Ah, Oktoberfest. The world’s largest beer festival. It began in 1813, and to this day draws millions of people to Bavaria every year. If you’re imagining oompah bands, fräuleins and a whole lot of lederhosen, you’re on the right track.
Luckily, you don’t need to fly to Germany to experience the festivities, because we have a slice of Bavaria right here in Los Angeles … thanks to Alpine Village in nearby Torrance. But like most things in LA, our Oktoberfest takes the concept to a whole new level, thanks to Festmeister Hans, otherwise known as John Baumgaertner.
John is the host of the show, as well as the star of a series of outrageous, hilarious Oktoberfest videos. Though the festival is steeped in tradition and respect, John has turned the premise upside down, creating a funny, ironic, hip version of the festival. The moment you see John rapping in full gangsta mode to an oompah band, you’ll know you’re not in Kansas – excuse us, Bavaria – anymore.
“I actually started back in 2010, and the new management was kind of looking to bring some new energy and attitude to the celebration,” John tells us. “Yes, we’re traditional, but mostly we’re tongue-in-cheek enough to really have fun and be hip enough to have a younger audience get it.”
And boy, do they ever. John does three shows a weekend with an audience of about four thousand every show.
Watching John perform is almost like watching performance art. “We bring the Hollywood glitz and glamour to the show,” says John. “We’ve got songs and dance and a lot of improvisation and lights and video and well-timed transitions that go between all these things, and it helps focus the audience and the energy on this zany performance we have on stage.”
It’s a huge production, worthy of the best of Vegas. “We do a very different show than the Oktoberfest in Munich in Germany. Our show is a show,” John says, beaming. The result is one of the best Oktoberfest celebrations in the world. Something bigger, more conceptual, and way more engaging than the strictly traditional festival.
To say it’s different than the German Oktoberfest is putting it mildly. John explains, “In Germany, they do have bands that are playing music there, but a lot of the times it’s sort of like background music, and then once in a while, they’ll sing Ein Prosit. But we’ve kicked it up a few notches actually, and I think that honestly, we’re one of the best entertainment bang-for-your-buck Oktoberfests anywhere, at least from what I’ve seen.”
The show at Alpine Village has a sense of humor and self-aware irony that cuts across generations. John says, “I think that’s what’s making this Oktoberfest really take off … there’s a whole new generation that enjoys the old ways of doing things and respecting it and having a little bit of fun going into a time capsule discovering these very traditional elements. The older crowd tends to come early in the evenings at Oktoberfest, and then the younger crowd arrives later, so we start with a lot more of the real traditional German oompah, and then as the night goes on, we take it in a whole new direction.”
John is the host and centerpiece of the show, but he’s got a brilliant supporting cast. There’s a special guest named Heino, a comedian with platinum blonde hair and black sunglasses, and he’s hilarious. They also bring in different bands every year, always German, usually a 12-piece oompah band. And then there are the O-Girls, a team of dancers who help take it up to that next level. John tell us, “They’re kind of like the A-Team, but it’s the O-Girls for the Oktoberfest Girls, and our audience adores them.”
Clearly, this is a man who has found his purpose. “I was born for this,” says John. “I have a background in acting and comedy, I speak fluent German, and, get this, according to family lore, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was Franz Baumgaertner, who won the first horse race at the first Oktoberfest over 200 years ago.”
Weird, right? Oh, we’re just getting started.
John gives a laugh and says, “We do the oompah version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing with a tuba and an accordion. It takes the audience a few moments to realize that this is not some obscure German folk song, but the rock anthem they’ve loved all these years. When they finally get it, the moment is great. We also do Nena’s 99 Luftballons, which is probably the most popular German pop song in American history, and it’s a huge selling part of what people get really excited about. We drop over 99 balloons from the ceiling, and well, people love to see a mixture of things. The old, the new, the traditional and the wacky.”
As absurd as the whole thing is, John is dead serious about his performance. “The biggest part of my job is to try to make as many people have an amazing experience as possible, so it’s all about breaking the ice early, then keeping up the energy, even though there’s, you know, three or four thousand people out there in the tent, trying as much as possible to really focus on pulling their energy up, and then, like a feedback loop, spit it back out at them and try to get the audience to engage in all sorts of really fun activities.”
John pauses for a moment to reflect, and then adds, “I’m going on my sixth year doing this. Six hours a night, three nights a week for two months every single year. I’ve gotten so much better over the years. I used to have lame jokes and shtick, trying to eat up time. But then I realized it’s more about the hosting. After having done it for so long, I feel like I’m able to feel the level that the audience is at and read them from a distance. I’ve developed a lot of tricks over the years to be able to get one table excited and then the other, and it builds and builds and spreads like an enthusiastic virus through the audience.” John stops for a moment, then with obvious pride says, “At this point, I can play the audience like an instrument.”
John actually has two separate jobs at Alpine Village. First, of course, he’s Festmeister Hans, a character he created six years ago. “It takes tremendous preparation to make it all seem so spontaneous and fun. Thankfully I work with a tremendous team. It’s a tribute to the team that I work with and the effort that we put in to make things work as well as they do.”
John’s second role is another for which he’s perfectly cast. John tells us, “Eventually, Alpine Village hired me as their Advertising and Promotions Manager, and now, I fill out this PR role as the face and the voice of Alpine Village.”
John continues, “I’m incredibly lucky. I get to use my skills as an actor, singer, director, editor and comedian to make this into something people are excited about and want to connect to. If I I can do that for the rest of my life, I’ll be very, very happy.”
In addition to the regular seasonal shows, Alpine Village helps a lot of charities. John proudly boasts, “We give away free tickets or put together group tickets sales or giveaways, so charities can bring people to Oktoberfest and make some money. We’ve helped the American Cancer Association, AIDS Walk L.A., Chive (who organizes fundraising parties) and many others.”
Get John talking about the show and the conversation inevitably becomes philosophical. “The digital generation tends to feel more comfortable in front of a computer screen than they feel comfortable in front of another person,” John explains. “And so being able to have this event where we put thousands of strangers under a tent and make them feel at the end of the night that everybody (left, right, or anywhere you turn) has become your friend is an amazing feeling.”
“Actually, the Germans even have a word for it,” John says. “We call it Gemütlichkeit. The closest English translation is togetherness, but Gemütlichkeit means specifically togetherness and coziness in a social environment.”
That being said, it was anti-Gemütlichkeit that brought John to First Entertainment, and he did it with his usual panache and humor.
We’ll let John tell it:
“I had been with Citibank for years, and one day I get a letter in the mail. It didn’t pertain to me at the time, but they said something like, ‘If your bank account drops below some certain figure, we’re going to start charging you to have your money with us.’ I’m thinking, hold on. I’m giving you my money for you to use as you will to make money off of loans and do whatever else – and now you’re going to start charging me after I’ve been with you for 10 years?”
John gets mad just talking about it. “Look,” John says, “as a working entertainer, my bank account could have one day dipped below the point, and the last thing you need when something like that happens is to have a gigantic conglomerate bank start sticking it to you more. It put me in the mindset of, oh, okay, my money’s not good enough for you, well, you know what? I want to go someplace where my money is good enough for them. I want to go someplace that respects me and respects the relationship that I’ve created here.”
This is where it really gets good.
“I actually shot a video of myself moving my account. I put my camera in my pocket, shot a video of me talking with the teller, then I had them give me a whopping stack of cash. I drove right over to First Entertainment. I remember thinking, I want to be part of supporting this community. I don’t want my bank to be lining the pockets of the CEO and millionaires, billionaires, multi-billionaires. I want this money to be used in order to benefit my community.”
Danke schön, John. Alles Liebe!
Visit John on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/festmeisterhans