Sophie Bolich

‘Polka Time!’ Escalator Gets Celebratory Sendoff

The 'Polkalator' gave its final ride Friday afternoon.

By - Aug 18th, 2023 08:30 pm
Riders high five each other on the Polka Time! escalator. Photo taken Aug. 18, 2023 by Sophie Bolich.

Riders high five each other on the Polka Time! escalator. Photo taken Aug. 18, 2023 by Sophie Bolich.

Fans of the Polkalator paid their respects with one final ride on Friday afternoon ahead of its 2 p.m. deaccession ceremony.

More than a dozen visitors arrived at the Baird Center — many clad in polka-related attire — between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., the attraction’s official closing time. Many danced up and down the escalator, exchanged high fives, took selfies and shook hands with Dick Blau, creator of the installation, which he calls the Polkalator.

Blau, a celebrated Milwaukee photographer and filmmaker, handed out commemorative pins to attendees in honor of the installation, which features more than 20 framed, black-and-white photos taken at polka festivals between 1976 and 1990. The collection, which captures the frenetic exuberance of the festivals, is accompanied by a curated soundtrack of polka tunes that play with the touch of a button.

Polka Time! is set to be disassembled and removed as part of the convention center’s $456 million expansion. It has resided at the center since 1998.

Attendees on Friday afternoon took turns pushing the button and riding the escalator a time or two, each exhibiting a range of emotions from disappointment to nostalgia to glee. After all, it’s hard to be upset when there’s polka music playing.

The afternoon — and era — ended with a closing ceremony to honor Blau, as well as DJs Jerry Halkoski and Greg Drust, who curated soundtracks for the installment.

Following its deaccession, artwork from the installment will be donated back to Blau.

Still craving a polka fix? Milwaukee Polka Riot is set for Sept. 9. The alternative polka music festival is the brainchild of Keith Gaustad, Tahrim Tatum and Evan Maruszewski. It was first held in 2017.

This year’s free event, titled Last Rites, will take place at 625 S. 6th St., featuring a lineup of self-described “off-kilter” bands. More information is available online.

The demise of the Polkalator is not the only art-related controversy to arise from the expansion. In April, Urban Milwaukee detailed the convention center’s plans to destroy a literary arts installation — also created in 1998 — which featured quotes from famous Wisconsin writers.

The project, entitled “Portals and Writings Celebrating Wisconsin Authors,” took three years to create and was permanently installed, meaning it could not be removed in any way that would preserve it.

The following month, Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks agreed to a compromise to save “most if not all” of the literary artwork.

The decision followed weeks of uproar from the Milwaukee arts community.

Under the new proposal, the installation would be concentrated in one portion of the building, with part of it redesigned aesthetically and another portion relocated.

The expanded facility, 400 W. Wisconsin Ave., reached its highest point in May 2023. It’s scheduled to open one year later, in May 2024.


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More about the Wisconsin Center District Literary Arts Installation Controversy

Read more about Wisconsin Center District Literary Arts Installation Controversy here

More about the Wisconsin Center expansion

Read more about Wisconsin Center expansion here

One thought on “‘Polka Time!’ Escalator Gets Celebratory Sendoff”

  1. dickblau says:

    Thanks for the coverage. One clarification. Although mischaracterized by WCD CEO Marty Brooks as a “donation,” Polka Time! was required BY CONTRACT to be returned to me. Dick

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