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Fest Times at the Brauhaus



The half-drunk, 200-strong crowd assembled at the Chicago Brauhaus at 10 PM on a recent Saturday was already flush with the spirit of Oktoberfest by the time Gody Windischhofer, in forest green lederhosen, lurched to the front of the stage, raised his cocktail, and began to shout.

"Do you know what time it is?" Windischhofer said, with a slur that's as permanent as his Austrian accent. "Everybody takes a beer stein into his or her hand--und if you don't have one, take the glass from your neighbor. OK?"

All across the cavernous room, through plumes of cigarette smoke, curling beer banners, and a sea of red, yellow, and green felt caps, liters of beer that previously were being guzzled, sipped, sloshed, or tipped were held aloft as the crowd cried, "Yeaaahhh!"

"Tiki-taki, tiki-taki," yelled Windischhofer.

"Oi! Oi! Oi!" yelled the crowd.

"Eins. Zwei. Drei. G'suffa!" Windischhofer sang, and the crowd, familiar with the cue, drained their steins and slammed them onto the tables.

Oktoberfest at the Brauhaus is a boisterous affair. Though most of the restaurant's original clientele has drifted off to the suburbs, a core of diehards--mostly postwar German immigrants--turns out every Saturday during Oktoberfest, which at the Brauhaus begins mid-September and, if business is booming, lingers till the end of October. This core is bolstered by a large contingent of Lincoln Square thirtysomethings and a smattering of tourists, mostly Japanese, who occasionally do karaoke with the band ("Desperado," "Only You") during breaks in Windischhofer's show.

After leading a conga line through the restaurant, Windischhofer prepared for the yodeling contest, selecting eight women--for attributes other than their voices--and an obligatory guy. "Ah, these good-looking people," he told the audience. "One of them will win a prize." Windischhofer's patina of amiability rarely cracks, but when it does it's usually in the moments before the yodeling contest, when he's weeding out the undesirables. On this night, an older couple repeatedly asked if they had to return to their seats, to which Windischhofer replied hotly, "Yes, you have to sit down! You have to sit down!"

"Beautiful," Windischhofer said at the end of the contest, looking a woman in her 20s--the recently anointed "yodeling queen"--up and down. As he kissed her on the cheek he said, "There are days when I hate my job."

Part lounge singer, part pied piper, part master of ceremonies, and all-around bon vivant, Windischhofer, 56, is the palpitating heart at the center of the Brauhaus's revelry. Besides the crowd, he plays drums and a little guitar; with his band (two Maxes on accordion and bass, Guenter on drums, Wolfgang on keyboards, Mario on guitar) he normally does five shows a week there. During Oktoberfest it's two or three shows a night, six nights a week.

Windischhofer came to the States in 1991 after meeting Harry Kempf, who owns the Brauhaus with his brother Guenter. The Kempfs opened the Brauhaus in 1984, after their first restaurant, Treffpunkt, which was located just across the street, burned down. While vacationing in Switzerland, Harry saw Windischhofer in a nightclub, performing with a Tyrolean band, and invited him to visit Chicago. Windischhofer came to the Brauhaus, did a couple shows, and met his current wife, Heidi, sitting at the bar. He's been performing there ever since.

With its vast rooms, orange vinyl chairs, hotel-grade carpet, and linoleum dance floor, the Brauhaus resembles a banquet hall. With the music--which ranges from oompah to merengue to "I Did It My Way"--and the crowd's 70-year age span, an evening there is a bit like being on a cruise ship, minus the moonlight and salty air.

As the band filed offstage for a break, a man who'd been idling at the bar ogling a woman in her 60s, the most graceful dancer on the floor, bumbled up to Max the accordionist and declared, "That song you played, you forgot a part. It should go like this: 'Da, da, da...da da.'"

"No," Max said, "that's a different song."

"Are you sure?" the man asked.

"Yes, I'm sure," Max said. "I made the other song up."

In a far-off corner a couple was still slow dancing, five minutes into a lull in the music.

Windischhofer, shaking hands and slapping backs on his way to the bar, stepped up and ordered a drink and a pack of cigarettes. His drink is brandy and Coke, his smoke Marlboro Reds--the ratio of which (a lot of both) he doesn't tinker with. "Can you believe--this is my fifth pack today?" Windischhofer said, half to himself, half to the man standing at the bar.

"Gody, you smoke too much," said the bartender.

"I woke up early today," Windisch-hofer said. "I started smoking when I was 11 years old. Now I'm 56. The doctor says, 'You have a lung like an old person.' I say, 'I don't care about my lung, I only care about my liver.'"

Back onstage, brandy and Coke in hand, Windischhofer turned to the crowd and said, "I have just one question. Is everybody happy?"

And the crowd cried, "Yeah!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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