(The following was written by Teresa Cochnar)
The U-netn Orchestra of Dorchester, Nebr. was orranized in 1938 by Alfred P. Cochnar. The style of the times prompted the selection of a one-word, easy to pronounce, Czech heritage sound therefore the name U-neta was chosen. At that time no one dreamed that four decades later this name would be a part of Czech musical history. A regular family name was not considered because of the many family names involved.
A sincere note of appreciation goes out to former members and substitutes of the U-neta Orchestra, who by their interest, dedication and cooperation made the band a memorable experience for the owner, manager and arranger. But most of all for the fun, happiness and entertainment brought to the polka dancing and listening public.
The story actually began when a young trumpeter anxious to manage a band, met a group of still younger musicians who needed a leader and manager. The teen-agers included Teresa M. Kohl, lead trumpet, arranger and later solo-vox; Verlee Bouska, 2nd trumpet; Leonard A. Kohl, baritone; Anton F. (Frick) Kohl, drummer; This five-piece combo played for barn-dances, picnics and various programs, later adding Carol Jelinek, piano (replaced in one year by Ray Jelinek); and June Dunder, bass fiddle and horn. Alfred F. Cochnar seeing the band did not need another trumpet, changed to saxophone and later added clarinet and trombone. The making of an orchestra was on its way and this group of seven was considered the charter members. They were one of the very first Czech bands to dress in uniform and to specialize in Czech singing. An outstanding public address system, and special musical arranrements pave then a full solid sound that was admired by ballroom managers and pleased the dancing and listening customers. After making the dance circuit once, the band sold itself, and many repeat and new bookings were realized.
The first seven-iece orchestra booking was in the Wilber Park Pavillion (located east of town, now defuct) for a wedding dance in the summer of 1940. With other dances between, the second wedding dance was for Bill Zitek’s, now of Crete, who recently (fall of 1990) celebratd their 50th. Many couples who hired the U-neta bunch for their wedding dance, did so again on their 25th celebration. Some families hired the band 5 or 6 times as the weddings came up.
As the young musicians “grew up” and left the band, the change of personnel was perhaps the greatest of any other Czech orchestra. Membership over the years reached 55, not counting substitutes. For approximately 20 years the influx of new young players (mostly high school and college students) became the trademark of the U-neta Orchestra. U-neta was a money-making outlet for these young people both fellows and girls. During World War II, girls did dominate the membership, but Alfred Fr. Cochnar was always there and the drummer was also a guy. Membership stabilized the second 20 years with several playing the entire time. All members were encouraged to “star” and do speciality acts to display their talents, which in turn developed their self-assurance and stage ability. A goodly number continued professionally, either in teaching music, forming their own musical groups or joining “big” dance bands. Over the years, the band played for public and private dances, sponsored by organizations; weddings, clubs, anniversaries, school proms, battle dances and even square dances; many years at Czech or Polka Festivals, appeared by request at the Nebraska State Fair open-air auditorium; played at County Fairs; broadcast live programs on several radio stations, directly from a studio or at dances. York, Kearney, Columbus, Norfolk, Lincoln, and Beatrice were involved.
Many people have inquired concerning the territory covered by the U-neta orchestra. Name a town in Nebraska. If they ever had polka dances, U-neta was probably there. While other bands played in the home area, U-neta traveled: From the earliest days all over Nebraska, into surrmmding and outlying states to become known as the “States Most-Traveled Czech Dance Orchestra” Alfred traded dance vehicles every three years, so that tells a little about the mileage traveled. At first gas was 10-15 cents a gallon.
Early dance-date books reveal 20 or more bookings a month. Later, just week-ends were filled, Only occasional week-day dates. Tours were planned during the summer time when school attendance did not interfere. At several places the band played monthly from 12 to 15 years. Two out-of-state managers, hired the band 2 to 4 times a year for 35 years. With all the traveling; and bookings, keep in mind most of these musicians were school kids and despite all this were for the most part honor-roll students and took part in extra-curricular school activities .
“U-neta: Two bands in one”, headlined orchestra promotion posters for many years. Dance managers were delighted to know that by changing the beat and playing style, a polka band with the “know-how” could immediately transform to the modern mood and play the “Hit Parade Tunes” of radio to satisfy the dancing public. This chnage became imperative if bookings were made in an area where both kinds of music were enjoyed. All through the years the orchestra kept abreast of the latest popular Czech tunes and all arrangements both Czech and modern were made by Teresa Kohl-Cochnar. The band started with five members, went to seven, then eight, and after a long time back to seven and then six, right before the end. All this change took a great deal of arranging, music-wise, if the band was to retain the solid sound of three part harmony.
In 1978 Al, Teresa and Anton F. (Frick) were the three remaining of the original group that met in 1938. Personal notes might include that in 1942 Alfred F. and Teresa were married. Thus began the 36-year husband-wife team in the Polka World. Together they saw the dance business change from wide-open public dances to private and club dances. Together they worked out a musical and personal relationship which flourished through the years ending with the untimely death of Alfred on August 22, 1978. The U-neta Orchestra made their first recordings in 1941 at Humbolt, Nebraska. This was a fun-hobby project of one of the leading citizens. Other records were not made however until the early 1960’s. At that time 45 rpm’s were made for juke-boxes and then the first album “Polka Tour with U-neta” achieved a “3-star award” by BILL-BOARD an official national musicians magazine.
The “Polka Saturday Night” album was awarded a “4-star award” the highest. Other albums, which were special dedications were not eligible for competition. In recent years new cassettes were made of these old albumns and are now available at stores specializing in ethnic music.
Some human interest memories include traveling in dust-storms that resembled winter blizzards; waiting for waters to subside when roads were flooded; traveling on gravel roads and crossing bridges with all the hazards imaginable; staying in one town three days because of the 1941 blizzard; one young man owes his life to the band, as he was rescued from a burning auto following an accident; one time the entire band was taken into custody by (anonymous) State Police because their car license number supposedly matched the description of a burglary car. These are only a few but U-neta was never in an auto accident themselves, although they witnessed or came upon many. Many orchestras found it hard to get insurance. U-neta was insured by the same company all these years.
One of the last performances of the U-neta Orchestra was the participation in the “Traditional Ethnic Festival” at Ferguson House in Lincoln, an activity sponsored by the State Historical Society, July 29, 1970. As a result of this concert, U-neta albums were catalogued as a part of Czech musical history in the state. Musicians taking part were, Teresa Kohl-Cochnar, Anton F. (Frick) Kohl, Lynn Epger, Milo Brechan, Emil Brodecky, and Mark Vyhlidal. The last in line to spell out “Nebraska’s Tops” in Czech dance and listening entertainment.
The U-neta Orchestra is now silent, except for occassional records heard on radio, but Teresa has busied herself in another field of music by continuing as church orranist, beginning in 1973; leading the Saline County Chorus since 1961; and the Dorchester Singers since 1980. Both singing groups specialize in Czech vocals. Teresa also composed and arranged a Czech Melody Mass (Polka Mass) which contains 17 Czech melodies to go along with the liturgical service. This has been sung by the Wilber St. Wenceslaus Choir, during the Czech Festival since 1980.