By Ruth Ellen Gruber
I'm sad to report that the legendary Czech singer and actor Waldemar Matuska has died at his home in Florida, at the age of 76.
Matuska was a towering figure in Czech popular music and culture and was instrumental in popularizing American folk and country music to the Czech audience. (Singing, as was required under communism, Czech lyrics to American songs.) He also appeared in the seminal 1964 movie "Limonady Joe" -- a wonderful send-up of the singing cowboy genre of movies and a classic of Czech cinema.
Matuska was important to me in my connection with Eastern Europe, and in my feel for the music and popular culture of the Czech Republic in particular. He became my idol when, as a kid, I spent the summer in Prague with my family in the 1960s. I bought picture postcards of him -- he was lean, bearded and extremely handsome. And I convinced my entire family to go hear him at a rather weird performance of "Rosemarie" at a sort of indoor sports arena...Matuska played the role of the mountie that was taken by Nelson Eddy in the classic movie. I remember that it was a rather static performance, as they all seemed to sing to the microphones that were hanging prominently above the stage...
When I actually met Matuska decades later, at the Strakonice Jamboree folk and bluegrass festival in the Czech Republic in 2004, it was a remarkably emotional experience. I had just begun following the European country scene, and Strakonice was my first Czech festival. And there he was -- the idol of my youth!
Matuska -- who had "defected" to the United States in 1986 but, after the fall of communism, returned frequently to CZ to tour -- was the headline act. Heavier, even bloated-looking, with clearly dyed hair, he didn't look much like the slim, handsome singer/actor of the 1960s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
I went backstage and spent 20 minutes or so talking with him. I felt shy and fluttery! What I remember are his hands -- very small and delicate, with polished nails and an almost dainty ring.
My friend Lilly Pavlak -- who was also there at Strakonice (I think that may be where we met) wrote the following memoir of him:
On Saturday 30 May the country & western music world lost one of its most famous Czech sons. The singer and actor Waldemar Matuška died at his home in St Petersburg, Florida, from pneumonia and heart failure, aged 76. Waldemar Matuška, a charismatic personality known by the whole loving nation as 'our Walda', was one of the most memorable voices of the twentieth century. His career lasted over four decades. He recorded about thirty albums and starred in more than twenty movies, including the award-winning 1968 film All my countrymen by Vojtech Jasny. He was the opposite of his show-business friend Karel Gott, as a rebel, hothead, and tramp. His beautiful baritone and black full beard earned him enormous popularity, and he played several instruments – most people remember him as a banjo man. He had his first hit in 1960, and two years later he won the first Golden Nightingale ever awarded for the best Czechoslovak singer. The second time for him was again in 1967. He toured the world, Paris, London, Nashville – where he performed several times with his band K.T.O. in the 1970s. Bill Monroe told me once he liked Matuška very much – even though, as he said, his music was more 'Czech grass' than real bluegrass. In 1986 Matuška decided to leave communist Czechoslovakia and settled with his family in St Petersburg, Florida. He was already ill with severe asthma, and the climate there was much better for him than in Prague. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, he visited frequently his old homeland. His last public appearance there took place in 2007. I saw him for the last time at the Jamboree Festival Strakonice in 2004. This year, at the same festival, we learned of his passing. We held a minute of silence and his friends sang his song for him. His last wish was to lay him to rest in the Czech Republic. The last farewell ceremony is supposed to be held in Prague on 21 June. You will live forever in your music in our hearts, dear Walda! Lilly Pavlak Bülach, Switzerland, 8 June 2009