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Beyond Oktoberfest: Five Ways to Experience German-American Heritage in Southern California

It’s October — and while some Californians may have their eyes set on the end of the month and all the spooky delights that our home haunts and theme parks have to offer, there’s lots more to celebrate than carved pumpkins and ghastly ghouls.

After all, it’s German-American Heritage Month all month (though German-American Day is technically on the 6th) — and that means, for some, it’s Oktober.

You may not think of SoCal as being a hub of Germanic activity where anyone would sprechen sie Deutsch, but the second-largest ancestry group reported among Californians, behind Mexican, is German.

It was a group of 50 families (mostly winemakers) from Bavaria who founded the city of Anaheim in 1857 (as Annaheim, their home along the Santa Anna River) — and there are still enclaves of Germans and German-Americans in tiny SoCal communities like Laguna Woods, Fairbanks Ranch and even Del Mar.

And let’s not forget the legacy of prominent German artists on the silver screen — like Marlene Dietrich and Carl Laemmle, both born in Germany and fled to work in Hollywood.

Besides that, one of the many sister cities of Los Angeles is actually Berlin — and has been for a half-century now – and the world’s largest hot dog (a.k.a. frankfurter) chain, Wienerschnitzel, established its first location in Wilmington in 1961.

While the concept of Oktoberfest may conjure images of lederhosen, sexy “beer fraulein” costumes and drinking out of das boot, there’s more to exploring German-American history and culture than raising a stein while you fumble your way through the lyrics to “99 Luftballons.”

Here are the five best places to experience a stateside version of Deutschland right here in Southern California — beyond knocking back a few of the seasonal kölsch, hefeweizen and doppelbock beers you might more readily find this time of year.

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1. The Phoenix Club, Anaheim

A group of 15 German immigrant families formed The Phoenix Club in Anaheim and built its original location in 1960. But as the German population of Anaheim dwindled and interest in German-American culture waned, it was bulldozed to make way for the Anaheim Arena (now the Honda Center), home of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks (as well as a number of arena concerts). In 1992, it relocated about a half-mile north to its current location, sandwiched between the 57 Freeway and the Santa Ana River. The members-only club hosts a number of public events — including its Oktoberfest, where you can “party like a German” — and features a gastropub (or Gasthaus) that’s also open to the public. But membership has its benefits, like being able to join one of its many hobby groups (gruppes) that are focused on either learning the German language, folk dance (Die Gemütlichen Schuhplattler) and card games (Kartenspiele) or enjoying skiing, soccer and table tennis. There’s even a choir and an air rifle club (Schützen), as well as a version of Mardi Gras or Carnivale called Karnevalsgesellschaft. And you don’t need to be of German — or even Swiss or Austrian — descent. All are willkommen.

2. Alpine Village, Torrance

Alpine Village in the South Bay promotes itself as the “Home of Oktoberfest Since 1968,” but this “little slice of Bavaria” is so much more than that — replete with a German restaurant, market, shops and even a chapel. It’s ground zero for German-American Day L.A. (celebrated this year on October 8), but it’s also where you can catch televised soccer games played by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund and pick up some German trinkets for your tannenbaum all year long. Although it has condensed its operations over the years — and downsized from the full-fledged German theme park it had expanded into in the 1970s — it’s still the premier destination in the Southland for German celebrations, German music (ranging from rock bands to the accordion-laced oompah sounds of Volkstümliche Musik) and, of course, German beers.

3. Old World, Huntington Beach

Since 1978, “Surf City” has been giving Anaheim a run for its money when it comes to celebrating German traditions for American transplants and their descendants. And Germans are now the largest ethnicity in Huntington Beach, while Anaheim has lost much of its German character. Old World’s founder, Josef Bischof, came to the U.S. from Germany in 1952 and brought the Bavarian style to both the South Bay and Orange County, having also founded Alpine Village. Joe’s family still runs Old World and he still lives on the property. Here, you can get your brats and biers all year long — as well as pastries and pretzels — but at Old World, every second Sunday of July is German Heritage Day, and Oktoberfest starts in September. Its main attraction is the adorable tradition of Dachshund wiener dog races, which take place every Sunday at 3 p.m. during the celebration. But you don’t have to wait for the fall season if you’re a “doxie” fanatic, because Old World also hosts the “Running of the Wieners” on a monthly basis the rest of the year, as well as adoption events sponsored by Southern California Dachshund Relief, Inc. And while the Dachshund was originally bred to hunt badgers, a squeaky toy is usually enough to get these little frankfurters across the finish line. (For more high-stakes racing, you can also check out the Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals, which have taken place both at Los Alamitos Race Course and Del Mar Racetrack.)

Old World | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Goethe Institut, Los Angeles

With locations in several major U.S. cities — including Boston, Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco and L.A. — Goethe-Institut has got the market cornered on promoting German language skills and cultural exchange among other cultures. It’s also usually one of the venues that partners with Krampus Los Angeles when it’s time to round up all the naughty children and give disobedient Angelenos a good lashing around Christmas time. Located on the Miracle Mile across the street from the Tar Pits, Goethe-Institut Los Angeles offers German courses as well as a full calendar of concerts, dance performances, art installations, lectures and discussions, book club meetings, and film screenings — both at its Wilshire Boulevard location and off-site at various partner venues. German Currents, its annual festival of German film, is now in its 11th year, with screenings taking place across four days (October 13 to 16) in conjunction with American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre. (The San Diego version of German Currents takes place October 14 and 15 at various venues and is presented by German American San Diego.)

5. Villa Aurora, Pacific Palisades

Once the home of German-Jewish journalist, playwright and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, who purchased the 14-room, 6,700-square-foot house with his wife Marta in 1943, this Spanish Colonial Revival home became a haven for the German and Austrian intelligentsia who’d immigrated to the U.S., especially during World War II — German poets, novelists, playwrights, and various other artists and intellectuals (including Bertolt Brecht). As Lion was an avid collector of books — many of which had been seized by the Nazis back in Berlin — there are 22,000 volumes of historic texts from his personal library that have been preserved on site, many others having been relocated to the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at USC. Villa Aurora is currently owned by a Berlin-based non-profit that has run it as an artists’ retreat since 1995, with three-month residencies offered to writers, filmmakers, visual artists and composers. Federally-funded by the German government, the program requires its artists-in-residence live and work in Germany — though they don’t have to be German citizens. Although the historic landmark isn’t generally open to the public, it does host occasional special event performances and discussions that give you a chance to take a peek inside and experience some culture from Germany.

Villa Aurora | Concord
Concord/Wikimedia Commons
Villa Aurora | Concord
Concord/Wikimedia Commons
Villa Aurora | Concord
Concord/Wikimedia Commons

For more information on German events, eateries, cultural institutions and clubs in the Los Angeles area, visit the websites for the German Consulate General Los Angeles and the German-American League of Los Angeles.

Top image: Jack Miller/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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