Traditional fairground operators

The most beautiful Wiesn stories

The best Wiesn stories are tales of friendship and love, inebriation and generosity, and they encapsulate the lasting impact that Oktoberfest experiences have had on the lives of many locals and tourists. We talked to three well-known fairground operators about their favourite Oktoberfest experiences.

Claus Rudolf Konrad, 52, Toboggan

This year marks exactly 100 years of the Toboggan being in our family. My grandparents bought it in 1920, and they probably brought it over from North America, where the first slide towers were made. That’s certainly where the name originates from: “toboggan” is the word used by Canada’s indigenous Algonquin people for a light wooden sled without runners, although on our Toboggan you actually use a mat to ride down the slide – it’s essentially just a doormat.

In those days our tower was still called “Trottoir Roil- and Canadian Elektro-Toboggan – H. Konrad”, and it was ten metres taller with two slides. One of the slides was later removed and the tower shortened so that the ride could be assembled and disassembled more easily. My grandparents travelled with it for many years, through Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and its first appearance at Oktoberfest was in Munich in 1933. Even as a baby I was by the Toboggan, lying in our wooden caravan with its solid rubber tyres, and I started helping on the ride as soon as I could stand.

“Even as a baby I was by the Toboggan, lying in our wooden caravan with its solid rubber tyres, and I started helping on the ride as soon as I could stand.“
Claus Rudolf Konrad

The Toboggan is very old. Maintaining and operating it is hard work. It requires a lot of time, patience and passion. Assembling the Toboggan takes two weeks, and we have to climb around like monkeys as we do it. All the work is done by hand: every screw is tightened, every bulb is polished, and the little 7.5 hp engine is oiled. Modern rides all unfold using hydraulics and they are (almost) ready to go while we are still laying the base, the foundation.

Then once it’s ready, we need up to twelve trained workers to ensure that everything runs smoothly and safely. The Toboggan is a workhouse; people simply don’t take on things like that any more. There used to be three helter skelters on the Oktoberfest fairground at the same time; four years ago the penultimate one stopped travelling and now it’s just us. Back in 1959 my family made the decision that we would only get the Toboggan out once a year, at Oktoberfest. We still don’t want to stop completely, though. We think it’s important to preserve this tradition, as it brings joy to so many people.

I have been in charge of the tower since 2012. It makes me really happy that my sons also want to be involved. Some people pimp their cars, but I lavish care and attention on the tower instead. The Toboggan is both a vocation and a hobby for me. But then, for the Konrads, fairground work is something we have always done in addition to a main career. My grandfather was a master confectioner; my father Rudolf ran a cinema in Schongau; and I am a soldier in the German army at Lechfeld near Augsburg.

Every year I take my entire six weeks of leave for the Wiesn. This year would have been our 87th year at the festival. Suddenly, I have a lot of time on my hands! I am taking the opportunity to repaint the two crêpe and waffle stalls we have. I don’t bring those to the Wiesn though, as Munich has very strict criteria, and all the fairground attractions have to be operated by Munich locals unless they are really something special – like our Toboggan from Swabia.

“Back in the 70s we were visited by our most prominent guest, the British Princess Anne, and she had a go. With some assistance. It would have been terrible if her dress had been lifted up.“
Claus Rudolf Konrad

The helter skelter slide has always been a major attraction, and it separates people into two camps: those who dare brave the amusement of onlookers to make their way up the conveyor belt and those who just watch and claim they could do it better. So many times I have told people the trick for how to make your way up the travelator without making a fool of yourself: use your momentum, bend forward and above all, do not hold onto the handrail – the rails don’t move with the conveyor belt as they do on an escalator.

Nonetheless, people continue to topple over in their droves, and we continue to clean up after them. Young people usually fare better – they don’t think about it as much. Children and women are usually accompanied up by our runners unless they want to try it on their own. If they do, it’s best for them not to be wearing a skirt.

Back in the 70s we were visited by our most prominent guest, the British Princess Anne, and she had a go. With some assistance. It would have been terrible if her dress had been lifted up. We have had plenty of celebrity guests, though sadly they have all proven much too good at reaching the top. One of our favourite anecdotes is about a big group of Scotsmen who were very drunk. They struggled so much on the way up and all of their kilts ended up out of place – whether the eyeful we got was a beautiful sight or not is arguable, but we can confirm that real Scotsmen truly don’t wear anything under their kilts.

Of course it’s great if the business is also financially worthwhile, but we are often happy to overlook that side of things. The most important thing for us is simply to spread joy. That is why we support a whole range of projects. Also, children from socially deprived families, school classes, anyone celebrating a birthday and pensioners can all ride the Toboggan free of charge. For our many regulars, we have loyalty cards that are valid for several years.

“So many times I have told people the trick for how to make your way up the travelator without making a fool of yourself: use your momentum, bend forward and above all, do not hold onto the handrail – the rails don’t move with the conveyor belt as they do on an escalator.“
Claus Rudolf Konrad

Our employees are every bit as loyal as our passengers too. They are good, hardworking people and I have great respect for them. Everyone starts as a mat carrier in a red shirt, before they can don a yellow shirt and move on to being a runner on the conveyor belt, which is essentially a customer protection job. The mat carriers compete to see who can carry the most mats up at once, and they are always trying to outdo one another.

Christoph holds the current record with 45 mats. I enjoy watching the hustle and bustle, and I even get out to do so as a visitor these days, though I had never stepped inside a beer tent until seven years ago. Now, in my old age, I am claiming the right to do it. I’m no beer connoisseur though – I couldn’t care less which tent I end up in! Beer is beer.

 

Elisabeth Polaczy, 74, Teufelsrad (Devil’s wheel)

You don't remember this now, but from 1966 to 1972 I was the Münchner Kindl of the Oktoberfest. My whole family has always had a close connection with Oktoberfest – we would go every year. People used to bring their own snacks of cheese and pretzels to the festival in the old days. My three siblings and I always went on the Teufelsrad. I was really good on it. My brother was too – he’s also two years younger though. It used to be run by Betty Feldl then. She operated the business alone after her husband Rudolf died in 1970, and kept it going until her own death. My sister Vroni and my brother-in-law had become friends with Mrs Feldl, and she left the Teufelsrad ride to them in 2002. Then when Vroni died two years later, I took it over.

“You don't remember this now, but from 1966 to 1972 I was the Münchner Kindl of the Oktoberfest.“
Elisabeth Polaczy

Rudolf Feldl bought the wheel from Carl Gabriel in the 1940s. Gabriel was a legendary carnival man: he also had the Hippodrome and a whole range of performers and extraordinary shows – things you couldn’t even imagine today. The first time he set up the Teufelsrad on the Wiesn was in 1908, and it was so popular that he soon had to add two more rotating discs.

With all of the new rides and attractions at Oktoberfest, the Teufelsrad is the only original one that is still there every year. There is one clear reason why its appeal has endured for so long: the commentator, who accompanies every ride with crass and funny remarks. Mr Feldl introduced this element a long time ago, and it still does the trick. In our family, my nephew Ludwig, or Wiggerl, and my brother Franz are the commentators.

Franz once said: “I’ve always talked nonsense – now I’m getting paid to do it!” You might have to put up with some cheeky commentary, but it’s the fun and schadenfreude that actually get you onto the spinning disc. There’s no doubt that we’re the most economical fairground ride, offering the longest entertainment – you pay four euros and can stay for as long as you like. Some people stand for four or five hours just watching.

“What’s so wonderful is that every turn of the Teufelsrad is different. There are ladies’ and gentlemen’s rides, rides for children, people who go on play-fighting, or dancing with hula hoops – once a whole band of musicians played on the rotating disc.“
Elisabeth Polaczy

We have a lot of regulars. Some are older people who rode the Teufelsrad as children and now come with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Wiesn police pop in a few times a day, as well as the city Mayor, Dieter Reiter. He sits among the other officials, right in the centre where you can hang on for longest when the spinning starts. Just last year he kicked out a policeman who said, “The mayor can’t always win!”

What’s so wonderful is that every turn of the Teufelsrad is different. There are ladies’ and gentlemen’s rides, rides for children, people who go on play-fighting, or dancing with hula hoops – once a whole band of musicians played on the rotating disc. We even had one woman on the ride who was over 100 years old. She rode with Wiggerl and came back again and again over the next couple of years.

Staying on is harder than it looks – especially once my guys start trying to get you off the wheel using ropes and a ball. Many people chafe themselves on the disc or on the ropes over and over again. We put a plaster on them and the next day, they’re back! I don’t get it, maybe they’re just masochists. Riding barefoot always works well, and so do greasy lederhosen, because they don’t slip.

Laura continues to hold the record. That girl is unbelievably agile – she just caught the rope and the ball and didn’t let go. She lasted over nine minutes, and nobody else has even come close. She is the daughter of a fairground family who run an almond stall at Oktoberfest.

Fairground kids are always the first ones on the Teufelsrad; they turn up straight after school and we have to force them to go home for dinner. But we always give them something to drink and plenty of cake. I tell you, my sister bakes six or seven trays of cakes every day: Datschi (damson tray baked pastries), apple cake, coconut cake... We feed our friends, colleagues, the people from the traditional costume parade and everyone can sniff them out. We have a special opening song for the Teufelsrad: “Kommt zu uns ins Teufelsradl, alle Buam und alle Madl” – Come see how our Devil’s Wheel whirls, all the boys and all the girls. And that’s how it is. We are one big family.

 

Otto Barth, 54, Olympia Looping

The history of our Olympia roller coaster would make a great film. It was a race, fought one loop at a time. My family have been working fairgrounds for five generations now. We run bumper cars, Wild Mouse roller coasters, food trucks and carousels at various folk festivals to this today. My father Rudolf was the first to be brave enough to start operating roller coasters. It was actually quite a big deal, because the more curves a roller coaster has and the steeper it is, the more complicated and elaborate the structural engineering becomes – and of course that means a higher cost. But our family was never afraid of big investments. We believe in our business, even though things aren’t getting any easier.

“I always helped with assembling and dismantling the rides even when I was a small boy, as best I could with my skinny little arms.“
Otto Barth

My father started operating his first roller coaster in 1970, though that one didn’t have any loops. It was called “Super Jet”. The competition wasn’t far behind, and another operator presented the first mobile roller coaster three years later. It was called the “Looping Star” and, as the name suggests, it did a loop-the-loop.

My father was a very ambitious man, and he could not bear to sit quietly and be outdone, so he immediately caught up and added an extra loop for good measure. The new roller coaster made its world premiere in Bonn in 1979, and then appeared at Munich Oktoberfest in 1980. People were thrilled by it. I was 13 then – my friends and I got to go on it for free and would ride until it made our heads spin.

I always helped with assembling and dismantling the rides even when I was a small boy, as best I could with my skinny little arms. But apart from that my father was always careful to make sure me and my two older brothers didn’t go scrambling around on the equipment.

In 1984 my father launched a roller coaster with three loops; the competition followed with the four-loop “Thriller”, then... well, then my father added another loop! He even founded his own engineering office to achieve it, and took on renowned roller coaster designer Werner Stengel to do the structural engineering.

It was a risky endeavour. Even four loops is a structural feat. More than five loops in a roller coaster is not possible because it simply isn’t worth the effort and expense required. They spent four years working on it. I was involved as well, at the factory in Peißenberg – I painted the rails and sat right at the front for the first test run, to see the finished product that we had created together.

Video: simply Oktoberfest

The Olympia roller coaster was opened at the Oktoberfest in 1989 and has been at the festival every year since. The name came to us quickly, because Munich had been an Olympic city since 1972 and our roller coaster also had the five rings. However, we had some trouble with the Olympic committee because we had not agreed on the legalities of the name with them. Luckily, we didn’t have to pay the 50,000-Deutschmark licensing fee because our five rings are not intertwined like the ones on the Olympic logo, but are all separate. That was when my father got the nickname, “Lord of the Rings”.

The ride immediately proved very popular. I really enjoy watching the passengers. A lot of them are nervous the whole time they are waiting and their friends do a great job of talking them round. The ride lasts exactly two minutes, and it is completely safe. Although it reaches speeds of 70 kilometres per hour on the curves, it really is impossible to get thrown out of the car.

“We get all kinds of passengers, from children who have just reached the minimum height of 1.4 metres proudly overcoming their fear, to 70-year-olds who were there at the very start 30 years ago.“
Otto Barth

The braking system is also fully automatic in case the power goes out – but that has never happened. We did once find a set of dentures though! We ask riders to make sure they have no loose items on their person before they get on, but you can’t really clamp your mouth shut!

We get all kinds of passengers, from children who have just reached the minimum height of 1.4 metres proudly overcoming their fear, to 70-year-olds who were there at the very start 30 years ago. The second Mayor of Munich, Seppi Schmid, was a regular for many years. He would come every other day, either before or after visiting the beer tent, to loop the loop – probably to clear his head of all the politics.

In Munich we do get a slightly higher density of famous people. I remember seeing Franz Beckenbauer, and in 2006 Paris Hilton paid us a visit along with her whole entourage. But selfies with celebrities? It’s not for me, I don’t need to do it. I see myself as a service provider and I want to leave people alone to enjoy the experience.

Anyway, I have no time to collect autographs. There’s always lots to do. Our five-loop roller coaster is the largest one in the world that can be dismantled and transported. Over the last 30 years we have taken it to Munich and also to the Hamburger DOM summer festival, the Kirmes funfair in Düsseldorf, for numerous visits to Berlin as well as to cities in other European countries: Bordeaux, Rotterdam, the Wurstelprater in Vienna and the Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park.

“In Munich we do get a slightly higher density of famous people. I remember seeing Franz Beckenbauer, and in 2006 Paris Hilton paid us a visit along with her whole entourage. But selfies with celebrities? It’s not for me, I don’t need to do it.“
Otto Barth

We used to go to smaller folk festivals more often, but unfortunately it just isn’t worth it any more. It takes a huge amount of time and money to transport something so big. Taking it by rail requires 50 wagons with 20 shipping containers, and then it takes seven days, ten good technicians and a crane to put the 900 tonnes of steel beams, steel racks, rails, screws and bolts together correctly. It is high-precision work.

And we all have to work even harder at Oktoberfest. The coaster trains are normally made up of five cars each, but at Oktoberfest each one has seven to cater for the massive crowds – we think everyone should be able to go screaming around the track at least once! For me, the best part is the end of the ride, when people are getting off, laughing and shouting with joy and relief. And then they want to get right back on it.

 

 

Protocols: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Bernd Römmelt, Sigi Müller, Werner Böhm