Beer garden's polka music puts some oompah in patrons' steps

The dance floor at Blob's Park in Jessup draws in fans of German culture

Maryland Journal

October 17, 2005|By CHRIS EMERY | CHRIS EMERY,SUN REPORTER

It's a Friday night in October and the revelers sit at long tables in a Bavarian biergarten. The bratwurst is ample, the beer pitchers overflowing and the polka music is almost nonstop.

German culture is all around. Germany, however, is an ocean away.

This is Blob's Park, a Teutonic outpost in Jessup that for more than three-quarters of a century has offered a little piece of Germany tucked away on a Maryland farm.

And at the heart of it all is the polka.

"The people ... come here to dance," says Leon Umberger, hardworking accordion player for the house band, the Rheinlanders, wiping sweat off his forehead on a recent night. "It's the only place I know that has this kind of festive atmosphere."

Blob's Park was established in 1933 by Max Blob, a German farmer who wanted a place to party with other immigrants from the old country. The beer garden started off as a barn on his farm, but was expanded over the years and eventually became the main family business.

The exterior of the current building, which dates to 1976, is styled to Old World specifications with stucco, exposed beams and a steeped roof over the entrance. It's down a narrow country road - Max Blob's Park Road - but sits proudly on a hill surrounded by farmland.

Inside, long tables that can seat almost 1,000 fill the main hall. Scores of tall, glass beer pitchers pack the bar top, lighted by beer keg-shaped ceiling lamps.

The focal point of the hall is the well-worn dance floor, next to the stage where the bands play in front of a huge picture of Prague, Czech Republic, another polka epicenter.

Ann Henline, Max's grandniece, runs the biergarten with her brother, John Eggerl, with help from their extended family. They took it over from their parents, who took it over from Uncle Max, as many people call the biergarten's founder.

A visitor's typical night begins with food. The menu includes a variety of German favorites: sausage, beef and potato dumplings, Wiener schnitzel.

The food is strongly spiced, and varying degrees of sour - from 'kraut sour to mildly tart - seems to be the dominant theme.

"People either love it or they hate it," Henline says. (Hamburgers and crab cakes are available for kids and the less adventurous.)

Over the years, Blob's Park has developed a devout group of patrons. Henline attributes this to the friendships that develop around the urge to eat, drink and be merry.

Some dress in traditional German garb, the men in lederhosen, the women in embroidered dresses called dirndl. For others, the culture is less of a draw than the food, the draft German beer - and the insistent duple meter of the polka.

"There is a camaraderie among the regulars - they really like each other," Henline says. "And they love to dance."

George Heffner of Catonsville was attracted by the music and dancing a couple of years ago. Polka was popular in the Slovenian neighborhood of Cleveland where he grew up. Now, when he hears a good polka, he can't help but tap his foot.

"It makes your whole body tap," says Heffner, who attends so often with dance partner Barbara Gondeck that they have their own wooden placards marking the seats at their favorite table.

Accordionist Umberger - who admits to playing "the most joked-about instrument around" - is delighted to find an appreciative audience when he takes the stage.

He learned quickly that he was expected to keep that dance floor full, and he mixes up the selections. He's found that if he strays too far from music most people can dance to - too deep into German or Polish polka tradition, for example - the dance floor clears out.

But don't fret: The band is sure to break out big German horns to play oompah music during the Oktoberfest celebrations that pack Blob's on fall weekends.

The music is a hit with regulars Bill and Lorraine Miller, who two-stepped on a recent night to the Rheinlander's rendition of "All of Me" - then, halfway through the song, switched to a swing.

Miller first heard of Blob's Park when he was in the Army stationed in Germany. Other soldiers told him about a biergarten in Maryland that was "just like Germany." He paid a visit after he was transferred to Fort Meade and has been coming back ever since.

It's a way to have some fun and keep fit at the same time, says Miller.

"If I ever saw a jogger smile, I'd take up running," he says. "I see dancers smiling all the time."

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