I’m the Last of the Kenosha Kickers from ‘Home Alone’
Kate McCallister was just trying to get home. It was Christmas Eve, and her eight-year-old son was home alone while she was stuck at the Scranton airport arguing with the ticket agent about getting a flight back to Chicago. She was having no luck when a gregarious man in a shiny yellow coat stepped forward to offer her a ride. His name was Gus Polinksi, aka “The Polka King of the Midwest,” and he was the leader of the Kenosha Kickers, an eight-piece polka band.
Played by the ever-lovable John Candy, Polinksi was a charming guy who liked to rattle off the names of his songs — “Twin Lakes Polka,” “Domavougi Polka,” etc. — while also bragging about how big his band was in Sheboygan and how they sold 623 copies of their biggest album in the early 1970s. Although Polinksi’s parenting skills left something to be desired — he once left his kid overnight at a funeral parlor — he’s one of the sweetest, most memorable characters in the Christmas classic Home Alone.
Candy had some previous familiarity with polka music before Home Alone from his time playing one half of the Schmenge Brothers with Eugene Levy on SCTV, but it’s safe to say that he didn’t have quite as much experience as his fellow Kenosha Kickers. The other members of the band were primarily played by real-life polka artists, led by Eddie Korosa Jr. of “Eddie Korosa Jr. and the Boys from Illinois.”
Korosa is still on the road, playing polka all over the country, but he did find the time to put down his accordion long enough to talk about how he assembled all the Boys from Illinois at the last minute for their Home Alone audition, the Polish words he taught Candy (who later ad-libbed them into the movie) and if he really is that big in Sheboygan.
So, are you the real “Polka King of the Midwest”?
No, John Candy is. There was a “Polka King” though, his name was Frankie Yankovic, and there was “America’s Polka Prince” — that was my dad, Eddie Korosa. I learned everything from him.
My mom and dad had a bar in Chicago from 1954 to 2004 called the Baby Doll Polka Club. I started out playing drums there when I was seven years old. After that, I started learning the accordion and started a band of my own in 1976 called “Eddie Korosa Jr. and the Boys from Illinois.” Now it’s called “Eddie Korosa Jr. and the Boys and Girl from Illinois” because my wife joined the band about seven years ago and I had to put her on the billing.
How did you and the boys end up in Home Alone?
They were making that Home Alone movie in 1989 in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and they contacted us at my dad’s bar and said they were looking for a polka band. They called at five in the evening, and they wanted us to go to the New Trier East High School by 7 p.m. to hear the band.
Now, I live on the Southwest Side of Chicago — it was cold, it was raining and we all had to drive an hour through rush hour traffic to get there. I called up all my guys right away, and I told ‘em, “You wanna take a ride to New Trier East High School?” All my guys said, “What are you nuts?” But I said, “I’m gonna make you big movie stars!” They said, “Up yours!” Eventually, though, I got ‘em to come along.
We got there at 7 p.m., and (director) Chris Columbus and (writer/producer) John Hughes were there. We were in a little classroom with all our equipment, and we played “Jingle Bells.” Then Chris said, “Don’t play anymore — you guys are hired!” Three days later, we went to the studio to record all our music; about two weeks after that, we went to Meigs Field airport to do our part with John Candy.
How much time did you get to spend with John Candy?
We spent 18 hours with him. We all had breakfast, lunch and dinner together — we sat at John Candy’s table. Everybody always says he was the nicest guy, and he was. He was talking just like you and I are. We were singing, talking, laughing. Matter of fact, when we were in the back of the truck and about ready to film, John says, “Let’s do ‘Roll Out the Barrel’!” So we’re all in the back playing “The Beer Barrel Polka,” and they’re trying to make a multi-million-dollar movie while John is screwing around.
Chris Columbus even said, “Hey John, we’re trying to make a movie here!” But John Hughes was there, so he said to let ‘em go and have some fun. After that, the crew started polka dancing, laughing and having fun — it was like we were having a party instead of making a movie, all thanks to John Candy.
What was the actual filming like?
We had three parts in the movie — one was filmed in the airport and the other two were in the back of a Budget truck in a warehouse at the airport. We did the part in the airport first, when John first met Catherine O’Hara. I remember they gave John a script of what to say, and he was reading off the script, but then Chris Columbus took the script away and said, “John, do your thing.” Everything he said in the movie he just made up on the spot.
He asked me to give him some Polish phrases, and he incorporated some of them into his ad-libs. Domavougi means “give me a kiss,” so that’s why he says “Domavougi Polka,” or “Kiss Me Polka.” John coined the phrase “Polka, Polka, Polka.” That’s a real song and an old German number, but it’s actually called “I Love the Polka.” He just made up “Twin Lakes Polka,” that’s not a real song. Nor is there a “Polka Twist.”
How was it filming in the back of a Budget truck?
It all went real smooth. When we were filming the parts where we were driving, four stagehands were outside the truck with two-by-fours above the tires rocking the truck. Also, in one of the scenes in the back of the truck, John Candy even ad-libbed a line with my name in it. When he’s talking about how all the Kenosha Kickers aren’t very good parents, he says, “Eddie, let’s just hope none of them write a book about him.”
In the movie, Candy says the Kenosha Kickers are on the road about 48 or 49 weeks out of the year. Is that true?
I play with my band close to 200 times a year. We do a lot of festivals, anniversary parties and moose lodges. We’re big in September and October for Octoberfest. There are 61 days in September and October, and we usually do about 72 or 73 shows over that span. We wear lederhosen, and I wear my Kenosha Kickers jacket. A lot of people like to take pictures of me with it, and I tell them, “I’m the last living Kenosha Kicker.”
Yep. There were eight Kenosha Kickers, including John Candy. They wanted older musicians, so some of them were my guys, some were my dad’s guys and two of them were friends of John Candy. Those two weren’t polka guys and they didn’t record with us, but all of the recording Kenosha Kickers have passed away — except for me.
So you kept your jacket from the movie?
We didn’t get to keep the original jackets because 20th Century Fox kept them all — I remember John Candy had a 7X jacket. Some of the jackets ended up in a Planet Hollywood, and some were raffled off for charity. But a few years ago, my daughter surprised me with a jacket with my name on it and the Kenosha Kickers logo, just like in the movie.
Do you have any other Home Alone mementos?
I’ve got John’s autograph on one of my band cards and a couple of still pictures from the movie. And a couple of years ago, for Home Alone’s 30th anniversary, it was back in the cinemas and my family and I got to see it again. After the movie, my daughter was looking at the cardboard standee for the movie, and she went, “Dad, that’s kind of a nice picture.” I joked, “I wonder if it folds up?” So she folded it up and walked out with it!
Before we go, I have to ask: How big are you in Sheboygan?
Actually, funny enough, the first time I ever played Sheboygan was last year.
And did you ever leave your kid at a funeral parlor?
Just once or twice.