Germans call it “gemütlichkeit,” a sense of brotherhood, of coziness and social warmth in a relaxing atmosphere. No, I’m not quite sure how to pronounce it. But I know how it feels because it has been on abundant display over the past few weekends at Deutsches Haus during New Orleans’ biggest Oktoberfest, an all-ages party with traditional Bavarian food, libations and playful dancing in the rejuvenating autumn weather.
As usual, the festival began the last weekend of September and will wrap up five weeks later, this Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23 and 24. It’s typical for attendance to build each consecutive weekend, with the biggest crowds showing up for the final edition when all those people who said they would go “sometime” realize they have just one last chance for the season.
But last call at Oktoberfest this time around will signify something much more momentous than just the close of the annual festival. Deutsches Haus leaders are convinced that this year marks the end for Oktoberfest at its historic building and festival grounds on South Galvez Street, which the club has called home since 1928. By this time next year, they believe, the current clubhouse will have fallen to demolition, along with other buildings in the 37-acre section of lower Mid-City slated for the new Louisiana State University hospital. Although these hospital plans have been discussed for the past few years and significant funding issues for the project remain unresolved, club leaders say they are sure this will be the last year for Deutsches Haus at its current site, and they are planning accordingly.
Deutsches Haus, or “German house,” is a nonprofit social club that formed in New Orleans 10 years after World War I as an expression of ethnic pride. Oktoberfest is always the club’s biggest recruiting season as festival guests experience that gemütlichkeit firsthand and start filling out membership forms. It’s also by far the club’s most important fundraiser, and proceeds from past years financed the reconstruction of Deutsches Haus after the building was flooded by the Katrina levee failures. Festival earnings this year will be especially important as the club faces the prospect of relocation.
Deutsches Haus leaders are determined to re-establish the club at a new address, and they say they want to remain in Mid-City, where Deutsches Haus traces its roots. They plan to haul away as much as possible from the historic clubhouse before it meets the wrecking ball, from the bar itself to actual architectural elements and then work these pieces of the past into their new home. What’s more, club leaders say that wherever the club ends up, they will work to open there in time for Oktoberfest 2010.
For now, though, Deutsches Haus members and the many thousands of New Orleanians who consider an Oktoberfest visit an autumn tradition have one last weekend to do it up in the old place. The imported German beer will flow from taps in the bar and the biergarten, the dirndl-dressed ladies with schnapps baskets will egg on the party animals, the sausage will snap on the grill and the sauerkraut will be served by the gallon. And outside by the stage, under the strings of lights and the German flags, everyone will flap their limbs as the oompah band repeats that time-honored standard and crowd-pleaser, the Chicken Dance song.
New Orleans knows all too well what it’s like to lose beloved cultural institutions and favorite social spots. The levee failures took away many overnight. In the case of Deutsches Haus, however, if this year does indeed turn out to be the last hurrah, at least people have had advance notice. This weekend is your chance to gather memories and create a few stories to share when the new the club’s 2010 Oktoberfest convenes somewhere else.
Oktoberfest begins at 5 p.m. on Oct. 23 and 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 24.
Admission is $6; children 12 and younger are admitted free.
200 S. Galvez St.