feature original and traditional polkas. Whether it’s opening for Bobby Vinton in front of 10,000 people or getting their fans out of the house for one more dance, The Pennsylvania Merrymakers are here to celebrate. Meet John Evanina…
Was music a big part of your life while growing up?
The house was musically inclined; my brother played accordion, my sister played the clarinet and my father played the bass. I had an uncle who played violin. We formed a band when I was 13 and I played my first job at that age. We did things then that you cannot do today. We played in bars and nightclubs; I think my brother was 15 at the time. I got to ninth grade and decided I didn’t want to play the trumpet any more. My school music teacher came to our house that night and talked to my mother and father about the talent I had. I was back playing the next day. She actually kept my career going.
So you continued playing?
We formed a band called the Justus 4 for weddings, parties and nightclubs. Later we changed the name to the Evanina’s. Then we disbanded for short time when my brother and I went into the Navy. When we regrouped, we changed the name to the Merry Makers. My brother (William Evanina) dropped out, we landed a new accordion player and the band started to change. Bernie Witkowski called and wanted to do a record with the band. We recorded the album on Stella Records and that’s when we really started to blossom. He changed the name to Pennsylvania Merry Makers. We started to play a lot more out of town gigs and traveling out of state. When we later switched to Lemans Records, and South Scranton’s Tommy Butash came into the band, then we really exploded. We were playing three or four nights a week. When Olyphant had its centennial, we played 28 times in July (laughs). We just kept going on and on!
What was it about the band?
We had our own style. We had Frank Kozak, Charlie Lawrisky; it seemed like they all had their own niche – and their own little fan club too. The people just liked our style. We traveled everywhere; Connecticut on Friday, down to Virginia and then Ohio and New Jersey and Massachusetts and upstate New York. We just kept blossoming.
Where did you study music?
I was raised in the Orthodox Church and that is where I learned a lot of the dances and songs. That’s where I really learned how to sing. In our church, there is no organ; it’s all a cappella. Everyone has a part to sing. I grew up with it.
Throughout these times, you never really stopped playing.
When the band split up and came back with Merry Makers for about two years, I joined Joe Stanky and the Cadets. Joe Stanky played with me for about three years, and then when we disbanded, I joined his group and I’m still with him. The Merry Makers Anthology came out in 2008 with 42 songs and everything was taken off records and mastered.
Now you have a new record.
It’s called The Pennsylvania Merry Makers Reunion. It features guys who played in the band in the past. We got together and recorded these songs at Magdon Music and the trumpets in New Jersey. It’s available at Magdon Music in Olyphant, at shows and at the reunion dance at St. John’s Center in Mayfield, Sunday June 30. There’s a lot of buzz out there about it.
You’re essentially getting the band back together for one big dance. What are you looking forward to about the reunion?
I’m really looking forward to playing with the guys; I haven’t played with some of them for years. We’re a lot of getting calls from people who followed the band a long time ago who really don’t get to go out much any more, but they’re coming.
Your music and camaraderie is getting people to come out and enjoy themselves.
To get the fans out who followed us years ago feels great. At the time, I didn’t realize how many fans we had around the country. Maybe, I was kind of spoiled. Now I realize it. It was really something.
— tom graham
The Pennsylvania Merry Makers Reunion Dance featuring John Evanina, Joe Stanky, Alan Piatkowski, Tom Butash, Bill Erdman, Mike Magdon and Father Stephen Evanina takes place Sunday, June 30 at St. John’s Center, 703 Hill St., Mayfield. The dance runs from 3 to 7 p.m. and admission is $15. There will also be DJ dance music between sets. For tickets and more information, call 876-3423.