Meet Energizer bunny of Beaver Creek’s Oktoberfest celebration
Special to the Daily
If Oktoberfest in Colorado had a Santa Claus, then it would be Helmut Fricker. Anyone who’s been around for the past 40-plus years to witness the jolly German bouncing through a September crowd with his accordion, fueling the contagious clapping, swaying, stomping and chicken dances, would never guess that he has shrapnel scars on his head and neck from when his small German town fell under siege during World War II.
But that was then and this is now.
Today, it’s a typical end-of-summer day for Fricker. He’s at home in Eagle Ranch, hard at work on another commissioned bookbinding project — revamping a bible that dates back to 1710. He’s surrounded by colorful stacks of beautiful books and prides himself on being Colorado’s last bookbinder. His hands are sticky with glue. His tiny tools, paint and gold flakes are neatly arranged next to his project. He is happily recounting a wedding he attended last year, in which he led a throng of 300 people through the streets of Vail playing his accordion.
“I played nonstop,” he said. “Everybody was marching and dancing. There were about 300 people behind me … maybe 400 behind the end.”
Not his first adventure
Earlier last summer, a week before his 80th birthday, Fricker was flown to a glacier near Mount Denali in Alaska, where he strapped his accordion to his back and climbed several hundred feet to a remote hut — Sheldon Mountain House — to play for a video documentary arranged by actress Kate Sheldon, one of Fricker’s legion of friends.
“We walked up quite a bit with snowshoes on the rocks where you have to be supported by a rope,” Fricker said. “It was an adventurous trip for my accordion.”
It certainly wasn’t the first adventurous trip, for either Fricker or his accordion.
Raised in Germany’s Black Forest during World War II, Fricker received his first instrument — a button accordion — from his father at the age of 14. The elder Fricker had magically shown up at the family’s home 11 years after he was coerced into joining the Third Reich. Although an involuntary soldier, Fricker’s father was subsequently captured and sent to a Siberian prison camp, and after years of no contact or word, the family believed he had died.
In the meantime, the family’s house and Helmut’s school were riddled with bombs and bullets, crumbling to the ground. Miraculously, everyone except the family cat survived. They spent several years pushing their belongings from town to town sleeping in barns, but Helmut began studying bookbinding and discovered his love for music.
Fast forward to his father’s emotional homecoming in 1950, gifting Helmut his first accordion and signing his bookbinder’s license. Jump ahead nearly two more decades, and find Fricker bringing both burgeoning professions and his own young family to the United States.
The German arrived in Denver late at night with his wife, Ursula, and children, Susanne and Harald, in the summer of 1969.
“I woke up the next morning, saw the mountains, the flowers, the trees and I said, ‘I’ll never leave here again,’” he said.
He got a job at a printing company and met a German friend with a shop in Denver’s Larimer Square. She was working with other merchants to block off an area for a weekend in September to hold a small Oktoberfest. The shop owners got the permit, arranged for ample dispensing of beer and bratwursts and plopped Helmut onto the stage with his accordion.
“She gave me a cardboard hat. I didn’t even have lederhosen. I rolled up my regular pants and went up there and AW, LA, LA-LA — started yodeling,” he said. “The next day every TV station in Denver was there.”
And voila, Larimer Square’s Oktoberfest was born.
Learning English along the way — “my kids still correct me when I make mistakes,” he said — Fricker took his act to Vail and never left. He fathered Vail’s Oktoberfest in 1976 and Beaver Creek’s Oktoberfest a couple of decades later. Now, he is unquestionably still the pulse of all things Oktoberfest. So much so that local shops sell a Helmut Fricker bobblehead, complete with accordion and alpenhorn in hand.
Oh yes … and his license plates read “yodler.”
“Every year, I can’t wait for Oktoberfest,” Fricker said. “You know what it is for me? The people. As soon as I walk in, go from table to table getting everyone to sing along, it gives me so much energy.”
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Tons of new and gently used gear can be found at the 51st annual Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Swap this weekend at Dobson Ice Arena in Lionshead.