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The Tom Ptak Collection and Archive

Tom Ptak Orchestra

The Tom Ptak Orchestra (about 1940) featured Leo Krcil, trumpet; Steve Thaler, trumpet; Adolph Cudley and George Honomichl, saxophone/clarinet; Bill Hron, tuba; Mary Rohla, piano; and Tom Ptak, drums and vocals. Photo gift of LaVern Ptak.

Highlights of the Collection...

Alongside the Museum's international holdings are many collections and archives relating to South Dakota's own musical heritage. One of the most interesting is the Bohemian (Czech) heritage that still lives on in the small, close-knit communities--Tabor, Tyndall, Dante, Wagner, and others--that were established west of Yankton (the capital of Dakota Territory) during the closing decades of the 19th century.

The Tom Ptak Collection and Archive includes a drumset played by this longtime bandleader from Wagner. The set is the gift of Tom Ptak's granddaughter, Phoebe J. Orton. This composite set includes two mounted toms, a floor tom, a bass drum by the Ludwig Company, an unsigned cymbal, a Rogers hi-hat, and a Ludwig snare drum. A 1950s WFL snare drum is also preserved. Along with the musical instruments, the Ptak Archives include more than twenty photographs of groups in which Tom Ptak played throughout his life, a costume once work by Ptak, and many audio tapes of groups in which Ptak played. There are also several oral interviews conducted by Museum staff with relatives and friends of Ptak, as well as with former Ptak band members.

Tom Ptak, the Musician...

Tom Ptak (1895-1997) was a lifelong South Dakota resident, living in the southeastern part of the state for his entire 102 years. Born into a family of nine children, his immigrant parents passed on their Bohemian traditions, teaching the children to sing and speak in Czech. He grew up hearing Bohemian tunes played by polka bands traveling throughout southeastern South Dakota. He began farming near Dante, a little town southeast of Wagner, but always maintained a keen interest in music. In his twenties, he began to teach himself to play many of the tunes he had heard since childhood. He taught himself to play the button accordion, the tuba, and the bells, but it was the drums with which Tom was to fall in love.

When Tom's brother, Steve, a banjo and fiddle player, moved to Dante to begin teaching in the mid-1920s, Tom saw his chance to begin a musical career. He pulled together a diverse collection of musicians from the Wagner area, and put together a dance band called The Royal Serenaders.

The Serenaders

Tom Ptak's first band, The Royal Serenaders. Band members were Clayton Dostal, trombone; Ed Rehurek, trumpet; Dewey Drappeau, sousaphone; Tom Ptak, drums and vocals; Steve Ptak, fiddle, banjo, and vocals; Adeline Wagner, piano; John Dostal, saxophone; Ray Kuca and Johnny Matuska, clarinet and saxophone. Photo gift of Steve Ptak.

The WNAX Connection...

The powerful AM radio station, WNAX, located in Yankton, which began broadcasting in the 1920s, included as part of its regular programming, performances by local ensembles. This included many Czech and Bohemian groups such as The Royal Serenaders. On March 28-29, 1927, The Royal Serenaders entered a competition at WNAX and won first prize, bringing home a trophy that now resides in the Museum's Tom Ptak Archives.

One young member of Tom Ptak's group, Johnny Matuska, went on to become a very popular band leader at WNAX for many years. Both Ptak and Matuska played with a variety of WNAX radio personalities and studio musicians, including the well-known bandleader, Lawrence Welk, who was based out of WNAX during the early years of his career.

Tom Ptak's Polka and Czech Bands...

In 1929, with the advent of the Great Depression, many of the band members had to move in search of jobs. The Royal Serenaders disbanded. This, however, did not stop Tom Ptak. He soon found himself playing in Steve's Orchestra, a local dance band run by Steve Thaler, a long-time Wagner resident. Ptak played with Steve's Orchestra for almost ten years until Steve left the group. Tom stepped right in, gathered the players, and started his own band.

Tom Ptak Orchestra's Tour Bus

Printed on a postcard to help market the Tom Ptak Orchestra, this 1936 Ford touring car, painted blue and white with the band's two-digit phone number on the door, had first been used as a passenger bus between Yankton and Platte, South Dakota. Photo gift of Phoebe J. Orton.

The Tom Ptak Orchestra became a fixture on the area's musical scene. The band played all over South Dakota and down into Nebraska for more than twenty years. Band members came and went, as circumstances allowed, but Tom was always there on drums, leading the band and singing his favorite Czech songs.

Tom Ptak Orchestra

Ptak retired from his orchestra in the mid-1960s, by which time he was in his 60s, although that never slowed him down. He began playing in a duo with Joey Zacharias, an accordion player from Wagner, and the two played bar gigs for another twenty years. They used the name, The Jolly Polkateers, and, whenever possible, would find other musicians to play with them.

Tom Ptak's Legacy...

Tom Ptak, and musicians like him, played a significant role in fostering a unique piece of South Dakota's musical heritage. They helped to create a new musical culture by melding traditional music of their European homelands with new musical styles developing in America.

Tom Ptak inspired several generations of musicians in southeastern South Dakota, and will be remembered as a tireless musician who could play for hours at a time and still be ready to play one more song. In the late 1980s, Tom moved into the Wagner Good Samaritan Center, where he spent the remainder of his days. According to his son, LaVern, Tom continued to enjoy and participate in music, playing the accordion for the annual Good Samaritan Christmas party, at age 102, just days before his death on December 31, 1997.

Excerpted from, and expanded by, Jayson Dobney, "Museum's Archives Document South Dakota's Bohemian Musical Heritage," America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. XXVI, No. 1 (February 1999), pp. 4-5.

The Ptak Archives are available for examination by appointment (see access guidelines) at the NMM.

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Most recent update:   March 3, 2014

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