The Cakewalkin’ Jass Band pack Tony Packo’s in Toledo, Ohio, for their 50th anniversary celebration. From left: Russ Damschroeder, trombone; Dave Kosmyna, cornet; Buddy Lopez, drums; Duke Heitger, trumpet; Ray Heitger, clarinet; Betsy Grafing, banjo; Nicole Heitger, vocals; and “Ragtime Rick” Grafing, piano. (Bob Miller, bass, not visible in photo.) (Facebook photo by Diane Teall Brackett)
“Cake walkers may come, cake walkers may go,
But I wanna tell you ’bout a band I know.
Hot blowin’ group, debonair,
When it comes to jazzin’, not a soul can compare!”
Taking literary license with the lyrics of the 1924 Clarence Williams tune appropriately recognizes the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band that last month celebrated its 50th year of “strutting their stuff” at one of their old haunts in Toledo, Ohio, with 73-year-old Ray Heitger, the last surviving member of the group he organized in 1967, leading the proceedings.
The weekend festivities took place at the Original Tony Packo’s Café, a Hungarian-style restaurant, where the band packed the place Friday and Saturday nights for 33 years. In its heyday, the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band kept locals and tourists on the dance floor well into the early morning. Called a microcosm of the city, a newspaper reporter declared that the band came “to typify Toledo perhaps as much as the Mud Hens baseball team, ethnic heritages and the muddy Maumee River.”
– The Packo Story –
Mention of Packo’s is a story unto itself. Established in 1932, the restaurant’s signature sandwich features a Hungarian sausage called kolbasz served on rye and flavored by a spicy chili sauce. Because the sausage was so large, Tony Packo cut it in half so it was the size of an American hot dog and could be sold for five cents during the Depression. It became known as the Hungarian hot dog.
In 1972, actor Burt Reynolds was in town to perform in a production of The Rainmaker and was invited by Nicole Heitger to stop by the restaurant after the show for a meal and to hear the band. When asked for his autograph, he picked up a bun and signed it. Thus began the tradition of “bun signing.” Today hundreds of celebrity-signed “Packo buns” adorn the walls of the restaurant—although those “buns” are now made of Styrofoam.
Packo’s was also mentioned in six episodes of M*A*S*H by Corporal Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr. Photos of the cast and their signed buns can be seen hanging on the walls of the Original Tony Packo’s Restaurant.
– 50 Years – 82 Musicians –
Eighty-two musicians—30 full-timers and 52 subs—have been part of the band over the years. “When we were at Packo’s, our goal was not to convert people to New Orleans jazz, but to make them think about coming back,” Ray Heitger recalled. “To me, jazz covers every human emotion. We got to see two generations of parents drag their kids to the restaurant kicking and screaming, only for the youngsters to find that Dixieland was a lot more appealing and fun than they originally thought.”
A self-taught clarinetist who to this day plays strictly by ear, Heitger formed his first band, the New Orleans Footwarmers, at the age of 19 in his hometown of Beaver, Pennsylvania. He moved to Toledo, earning his Master’s degree in mathematics there in 1965; he organized the Cakewalkers two years later. He was a math teacher for 47 years and still subs at a local high school.
– Family Band –
When the children were young, the Heitgers had a family band. Mother Elizabeth was on piano, and son Duke on trumpet. Duke has been playing professionally since he was 12 and has been based in New Orleans for the past 26 years. Nicole, who still sings with the band and recently released her own CD, was the family band’s drummer. Two other daughters, Andrea and Renee were on guitar and gutbucket, respectively.
The Cakewalkin’ Jass Band is known not only for its longevity, but as my late pal Cam Miller once wrote, “I suspect they play nearly all their songs in the key of enthusiasm.”
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