This month, Vail’s Oktoberfest—one of Colorado’s longest-running mountain celebrations of beer and brats—returns with six days of Hacker-Pschorr brews and Bavarian tunes. But the real heart of this stein-fest is a five-foot-10-inch 79-year-old with perfectly coiffed blond hair and a warm, toothy grin: Helmut Fricker. The German-born accordion player has been entertaining Vail’s 40,000 Oktoberfest visitors for more than 40 years. He’s such a high-country fixture he’s even got his own musical bobblehead. But when you see Fricker polka along Gore Creek Drive, you’d never guess his wool hat covers World War II shrapnel scars on his head and neck.
Fricker was born in Germany’s Black Forest in 1936. When Fricker was three, his father was forced to join the Nazi party and fight; he was captured and spent five years in Siberia as a POW. During that time, Fricker says he survived multiple British air bombings, including one that destroyed his elementary school and another that trapped him under rubble for more than two days. Shortly thereafter, Fricker’s mother sent him to live with his grandparents in southwest Germany. In 1950, not long after his father was set free, Fricker began apprenticing as a bookbinder, but his real passion was music. Especially accordion music. So Fricker’s father spent a year’s worth of pay on an accordion for his 16-year-old son’s birthday. Two decades later, Fricker hauled that same instrument across the Atlantic Ocean when he immigrated with his childhood sweetheart and two children to the United States.
The Fricker family arrived in Colorado on a fall night in 1969. “I woke up the next morning, saw the mountains, the flowers, the trees, and I said, ‘I’ll never leave here again,’?” he says. And he hasn’t. After getting a job with a printing company, Fricker befriended a German woman with a downtown Denver shop. She helped organize Larimer Square’s inaugural Oktoberfest in 1969, where the yodeling Fricker and his accordion were the sole entertainment. The next day, television crews showed up. Vail recruited him to perform the following year, and five years later, Fricker made the move to the mountains permanent.
To maintain the cardiovascular fitness he needs to perform for between three and 12 hours each day—and umpteen spontaneous polka jam sessions—the spry septuagenarian rides his stationary bike, swims, and walks regularly. “Every year, I can’t wait for Oktoberfest,” Fricker says. “Going from table to table, getting everyone to sing along—it gives me so much energy.” By our estimation, fest-goers who want to keep up with Fricker ought to start preparing…yesterday.