IRVINE — In the 1960s when the rock 'n' roll craze was sweeping the nation, 17-year-old Fred Mlakar responded by taking up the accordion and forming a polka band called the Mlakar Brothers.
"In my culture, the accordion was a real macho thing," Mlakar, 59, whose grandparents emigrated from Slovenia. "All the young men tried to outdo each other."
While that early band didn't last, Mlakar continued playing his squeeze box. The skill was taught to him as a child by his father, Joe Mlakar, a Polka Hall of Fame accordionist and bandleader for his Cleveland-style polka.
"Polka was the rock 'n' roll of the 19th century," said Mlakar, who grew up in Fontana and now lives in Irvine. "It went all over the world, and every culture adopted its own style."
Mlakar is one of 25 featured accordionists and 70 total musicians performing at the "Big Squeeze," the third annual Orange County Accordion Festival at the Orange County Market Place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
The festival showcases a diverse range of accordion music from solo artists and bands, including cajun, zydeco, Tejano, German, Bavarian, folk, French, merengue, Latin, jazz, Irish, blues, cabaret, rock, gospel, country, Italian, salsa and others.
"I think that people will be surprised," said event organizer Jill Lloyd. "The accordion covers so many different types of music that there is an educational element to the festival as well."
However, the genres are all united by the same upbeat, toe-tapping sound, Lloyd said.
"Accordion music is happy music," Lloyd said. "It's hard not to smile, there's something about when the accordion starts playing. It changes the energy in the room."
More than 25,000 people attended the event in 2010.
Mlakar and the Oberkrainers, a Slovene-American style polka band with the rock 'n' roll twist of having a drummer as opposed to a traditional brass tuba, will perform at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. at the festival.
October is the busiest month for polka gigs because of Oktoberfest events, said Mlakar, who also works full-time as an environmental scientist with Shaw Industries.
However, there was a time when Mlakar played multiple gigs a weekend throughout the year.
"My parent's generation went out dancing on Saturday nights, but people don't do that like they used to," Mlakar said.
Polka is no longer as popular as it once was, and the bulky accordion, which can weigh 15 to 25 pounds, dissuades many young players, he said.
And many other simply have forgotten or were never introduced to what the instrument can do.
"People who make fun of it have no clue what it is about," Mlakar said. "They've never experience it. People who go to polka dances go there to dance. People don't break out into fights at a polka club. It's a happy, fun family atmosphere."
If You Go
What: The Big Squeeze, the 3rd Annual Orange County Accordion Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday
Where: The Orange County Market Place, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Free with a can of food to be donated to Second Harvest Food Bank or $2 general admission.