OOOOMPAH!

Re-creating the Old World

Though it's supposed to conjure up the Bavarian Alps, the cluster of snow-topped minimountains at Old World Village's main entrance instead brings to mind a peak much smaller and closer to home: Disneyland's Matterhorn. In 1978, the same year the Matterhorn Bobsled ride was renovated, German Josef Bischof built his own Fantasyland—without all the amusement rides and, subsequently, with a few not-so-amusing rumors. Over the years, there have been reports that Nazi sympathizers in brown shirts and arm bands celebrated Hitler's birthday at the Old World German Restaurant and that a group of Holocaust deniers held a conference in the basement of the village's wedding chapel.

Most of us dismissed such talk as paranoid—until 1997. That year, Bischof found himself in an illuminating political fight in Santa Barbara County, where he owns land 70 miles north of the city of Santa Barbara. When county supervisors there blocked his request to rezone the property, Bischof posted on his land a sign that read: "Aust these no good supervisors. They deprived me of my property rights! They deserve the Auschwitz treatments." Trying to explain his frustration with the bureaucrats only made things worse for Bischof. He declared the supervisors were worse than the Nazis, that the Holocaust is "a lot of bullshit. It didn't happen that way."

None of that is apparent on the tranquil suburban "streets" of Old World—just a lot of predictably innocent merriment and a brisk trade in nostalgia. Though the German presence still dominates the village, the place is much more a European Union Village these days, celebrating Austrian, Italian, French, Dutch, British and Russian national pride. There's even a benign Scottish Heritage Center. Mugs, T-shirts, magnets and bumper stickers boast countries' languages, flags and other symbols. Even mythical lands and practices get their say here: hobbits and fairies can order a pint of Guinness at Elfstone Hollow (Mystic Pub & Hideaway), while people who take Anne Rice a little too seriously can purchase incense and potions at Desire√©'s Bewitchery, which even has a pentagram on the ground.

Wedged among the 405 freeway, Huntington Center Mall and tall office buildings, the village—a "shopping, dining & entertainment center"—is a curious cross between tourist attraction, strip mall and apartment complex. Stores, restaurants, pubs and bakeries line the cement-bordered cobblestone streets. Outdoor speakers blast oompah music. Old World has its own church, market, hair salon and even a paralegal and mediation office. Balconies and back patios with lawn chairs and clotheslines reveal the most amazing presence: people, mostly store owners—most of them even more fanatical than Disney cast members—live here in upstairs apartments.

Like Solvang's Denmark and Kingsburg's Sweden, Old World's Germany pays homage to a re-created past and future. This is a world of immigrants, their children and their grandchildren. And although there's no denying the place looks old, its rough edges date back to the 1970s, not the 1670s. What used to be a globe at the alpine entrance is now just a big pale-blue ball, the green-painted map of the Eastern Hemisphere eroded by intense summer sun and infrequent rains.

Decoratively bordered window fronts display lederhosen, dirndls, nutcrackers, ceramic figurines and Austrian crystal pieces. Fading murals on each storefront portray idyllic German towns and life. Merry villagers dance, drink and prance through meadows. To be sure, there are also depictions of townspeople working, but they are engaged in shoemaking and other trades from the past—no stressed businessmen talking into cell phones while rapidly walking the streets of Frankfurt here.

Just because the murals ignore modern business realities doesn't mean the shop owners do. Amidst notices of service times (given in English, German and Spanish), the Old World Community Church's Web page (www.hb.quik.com/jperson/owchurch.html) offers "Ten Golden Rules for Financial Success."

On occasional Sunday afternoons, the village hosts wildly popular Dachshund Races. Wiener dogs of all varieties, long and smooth and wirehaired, scamper along a short racetrack on the main path, their owners urging them to hurry their little legs to the finish line. Announcing the races and cracking corny jokes is London-born actor Sean Barry-Weske, whose bit-part film credits include Insolent Flunkey in History of the World, Part 1 and SS Sergeant in Hitler's SS, Portrait in Evil. His roles may not seem all that impressive, but how can you top a career that starts with an appearance as the Infant Christ in the film Our Bible?

But Oktoberfest is Old World's biggest and certainly most profitable event of the year. Even when it's not mid-September through late October, there are signs and T-shirts as constant reminders of the days of beer guzzling and old guys in lederhosen getting funky with the chicken dance. Perhaps as an effort to attract younger guys, the promotional material for this year's Oktoberfest featured a dirndl-clad babe with blond braids. At least she appears to be a she and a babe: all that's evident in the poster is an amply endowed bosom bursting from a tight bodice above the three overflowing beer steins she holds. While I'm not sure if Old World's testosterone-charged, beer 'n' boobs ad campaign brought more attendees, the pinup image induced significant drool in a test run at the OC Weekly DataLab.

 
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