Joseph Balaz: From fleeing communist Czechoslovakia as a student to working for global celebrities in New York

Joseph Balaz, photo: archive of Joseph Balaz

Joseph Balaz is president of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, which brings together the leading Czech organisations in New York. But Balaz’s main activity is running a successful construction firm that brings him into contact with global celebrities and the cream of Manhattan society. Not bad for a student from Prague’s Žižkov who escaped from communist Czechoslovakia with little more than the clothes on his back. The man born Josef Baláž spoke to me at the splendid Bohemian National Hall, the completion of whose renovation he personally oversaw.

Joseph Balaz,  photo: archive of Joseph Balaz
"I was born in Prague, specifically Prague 3, Žižkov.

“That’s more important than just being from Prague, obviously. Everybody knows that – especially people from Žižkov.

“My mum worked for this state factory that manufactured paint called Barvy laky. She was running the department that expedited all the paint.

“And my father, who actually died a long time ago, worked for the Czech railways.”

But also, I was reading, he was in the uranium mines?

“That’s correct, yes. He was about 12 years older than my mum.

“Actually when he was about 17 or 18, he escaped after the war to Vienna.

“And when he came back he was imprisoned by the Communists and he spent roughly seven years in the uranium mines.

“He then got out, met my mum, I was born and then he started falling apart and then died.”

As a consequence, very likely, of what he’d experienced in Jáchymov [mining labour camp], I guess?

“It was basically the exposure to radiation, I understand, that caused that.”

What was Žižkov like when you were growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

“It was the equivalent of the Bronx in New York City. No, Žižkov was fun.

“Obviously it has this colourful history and we used to joke, us kids, that because we were from Žižkov we were better than those people from Karlín and other parts of the city [laughs]. It was just, you know, fun.”

You studied civil engineering in Prague. If you had stayed in Prague, what kind of career path would have been in front of you? What could you have done?

“Seriously, I have absolutely no idea.

“Probably I would have ended up working for some sort of large state construction company.

“And probably I would have stayed in that particular field.”

For many people from Czechoslovakia under communism, if they wanted to see the world, they basically had to escape, as you did. How did you get out?

“It was actually very interesting.

“Once I discovered that this student travel agency was still offering skiing trips for university students to Austria, to Schladming, I just picked up a couple of applications.

“My father spent roughly seven years in the uranium mines. He then got out, met my mum, I was born and then he started falling apart and then died.”

“Then on my behalf, and on behalf of my very dear friend Michal Richter, we filled these things out.

“If I remember correctly, we actually had to get roughly 12 approvals from different entities – the police and the military.

“That was because at that time as a university student I studied how to build bridges but the soldiers were teaching us how to blow them up, so I was part of the military whatever.

“But because we just went to these offices, entities, directly and basically told them that other people had recommended us for the trip and persuaded the first couple of them to give us the approval, then it was very easy to collect the other stamps.”

And when you got out you basically ran away from the tour group, or what you do?

“The busload comprised of approximately 48 kids and later on we learned that approximately 19 stayed.

“My friend Michal and I stayed for a couple of days, we skied, and then we ended up in the outskirts of Salzburg.

“We met some young people there and stayed with one family.

“Then the father of one of these kids, who was a professor at the university in Salzburg, found out that if we applied for asylum in Austria then we would have to go to this refugee camp near Vienna, Traiskirchen, and we would have stayed there probably for two years.

“So he recommended that we should apply for asylum in Germany, in Bonn.”

Most people who defected from Czechoslovakia probably gained a lot. But they also lost something – they lost contact with their family, with their friends. What was your motivation in leaving your home country?

“In general, I think I always, always wanted to see the world.

“And I did feel, obviously, enclosed in Prague.

“One hand I didn’t suffer. My mom was looking after me, I didn’t work, I went to school and I was enjoying my life.

“But I really wanted to get out.

“For me the most difficult part was to actually make sure I would not be sad that I left.

“I had to kind of, I guess, mentally readjust or reset myself so I would not be sad that I left, that I missed people, that I missed my land.”

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Marián Beneš / Czech Centre in New York
You first lived in Canada, then moved here to New York. What was it about New York that drew you?

“When I first visited New York City it was actually during the summer – and it was weird.

“The city at that time was really dingy.”

What year was that?

“The first time I came here was probably 1984. And, you know, I didn’t like it at first.

“I actually then was just gently intrigued and went back to Montreal, where I was living at the time, most of the time.

“I must say it probably took several visits before I started discovering that the city is absolutely fabulous – and then it just drew me in.”

Did your training in Prague prepare you well for working in the construction industry in New York?

“I would say on a technical level yes, absolutely. Without doubt I would say that the education I received was definitely top-notch – the technical part.

“But otherwise, you know, you just try your best and I guess at some point you cannot be shy and you have to take risks and use a little bit of BS [laughs] to be able to get the first gig.”

How did you establish yourself here?

“First I worked for a large developer downtown, when I was responsible for a little crew of people, kind of managing little projects.

“Then I figured maybe I could do it on my own.

“Then with a friend of mine, Jiří Kalista, who happened to be living in New York already – he actually came two years earlier then me – we realised that we went to the same school of technology…

“We sort of established our first little company and started working on the first little projects.”

Was it good timing to be here in New York at the end of the ‘80s, say, when the city was slowly improving and coming out of a period when it was kind of a slum, or at least some parts were?

“When I first visited New York City it was really dingy. I didn’t like it at first.”

“Yes. I would say the whole thing goes in waves and probably we caught one of these upward moving economic expansions.

“It was good. It was fairly easy to get projects.

“Obviously we worked our butts off to make sure that everything was done on time and beautifully, etc., so we were not really generating much profit.

“Because we just wanted to do things properly and establish a good record.”

Your company doesn’t advertise. You don’t reveal the names of your clients, because they’re so high end. What’s the secret to working in the kind of environment, with really upscale clients?

“When I established my own company in ‘96 or something like that I worked for a couple of unique clients and those recommended me.

“Then later when we worked for the recording studio called the Hit Factory and we were exposed to all these music stars, etc. – and eventually ended up with some projects for people in that industry and in the Hollywood industry, when we had to sign fairly strict non-disclosure agreements – I realised that we could turn it to our advantage and work with it.

“Then we work for some people who are described as the old money of New York, or the captains of industry, Wall Street titans, etc., and those families also like to keep their private lives very, very private.

“So we cannot say where these people and obviously we cannot show photographs or drawings, etc.”

Can you tell us anything about the renovation of the Hit Factory, the famous music studio?

“The Hit Factory, yes – it was a commercial venue. It doesn’t exist anymore by the way, there’s now a massive high-rise there.

“It was very interesting, not only from the point of working among these stars, etc., but technologically, because we were working with really probably the best acoustic architects and designers in the world, a group from London.

The Hit Factory,  photo: Americasroof,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“It was fascinating. The facility was huge. There were 12 recording spaces and the largest one could probably take up to 300 people, so even the entire New York Philharmonic Orchestra would fit there.

“We were just rebuilding them constantly.

“For instance, when Madonna was doing the Ray of Light album everything needed to sound a little bit metallic, so we were putting in barriers and insulation materials into the walls.

“It was fun.”

Did you meet Madonna?

“Oh yes, absolutely. All of them.

“The thing was that once we were inside of the facility obviously none of our guys were allowed to take a photograph or to ask people for an autograph, etc., because they had to feel comfortable.

“But yeah, we saw them all the time. And they were very, very pleasant. I spoke with Bono many, many times, etc.

“When we are talking about it, there was one interesting aspect.

“There were constantly kids outside of the studios just waiting for people to come in and out. And most of them, to my understanding, would wave or sign photographs.

“But only Michael Jackson would drive his limousine into the freight elevator of the facility and would be taken down into the basement to get out.

“He was the only one, I remember, who would never want to get out.”

Without naming names, I guess a lot of rock stars invest in property?

“Yes, absolutely. And not only them.

“All the smart people in the world of entertainment or sport, if they generate these huge portfolios, they do.”

You also have a pilot’s license – what kind of flying do you do?

“Ah, my big passion. I don’t fly that often, but I used to be a member of this flying club at Teterboro, which is the closest really decent airport to the city.

“We work for some people who are described as the old money of New York, Wall Street titans, etc., and those families like to keep their private lives very, very private.”

“I used to fly Cessnas and Pipers, Piper Cherokees and Archers. Yes, I loved that.”

I guess it’s fair to say you have lived, or you are living, the American dream?

“Absolutely. Sometimes when you have problems it’s gently nightmarish [laughs].

“No, I’m just kidding. Absolutely, yes indeed, I am living my American dream.

“And I’m also very, very happy that I can participate in this Bohemian National Hall thing, etc. That also makes me very, very happy.”