POSTED ON OCTOBER 17, 2012:
Lederhosen of the Chosen
Behind the scenes and steins of T-Town's favorite festival
One of the metro's great annual autumn traditions returns once again to the banks of the Arkansas River Thursday, Oct. 18, for four days of German-inspired, and universally enjoyed, festivity. Using the greatest of nature's festive tools: food, drink and song, Tulsa Oktoberfest has since 1979 brought the city together once a year to celebrate life German-style. And this year promises to see that tradition continue with an even greater number and variety of entertainments than in years past.
Tulsa Oktoberfest is a combined effort of vendors, musicians and several local non-profit organizations that have made the festival one of the top celebrations of its kind in the nation. USA Today has listed it as one of the top 10 places in the world to celebrate Oktoberfest, and Bon-Appetit Magazine has hailed it as one of the best places to sample authentic German food. As much delight as this acclaim might bring, it is no shock to Oklahoma, or to Tulsa in particular, which has had a long history of German immigration and cultural exchange.
So dust off your lederhosen (optional) and bring all your family and friends, kids included, down to River West Festival Park, 2100 S. Jackson Ave., to share in the festive spirit.
The Brews and the Whos
At the center of Oktoberfest, and of any good festive gathering, is the people. It is this combination of so many groups of friends, family, co-workers, individuals and strangers -- who all share the common goal of celebration -- that makes Oktoberfest work.
But the prime ingredients in the glue that binds those people together are food and drink. It's true from the family dinner table, and it's true under the tents, big and small, of Oktoberfest.
Tonja Pitzer, director of community relations for the River Parks Authority, which manages Tulsa Oktoberfest, said this couldn't be done without local restaurants and breweries, who besides boosting the conviviality of festival guests also get a boost for their businesses.
"There is one beer that we always sell out of," Pitzer said, "and that is anything called Oktoberfest."
And the breweries keep these special seasonal brews flowing as long as they can.
When asked about the specifications for an Oktoberfest brew, Pitzer said, "Well, it must be beer."
Not to make light of an essential part of the festival's character, Oktoberfest does indeed take its beer very seriously, oftentimes chasing it with a shot of adventure. Pitzer said, "We like to try new things, and we do have an offering of a wheat beer, a light beer, a dark beer. I like the Warstiener Oktoberfest."
Local brews, in particular, have found great success among the international atmosphere of Oktoberfest. "Marshall's will be there again this year," Pitzer said. "Historically, their beers will sell out."
When asked about the possibility of featuring local microbrews, Pitzer said the organizers haven't ruled it out for future festivals. "We have not had anyone contact us," she said, "and that certainly is something we would be interested in." Unfortunately throwing a wrench in the works, one problem might be supply vs demand. "The volume of what we sell is so high that we wouldn't be able to sell one microbrew," Pitzer said, in the same breath highlighting the possibility of endorsing a one night featured event for microbrews in Oktoberfest's future.
In the festival where beer and brauts flow, there are luckily several locations from which to draw your drink. The Ess Zelt tent features a variety of premium beers including Warstiner Premium, Dunkel, Oktoberfest, Konig Ludwig, Gorden Biersh Marzen, Boulevard Bob's 47, Boulevard Wheat, and Crispin Hard Apple Cider. Not to forget the classics. The Ess Zelt also offers Blue Moon, Shiner Bock, Coors Light, and Miller Light.
Other great locations for brews include the Luftansa Bier Garten, Bier Stube, and Keller. A newcomer to the festival but not to beer, local favorite Fassler Hall will be featured in the Fassler Hall Stammtisch. With so many options don't let indecision stop you, it's a safe bet that you will find something to your liking whichever tent you stumble into as they all have an Oktoberfest on tap and carry both premium and your regular garten variety brews.
Raymond Bayer is the son of Siegmund Sumaruk, the Austrian namesake of the city's very own Siegi's Sausage Factory, one of the many fine vendors for Tulsa Oktoberfest. Alongside his brothers Michael Sumaruk and David Sumaruk, this blended family has been pushing pretzels and stuffing sausage to be pedaled at Oktoberfest since close to the beginning of the festival's history. Bayer said, "Siegi's opened in 1980, so probably since 1983," giving an exact year that his grandfather brought his first generation Austrian-American authenticity to the palate of the festival.
Reminiscing briefly about an upbringing in which he more frequently found himself elbow-deep in sausage casings than a baseball glove, Bayer said, "When we started it was me and my mom handling the restaurant, and my dad in the back stuffing sausages." A family affair through and through, "when we were kids we worked in the restaurant and packed sausage," Bayer said of the brothers' upbringing in the kitchen.
When asked if the constant immersion in the craft served to attract or repel, Bayer said, "it was part of our lives." Lives that none wished to stray from. "All three chose to be involved," Bayer said of the family business.
Sigei's also serves its creations at other festivals around the country, Bayer said. "We cater about three others, one in Independence, Kansas, one in McKinney, Texas, and one in Addison, Texas."
Locally however, the talk turns more to brat than bling, as Bayer schools on sausage. "Well, wurst is German for sausage. We sell three of four different varieties: in the 70,000 range." That's a lot of weenies.
Another favorite is the "brat burger," which is served on a bun with kraut and cheese, he said.
Along with the classic German fare this year is a newcomer who is already a favorite around town. Andolini's is undertaking its first year at the festival, bringing a taste of Italy to this German fest of the West. Still heavy on the classics, F&J Concessions will be selling shnitzle, Helmut's Strudle offers sweeter stuff, and in case you still have room left over there is R&J Pretzels and Mazzio's.
Ludger's, famous for their Black Forest Cake, will also be there, and no outdoor extravaganza is complete without some deep-fried specialty, and Oktoberfest is no exception. Sugar's bestseller "The Dachshund" fills both the classic fry-fest position and the stomachs of any who dares to attempt it. A European packed sausage breaded and deep fried as a corn dog, this dog is not your average sausage and makes any competition look like hush puppies on a tooth-pick in comparison with this monstrosity.
Along with fine German bites and brews, the fun of Tulsa Oktoberfest includes a variety of other activities extending from music, dress and crafts, even to the look and promotion of the festival itself.
The annual traditions begin even before the festival does -- most notably, with the choosing of the artist who will design the Oktoberfest poster.
"The artist that we selected this year was Steven Grounds," Pitzer said. "We had nine submissions and just by chance we selected him this year, even though last year we selected him as well."
Then there is the music. Never has anyone called Germans shrinking violets, and that extends to the music. Soft rhythms aside, you won't hear any Blue Danube here; its polka to the people and the beats.
"We have done less with the crafts and more with the entertainment and music" this year, Pitzer said. The Tulsa Oktoberfest offers traditional bands an outlet for keeping the music of Deutschland alive. "The answer to the German entertainment is that Lufthansa sponsors Oktoberfest for two bands and they have for some time. They will come in and play the entire week," Pitzer said.
A popular returning event is the Lederhosen Lauf, a race through the park and surrounding the River Park grounds. More than 1,000 runners were already registered by late September. Sponsored by Fleet Feet, the Lederhosen Lauf is a great way to burn off the beer and brats, if only to make room for more.
Also of note is Oktoberfest's preview night, known as the Gemuetlichkeit. Loosley translated as "comfort" or "coziness," the Gemuetlichkeit is held on Wednesday, Oct. 17, and is estimated to have as many as 7,500 attendees from various Tulsa businesses. A great way to break the office ice, the Gemuetlichkeit is worth coming out for.
Two very knowledgeable persons who have been volunteering at Oktoberfest for nearly as long as it has been operational are the husband and wife team of Leon Boggs and Erica Hartman. Both members of the German American Society of Tulsa, and Boggs, the organization's current president, they are adamant about the vital role Oktoberfest plays in keeping the culture of Germany alive in T-Town.
"My husband was in the service and out of 20 years we spent 14 in Europe," Hartman said. Of her meeting with Leon, "We met in Austria at a youth club, Amerika house it was called. He's four years older than I am." Regardless of the slight gap, the two function in unison to make sure the German culture has a thriving foothold in this part of the country. "It's all a team effort what we do, absolutely," Hartman said.
Seeking to do for their own in a sort of microcosm what Oktoberfest does for a wider audience, the couple made sure to keep both the German language and traditions alive in their home. "We have three children together and they all speak German. My mother insisted on that," Hartman said.
Sometimes we all need someone older and wiser not necessarily telling us what to do, but offering us a greater knowledge of what we may find unfamiliar. With a list of members more advanced in years than not, at the German American Society of Tulsa there is plenty to learn about the cultural trappings at the festival.
"We average about 460 members, as we get older you know, it fluctuates," Hartman said. "We have more families. Most of them are either one or the other is from Germany, or they have grandparents, or great-grandparents, and some have been stationed in Germany and some are just really interested in the culture."
All of the above sorts of people it would seem can expect to be seen at Oktoberfest, the festival casting a wide net to a variety of audiences. As for the parts of German culture which are highlighted at the festival, the couple believes they are keeping an older, more classical tradition alive.
"There are not many new immigrants leaving Germany now, and we preserve what I have noticed, when we have company from Germany of Austria or somewhere else, is an older tradition in the German culture than some of the ones in Europe do now," Hartman said.
The Beasts (Duck, Duck, Chicken)
"We still play the Chicken Dance," Hartman said, with a brief interjection from her husband. "Over there it's the duck," Boggs reminded.
As the story goes, during the time of the first Oktoberfest the Duck Dance was set to be played by a renowned German band, but unable to locate a duck costume anywhere in the entire city of Tulsa, a chicken costume was borrowed from a local news station.
"I think it was easier to translate, they really don't play this over there," Hartman said.
Unexpectedly, it seems just as Oktoberfest now offers Italian food and draws a crowd composed of many nationalities, a sight common at any QuikTrip in Tulsa has taken off in Germany itself. "Some of them over there are really into country music," Hartman said. "The men wear the cowboy hats and the boots."
Not a primary contributor to the organizational aspect of Oktoberfest, the German American Society of Tulsa, or GAST as it is known, does donate money and offers volunteer aid. "We are a sponsor -- we give them some cash," Hartman said.
Additionally though they do have a hand in one of the less behind the scenes aspects of the festival. "We sponsor the Oktoberfest poster," Boggs said.
"We have our own Blauscapelle -- it means brass band -- and they sound wonderful. And they do play out there at Oktoberfest," Hartman said, highlighting yet another way in which the festival is a medium for their mission.
With more than 2,200 people volunteering annually according to the River Parks Authority, Oktoberfest is not only an opportunity to sample another culture, but to boost our economy as well.
The folks at the authority are a huge part of making this happen.
"I think Tulsa Oktoberfest is unique in that the group that built it originated out of River Parks," Pitzer said. "It is a group that enjoyed being together and they are essentially a club themselves, through the years, now in their 34th year.
"Through the generations, their children and their children's children have remained involved. So they are the volunteers who created it, and have built it and have fostered it and maintained it, and that's what makes this thing really so unique," Pitzer said.
Indeed, only recently did River Parks formally become involved with managing the festival, aside from the fact that many of their members and the members of Oktoberfest Inc. have historically been one and the same.
"I've been managing it only two years, so I think that helps bring fresh new eyes to it," Pitzer said. "We're a small organization so we can implement new ideas easily without too much paperwork."
That Pitzer has a fresh take on the festival may have more far reaching implications than simply reducing stress around the office; it may provide a slew of new vendors and organizations the opportunity to become involved.
"It's big enough now for the first time that we are actually reaching out to certain non-profit groups, much like Mayfest has done," Pitzer said. Thus far such groups participating include The Irish Club of Tulsa, the Tulsa Rugby Club, and SACS, otherwise known as Singles Available for Community Service.
Members of the non-profits who work the event not only work to fulfill their pledge of community involvement, but also benefit from the arrangement financially. "The things that we would offer are on site during the festival, and so we would donate X number of dollars to their organization," Pitzer said.
The organizers of Tulsa Oktoberfest are expecting in excess of 60,000 guests this year over the course of the four-day festival, and while we presume they hope everyone won't come at once, the crowds might be tempted, as the admission Friday, Oct. 19, is free.
You can get in the following days for $6, with children 12 and under getting in free.
In an attempt to streamline the admission process, you may pay with either cash or credit, and additionally there will be a generous smattering of freestanding ATMs stationed within the park.
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