Marks played polkas, ran club
When Elmer Marks squeezed out his favorite song from the accordion strapped to his heart, his son, Rick, knew it was Saturday morning.
"The hurdy-gurdies, the birdies, the cop on the beat,
The candy maker, the baker, the man on the street,
The city charmer, the farmer, the Man in the Moon,
All sing Elmer's tune."
Most of the characters in the Glenn Miller classic could have passed through - and held their wedding receptions - at the Nightingale Ballroom during the 32 years Marks ran the Menomonee Falls nightclub with his wife, Eileen.
"If you had a wedding there, Dad made sure it was the best day of your life," Rick Marks recalled Thursday.
"Elmer's Tune" will be performed at funeral services Saturday for Marks, former leader of a polka band called the Marksmen. Marks died Tuesday at age 80 after being hospitalized for a fall.
"When he played the accordion, he was totally involved in that instrument and the audience he played for," recalled fellow Marksmen accordionist Jim Ebner.
"He'd sweat so much he'd change T-shirts twice in a night."
He was born in 1928 and raised in Hubertus, said Eileen "Tootie" Marks.
Formerly the leader of a band called Elmer and the Rhythm Boys, he formed the Marksmen in 1949. He was delivering for Kaul Fuel Oil of Milwaukee and making tons of friends along his route, Ebner said.
"He was this happy personality who just beamed with friendliness," Ebner said.
That year, Tootie's parents took over the Nightingale, the 90-by-150-foot ballroom built in 1930 that featured polka stars Louie Bashell, Heinie and the Grenadiers and the Six Fat Dutchmen, along with big bands like Wayne King's and Guy Lombardo's.
After 1949 the Nightingale primarily featured such polka bands as Frankie Yankovic, Cousin Fuzzy and Bernie Roberts, along with radio broadcasts by Fritz the Plumber from WMIL.
Soon the Marksmen were also playing for hundreds of people packing the Nightingale's polished hardwood dance floor.
"We did hundreds of weddings," Ebner said. "We were popular, had a good following and we were cheap."
The Markses, who held their own wedding reception at the Nightingale in 1951, leased the ballroom in 1964 and purchased it 10 years later. It was home to bands such as The Booze Brothers and Rocket 88, Rick Marks recalled.
"But my dad still would play the accordion every Saturday morning, and my bedroom was right upstairs from the ballroom."
The ballroom closed in 1993 and the bar in 1996.
After that, Marks, who was inducted along with Tootie into the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in 2005, played for free with Ebner at area nursing homes, Ebner said.
"I observed these wonderful people coming out of their shells, clapping their hands and repeating the lyrics," he recalled.
Visitation for Marks - also survived by his wife and daughter Karen Becker - will be at 10 a.m. Saturday until a funeral Mass at noon at St. Boniface Catholic Church, W204 N11940 Goldendale Road, Germantown.