Mollie B and Squeezebox grace Clint Eastwood's 'The Mule' with polka music
Mollie B and Clint Eastwood in "The Mule" (Malpaso Productions)
Music often plays a significant part in Clint Eastwood’s movies, be it intrinsic to the plot (Play Misty for Me, Honkytonk Man) or through soundtracks and scores that delineate characters and evoke mood.
Eastwood’s new movie The Mule is no exception, with Spiral Staircase’s 1969 pop hit “More Today Than Yesterday” being central to the family part of the plot, vintage pop and country radio hits like Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” accompanying the singing-along Eastwood character’s long drives, and Arturo Sandoval’s jazz score supplying an underlying poignancy.
Maybe the standout scene musically, though, is the one in a VFW Post cued by the sound of a polka band, Squeezebox. Fronted by International Polka Association Hall of Fame inductee Mollie B, the band then appears, performing her original “A Day to Say Thank You” live at the Post.
Mollie B's "Last Polka"
Mollie B is Mollie Busta, a polka performer since she started singing in her father’s polka band, The Jim Busta Band, at age three. While she still performs with it--as well as Squeezebox--she is more widely known as host of Mollie B Polka Party on RFD-TV, which is how Eastwood became aware of her and sought her out for The Mule.
“[Co-producer] Tim Moore said Clint needed some songs, so I tossed them nine and they chose two,” says Busta, who says that she writes “simple songs, because that‘s what sticks."
“The other one was ‘Party Time’ and it got cut--and that’s fine. I’ve already had people write me who don’t even follow me or polka, but loved the scene: It’s uplifting, and the song totally fits in since [Eastwood’s character] is giving the VFW money to maintain the VFW Post.”
Squeezebox with Mollie B
Now living in northwestern Ohio’s tiny Ridgeville Corners community, Busta was born in Iowa and raised in Minnesota, where her father Jim started his Czech-influenced German “Dutchman style” polka band the year she was born. He played concertina, and “like any father would do,” brought his kids to his shows.
“I started playing piano in the band when I was eight, and by the time I was 11 I was playing trumpet full-time,” says Busta. ” I couldn’t do anything like have normal birthday parties since I was always on the road, but I loved it: Polka is ‘that happy, snappy music,’ and every show was a party. I brought along my school friends as often as I could get them to come, and was dancing with my brother literally from noon until midnight.”
The Jim Busta Band would perform at week-long music festivals like the annual summer Gibbon Polka Festival in Gibbon, Minnesota (“a teenie tiny town west of the Twin Cities but closer to Mankato”), with five ballrooms simultaneously offering a variety of music.
“I don’t even remember eating!” she continues, noting that she soon began adding instruments to her resume--saxophone, clarinet, and valve trombone--as it allowed her to play it while freeing her left hand to still play keyboard.
As a high school student, Busta also arranged songs and wrote her own for her father’s band as well as the school band and choir programs, and was the student-director for band rehearsals and concerts. She then received a Bachelor of Arts in Music (trumpet and voice) degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where the focus was on classical music, but her senior paper was on polka music.
“I was the Polka Girl--which was not looked at as positive--but of all the musicians there, I was the only one gigging and actually making money! When senior year come along, I--the Polka Girl--got the part singing the soprano solo in Handel’s Messiah, as well as Mozart’s Requiem. It was the highlight of college!”
She also received a Master of Arts in Instruction from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, and taught at a high school in Lanesboro, south of Rochester.
“They gave me free rein, and I started a show choir,” she recalls. “One night I was dancing in a room, being my artistic self while waiting for parents to show up for a PTA meeting, when a student walked in and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘Dancing polka,’ and the next day I introduced everyone to Polka Family Band’s song ‘Polka Music Fan.’ They loved it, and started mixing polka and hip-hop dancing! So I asked Hank Guzevich of Polka Family for permission to make a karaoke version of ‘Polka Music Fan,’ and we performed it at a high school music concert and got a standing ovation!”
The choir actually performed with Polka Family Band at the Minnesota State Fair.
“Hank sent me some ‘I Love Polka’ stickers and they’re on the walls of lockers and on instrument cases, and the whole school went polka crazy!” says Busta.
In 2005, she joined Ted Lange's Bratwurst Boys polka band, based in Ridgewood. The name changed to Squeezebox two years later. Then in 2011, she was approached by RFD-TV, which was looking to do a polka show.
“They were looking for direction and brought me to their headquarters in Omaha, and 10 minutes into the meeting decided on The Mollie B Polka Party, with me hosting the show--and with two primetime positions and a Christmas show in Branson. It changed my life because we went from an audience of thousands to a million viewers, increasing my popularity everywhere in the States. I even had a welcoming party in the Cayman Islands when we did a cruise there because they knew me there!”
Meanwhile, Eastwood and his girlfriend (“She was Czech and proud of it!”) were watching Polka Party regularly.
“That’s how he knew of me,” says Busta. “The first time he met me he said, ‘Mollie B! I watch you every Saturday night!’”
Regarding her performance in The Mule, Busta first notes that she plays 150-250 shows a year, including cruises, festivals, and one-nighters in clubs, dance halls and theaters. Noteworthy, too, is the slew of awards she’s won over the years from numerous polka organizations--not to mention her extensive teaching experience.
“It sounds weird, maybe, but what I love most is making people happy,” she says, adding that she’s always smiling when she performs.
“I don’t mean to downplay [The Mule] but it felt so much like a normal performance. Clint came up to me the very first time and gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek--but that’s a normal thing for me: It’s how my fans come and greet me. And playing polkas and having fun and having a camera in my face--from doing so many TV shows--is normal, too.”
“But I’m not taking anything away from the day we shot the scene,” Busta says. “Clint was next to me and that was amazing, and we had lunch together.”
Unfortunately, though, she woke up that morning with a bad sore throat.
“I’m a believer, so I prayed,” she recalls, “and at the end of the day when we were done, the crew sat down and we had a polka party just for fun! Clint was smiling ear-to-ear with stars in his eyes, and when it was done went to the bar and you could tell he wanted to talk. But I was in so much pain I went to Urgent Care with a 103 temperature and strep throat--and felt so bad I had to leave before Clint.”
Besides the honor of being chosen by Eastwood to appear with him in The Mule, Busta cites her International Polka Association Hall of Fame induction in September--by her friend and fellow inductee Carl Finch of Brave Combo.
“In the eyes of polka people, it’s the top thing and a big deal,” she says. But equally important--if not more--is an honor bestowed upon her by a U.S. soldier from Iowa stationed in Syria.
“I do polka masses, and he and his parents watched Polka Party and have attended a mass,” says Busta. “He was thankful for what I did for the music and for people like his parents, and flew a flag in my honor for a month in Syria.”
Busta has been updated regularly with pictures of the flag, and will receive it next month along with official government documentation.
“To me that’s a really big deal!” she says.
Mollie B plays 12 instruments in excerpts from "12 Days of Christmas," performed at the 2014 Mollie B Christmas Special LIVE at RFD-TV the Theatre in Branson.