Dance Hall Patrons Lament Last Call for 'Polka Time!'

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007

The shoe-slapping dancers in lederhosen and Bavarian skirts weren't the only ones moving to a different tempo recently at Max Blob's Park in Jessup. Time itself seemed to tick to another beat in the cavernous polka parlor, which has been a weekend hot spot since the end of the Hoover administration.

The beer garden between Washington and Baltimore, which is closing this month after 74 years, still serves schnitzel, dumplings and other weighty fare. The beer still sometimes appears in capped steins, and lots of the local folk measure their tenures as Blob's regulars not by the year but by the decade.

"I met Steve here 22 years ago, and we've been dating ever since," Joan Bentley of Laurel said on a recent Friday night, standing by the dance floor and nearly shouting over the babble of diners and the wail of the accordion. Someone had just shouted "It's polka time!" from the bandstand, and dancers were rushing by the dozen to the floor. Bentley's longtime companion, Steve Nyschot, stood next to her, scanning the crowd and tapping his feet.

A few dancers were in Alpine wear: suspenders, hose and green felt tunics. But most were doing the German and heel-kicking Polish polkas in more modern duds.

"This is like our family," Bentley said. She was wearing loose black pants but said she well remembers when slacks on women were verboten and managers kept a supply of loaner skirts at the front door. "We come Friday, Saturday and Sunday, just about every single weekend."

That's 3,000 or so nights of steady attendance. Not even an eyebrow raiser, by Blob's standards.

"Oh, there are people who have been coming longer than we have," Bentley said. "It's hard to imagine doing anything else."

But that's what Bentley and other die-hard regulars will face after New Year's Eve. A few hours after 2007 ends, a final accordion note will fade away, hundreds of dancing shoes will shuffle to a halt and Blob's Park, a gathering place for European immigrants and other lovers of old-world ways for four generations, will close for good.

"It's more than sad," said Doris Berger, who danced traditional German folk steps at the restaurant for more than 40 years until a knee replacement slowed her down. She has still been going every Friday and Sunday and is good for a polka when one of her favorite tunes comes up. "Everybody coming for New Year's Eve says they're coming for the funeral."

The mood was anything but somber on the last Friday of dancing before the grand finale. About 300 people filled the hall, which can seat almost 1,000 (and usually does during Oktoberfest). The dance floor was frequently jammed, and the line for the bar often snaked 20 yards among crowded tables. In recent years, such mobs have become rare. But interest spiked when word spread that Blob's was closing, Bentley said.

On that Friday, two waitresses rushed plates of sausage and smoked chops from the kitchen where Josephine Eggerl, grandniece of the beer garden's founder, Max Blob, has commanded the sauerkraut vats for 32 years. Behind the bar, her husband, John, filled pitcher after pitcher of Paulaner and other on-tap European brews.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions," Josephine Eggerl said during a hurried chat. "We are going to miss the people terribly. The work part, I'm not going to miss."

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