The show wasn’t over until Anthony L. Polanka went home.
On many occasions, that was at two or three in the morning.
Lengthy days and exhausting nights in the production world started in Polanka’s youth as a motion picture operator at the local theater in Shelby and continued until Saturday, when he died at age 81 at his home in Lincoln.
Polanka witnessed the evolution of stage production. His career began with projectors, reels, celluloid and nitrate film and ended with soundboards and the click of a button.
“There will never be another showman like him,” said Les Haake, Polanka’s friend and coworker for more than 50 years.
Polanka saw it all -- Diana Ross walk off stage at the Pershing Center. Ozzy Osbourne, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Garth Brooks.
Even the more recent DayGlow Festival, called the "world's largest paint party."
Elvis Presley gifted Polanka with one of his scarves at a show just weeks before Presley's own death.
“You name every show at Pershing and he was there,” said Sheila Brunkhorst, a coworker and family friend.
Besides Lincoln, he traveled throughout the United States for more than a half-century to produce shows.
Whirlpool, John Deere and Chevrolet flew him across the country to set up and run slide shows at product conventions. Eventually, companies sought his advice for convention venues.
Polanka never missed a State Fair in Lincoln; he operated the lights and sound on the main stage for more than 45 years.
He was awarded a medal for his light and sound work at Nebraska’s 100th anniversary statehood celebration in 1967.
For 20 years, Polanka was president of Local 151, the Lincoln chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical, Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada. The union honored his 50 years of membership in 2004.
Polanka’s contributions reached beyond the lights, film and sound.
The stage manager’s warm and generous nature made him a favorite with production crews, coworkers and acts, Pershing Center Manager Tom Lorenz said.
The feeling was mutual.
“He valued his relationship with staff at Pershing very highly,” Haake said.
He was known for his stories, his loyalty and his love for the business.
Tony Polanka, Anthony’s only child, followed in his father’s footsteps, working for the union and alongside his father at Pershing.
“I don’t think I could have done what I did without him,” Tony said.
Polanka didn’t plan to make the move to the new city arena, set to open later this year. He would enjoy the rest of his life with family, friends and his wife of 55 years, Nadean, enjoying cold beers, good cigars and, Brunkhorst added, “any card game that let him take your money.”
Haake doesn’t think he’ll return to working at Pershing Center -- the void is too big.
On Saturday, God called Tony up for a ringside seat, Haake said.
“I can just hear Tony telling God, ‘I think you need a little more light over here, or you could sure use a spotlight there,’” Haake said, choking back tears. “God will say, ‘Tony, this is my show. You’re my spectator now.'”
A funeral for Anthony Polanka will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Butherus, Maser & Love Funeral Home. Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetery & Mausoleum.