The Polka Maestro

How many times a week do you drive over the Farmington River bridge on Palisado Avenue (Route 159) in Windsor? Have you noticed the bronze plaque that says “Ray Henry Memorial Bridge?” Have you asked yourself “Who was Ray Henry?” You may be surprised to learn he was a Windsor musician, composer, and conductor whose energy, talent, and love of performing touched thousands of people during his career.

Born Henry Mocarski, he learned to play the accordion as a boy. In 1939 at the age of sixteen he started a polka trio with friends who played the saxophone and drums. Within a short time they added more musicians and the members of the ten-piece ensemble called themselves the Ray Henry Orchestra. Although the group played a wide variety of music, Mocarski’s first love was the polka, and he became known as “Ray Henry, the Polka Maestro.”

His band played all over the northeast, travelling to perform at dance halls and social events from Chicago into Canada. The group had more than 1,000 musical pieces in its repertoire; amazingly more than 800 of them were composed by Ray Henry himself. The orchestra was featured on live radio shows, such as the ones emceed by Stan Ozimek on Sunday afternoons in Connecticut, and made dozens of recordings. Ray Henry was inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame in 1972.

At the height of the ballroom dance craze of the mid-20th century, nearly every town and city in Connecticut had at least one dance hall and frequently there were dances every night of the weekend. Traditionally there were slow dances on Saturday nights and polka hops on Sundays. In the 1950s the standard admission was one dollar for four hours of dancing. In the Wilson neighborhood of Windsor, the Polish National Home on Windsor Avenue held polka dances in their second-floor ballroom. This was located in the same block as the Wilson Department Store, more commonly known as Syd’s General Store. Other popular venues near Windsor were the Chrystal Ballroom in Ellington and the Polish National Home in Hartford.

Windsor’s Ray Henry passed away on January 24, 1998. Immediately his friends, fans, and fellow musicians formed the Ray Henry Tribute Committee. They held dances to raise funds for a Ray Henry Musical Scholarship at Windsor High School, displayed memorabilia at the Windsor Public Library, played concerts on the Windsor Town Green, and arranged for the dedication of the Farmington River Bridge in Ray Henry’s memory on July 24, 1999. The dedication was followed by a picnic, music, and dancing at the boat launch by the bridge.

Ray Henry. Photo courtesy of the International Polka Association.

In 2012 the Society received copies of three Ray Henry Orchestra recordings: “Polka Session with Ray Henry,” “Wicked Good Polka,” and “Fifty Years and Better.” January is National Polka Month. Why not take a few minutes to watch some of the Ray Henry Orchestra videos available on YouTube, download recordings from iTunes, or visit the Windsor Historical Society and listen to one of our CDs. A lively polka is guaranteed to elicit a light-hearted gaiety in the listener, no matter what the age. You may even feel like dancing!

Plaque on the Ray Henry Memorial Bridge. The Farmington River railroad bridge can be seen through the trees in the distance. WHS collections 2017.34.3, photo by Michelle Tom.

 

By Barbara Goodwin, Librarian, 2012.
Top image: Ray Henry Orchestera, ca 1945. Windsor Historical Society collections 2014.17.1, photo courtesy of James Turek.

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