The Schichtl variety theatre is the oldest performance venue at the Oktoberfest, dating back some 150 years. The main attraction is the “beheading of a living person by guillotine.” Since 1985, it is Manfred Schauer who has been behind and, of course, on the stage of the Schichtl. He has more or less reinvented the theatre with his Munich charm and humour and has turned it into a real success story. In this interview, he reveals the politically correct Bavarian term for “beheading” and why even great magicians like David Copperfield are fascinated by the Schichtl.
One morning in early August. We meet Manfred Schauer at his home in the district of Obersendling to conduct the interview. An old-school character. A “Munich original” is the phrase that soon comes to mind. His humour is like a mixture between Karl Valentin and Gerhard Polt – somewhat dry, thought-provoking, often ironic and very much outside the box.
Why do you think the Schichtl has lasted so long at the Oktoberfest?
Mainly because people still go there. The Schichtl is very much about continuing a tradition: it has been largely kept alive by the people of Munich – the real people and those who feel they’ve become such. But you can sense a real shift: there are fewer and fewer flâneurs strolling about the Wiesn (Oktoberfest fairground). There used to be more families around too. However, I can only talk about what I see from my position on stage in front of my theatre on Schaustellerstrasse: that’s where I collect my impressions of our audience up to 25 times a day – or rather, where they collect me. The greatest thing that you can give in this position is laughter. And that’s what we do, because it doesn't cost anything in front of the tent. But I hope that it is still of value.
Does it also have something to do with the fascination with the guillotine?
Of course – the historical component for us is the guillotining of a living person. Thanks to this trick, the Schichtl has been able to survive lots of political troubles and ambitions, as well as two World Wars, and it has never allowed its oldest attraction to be taken from it. I am both pleased and amazed that I have managed to last this long without being pressed on the topic of beheading. The times have never been as delicate, sensitive, and full of whiners as they are now. But the Bavarian dialect is hugely helpful here: I don’t say “behead” any more; instead I say “mir haun Eich an Schädl obe” (“We'll knock your heads off.") – and the people that get it, don't get cross, and those who do get cross, tend to do so because they don't get it. So, I explain what we do, but only to those who get it. Do you get what I mean?
Manfred Schauer’s mobile phone rings for roughly the third time since we began the interview. His landline has rung as well. Two months before the Oktoberfest and things are already getting busy. He switches it to silent: “Otherwise we’ll never finish this today.”
Who have you beheaded? Are there any special Schichtl stories?
We behead anyone and everyone – regardless of class. It can happen to anyone – those with private health insurance and the rest of us, whether they’re a person or a Prussian. We are completely sovereign in this respect and rise above it. I am also often asked about famous people. I could spend hours telling you stories, but we don’t have two days to fill. After all, everyone who lies on the scaffold is basically a celebrity.
David Copperfield has been there twice, for example – he wanted to find out how it works. Summary: Those ropes he’s still learning, we’ve already cut them off. But that’s because once we get started, we never stop chopping. Copperfield was hit by a bout of resignation and anguish following his visit to the Schichtl, well, you don’t see or hear from him any more. But joking aside: I think he still remembers how he once started out and simply wanted to pay his respects to us. We obviously didn't tell him the trick behind the guillotine. He probably googled “great magic” and the Schichtl appeared under A for “awesomely good”. Siegfried from the magic duo Siegfried and Roy has also been here twice.
You are the fourth manager of the theatre in the past 150 years. It says a lot about you – you have been on stage here since 1985 and no doubt put your heart and soul into it. What led you to the Schichtl?
In 1983 I wrote and performed a play with a friend – on merely a layman level. The still very young and unknown drama student Christine Neubauer came to us. A regional newspaper wrote an article about it. When in 1985 I heard that the Schichtl was up for sale and, as a potential buyer, met the Oktoberfest organisers, I was asked whether I had any previous stage experience. I had simply brought along the newspaper cutting, boasting a photo from it, and thus could prove that I had been on stage before. But I had never been to the Schichtl before, or even stood in front of it until the moment I bought it. All I knew was that it was a traditional Wiesn business. Sometimes you have to do something crazy!
"When you think about it, what we do is a naive form of art compared to the tricks that are around today – but we put our heart and soul into it and make it truly authentic."
So, you didn't know what you were letting yourself in for?
Not at all! I spent lots of time in the Grossmarkthalle (market hall) and I have always loved getting stuck in and all the challenges and am naturally drawn to the interpersonal confrontations as well. It was crazy back then – I put on my tails and top, went on stage, and just began to talk. The tent and the stage were a real ramshackle place back then. In reality, I was completely out of my depth. Don’t tell anyone, but I still don’t know how to do it, only no one notices any more. At the start, I was still playing brass band music from a cassette; the Blues Brothers music backdrop wasn't added until the beginning of the 1990s. After four days, I decided to either just give up or to somehow plough on. And then I added some order to my performance. Just imagine, on the second Tuesday of the Oktoberfest in 1985, I appeared on Thomas Gottschalk’s radio show as “the new Schichtl”.
Your costume is also not exactly something you see everyday.
Until the 1990s, I always arrived in lederhosen (traditional Bavarian leather shorts) at the Wiesn, and then changed into my tails and top. It’s what my predecessor used to wear on stage. Then I thought: it is actually nonsense. Ever since, I have simply worn my lederhosen and I had a corner of my janker (traditional Bavarian fulled woolen jacket) embroidered with leopard print. My top hat features a leopard print ribbon too. And so the leopard became my trademark and is now everywhere.
You perform the same show 25 times a day, does that mean that you can recite it in your sleep?
Of course! The problem is, I’ll never be able to forget it. But I vary it each year and adapt it to suit current affairs. But only the details. The main part of the show stays the same. That is why it is so difficult to forget the words – it is tailored to me and the cabinet. For example, I sat down last year – as I will do again this year – and wrote down some new lines. Then I stood on stage for two days and bravely said my new lines. I looked at the audience and the audience looked back and I thought: They just want me – so I switched back to the speech from the previous year. And everyone laughed again. What can you do? This year, however, I have planned a bigger change – I am just going to faint on stage and say: "whoever wants to continue, go for it."
“It was crazy back then – I put on my tails and top, went on stage, and just began to talk. The tent and the stage were a real ramshackle place back then. In reality, I was completely out of my depth.“
What is your favourite thing to do at the Oktoberfest?
The Schichtl. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, even if I had the time or won the lottery. I always arrive at the Wiesn at around 11 a.m. during the week. I generally go to another tent to eat lunch, as I don’t get any peace and quiet in my own tent. And then our programme starts at 12.30 p.m. Eleven hours and 25 shows later, we’re done. It is very hard physically but, when you enjoy it as much as we do, that’s fine.
How many people are behind the Schichtl? And how many times does the team meet in advance to practise?
I consider it extremely important to call us a cabinet, not a team. There are 11 of us in the theatre. This year, as we are doing a completely different show, we started rehearsals in July. We finish rehearsals around mid-October. That's when the Oktoberfest will have finished and I will say: Thank goodness, I reckon we can do it now. But in all seriousness: each year we have a different show, otherwise we would go crazy. But as my lines are always similar, anything new is hard to perform. That’s why we put on two totally different numbers, plus the beheading. The latter is roughly how it has always been since 1872.
When you think about it, what we do is a naive form of art compared to the tricks that are around today – but we put our heart and soul into it and make it truly authentic. We are a group of people who are passionate about what we do. I don’t know any other show business in which so many people work who don't just help out, but who all make an artistic contribution so that the Schichtl can function. It makes a great difference and I am really proud of this cabinet who make the Schichtl so special.
What do you do after the Oktoberfest, when the season is over?
The Oktoberfest is never over. The paperwork for the next year has to be submitted to the organisers by the end of December. It takes until the end of October to dismantle everything. I don't go on holiday in autumn and winter, because I like being at home. Sometimes I write articles for the newspaper. I also organise events true to the motto: “Nothing that humans need, but everything that brings them joy”. Raft rides on the Isar (river), for example. When I have time, I sometimes go on a raft myself – and when the mood is right, I come up with a show to entertain the guests. And not just on the raft.
Thank you for the interview.