Over the past 30 years, walking into the Nye's Polonaise Room bar on a weekend night was the best way in town to exercise one's smile muscles. For patrons of all ages, the sound and sight of Ruth Adams and the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band provided an instant jolt of joy.
But no more. Accordion maestro Ruth Eleanor Adams, 79, died Friday in Minneapolis after a brief illness. By now she probably knows the veracity of one of her favorite songs, "In Heaven There Is No Beer."
With her burly, sleeveless arms working the squeeze box on "Chicken Dance Polka," "Barking Dog Polka" and an unforgettable mashup of "Too Fat Polka" and "Beer Barrel Polka," Adams cut a commanding figure on the minuscule Nye's stage. Perched just above dancers of all ages, she was a stern presence among all the revelers.
"She wasn't up there smiling the whole time, but she was loving every minute," said Nye's waitress Roxanne Eggert. "Ruthie was like a toasted marshmallow, crusty on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside."
Born in St. Paul, Adams and her parents, James and Angie Adams, moved to Mound when she was 3. She took up the piano at a young age -- "she always had music in her veins," said her niece, Angie Sabo of Rosemount -- and got her first accordion as a teenager.
After high school, Adams worked at several dry cleaners but studied music at the MacPhail Center for Music and started to get some gigs playing the accordion at weddings and other events. When Shakey's Pizza parlors hit the Twin Cities in the 1960s, Adams landed a job playing the piano at the St. Louis Park location.
"She played honky-tonk and had the place rockin'," Sabo said. "They called her Baby Ruth."
In 1975, the Ruth Adams Band made its debut at Nye's, which even then was a venerable Minneapolis institution. Soon, lifelong neighbors and students from the University of Minnesota were sharing Polish beers and commingling on the dance floor.
Among the latter group was a young comedian named Lizz Winstead, who became an immediate fan of both Adams and piano-bar maven Lou Snider. "There's so much magic about that place," Winstead said. "I loved this heart-flowing authenticity of who they are and how that represented the Scandinavian-Germanic scope of this area."
Winstead would bring Adams' band to New York to play on Fox's late-night "The Jon Stewart Show" in 1995. By then, the ensemble had a new name, courtesy of another fan, Jerry Gloe of Zimmerman, Minn.
"I got married in 1993," Gloe said, "and I asked Ruth about playing the wedding, and she said 'you'll have to talk to [owner Al Nye],' and he gave her the night off," Gloe said. "So I made a banner at my reception that read 'Ruth Adams & the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band.'
"We hung it up at the Coon Rapids Legion Hall, and after the reception we rolled it up and gave it to Ruth. She took it to Nye's and hung it up, and it's been there ever since."
The band name was not the only evidence that Adams was not above poking a bit of fun at herself. She would yap during the "Barking Dog Polka," occasionally rap in mid-song and appeared in a Nye's advertisement that read "excellent atmosphere, great food, lousy dental plan" and showed her with a smile that would do a hockey player proud.
Gloe and his friend Chris Hodapp have held a birthday party for Adams every year since 1990, with the birthday girl cutting the cake for celebrants of several generations.
"She could play to a younger and an older crowd," Gloe said. "It's amazing to cross that barrier, especially with something that truly hadn't changed in 30 years."
The most recent birthday fell on the night of Snider's retirement, Feb. 26. Adams was too ill to attend. Now both of the icons, prime reasons that Nye's was named "Best Bar in America" by Esquire magazine in 2006, have left the scene.
Which leaves a saddened Eggert with one question: "Who's gonna do the 'Barking Dog Polka' now that Ruthie's gone?"
Adams is survived by Sabo and several other nieces and nephews. Memorial arrangements have not been set.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643