Our Music Man: Helmut Fricker is known as a consummate entertainer, but his skills extend beyond music
Special to the Daily
Helmut Fricker is a Vail Valley staple. A jovial, warm man with lines of an outdoorsman in his face and a mischievous twinkle in his eye — and one of the most celebrated members of the community. He has been bound by the constant rhythm of his work — making books and making music. A rhythm he has danced to his entire life. He is a gifted master at both.
However, Fricker’s jovial persona does not reflect the hardships he endured in his early life in Karlsruhe, Germany, which sits on the Rhine River, outside of Heidelberg near the French border. When World War II began, his father, Ernst, had to join the army, leaving Fricker, his mother, Elisabeth, brother, Guenther, and sisters Rosemarie and Waltraud alone and unsure of when they’d see him again.
“He was away for six years. Five of them were spent in a Russian concentration camp,” said Fricker. “There were 10,000 prisoners and 800 came out alive.”
While his father was on the Russian front, Fricker’s 11-unit apartment house was bombed, and he and his family were trapped in the basement for two days before rescuers broke through a wall. Fricker was 6 years old.
After the bombing, Fricker’s mother separated the family, hoping they would each be safer. Helmut was sent to the country home of his paternal grandparents in Freiburg, a university town, but the war followed him there, too. The house was located across from a railroad crossing which was operated by his grandfather and where a Nazi military train had taken refuge on a hillside nearby. “One day Allied planes swept down over the hill and fired on the train,” recalled Fricker, who was 9 at the time. “A German soldier grabbed my grandmother and threw her on the ground. I hid under a wagon, but a bullet hit the dirt, and something struck my left temple. I was OK, but bleeding and scared.
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“However, my pet cat was killed, and I cried for two days. And my good friend, Karl, who was 12, was also killed. I remember seeing his body scattered among the trees. It was horrible.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1944, Fricker’s father was on furlough and visited the family after hitchhiking 120 miles. On January 3, 1945, he left to rejoin his division in Czechoslovakia. After he left, the family received a few postcards. Then nothing for three years.
It would be five years before they saw him again.
It was 1948 when the family received a postcard from Russia that read, “Ich bin noch am leben.” “I am still alive.” And at 5 a.m. on January 3, 1950, the doorbell rang at Fricker’s home: His father was standing at the door with two wooden boxes and a loaf of stale bread.
With all that had occurred, Fricker missed over four years of school — and at the age of 14 began an apprenticeship, spending four days a week as a bookbinder under a stern 70-year-old master named Ferdinand Schick, who had been a bookbinder for royalty. Fricker would spend four days each week gaining practical experience and two days in the classroom, learning the history of the craft, the materials, bookkeeping and training in gilding and tooling.
“Schick would slap me on the head if I wasn’t doing something correctly,” Fricker recalled with a laugh. Fricker would eventually receive his master’s certificate which allowed him to teach the trade or open his own shop.
Fricker was also a natural musician and taught himself to play several instruments, including the concertina, trombone and tuba — and, eventually the guitar, harmonica, organ and piano. You can add yodeling to that, as well.
Ultimately, Fricker started a five-piece band, performing for four years, and later played in a harmonica trio. Music and bookbinding were the focus of his life — until he met and married Ursula, eventually landing in the United States on their 10th anniversary.
“I had met two American couples who suggested that I would like America,” begins Fricker. “So, I sold everything I had — which wasn’t very much — and came to America in 1969, ending up in Lawton, Oklahoma, a military base. My first job was working at a gas station. It was 109 degrees on the Fourth of July. I knew I couldn’t live there. Luckily, I was introduced to a friend of a friend who was working for the Denver Post and had heard that I was a bookbinder. He suggested that I go to Colorado and made appointments for me. I was offered five jobs.”
Fricker began working with Hirschfield Press and was doing handbook binding on the side. “I got to know the secretary of Colorado’s governor, John Love, who told me that he had a book on his desk, I remember the name, “Trades of Africa,” that was falling apart and asked if I would fix it. And I did.
“I suppose word got out and soon people began coming to me, asking if I could fix their books. ‘That’s what I do,’ I would tell them. I don’t need machines. I do it all by hand. So, more and more people came, and I began thinking that I made more money on the side than I did at the printing company.”
So Fricker went to the Small Business Administration and asked for $10,000 working capital to start his own business. “And they said, ‘Look at the yellow pages. It says bookbinding, bookbinding, bookbinding. You can’t make any money doing that.’ I explained that that was industrial bookbinding and that I did hand bookbinding. But they denied the request.”
And that’s when a fortunate stroke of serendipity came into play.
“One evening, I was playing in a German restaurant, and I saw a guy singing my songs in German,” said Fricker. “We started talking and when I asked him how he knew all the songs, he said that he was from Nebraska and his family was from Germany and sang the songs. His name was Wilhelm Bauer and his business card read ‘SBA.’ After I was finished playing, we talked and I told him about the bookbinding and he said, ‘You come and see me.’
“I met with him a week later and I got the $10,000. So, I quit the job with the printery and began my own business in Denver.”
Of course, because he was an entertainer, Helmut met many television personalities who heard about his bookbinding skills and invited him to appear on their show to talk about his craft. In fact, he received so many inquiries that he opened a storefront in Denver.
And Fricker’s work was superb, each piece done, precisely, by hand. His equipment included needles, thread, glue, scissors, bone scorers for folding paper, embossing tools, assorted types — some more than 100 years old — a large paper-cutter dating back to 1900, a 100-year-old hand press and a book press like those used in Gutenberg’s time. Fricker carried on a tradition that has changed little since the 1400s. And his success was immediate.
Yet, Fricker’s music and performing was still a big part of his life. And, as Fricker put it, “One thing led to another,” and soon German clubs around the country invited him to perform. “I’ve performed in every state in America, including Hawaii and Alaska,” he said proudly.
Eventually, Vail would become his home. “I got a job at the Tyrolean Inn, the former Blue Cow, and played six days a week in the summer and the winter, as well,” explained Fricker. “Then the Jerry Ford golf tournament came along, and I was hired to work on that. I moved to Vail in 1972 and have lived in Eagle since 2007.”
And it’s in the basement of that home that Fricker, for years, would bind books. Until recently.
“I had an apprentice, Nicole Cotten, from Denver, that moved to Eagle for six months to learn the trade,” shares Fricker. “We worked six days a week and I taught her bookbinding as well as box-making and picture-frame-making, which you must learn as well if you’re going to be a bookbinder in Germany. Nicole is fantastic. She’s amazing. I gave her everything she needed for the craft.
“Bookbinding is just a ‘know how.’ It’s not hard if you know how,” said Fricker with a hearty laugh. “You must know the material. I once restored a book that was worth over $600,000. You must know what yarn to use to sew a book. And what leather and cardboard to use. If you get any of it wrong, you lose the value.
“And you must do it all the right way. I could take a look and say ‘OK, that’s $500.’ I never thought about how much work it would take. I just did it.”
Fricker reflected on the time, 20 years ago, when he went to New York to the Guild of Book Workers to take a course. “I found that I should have been the professor,” this master said, with a wink.
“I’m still doing some work,” he said. “I’m finishing up a Bible right now. Then I’m working on a family history. I make a design and Nicole does exactly like I tell her.”
Fricker and Ursula, who passed away in 2017, had two children, Harald, who died in 2019, and Suzanne, who lives in Denver.
A few years after Ursula’s passing, Fricker went to Castle Peak, a senior life and rehabilitation center, to take some of his friends for lunch. There, as he signed in at the front desk, he met Charlotte, the office manager who would eventually become his second wife. It just happened that Charlotte was a soloist with a church choir. Then, of course, Fricker — with that little gleam in his eye — recruited her to join him in life and “on stage” as well — making it a cast of two instead of just one. He dons his lederhosen, and she her dirndl, to make their appearances authentic and complete. So, it’s a partnership in more ways than one. A harmony in life and song.
It’s a toss-up as to which Fricker enjoys most — creating music or creating something tangible. And, although he no longer works full-time on bookbinding, one gets the sense that it might be the favorite.
“I love my bookbinding,” Fricker confessed with a faraway look in his eye. “Every piece I do I like. It’s something creative. It’s something that doesn’t exist. But the idea, the design. Whatever. It’s something beautiful. It’s like making a vase. It’s something you put your flowers in, but each is different. Each book cover that I create is different.”
And as for retiring? “When I’m dead, I’ll retire,” quipped Fricker.
This story first appeared in the current edition of Vail Valley Magazine, widely available at locations throughout the valley.