Johnnie Zibert, area polka and accordion legend, is happy to be right back where he started at the Franklin Community Center and Heritage Museum.

Johnnie Zibert, area polka and accordion legend, is happy to be right back where he started at the Franklin Community Center and Heritage Museum.

“I was born in 50 Camp, which is two miles from here,” he said. “Franklin was always a little burg and we did a lot of visiting in Franklin when I was young.”

He also started playing accordion when he was young.

“I keep saying I was 9, but I found a receipt from the 1940s when Dad bought an accordion for me in Pittsburg for $25, so maybe I was 10,” Zibert said. “I took private lessons from Prof. John Catanzaro in Pittsburg. All his sons were terrific players and they were in my bands when I was young. His daughter was a really good singer.”

He said he studied with the professor for about nine years, and also played frequently at various activities.

“The accordion made it easy for me when they had school plays,” Zibert said. “I wouldn’t have to learn any lines, I’d just play my accordion when they were changing scenes. What I call the first real dance I played was right here on this spot. Nick Vignatelli had a hall right here where the Franklin center is now. I got out of Arma High School in 1947, so this would have been in 1947 or maybe 1948.”

Phyllis Bitner, Franklin and Arma historian, said that, before Vignatelli came in, the site was also the home of Union Hall, also known as Miner’s Hall.

“We have a photo with a big banner that says ‘Vaudeville Tonight’ across the front of the building,” Bitner said. “I guess this corner has always been a gathering place for fun and fellowship.”

Zibert also played with A.J. Cripe, who owned the Town Talk Bakery in Pittsburg. The bread baker loved music and had his own band.

“I played rodeo shows in the summer with A.J. Cripe and Shorty Prewitt,” Zibert said. “We’d go all over heck. They’d give us a few bucks and we thought we were rich.”

He also played in a band with Joe Tuminello, with Joe Nepote and with Jarboe Watson.

“Jarboe Watson and I played together for 60 years,” Zibert said. “I played with most of the musicians who played polka and standards. I played just about every night club in the county. By the time I was married I’d play three or four nights a week, usually Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

However, times have changed.

“That’s all gone now, and most clubs around don’t want musicians,” Zibert said. “It’s sad, because I love music. I play with my son, Johnnie Joe, who plays accordion too, and I play with a show band out of Girard called the Holiday Band. It does standards, country western and gospel. This is the first time I’ve played gospel on the accordion, but it works pretty good.”

He has frequently donated his musical talents for worthy causes.

“I’ve donated a lot of time in my lifetime, and I play at rest homes a lot,” Zibert said. “You play music because you like not, not monetarily. If you play to make money, you’ll go broke fast.”

He belongs to the National Accordion Association, based in Dallas, Texas, and regrets that the instrument isn’t as popular in the United States as it used to be. However, Zibert said that the accordion is still going strong in Europe, and has recently been discovered by the Chinese.

“I’ve heard that in China they have accordion classes now with 200 students in them,” he said.

He’s back playing at Franklin every couple of months.

“Usually we do the dances Sunday afternoon,” Zibert said. “We tried doing some Saturday nights, but a lot of people who go to polka dances don’t like to drive at night.”

Accompanying him to every dance is his wife, Luella.

“She’s my manager and helps me carry things in,” Zibert said.

His accordion has gotten a bit heavier over the years, and he now often plays sitting down, but that doesn’t prevent the dancers from getting out on the floor and having a good time.

“I love polka dancing because you can’t possibly listen to the music without having a smile on your face,” Bitner said.

“We wish more younger people would attend the dances.”

If the young people don’t know how to polka, that’s not a problem.

“We always have plenty of ladies who are willing to dance and teach a few polka steps,” Bitner said.

Anyone interested will have their chance to dance in a New Year’s Eve polka dance from 8 p.m. Dec. 31 to 1 a.m. Jan. 1 at the Franklin Community Center and Heritage Museum. Admission to the BYOB event will be $10 per person. Beer and soft drinks will be available for purchase, and coffee and doughnuts will be served at midnight.