Ducks, Chickens, and Small, Irritable Dogs

Cast your mind back to the glory days of July 2011.   The authoritative nu/rap metal band Limp Bizkit played the prestigious Tollwood Festival at Olympic Park, and added a number just for the Munich audience.

It was a little ditty they called the Chicken Dance.   A short piece composed by the Swiss accordionist Werner Thomas, in the 1950s.  You probably know it as the Ententanz, or Duck Dance.

Why would they add this piece to their world-famous repertoire for Munich concerts, and Munich concerts only?

Was it a small tribute to Bavaria?  If so, why did they choose a Swiss piece, when they might have honoured a real Bavarian composer like Richard Wagner, Carl Orff or Lou Bega?

We may never know for sure.  But as an American, let me suggest that their logic followed this pattern.  “Munich?  Like, Oktoberfest, right?  We should play the Chicken Dance, because everyone knows that no Oktoberfest is complete without the Chicken Dance!

(The last part of the sentence is taken directly from a Frommer’s entry on the Munich Oktoberfest traditions)

Where did this idea, and others like them start?   Let’s take the world’s largest Oktoberfest after Munich, in the American city of Cincinnati.  It even calls itself Zinzinatti for the three days of the festival, which attracts over half a million visitors.  On a day-by-day basis, that’s a Wies’n-sized crowd.

Chris Kemper and Pat  Sheeran of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce agreed to a phone interview.  “You do know”, I began, “that in German, it’s not a chicken dance?”

One could practically hear their eyebrows rise over the telephone line.  “Oh?” asked Chris, in his capacity as PR Director.  “What is it in German?”

“It’s the duck dance.” I replied. “Does the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce have an official position on this matter?”

They laughed heartily.  “Well, duck tastes an awful lot like chicken,” replied Chris, ever the diplomat.

Pat, who has served nearly two decades with the Chamber, takes a sanguine view on the authenticity issue.  He pointed out that OZ does maintain a special German-ness advisory committee, an Ordnungspolizei for the Germanity of the whole affair.   In the beginning, the committee maintained strict standards—brass-band music only.   “But when I visited Oktoberfest in Munich, I couldn’t believe that everyone was playing Country Roads, by John Denver. They were singing about going home to West Virginia!”

One can understand his bemusement.  A country road from Ohio to West Virginia is no big deal.

I wonder what the committee makes of some other Cincinnati events?

The Pepto-Bismol® World Brat Eating Contest is a fixture of the MLE (Major League Eating) circuit, sponsored by a popular indigestion remedy.  In the allotted ten minutes, 2010 winner Joey Chestnut (whose name means Marron) beat early favourite Gravy Brown (whose name means Bratensoße). In spite of the fact that Brown “was draped in Lederhosen to channel the Oktoberfest spirits,” Chestnut won by a solid forty-two to thirty-one and three quarters.   A mere week before he’d become the World Burrito Eating Champion with a bowel-busting 47, though this record must remain informal because the sport of burrito-eating has no governing body.

Could Chestnut get through 42 Knödl in ten minutes, like a Bavarian could?

When American Oktoberfesters aren’t eating sausages, they chase after them.   In 2011, OZ will play host to the fifth annual Running of the Wieners.

No, this is not a foot race for people from Vienna.   It is a race for Dachshunds.  The American Hot Dog , as a sausage, is a bastardisation of the type found in eastern Austria, and is hence called a wiener.  Because of their shape, the dachshund is most commonly known across the Land of the Free as a Wiener Dog.  And because a wiener is also American slang for a male penis, as well as the surname of a Congressman caught tweeting a picture of his crotch, this makes Americans laugh.  It’s even funnier because these dogs must compete in a costume that resembles a curious elongated version of a Semmel.

Cincinnati Oktoberfest climaxes with a Chicken Dance, lead by the honorary Grand Marshall.  Past Marshalls have been highly distinguished.   Vern Troyer, better known as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films, proved popular—but don’t you think it was a little cruel to ask him to flap his arms?  Crypto-rocker Weird Al Yankovic added a kazoo to the Chicken Dance mix.  Vince Neil, lead singer of Mötley Crüe (who has worked so tirelessly to promote German punctuation around the world) even earned a prize for his performance of the Chicken Dance.  Music channel VH1 declared it the World’s Least Metal Moment.

But the hero of them all, the man who really started the craze, is none other than our own Luitpold von Bayern, Prince of Bavaria.   In 1994, he served as Grand Marshall of the Oktoberfest in Cincinnati.  And he was a smash hit.

Pat remembers the Prince vividly.  “Well, to start, he was royal.  Since we Americans don’t have royalty of our own, he added a dose of glamour.   And when you’re up there in front of all those people, you can get swept up in the energy of the moment.  The crowd loved him.”  The event turned into the world’s largest instance of mass-synchronised dancing, and entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1995.

So, what did it feel like to lead such a spectacle?  The Prince was kind enough to grant me an audience in his offices at Schloß Kaltenberg.   He proved most candid and gracious in conversation; and in good humour, too.   In the course of an hour,  we pronounced Cincinnati at least five different ways.

I asked him to recall the moment.

“Well, it was rather an experience,” he began with a smile.  “I was standing on a pedestrian bridge above the street, conducting something like sixty or seventy thousand people. “

Chris Kemper clarified that the official count stands at 48,000.  But the event has become the stuff of legend.  “Probably about sixty or seventy thousand people claim they were there” he notes.

This clearly thrilled the Prince, but in a surreal way.  “I felt a little displaced” he confesses, “The Chicken Dance, as you know, is not very Bavarian.”

“German emigrants, and their descendants, naturally try to keep traditions alive.  But few places in the world have enough Germans from a particular region to make it regionally authentic.”

Prince Luitpold’s keen eye spotted some Cincinnati regionalisms.  “The Chicken Dance is something people would do more at Karneval.  The Cincinnati Oktoberfest is a street festival, and it feels much more like Cologne.”  Cincinnati’s German heritage, arguably, is a Rheinisch one; the city’s brewery district is even named Over the Rhine.   A local specialty is a meat-and-oats sausage named Goetta, (from the old German Götte) which originated around Hannover and Oldenberg.   Locals fry it for breakfast, and call it Cincinatti Caviar.

As the head of a brewery himself, the Prince travels extensively, and can speak with some authority on overseas Oktoberfests.

Moscow was a favourite of his.  The Oktoberfest there was full of good cheer and merriment, helped along by a T33 tank which one of the breweries displayed as a promotional item.

Perhaps the merriment got a little too rowdy, since now the Russian government has banned beer tents.  “It’s a measure against alcoholism and public drunkenness. “ the Prince tells us. “Funnily, nobody seems to think that vodka has anything to do with this.  The vodka industry in Russia is very well connected, I believe.”

“In Shanghai, there were two actors playing Ludwig II and Sissi.  Ludwig had red hair.”  But that wasn’t the oddest bit.  “In so many places, people want to depict Ludwig and Sissi as some kind of married couple.  They were cousins and certainly knew each other, but they were King and empress of two entirely different countries.”

One can appreciate how impersonating royalty makes him vaguely uneasy.  Clearly, for Prince Luitpold, love of one’s family and respect for one’s ancestors are inseparable.  The Wittlesbach family takes great care to protect names and images from their history; not necessarily for profit, but to ensure due care and dignity.

Thus, he is less concerned with Oktoberfests abroad, than with what  happens at Oktoberfest every year in Munich.

“The wedding party of the Crown Prince Ludwig—the reason for the first Oktoberfest—came at a time of the Napoleonic wars.  Bavaria was refounded in size and united different tribes of the region.  It was a celebration of national unity.”

But nowadays, it’s descended into something rather less, the Prince feels.    “Karnvalisms” as the he calls them, are OK in Ohio, but in Bavaria, it galls.  “The Oktoberfest is changing away from being a traditional show of the different parts of culture…into a mass-production, heavily-beer driven and  shows a rather strange picture of Bavarians.”

“This is strongly driven by the tourist office of Munich, probably one of the most tasteless organisations we have in Bavaria.  They are very strict. If you have a stand you are allowed to sell only…I don’t know…hearts of chocolate or radishes or whatever.  You even have to count the amount of toilet paper per guest which you must have in place.  So how can they authorise all these souvenirs?”

“You get felt hats that are far away form a felt hat ever worn by a Bavarian citizen in the traditional terms.   They are cheap to produce and cheap generally. You will find them in a white and blue colour—nobody would EVER dare to wear a white and blue colour hat as a true Bavarian…what we are showing is that we are a beer drinking nation where people are wearing beer barrels as hats and beer pouring out of their brain!  Why don’t you do a hat parade of hats sold on Oktoberfest and make a comparison of hats being used by normal people?  It’s amazing what people will put on their heads. ”

Clearly, hats are a flea in the Royal armpit.   But there are more important symbols, the Prince feels.

“Take last year.  On the first Sunday of the festival, below the statue of Bavaria, all the brass bands playing in the beer tents give an open air concert.  The head of the Munich tourist office was the honourary conductor—of course the conductor waves his hands about and the bands do what they like.   And she wanted to have as music the Preußen Gloria.   Not necessarily the place to do that.”  In the end, they couldn’t.  Understandably, none of the brass bands had thought to bring any Prussian sheet music along.

“I don’t think one needs to be too strict about things.  But if you fake history too much, and use it in an odd way, you lose your right to exist at some moment in time.   Do you need to exaggerate, to make traditional things a satire, a comic?  The management of the Oktoberfest in Munich is making a fool of that long tradition. “

Under those circumstances, the liberties taken by Oktoberfests abroad don’t trouble the Prince.

“If we export a good feeling, the idea that people can cross all social barriers drinking a beer and being suddenly friendly to everybody, then at least we have achieved something positive out of the tradition.”

And with that, may we all have a happy Oktoberfest.  It’s a Royal command.

Illustration of the Goddess Bavaria by Leo Slawik


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