Cecilia "Cilka" Dolgan
Polka Star Celebrates
her Slovenian Heritage
Cecilia Dolgan was born in December, 1937 in Cleveland's Collinwood area. She is one of three children, right in the middle of an older sister and a younger brother.
She is a graduate of Oliver Hazard Perry grade school and then Collinwood High School and took classes part time at Kent State's extension at Euclid High School. She was more concerned at the time with her music. "I'm a singer so I decided I should sing while I'm young. There are only so many years you can use your instrument."
Cecilia sang with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. At the time Robert Shaw was attempting to inspire the young Chorus and was tremendously successful. Some say this Chorus became one of the finest Orchestra Choral groups in the country.
Cecilia was accepted into the Chorus after an audition in 1956. Her participation gave her the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall.
She stayed with the Cleveland Orchestra over ten years. This was not a paid position, but from there she went on to be a paid soloist singing in a number of places including temples in Beachwood. She simultaneously was singing with The Glasbena Matica Slovenian Singing Society. She was trained in classical music at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Cleveland Music Settlement.
Both of Cecilia's parents were born in Slovenia and her heritage is very important to her. "One of the amazing things about being first generation is the things I was taught to appreciate such as classical music. Even though my parents did not have that appreciation themselves they knew how important it was and instilled it in me. And the other thing was community service. It was always emphasized how important it was for us to give to a community, not just take from it."
Cecilia Dolgan and children
in traditional Slovenian costumes
Her parents had "agricultural roots" so Cecilia was always amazed at their appreciation of classical music. She was very grateful as well.
She believes that having music in her life creates good feelings and harmony. "Music is not political - it can't be! You can express yourself in music, but to truly be music it can not be harmful."
Cecilia's mother "threw" her into the Slovenian Cultural scene when she was about 9 years old and she has been embedded in it ever since. Ohio boasts the largest population of Slovenians in any one area of the United States, and northeast Ohio has the largest concentration.
She is quick to point out there is a difference in one's heritage if you are Slovak vs. Slovenian just as there is a difference between Serbs and Croats.
Proud Slovenian Cecilia Dolgan
"Many people think of these as one big ethnic group. If you have one of these as your heritage though you know there is a big difference. Like Irish vs. English or something like that. There are some similarities but they are different countries."
Cecilia thinks understanding your roots is a matter of identity. "With the world shrinking and with global connections and because of greater communication capabilities, children can get a feeling for what it is like in other parts of the world, including the part that their parents or grandparents came from. It is not just stories of "the old country" any more. There is a much greater understanding of the rest of the world. It is nice to know where you come from - but it is important, too."
She speaks Slovenian fluently and studied French "but it has been a long time since I have spoken French. Slovenian I speak every day". She can sing in ten languages (including Hebrew, Hungarian, French, Italian, and Slovenian)
Cecilia Dolgan sings a duet with
Tony Vadnal on Polka Variety in 1968
As a child she was the first American ever to perform on Slovenian television on the show "Pokazi Kaj Znas" (Show Your Talent) in Ljubljana. She was then asked to sing in on shows in Cleveland such as Polka Varieties and Festival Five.
She sang at the Festival Casals de Puerto Rico in 1963 and 1964, a world-acclaimed music festival started by Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist.
In 1965 the Director of the Slovenian Children's Chorus died and Cecilia took over. She is retiring at the end of this year (2006) after 41 years of service. She knows she is leaving the Chorus in good hands with the new Director, Shirley Stall. As the only Slovenian Children's Singing group in Cleveland "we have more children to draw from."
Cecilia Dolgan with the Slovenian Flag in
the Polka Hall of Fame gift shop
She has taught hundreds of children Slovenian music and culture over the years, Some have gone on to have careers of their own in music (Joey Tomsik, Nancy Hlad, Christine Mihelich) while others benefited on a more personal level; learning the language, knowing the cultural and preserving their ancestry.
In 1966 Cecilia recorded her first album and has recorded ten since then. Her "Slovenian name" is Cilka and her recordings often have that name in the title. (Ex., Smooth as Cilka, Touch of Cilka and a Polka Cilka-bration)
Cecilia Dolgan PolkaTown USA album cover
Cecilia was both the producer and host of the Slovenian Night Radio Show for over ten years. Among her credits as a lyricist are the words to "Save the Last Dance", "Hey, Prijatelj, Means My Buddy" and "Friends Polka". She has also written numerous original polkas.
Cecilia is married to Plain Dealer sports writer, Bob Dolgan for 33 years (1976). Together they have two children, Bob and Ann.
Cecilia worked as an executive secretary for the Cleveite Corporation for many years but after her children were born she became a stay-at-home mom.
"I was fortunate to be home and be a hands-on mom. Once the kids didn't need a chauffer anymore it was time to express myself." So, in her 50's she decided to write. She submitted samples of her writing to The News Herald. She wrote travel articles and press releases for the Orchestra.
Cecilia Dolgan and children in
traditional Slovenian costumes
Later, in order to write on a more permanent basis for the News Herald she had to take a journalism test, which she took and passed. In January 1994 she became a freelance writer, writing exclusively for the News Herald and still does so to this day. "It has been amazing!" Her first month there she covered a press conference with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. "There were only three press people there. Me, someone I don't remember and Kelly O'Donnell! Look where she is today!"
She reported on the 50th Anniversary of WWII, which gave her the opportunity to speak to survivors of the war and was fascinated by the stories they told. Cecilia also covers the ethnic and cultural stories involving Northeast Ohio.
Cecilia has taken three groups of children to perform in Slovenia as well as groups to Florida and California. They perform in Canada every year. "It is wonderful because some of the children in the Chorus are now 3rd and 4th generation!" She recently came back from a trip to Disney in Florida with the Children's Chorus.
Cecilia Dolgan and the Slovenian Children's Chorus perform at DisneyWorld
"We sang eleven songs. Ten were in Slovenian and one was "Cleveland, The Polka Town."
One of Cecilia's proudest accomplishments is the Polka Hall of Fame. The Hall was formed in 1988 as a museum in a classroom at Shore Cultural Center, in Euclid. As the museum and its potential grew she knew the building had to move as well.
Euclid's old city hall had stood empty for 11 years. The Soft Ball Hall of Fame was moving into the upstairs of the building and in 2002 the Polka Hall of Fame moved to the downstairs. The Hall of Fame raised over $100,000 from members for the renovation.
Cecilia was elected president in 2000 and has been re-elected every year since. The Hall of Fame has about 1500 members.
Cecilia Dolgan in the Polka Hall of Fame
Just recently they hosted a reception of over 70 museums from the Cleveland Inter-Museum Council looking and learning from the success of the Polka Hall of Fame. She attributes polkas popularity to the war, stating that polkas gave people something to smile about at a time when that was much needed.
There is a definite difference in Cleveland Style Polka, according to Dolgan. Cleveland Style polka has its roots in Slovenia where other styles, like that of Chicago, are more Polish in nature. "And Cleveland styles have less brass and more accordions".
She is responsible for starting the Button Accordion Festival in 1983 here in northeast Ohio - the largest in the country! Fifteen to twenty clubs play for 8 hours at a Super Button Box Bash every spring. The Bash usually draws over a thousand people.
Button Box Exhibit
at the Polka Hall of Fame
Cecilia's latest project is an attempt to update data entry and computer projects at the Hall so that people could come in and play portions of any album recorded from 1925 to date. "Like a computerized juke box."
She has established an archives system and is now trying to catalog all artifacts and recordings. "This is not just a gift shop. The archives are a full time job. I have made it a pet project to get them all computerized."
Cecilia would like to write more music. She has translated over 100 songs into English that other bands then pick up and record. All of this is volunteer work because "as a board member you can't be paid." Cecilia herself is a member of the Hall of Fame.
In addition to being a singer she is a disc jockey, music director, lyricist and composer. She has sung on television with the famed Polka King, Frankie Yankovich. In 1975 she was named the Slovenian of the Year and was the youngest woman ever named to this honor.
Cecilia Dolgan Polka Hall of Fame Plaque
She is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Hall of Fame joining such famous Slovenian Americans as Al Tercek, William Lausche, Tony Petsovek, Johhny Pecon and Kenny Bass. She has also been inducted into the Collinwood High School Hall of Fame.
She is remarkably handy in other things as well having just finished renovating her own basement. "I started with the concrete and put in 1300 tiles. I did insulation and drywall and painting and I even put in a drop ceiling - but I don't do electrical."
Although her Slovenian heritage is of utmost importance to her she is a very proud American. "The greatest thing about this country is that there are no limitations to what you can do or be. If you are willing to do it you can do anything!"
She is often amazed at the opportunities available to her here, because her parents came to this country, and how different her life would have been had she been born in Slovenia. "It would not have been a bad life, Slovenia is a wonderful country. But it would have been so very, very different. I would never have dreamt of doing so many of the things that I have done here."
Cecilia is a very intelligent woman and a very generous one. She is ready, willing and certainly able to pass on what she has learned to children and anyone interested. She knows the importance of heritage and history.
She is a woman of faith and ethics and believes in passing strong moral values from one generation to the next. People like Cecilia Dolgan provide hope for future generations.
"Srecno in nasvidenje!" ("good luck and until we meet again, see you!")
Update: Cecilia was on hand and sang at the dedication of Frankie Yankovic Square in Cleveland.
Bob Yankovic (Frank's son), accordionist Bob Kravos (Frank's grand-nephew), radio host Tony Petkovsek and Cecilia Dolgan lead a singalong of "Just Because" at the dedication.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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