For Ken Charles, the only prerequisite for him to take a gig is that he has to think it’ll be fun. Hence, the 61-year-old -- who’s also known as “Kenny Charles,” “Uncle Kenny” and “The Polka King” -- has played his accordion recently at a bevy of venues, including a Brew City Bruisers roller derby bout, as an opener for The Love Monkeys and, of course, weddings.
However, Charles says he might hang up the accordion when it comes to weddings.
“Recently, I played at a guy’s third wedding, and I had played at the first two, and I thought, ‘You know, when you can’t keep straight the name of the bride, it might be time to stop,’” says Charles. “It made me think, ‘Wow, I’ve been doing this too long.’”
Charles, who grew up on the South Side and attended Pius XI and Whitnall High Schools, started playing the accordion when he was 8 years old. He attended lessons at LoDuca Brothers, and by the time he was a teenager, was a fixture at South Side weddings, fronting a band called Kenny Charles and the Good Times. He kept that band rolling for 20 years.
From the beginning, Charles had a penchant for classic polkas like “She’s Too Fat For Me,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “In Heaven There Is No Beer” and “Just Because.” These songs are still the bulk of his repertoire, but occasionally he slips in an original tune.
The Love Monkeys hire Charles to open for them regularly. Charles says these gigs are always a good time -- and a learning experience.
“I’ve learned a lot from John Hauser (of The Love Monkeys),” says Charles. “I really admire him as an entertainer. He really connects with the audience, and I like to get out there, too, and go into the audience. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Chares says the key to being a successful entertainer is the aforementioned audience involvement, and to make certain to “cover the whole room,” making every person feel involved.
“Sometimes I sing right into their face,” he says.
Also, Charles has performed at Summerfest, State Fair, Tosa Fest, City of Greenfield functions, Rooter’s, The Wyndham (now the Inter-Continental), Points East Pub and many more. He is currently in the process of closing a deal to perform at the Old German Beer Hall in early 2008.
“I used to play a lot of shows at the Red Carpet Inns and the Leilani on Bluemound Road in Brookfield, but those places are closed, so I’ve moved on,” he says.
He says singing the national anthem at a recent Brew City Bruisers bout was one of his favorite ’07 gigs. “That’s a fun gig,” he says. “That’s a really fun group.”
Charles’ nephew, 40-year-old Bill Brunke, sometimes sings with Uncle Kenny. When the two play together, they usually do so under the name “Polka Face.”
Dressing the part of the "Polka King” is part of the fun for Charles. When performing, he says he prefers to wear leather pants and a black sparkly shirt, but it really depends on the venue and the weather.
“You know, if it’s during the summer, the leather’s a lot harder to wear,” he says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.