Joe Kaczynski wanted to rent an elephant for this year’s Polish Harvest Festival at the Church of Saint Adalbert.
“I figured, you get an elephant and a million people show up,” he said, making his way through the Sunday afternoon crowd in a red bow tie.
Instead, he hired Steven Brundage, a quick-wristed street musician capable of solving a Rubik’s Cube while it was tossed in the air.
“Pick a card,” Brundage said to a passerby. “Now I’m going to pick the match from this other deck.”
He ended up pulling a folded four of clubs from his mouth to cheers and laughter from a circle of onlookers.
“He’s pretty good,” Kaczynski said, “and it’s hard to get an elephant.”
As it turned out, the festival didn’t really need an elephant. People packed in under a vinyl tent. It was a place of dense meat, cabbage and potato smells and echoing with live polka music.
Volunteers served up pirogi and golabki and plenty of beer. Some polkaed away. Some toured the ornate vault of the neo-Gothic church.
Judging from the tight parking situation, no one missed the elephant.
Back at home church
In fact, Kaczynski said this festival was the most successful in years. Last year, they moved it from the Polish American Center in Albany back to the home church, and 3,000 people showed up.
This year, they moved it up from October to August, for better weather, and stretched it into a two-day event.
Kaczynski didn’t have any exact numbers, but said his volunteers were on tack to sell out of 4,500 pirogi, 2,200 golabki and 60 Polish pizzas, which adds up to a whole lot of people.
Part of that success comes down to Brundage, or at least the idea that got him hired.
“Mostly I work the street in Saratoga,” he said, resting between magic sets. “I’m not Polish. I don’t usually do this sort of thing.”
And the Polish fest doesn’t usually employ non-Polish acts. Saturday, the first day of the event, had an oldies band instead of Sunday’s Polka group, and some American food.
“We are Polish-Americans,” Kaczynski said, “so we can be a little American too.”
Despite the slight Americana flavor, he said the event’s success is traceable to its Polish roots.
Food, Faith, culture
The event, he said, has always been based on food, faith and culture. In years past, when the event was held at the center in Albany, it was basically just food.
When it returned to the church, a 195-foot monument to Polish immigrants and their faith, attendance surged. This year, they added an extra measure of Polish culture with doll displays and half-hour classes in Polish pronunciation.
Groups of 20 people gathered in a church classroom for Helen Saunders’ lessons on how to correctly pronounce the word “golabki.”
“There’s no ‘lumps’ in golabki,” she said.
It sounds like “gaw-woamp-key,” for the interested readers.
“We brought the food, the faith and the culture together for this one,” Kaczynski said.
To many though, the event hasn’t actually changed that much. Carly Kaczynski, Joe’s daughter, ate pirogi with her Italian boyfriend Justin Pabon.
“It’s still about the food,” she said.