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Friday, October 10, 2008

Lake Geneva Oktoberfest: Bring on the polka!

Photo by Terry Mayer/Weekender

Horst Schaller says Lake Geneva's Oktoberfest is one of his favorite places to play.

A native of Berlin, Germany, Schaller has never quite gotten the oom pah pah out of his system.

What: Lake Geneva Fall Oktoberfest Celebration.
Where: 200 block of Broad Street.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 11-12.

Contributing writer Margaret Plevak has a profile and preview of Oktoberfest, which kicks off Saturday ...

Without the polka band, it's not Oktoberfest

By Margaret Plevak/For WeekenderSchnitzel and Jagermeister are on the menu at Lake Geneva restaurants during the 17th annual Oktoberfest this weekend, but for the true flavor of Germany, give a listen to Horst Schaller, a native of Berlin, Germany.

Horst's Polka Band will play at the Oktoberfest Street Dance from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 12 in downtown Lake Geneva.

Schaller has been a part of Lake Geneva's Oktoberfest for about 10 years, but has been playing the accordion since he was a teenager in Germany.

Years after World War II, Schaller became friends with an American soldier stationed in Berlin. The soldier ended up marrying a German girl, and the couple eventually headed back to America.

They kept up their friendship with Schaller, and when the soldier's mother invited Schaller to America, he came.

Forty-five years later Schaller is still here, living in Racine. He once ran Horst's Music Center, where sold and serviced a variety of musical instruments. Now he's retired, but the pull of music still is strong.

"I always had a dream of being in a band," he said.

The current configuration of Horst's Polka Band is about 5 years old, and depending on the gig, the band stretches from one to six members. Schaller is the only German native. The core group consists of Schaller on accordion, a drummer, a saxophonist and a female vocalist. For bigger jobs, he adds trumpet and tuba players.

Schaller's one-person jobs generally are as a strolling minstrel. He regularly plays for diners at such restaurants as the Corner House in Racine.

Other jobs include playing at wedding receptions, senior centers, and private birthday and anniversary parties.

While the band used to perform around the country, its gigs now are primarily in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The demand for German polka bands is greatest, of course, during October. Lake Geneva's Oktoberfest is one of Schaller's favorites.

"There are not too many jobs for four- and five-piece bands these days, so it's like a reunion for us in Lake Geneva," he said. "I'm amazed how many people show up there.

We play for 50 minutes or so, and then we take a 15-minute break, and everybody is back as soon as we start playing the music again."

Schaller isn't sure exactly why polka music remains popular.

"I went dancing myself at Polish Fest, and I see even young folks are going for it.

"It's just simple music with a nice melody to it, and a nice rhythm. You tap your feet and you want to dance."

Among polka fans, there are favorite songs, Schaller said. Some of the most requested numbers are "Lili Marlene," "The Happy Wanderer," and the German waltz, "Du Du Liebst Mir Im Herzen" (You are Always in My Heart).

"People like those because everybody can sing along," he said.

Besides Horst's Polka Band, musician Tom Stanfield will be playing on the Children's Main Stage during Oktoberfest. Other activities include a farmers market, craft booths, hay rides, a pumpkin giveaway, and fall color lake cruises.

The event is sponsored by the Downtown Lake Geneva Improvement District and the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

George Hennerley, the chamber's executive vice president, said the festival originated with Popeye's in Lake Geneva, as a way to draw more people to the restaurant and the city.

There are still plenty of restaurant specials offered during Oktoberfest, but don't forget to get a taste of the German polka band, too. Just listen for the accordion.


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