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Bulgarian rhapsody

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On Saturday nights, about once a month, a tradition dances to life in West Homestead, when the old BMBA Club holds a "vecherinka."

It's a Bulgarian thing.

And the literal translation doesn't do it justice.

Vecherinka is the smell of kielbasa and kraut cooking in the club's kitchen, and of the colognes worn by dressed-up folks filing in to have a good time in this dimly lit, auditorium-like room.

It's the feral stirrings of goatskin bagpipes in the basement where the band warms up, while feet tap out intricate practice steps on the time-smoothed oak of what everybody'll tell you is the best dance floor in all of Pittsburgh.

It's long tables set with plastic baskets of chips and pretzels, and a short bar stocked with icy beer that sells for four 25-cent tickets a can. It's the gradually rising music of sometimes Slavic conversations and universal laughter.

And then, the band takes the red-velvet-curtained stage and the real music starts - irregularly rhythmic, furiously fast - and it's all clasping hands and stomping feet, and people spinning and sweating and gasping for breath.

That's a vecherinka, or evening dance, pretty much as celebrated for centuries by ethnic Bulgarians and Macedonians from that politically shifting region of southeastern Europe that now includes Bulgaria, Macedonia and part of Greece.

This club is the former Bulgaro-Macedonian Beneficial Association that immigrants formed here in 1929 as a way to band together for everything from celebrating baptisms to paying life insurance.

In 1935 they built this plain red-brick building, which became the heart of the biggest neighborhood of one of the region's smallest ethnic groups.

It's still "BMBA" on the red-and-green awning out front, and on the tongues of some locals who call it the "Bumba Club." But in 1994 it officially became the "Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational & Cultural Center" - a name that's harder to fit on anything but more befitting what is the oldest such Bulgarian group in the United States.

The BMNECC has a low profile here, but as is obvious at the vecherinki, the new name isn't the only way it's being revitalized.

While so many other ethnic clubs have dwindled to the few old guys who haven't yet fallen off their bar stools, this one is transforming its former barroom into a museum and gift shop. And where some clubs hold only cobwebs, this one has its own Web site and a newsletter that publicizes activities such as dance group rehearsals and cooking days to prepare for this weekend's Pittsburgh Folk Festival.

Young people who don't have a Bulgarian bone in their bodies flock to the club, especially for the dances, which - teen-age boys, take note - seem particularly popular with pretty young women.

But much of the club's vibrancy emanates from its dynamo 67-year-old chairperson, Patricia French.

That's Pat in the purple pantsuit and the spiky hair, at the club before a recent dance, with a hand in everything - the slow cooker of simmering sausage, the cashbox at the ticket table. She's all over the guests she greets like long-lost kin.

She was born into this place, grew up in it, and saw it almost die. So keeping it going matters. As she puts it, "As long as I'm breathing, I have to keep this going."

Why is a story with deep roots.

She was born Paina Jordanoff in 1930, just before the club was officially chartered by the local Bulgarians' "dedo," or patriarch, Lambe Markoff.

As the club newsletter recounted in the first in an ongoing series of family histories, Markoff and his wife, Nevena, came to America in 1905 from villages in western Macedonia. They moved into a tiny apartment on West Eighth Avenue, West Homestead's main drag.

In the basement he built a small oven, in which he'd bake 20 loaves of bread a day to sell, door-to-door, in Hazelwood, a trolley ride across the Monongahela River.

Within a year, Markoff and some friends saved enough to buy the building next door and form the West Homestead Baking Co. It would grow to have a fleet of trucks delivering goods including its famed round loaves of sourdough rye, which folks still remember smelling at night as it baked.

It was the biggest, but not the only, bakery owned by Bulgarian/Macedonian immigrants: By the 1940s, for no good reason French can figure, Allegheny County had at least 33.

Markoff did tend to hire fellow Macedonians and Bulgarians, whom he'd also help by putting them up in the apartment building he built across the street.

It was there, too, that he led the early meetings of the BMBA, which he and others founded expressly for the social and cultural pursuits that Bulgarians and Macedonians could share, not the politics that could tear them apart. They gave the group the subtitle "Otets Paissi" - Father Paissi - to honor the 18th-century monk who wrote the first history of the Bulgarian people.

After they erected the club, the BMBA became the touchstone for immigrants like French's parents.

Her father, Zlate, had come in 1913 to New Castle, where he worked for the railroads. In 1929, he went back to Bulgaria's Rose Valley to find a wife, then returned to New Castle with Jordank, an orphan who spoke no English. "Her salvation," French recalls, "was every weekend they came to Pittsburgh" - to the club.

When French was 1, the family moved into the bustling Bulgarian community in West Homestead, where her father later drove a bread truck. Her parents also managed the club for many years.

For a time, they lived in the Markoff Building , where her brother, Nick, was born. She remembers knowing the other tenants as "lela" and "chicho," even though they weren't blood aunts and uncles. As she points out, immigrants had left most relatives behind in the Old Country, so here, "Everybody became a family."

The same closeness was fostered at the club, she says, and has survived with it over the years. "Even though we're not big like the Croatians or the Serbians, I think that's why we're strong. ...This was the center of our life."

In its prime, some 600 families from the region belonged to the club, which was hopping every day, 'round the clock. Besides regular vecherinki, the BMBA put on plays and wrestling matches. Members studied for their citizenship tests and married off their sons and daughters here. Men, especially boarding-house bachelors, congregated in the "mehana" - the bar - where you could always find pickled eggs, kebapchita (seasoned ground beef rolls) and various banitza (filled-phyllo pastries).

You also could always find backgammon and card games.

It wasn't uncommon for a Bulgarian guy to park his bread truck after a day of work, gamble all night, and then go back out to his truck to deliver his route.

In those days, the neighborhood was very Bulgarian, which is the only language many families spoke at home. French remembers her first day of school, when her teacher asked her name. Young Paina replied "Shut up," an English phrase her father used. The teacher succeeded in having her dubbed "Patricia" instead.

Her parents made sure she didn't forget her Bulgarian - or its Cyrillic alphabet - by making her attend, every day after school, Bulgarian classes at the club.

"I hated them at the time," she says of the classes and her mom and dad. "But I love them for it now."

She started appreciating it in 1950 when, as a Duquesne University student and a dancer with its Tamburitzans, she got to go to what was then Yugoslavia, where she visited relatives. "And I could talk to them!"

Ever since, French has embraced her culture as tightly as she can squeeze a person (and that kind of hug can leave red marks). She's made 38 trips to Bulgaria, including some while working as an interpreter for the U.S. State Department and later when she worked for the Tamburitzans.

Even after she married - a U.S. military man of Scotch-Irish descent named Bill French - and moved around they kept their son and two daughters in touch with their Bulgarian and Pittsburgh roots.

In 1964, the family moved back to the Mon Valley to find the BMBA Club in decline, in part because so many members were moving away or dying off.

"A handful of people kept it going," she says, referring to her brother, Nick, and others. She wonders if, without the dedicated group that participated in every single Folk Festival, the club would have died.

Still, the building was falling apart, even as the unpaid tax bills grew more substantial.

To make a long story short, around the club's 50th anniversary in 1980, Nick and she engineered a turnaround, which included allowing women to be full, instead of auxiliary, members, and allowing non-Bulgarians to join, too.

In the early '90s, after her husband had died, French continued to shift the focus from beneficial association to cultural center. When she decided to move from her big house, she started by donating to the center her lifetime collection of Bulgariana - everything from hundreds of traditional costumes to 40 years of tapes of the "Bulgarian Radio Hour" out of Detroit.

Thanks to such acquisitions, the now non-profit BMNECC's archives continue to grow, along with French's and other members' aspirations for what this place can become.

They're seeking grant money for improvements including more storage, where most of this stuff is crammed. But several artifacts and artworks are displayed in cases and on the walls around the former bar, which was turned into a museum last year.

French envisions tourists coming here for research or just to look around, maybe lunching at the red-tapestry-topped tables, and buying pottery, dolls and other Bulgarian items from behind the upholstered bar that now is the counter for the center's gift shop.

"Our goal is to preserve the traditions and the customs and the folklore of our ancestors," says French.

"We're one of the smallest immigrant groups in the city. But we're very proud of having maintained this and kept it going all these years." She credits the combined efforts of many members. But for her, this is personal.

"That's my legacy," she says. "That's my legacy from my mother and my father. ... And if we don't keep it alive for our children and grandchildren, shame on us."

These days, French says, the group works hard to build its membership of 150 (counting out-of-towners). About 50 belong to the performance ensemble, including about a half-dozen children.

Surprisingly, if you visit the club for a vecherinka or whatever, you'll find that many members aren't the slightest bit Bulgarian.

"Heavens no," says Terry Wood, who's sipping a can of Stoney's on the sidelines at a recent dance. He describes his background as "Polish-German-Welsh." His wife, Kathy Maron-Wood, isn't Bulgarian either, but that doesn't stop her from being one of the "Balkan Babes," the nickname for the club's costumed ensemble of eight women singers.

Wood says he and his wife try not to miss any vecherinki.

"Mainly, we just like to dance," says the 41-year-old computer scientist. Like other regulars here, they get around to the other hot spots on the Pittsburgh folk dancing scene, from the Serbian Club to the Friends Meeting House. But the Bulgarian club is extra special, he says over the happy din.

"This is such a great dance floor," looking down at what everybody praises for its great size and great "give," which enables you, as one old-timer puts it, to "dance all night without getting shin splints."

"And the people are so nice," Wood says. "It's not an oldsters-dying-out thing. It's quite vibrant."

Even if you're not Bulgarian, he says, "It really gives you a tremendous sense of community."

It also can give you a tremendous thirst, judging by the amount of ice water being gulped by his 15-year-old, flush-faced friend Celanie Polanick, who's just dropped out of a line of women that has been snaking all over the room.

Between gasps, the Squirrel Hill teen says she and her mom thought the Bulgarian dancing sounded like a fun new thing to try, and so they came over, took the free lessons before one dance and kept coming back.

"I wish I was Bulgarian," she says.

As pointed out by the club's scholarly executive director, Walter Kolar (who's Croatian), all kinds of people become mesmerized by Bulgaria's distinct dances and music, which sounds almost Middle Eastern Member Fran Wieloch describes the rhythm as "crazy" - "a heartbeat with a blip in it."

"It's kind of an exciting culture," says David Garlan, who's not Bulgarian, but who's been into Bulgarian music for 25 years. After moving here in 1990, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor co-founded the club's Bitov (Folk) Orchestra, in which he now plays the gaida - the goatskin bagpipes.

Having gotten his whole family involved, Garlan regularly has a hand in other aspects. That includes the cottage-cheese filling he and his 14-year-old daughter, Heather, were spreading over phyllo on a recent Saturday, as an assembly line of volunteers gathered to bake banitza to sell at the Folk Festival.

As dozens of butter-drenched trays of it cooled, the volunteers practiced the hanky-waving dances that they'll perform at the festival. Then they devoured a special banitza that dance teacher Nick Jordanoff Jr. - French's 34-year-old nephew - had rolled out just like his Bulgarian baba (grandmother) taught him.

That tradition hangs in the air at the club, as weighty as the sepia photographs and the old paintings, including the oil portrait at the entrance of "Lambe Markoff: Founder and First President."

That's why descendants come from as far away as Washington, D.C., as Markoff's grandson, Ed Markoff, did for a recent dance.

"This is part of my past," he says, recalling being at these celebrations when he was one of the small children that parents would tuck downstairs to sleep on pushed-together chairs.

"Now I'm bringing my grandkids up here," he says, standing at the boisterous bar.

"As long as this goes on, they're going to hear this beat."

It's the goat-skin drums called tapans. The kaval, an end-blown flute, and the tambura, a pear-shaped lute. The bagpipes and a bass and an accordion, which Markoff's been known to squeeze.

The music swirls, and the dancers with it - beaming, laughing, even whooping as they kick along in long lines, or spin, arms locked, in dizzyingly tight circles, over the vibrating floor.

Markoff searches the faces for that of his sister, with whom he promised he would dance tonight. Like everybody here, he prods newcomers to try it - try it!

"A dance like this, you see a hand and you squeeze it," he shouts, before being pulled into the fray.

That's a vecherinka.

The next vecherinka - after Saturday's 5/23 Folk Festival Party - is June 20. Instruction is offered at 7:30 p.m., one hour before the dance starts. Admission for non-members is $6. The club's phone number is 412-461-6188 and its Web site is http://hillhouse.ckp.edu/~bmnecc



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