It’s Oktoberfest season in Colorado’s high country, and almost every mountain town has its version of the more-than-200-year-old, Munich-based festival. Vail’s festivities stretch over two weekends, starting in Lionshead on Friday, Sept 6, through Sunday, Sept 8, then migrating to Vail Village Sept 13–15. Add in the fact that the entire idea of Vail was based on picturesque ski towns in the Alps and you have one of the most authentic celebrations in the States.
And though the idea of Oktoberfest seems as ingrained in our valley’s culture as après-ski and ditching work on a powder day, the credit for Oktoberfest goes to one man: Helmut Fricker.
Fricker, who is so iconic that he has his own bobblehead doll, is credited with starting Denver’s Larimer Square Oktoberfest in 1969, Vail’s Oktoberfest in 1972, and Beaver Creek’s several decades later. The 83-year-old German native, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the US, has a fascinating personal history that seems fit for the big screen: stories of a father lost then found in war-torn Germany; the gift of his first accordion; success on a game show that led to a ticket to America, and playing for presidents. But these are stories you learn only after knowing Fricker. Most who will watch him perform in Lionshead this weekend know nothing his past—he’s just the walking, talking, dancing, yodeling epitome of Oktoberfest spirit.
Vail’s Oktoberfest in Lionshead opens at noon on Friday, but the real party starts when Helmut Fricker and his band start playing at 4 p.m., pause for the Oktoberfest opening ceremony at 6 p.m., then continue playing until 7 p.m. For those expecting a passive, spectator-only experience—think again.
“I like to get people going, you know, get them out on the dance floor, get them in a good mood,” Fricker says. “I like cracking a few jokes and making everybody happy.”
It’s the atmosphere of the mountains that Fricker says makes Vail’s Oktoberfest so authentic—the fact that the celebration has remained rooted in German traditions.
“The songs are authentic, the drinking songs are authentic,” he says. “Obviously, we’ll mix it up a bit, but people love it. Getting people involved is the main thing: If you enjoy it, everyone becomes your friend next to you.”
Fricker’s not afraid to make new friends.
“When I come up to somebody I say, ‘excuse me, I lost my phone number. Can I have yours?’” he laughs. And if that line falls flat, he might invite you to dance (including the chicken dance), let you blow the alpenhorn—the long, bass horn heard in Ricola commercials—or teach you to yodel.
“You can learn to yodel in a couple of seconds,” he promises. “I say, ‘knock knock,’ and they say, ‘who’s there?’ and I say, ‘a little old lady’ and they say, ‘a little old lady who?!’”
Fricker has been delighting crowds for decades, creating authentic Oktoberfest experiences for guests and locals in the Vail Valley. Keep an eye out for Fricker as you’re tapping your toes to the music, enjoying a Spaten paired with a bratwurst under the bright blue sky: He’ll be the first one to clink your stein and bellow “Prost!”
For more information and a full schedule of Vail Oktoberfest events: vailoktoberfest.com