With the seasonal change upon us, harvest festivities are underway. And as I sit at my laptop, pressured to complete my weekly post, I find it difficult to concentrate. That’s likely because I’m away at a conference all week, which translates into speakers and workshops during the day, and the local Pubs, restaurants, and in-room frivolity at night. Tough to accomplish much.
Add to this the fact that I’m in the region of Waterloo Ontario, both a densely populated university town, and high tech corridor (home to Blackberry and other emerging tech giants), the air is electric.
The purpose of my ramblings are not to promote tourism, well not entirely, they are however, an effort to highlight another, incredible aspect of the region. In fact this week, we will be treated to an early, pre-emptive peek, at a historic annual tradition.
Oktoberfest. Ontario style.
Yes, the most famous of all Bavarian traditions, right here in good old Ontario Canada. While the original world-class festival takes place in Munich Germany, Waterloo Region has been hosting their own Oktoberfest event since 1969. Beginning the Friday before Canadian Thanksgiving, the festivities run for 9 beer-fueled days. Billed as the second largest Oktoberfest festival IN THE WORLD, next to Munich, the event draws an estimated ¾ to 1 million visitors annually. That’s a lot of beer.
And I just happen to be in town.
Granted I’m a few weeks early, but as part of our conference, we are being treated to a traditional Oktoberfest evening, Bavarian themed dinner, keg-tapping, polka music and German dancers, the works.
How am I supposed to get a Blog post done?
Difficult, but if I keep it short, murky, and semi-inspired, I may pull one off, in between steins.
I visited Munich as a kid, but they had a stubborn rule against serving beer to 12-years olds, so I could not truly appreciate the wonder of Oktoberfest. To compensate, in my university years I did attend Waterloo’s festival, back in a day I could down a pitcher of Bavarian brew in seconds flat, and I survived the experience. Wonderful times.
But today, as I stare out my 7th floor window, trying to ignore the repeated texts on my phone asking where I am because my pint is getting warm, I think back to a special year, a year that stands out for me – as far as Oktoberfest goes. The year was 1984.
Because in that year, the Master of Ceremonies, the tappers of first keg of Oktoberfest, were none other than – the Shmenge Brothers.
Yosh and Stan. Immigrants from the fictitious Eastern European country of ‘Leutonia’, the Shmenge brothers were the guests of honour for Oktoberfest 1984 in Waterloo Ontario.
Also known as Eugene Levy and John Candy of SCTV (Second City) fame, the Canadian icons gained notoriety in the 80’s portraying the ethnic Shmenges, culminating with their HBO Special ‘The Last Polka’ a mockumentary documenting their retirement from the Polka business. If you ever have the opportunity, the Last Polka is a phenomenal comedic accomplishment, transcending both time and lederhosen, to remain a musical classic. The Shmenge brothers took the virtual Polka world by storm with their ensemble, ‘The Happy Wanderers’ and their weekly television program by the same name. With Stan (Levy) on the accordion and Yosh (Candy) on the clarinet, their captivating catch lyric “cabbage rolls and coffee, mm mm, good”, transcended the polka universe and sent them soaring to the top of the polka charts. Look out Beatles, stand down Elvis, the Happy Wanderers are in the house.
To say I have an affinity for these guys is like saying I enjoy a cold beer on a hot day. Unnecessary. If you’ve followed my online presence at any time, you at some point noticed my avatar was a curious photo of two dudes in ethnic costumes. Stan and Yosh, my inspirations. In fact, for those keeping score, before Solsbury Hill, ‘Polka, Perogies and Procrastination’ was the name of my site.
As the son of Eastern European immigrants myself, the Shmenge brother’s passion for culture, their dedication to tradition and affinity for their homeland, was like a mirror looking at me. Indistinguishable.
I can write a dissertation on their attributes, but the Shmenge legacy requires more. One must see, experience, drink in the passion, to truly appreciate the genius of this comic duo.
This 1 minute clip will crystallize the experience. Just a taste. Eugene Levy and John Candy’s appearance on the David Letterman show, in 1985.
I count myself blessed in many ways. As I experience my pre-Oktoberfest gala, traditional keg-tapping, schnitzel and sausage supper, the first polka of the season, I think back to the era of the Happy Wanderers, a time when pride in one’s heritage was at a pinnacle. Polka and lederhosen, the pulse of a brilliant nation, the legacy of diversity. Oktoberfest – Waterloo style.
Our culture, traditions, our ancestry, define us. In a world of rampant conformity, taking a step back and acknowledging who we are, where we came from, sets us apart from the masses. Clothing, tattoos, ear piercings are but a disguise. We must look deeper.
John Candy and Eugene Levy did just that. Their laughter, vitality, and more importantly their message – that it’s the differences that make us stronger, not the similarities, resound as loudly today, as they did when Joanie loved Chachi.
In hopes there will never be a Last Polka, and to a bountiful harvest, I raise my glass.
Eins… zwei… drie…
I’m off for my luke warm pint.
Until next time.