When Dyngus Day rolls around Monday with its end-of-Lent parties and Polish-themed revelry, Corky Johnson will be where it all started in the city's Old Polonia, tossing beads to the parade crowd from his Viking ship with a giant red Polish falcon at the front.
"It's just all about remembering where you came from," Johnson said.
OK, so Johnson happens to be Irish, but he will adopt his wife's heritage for the day.
"You married a Polish girl. You're Polish," he said.
Johnson's research into a Polish king with Viking connections -- Boleslaw the Brave -- led him to put his own spin on Dyngus Day, building the Viking ship for the grand parade that starts at "Superman Corner," the intersection of Clark and Kent streets.
The increasingly exuberant and expanding local tradition is packed with parties in church halls and social clubs throughout the city's Old Polonia, the Polish-rooted suburbs of Depew and Cheektowaga and elsewhere.
The Dyngus Day activities have expanded to Cleveland, where an accordion parade occurs; to Rotterdam, N.Y., where a Miss Dyngus Day is crowned; and to New Orleans, where a Buffalo expat bakes a Polish poppy seed version of a Mardi Gras cake for a tavern party.
In Buffalo, the grand parade begins at 5 p.m. by Corpus Christi Church and lasts for about an hour, winding through the East Side and ending at the Central Terminal. The party there includes the rock polka band Those Idiots, fog machines, a light show, a 16-foot-wide video screen and an 8:30 p.m. "Rock Polka Meltdown Show."
"The energy and the atmosphere is kind of electrifying," said Myron Deputat, "head idiot" and leader of the 10-piece band -- made up mostly of teachers -- that includes a saxophone, trumpet and an accordion synthesizer. "We just try to top ourselves every year."
The parade has more than 100 units registered this year, about triple the number that signed up for the first parade in 2007.
Sales of the Pussy Willow Pass, which provides shuttle bus service to festival activities, have increased by about 5 percent to 7 percent each year, said Eddy Dobosiewicz, who with his cousin Marty Biniasz founded the festival-promoting business Dyngus Day Buffalo in 2005. Last year, between 75,000 and 80,000 passes sold, Dobosiewicz said.
"Every single year, it's grown," he said. "Last year, it rained like Vietnam in monsoon season. There were still thousands of people on the streets in that kind of weather."
The citywide party he helped grow -- with sponsorships from Polish Sobieski vodka, Tyskie beer, Coca-Cola and Wegmans -- brings crowds to the East Side neighborhood.
Much of Old Polonia was abandoned when families moved to the suburbs in the years after the Chopin Singing Society's first Dyngus Day party in 1961.
This year, the $10 passes include shuttle bus service and entry to 26 parties, with an extra $2 for each additional entry. (For more information, visit www.dyngusdaybuffalo.com.)
While some venues are not covered by the tickets -- such as the 1 p.m. show of Polish Heritage dancers at the East Aurora Explore & More Children's Museum -- Dyngus Day parties have become a big fundraiser for churches, social clubs and the Central Terminal.
Two traditional Polish East Side churches are known for family-friendly parties. St. Stanislaus on Townsend Street starts one of those parties at 4 p.m.; it has a yawning wooden church hall floor perfect for dancing.
Corpus Christi Church will celebrate Mass at 11:30 a.m. and will host a party at 12:30 p.m. in its Athletic Club, 165 Sears St., where it will offer bowling on its restored lanes.
At noon, the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, on the parade route at 612 Fillmore Ave., will host a kielbasa contest and beer tasting.
Across the street, a "Polish Cafe" will open at 3 p.m. at 617 Fillmore Ave. The cafe will serve pastries, Polish-style crepes and open-faced kanapki -- sandwiches of rye, ham, mayonnaise, egg and pickle.
"This is kind of the fun after-party to Easter Sunday," said Andy Golebiowski, founder of the Polish Legacy Project, which will benefit from money raised by the cafe. The Polish Legacy Project is a work-in-progress collection of artifacts, letters and pictures that chronicle Polish life in Western New York. It will eventually be a traveling exhibit and, perhaps, a museum, he said.
Dyngus Day helps attract people to that Polish history, he said.
"It's drawn a whole new generation of people who are discovering their roots," said Golebiowski.
"People meet who haven't seen each other since grammar school. Then people meet and get married. We've had a few of those," he said. "It's also a great opportunity to share our culture with other people."
Other noteworthy parties include one at what Biniasz describes as the "last mom & pop Polish tavern in the Polonia district," the circa-1969 R & L Lounge at 23 Mills St.
In Cheektowaga, polka music in its "highest art form" will be played at the Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. Post 6251, Veterans of Foreign Wars, at 2450 Walden Ave., and the earliest party of the day starts at 10 a.m. at the Polish Villa II restaurant at 1085 Harlem Road.
In Depew, the Chopin Singing Society's traditional polka party starts at 3 p.m. at the Hearthstone Manor, 333 Dick Road.
Back in Black Rock, Corky Johnson notes that the Polish Cadets hall at 927 Grant St. was founded in the late 1800s and is one of the oldest of its kind.
"We're trying to get the Polish traditions back into Black Rock," said Johnson, the vice president of the organization.
Buffalo's Dyngus Day celebrations emphasize an old tradition of spring flirting: Men and women get each other's attention with squirts from water pistols and taps from pussy willow branches.
The 80-degree weather last month led to a shortage of pussy willows. Growers had to collect branches earlier than usual to catch the traditional soft gray buds before the buds sprouted.
At the Broadway Market last week, Matuesz Ruszkiewicz was selling pussy willows at the Famous Horseradish stand for $3.50 a bunch. The supply looked plentiful, but Ruszkiewicz said there weren't as many as usual. He didn't expect them to last the weekend.
Practices here aren't what he experienced in his native Poland, where pussy willows are just decorations. In the spirit of April Fools Day, he said, it's acceptable to splash some unsuspecting person on the street with water.
"If you go into the city, there's no way you'll be leaving without being completely soaked," said Ruszkiewicz, 18.
He moved to Buffalo to join family when he was about 8, but he prefers Poland's version of Dyngus, which he said feels less like a big party and more like a Thanksgiving-style holiday.