More than 3,000 people flocked to the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden last weekend to celebrate the Astoria establishment’s 100th anniversary with a series of lectures on Czech and Slovak history — and, of course, some beer.
“We have Czech speakers from around the world,” said James Palminteri, the beer garden’s general manager. “There are people from around the country, too, from Michigan, Iowa, Boston. This is a special weekend.”
The Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria sponsored the three-day event that was held Friday, Saturday and Sunday — almost exactly 100 years after the cornerstone was laid for the beer garden, which has since served as a Czech and Slovak cultural center and gathering point for residents who want to relax and drink beer on the hundreds of wooden benches shaded by maple and oak trees.
Along with lectures on topics such as Czech history and the diaspora of the Czech people, the iconic Czech singer Marta Kubisova performed as did the band Duo Ivaska. The culmination of the centennial event was a gala dinner Saturday night, which was attended by hundreds of people.
“It’s good to see our members do something that our members did 100 years ago,” Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria President Peter Kutil said of the party the society held at the groundbreaking for the beer garden. “One hundred years ago they had a big party, just like we’re having now. Hopefully, in 100 years from now, we’ll be having another celebration.”
The beer garden was founded in 1910 at a time when the neighborhood had a large Czech population, which has diminished over the years. Alongside the restaurant and beer business that rakes in several million dollars a year, the establishment runs a Czech and Slovak school, where children learn the respective languages and cultures.
“When I was 10 years old, we moved to Astoria and I came here for the Czech school and the gymnastics program, which they still have,” said Jerry Matejka, a society board member whose parents were Czech immigrants. “It was a very good experience.”
Mirek Smejkal, a former Astoria resident who now lives in Staten Island and goes to the beer hall every Friday to play ping-pong, said he was especially happy to moderate a talk given by Citrad and Josef Masin, two brothers who made a dramatic escape from what was then Czechoslovakia in 1953, when the country was under Communist rule. The brothers now live in Ohio.
“They performed many actions against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia,” said Smejkal, who was born in Prague and moved to the United States in 1982. “It was dangerous for them, and they escaped by going through East Germany to Berlin, where they contacted the CIA. It’s an amazing story.”
Board member Alan Svoboda, a Long Island resident, said he believes the weekend’s festivities will inspire members of the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria to think about the future of the beer hall.
“We need to invest in and modernize our building and modernize our organization,” Svoboda said. “In the 21st century, our borders are not the borders of Astoria. We could serve the entire metro area.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson
©2010 Community News Group
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