First contact with Karl May (& co)

Imaginary wild west at the wild west theme park, Boskovice, Czech Republic

As I posted earlier, I’ve been asked to write the Foreword to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives this year marking May’s 175th birthday.

My first exposure to the Imaginary Wild West in Europe (and Karl May) dates back to 1966, when my family spent the summer in Prague — my father was leading an archaeological dig in the village of Bylany, near Kutna Hora, east of Prague.

“Beaver City,” a private Wild West town in the Czech Republic

 

In preparation for writing my Foreword, I dug out the diary I kept that summer — and where I noted the Czech fascination with Winnetou and the Wild West.

“Cowboys 7 Indians are BIG. Esp. the W. German (I think) movies Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. In almost every store window you see color postcards &/or slides with scenes from the films being sold [;] I have seen Winnetou candy bars, books, a poster in a record store for the Winnetou music etc. W. is apparently the solemn-faced ‘Indian’ (typically clthed) who looks like either Sal Mineo or Paul Newman (or both). Shirts, brown with fake buckskin fringe & laced neck are advertised as ARIZONA, & next to them re TEXAS blue jeans….[…] More Winnetou junk: iron on patches, special blue jeans, new cards, packs of cards of the actor who plays Winnetou. Magazine cover…”

Later in the summer, I watched Winnetou, the movie, on television.

“It was a pretty bad movie but interesting for a couple things. The cast was international. Herbert Lom was the baddie & Lex Barker Old Shatterhand. These two are US I think. Pierre Brice (French) was Winnetou. Then there were British & others. I think it was filmed in Yugoslavia. I don’t know in what language — it was dubbed in Czech. This was the first time [in a movie] I ever hear an Indian (Winnetou) who didn’t have a deep voice. He was high & thin & nasal. Also, the Indians were goodies.”

 

Scene from a Karl May festival performance in Rathen, Germany

That summer, our family went to a live performance of the operetta “Rose Marie” (of “Indian Love Call” fame), set in the Canadian west. It starred the pop singer Waldemar Matuska who, I wrote “is a big star here. His pictures are in the shop windows and magazines & record stores almost as much as Winnetou.”

I decided that Matuska would be my favorite singer and bought a picture postcard of him (which I still have) to go with the ones I bought of the French actor, Pierre Brice, who played Winnetou in the movies.

Many years later, when I first started seriously researching the Imaginary Wild West and the European country music scene, I met Matuska, who was headlining of the first Czech country festivals I attended (in around 2004).

 

At the Strakonice festival, 2004

Matuska, who had moved to the United States in the 1980s, died in 2009. I wrote at the time on my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog:

Matuska was a towering figure in Czech popular music and culture and was instrumental in popularizing American folk and country music to the Czech audience. (Singing, as was required under communism, Czech lyrics to American songs.) He also appeared in the seminal 1964 movie “Limonady Joe” — a wonderful send-up of the singing cowboy genre of movies and a classic of Czech cinema.

Matuska was important to me in my connection with Eastern Europe, and in my feel for the music and popular culture of the Czech Republic in particular. He became my idol when, as a kid, I spent the summer in Prague with my family in the 1960s. I bought picture postcards of him — he was lean, bearded and extremely handsome. And I convinced my entire family to go hear him at a rather weird performance of “Rosemarie” at a sort of indoor sports arena…Matuska played the role of the mountie that was taken by Nelson Eddy in the classic movie. I remember that it was a rather static performance, as they all seemed to sing to the microphones that were hanging prominently above the stage…

When I actually met Matuska decades later, at the Strakonice Jamboree folk and bluegrass festival in the Czech Republic in 2004, it was a remarkably emotional experience. I had just begun following the European country scene, and Strakonice was my first Czech festival. And there he was — the idol of my youth!

Matuska — who had “defected” to the United States in 1986 but, after the fall of communism, returned frequently to CZ to tour — was the headline act. Heavier, even bloated-looking, with clearly dyed hair, he didn’t look much like the slim, handsome singer/actor of the 1960s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I went backstage and spent 20 minutes or so talking with him. I felt shy and fluttery! What I remember are his hands — very small and delicate, with polished nails and an almost dainty ring.

 

 

 

Writing about Winnetou…

I’m delighted and excited to have been asked to write the Foreward to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives marking May’s 175th birthday.

Proceeds and royalties will go to support the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

 

 

 

Spaghetti (& Meatballs) Cowboys

This is a cross post from my blog sauerkrautcowboys.blogspot.com

In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.

This one, called “Festival Country,” took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of “October Fest” beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called “Irish Festival:” vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell “Lord of the Rings” type clothing…..

The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings…..

Once there, what did I find?

The scene — at least on the day I was there — was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with “the west,” “the frontier,” “country-western,” and, in a certain way, “America.”  It was almost “paint-by-numbers”– but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.

bologna-country-fest-192

I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered — from a band (whose name I didn’t get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.

The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, “pioneers and westerns”, Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.

Or of course pose for pictures.

bologna-country-fest-191

 

Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral — which is where, I believe, shows were staged.

All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, “western attire” and the usual type of wild west tschotsches — most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I’ve been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.

bologna-countryfest20

There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.

And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat — the “western” fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta — but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy.

One thing that was different from some of the festivals I’ve gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on “western” topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them — where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.

 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours….I’m sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial — and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy — that it wasn’t really fun.