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'He was an icon': Tributes pour in for polka legend Walt Groller

Walt Groller.jpg
Walt Groller, Allentown native and polka legend, died Monday, July 17, 2023 at age 92.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — As his 92 years of life neared an end Monday, polka legend Walt Groller’s own music served as a fitting goodbye.

“I got the message Monday night that Walt had passed,” Alex Meixner, a Coplay native, polka musician and longtime friend of Groller, said Tuesday from his home in South Texas.

  • Allentown native and Polka Music Hall of Famer Walt Groller died Monday in his Whitehall Township home at age 92
  • Groller was a staple performer at Musikfest for many years, starting in its inaugural year of 1984
  • Groller recorded 18 polka albums, founded his own record label, and received a Grammy nomination

“He had been ill for quite a while. Walt was home [in Whitehall Township.] One of my friends who is close with the family said that as Walt was drifting away, they were playing one of his recordings.

"And just as the recording ended, he passed. He was an icon.”

Walt Groller dies at 92

An Allentown native born to Austrian immigrants, Groller learned to play accordion at age 4. He began performing professionally at age 12; his first solo gig was at Keystone Fire Company in Allentown.

By age 15, he assembled his first band and began playing professionally at hoe-downs in colleges and country hotels for “half a dollar and a glass of beer,” he told an interviewer in 2017.

'Comfort food for generations'

After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Groller continued his music career and became a giant in polka music.

He recorded 18 albums and received a Grammy Award nomination in 1987 for “It’s Polkamatic.” He also played with polka music Hall of Famer Frankie Yankovic when the latter needed a replacement accordion player for an event in Hazleton.

Groller also founded his own production label, Chalet Records in Whitehall.

“In my book, Walt’s polka music at Musikfest was comfort food for generations. For many, the music was a reminder of their heritage and ethnicity. The music caused them not to worry about anything but having fun.”
Musikfest founder Jeff Parks

In support of his music, Groller toured the United States, South America, Canada and Europe — including Austria.

However, as popular and successful as he had become, Groller never forgot his roots in the Lehigh Valley. He performed at Musikfest in Bethlehem from the festival’s inaugural year, 1984, and for many years after.

Musikfest founder Jeff Parks remembered Groller as a performer whose music put smiles on people’s faces.

“In my book, Walt’s polka music at Musikfest was comfort food for generations,” Parks said Tuesday morning, upon learning of Groller’s death.

“For many, the music was a reminder of their heritage and ethnicity. The music caused them not to worry about anything but having fun.”

Parks said one of the first music acts he contacted during the planning stages of the first year of Musikfest was Groller.

“Walt was the polka king of the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “We closed the festival with him for many years. He was so popular.

“He played polkas, but would also perform some patriotic songs. But people will remember him performing the Chicken Dance and the Chicken Lady dancing on stage. I will miss him dearly.”

Accolades — and magic

Groller was inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame in 1986. He also accepted one of Austria’s highest civilian honors, the Austrian Decoration of Merit in Gold, in 1990, for his work to keep Austrian culture and music alive.

His Walt Groller Orchestra played radio shows on Lehigh Valley radio station WKAP-AM. The show later switched to WSAN-AM, and for seven years did a TV show, “Cafe Internationale,” on WFMZ 69 that featured local acts.

“Walt had a magic about him.”
Alex Meixner, polka musician and Walt Groller friend

Groller’s impact from his music got him a letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton. In May 1995, he received the Polka News Network’s Lifetime Polka Music Award.

Groller was an Army veteran, having served in the Korean War.

Groller and his wife of 68 years, Marilyn, have sons, Thomas and Joseph, and a daughter, Anita. Joseph played drums in Groller’s band.

Meixner, like Groller, is a Grammy Award-nominated accordion player. His family association with Groller began 75 years ago.

“My grandfather and my father’s uncles’ band, The Jolly Vets, played at Walt and Marilyn’s wedding in 1948,” he said. “I was never in Walt’s band. But I shared stages with him in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania for many years.

"With Walt, one of the things that was so special is that it ceased being about him. What I mean is, as time went on and he got older, there were people wanting to hear him play more than Walt had a desire to play.

“Walt had a magic about him.”

Groller is survived by his wife and children and extended family.