As a new member of our Cultural Group, I wanted to learn a bit about the history and how this amazing tradition began. Therefore, in addition to reading texts shared with me by Michael Fricker, I spoke with some of the people who were there at the beginning.
When asked when the Group began, Emily Fricker, one its founders, replies, “The club always had dancers.” It turns out that both the United German Hungarian’s Soccer Team and its dancers were originally part of a single Sports Club. Marlene Fricker remarks, “To meet girls, you had to know how to dance.” Interestingly, that’s how her father, Werner-a soccer player, and mother, Emily-a dancer, met. I smile when I hear this because my Oma and Opa told me about their meeting in a similar way. It was at a dance at a German club on second street in Philadelphia. Some more asking around and it turns out that it was the old clubhouse of the German Hungarians at 2007 N. Second Street!
As I continue to speak with Emily, I learn that the Cultural Group as I know it grew out of a different social necessity, namely, to occupy the club’s children.
“Our parents weren’t signing us up for baseball or intermural sports,” remembers Betty Buerger Wagner, “We went to the club.” Friday nights were particularly busy at the club since that was when planning meetings took place. The men, their wives, and their children all gathered there. “It was like a school in there…full of kids,” recalls Betty. To keep all the kids occupied, three mothers: Emily Fricker, Emma Muller, and Antonia Kreutzer-proposed the idea of a children’s dance group.
This initiative was met with amusement by the men of the club who probably were at least relieved that the children would be kept busy. In January 1965, the three women were granted permission by the Club Board to start a dance group. After a successful initial event in May of that year, the amusement of the club men was replaced with a growing respect, and, after more impressive performances-including at a traditional Kirchweih-, this respect became outright admiration.
“They just adored them” remembers Marlene Fricker. The children, too, seemed to be enjoying their new pastime. “We did what our parents told us to do and had a good time,” admits Michael Wagner, an early member of the dance group.
In 1966, exactly one year after the founding of the group, the United German Hungarians opened a new clubhouse in the Oakford neighborhood of Bucks County, PA. The grand opening was billed as “The Greatest Event of the Year” in a souvenir book that included congratulations from local German clubs like the Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein. The New Building featured an impressive octagonal design which, in the words of Oskar Joseph Udel, its architect, incorporated “many advantages, such as the flow of traffic, main activities at one floor level” as well as “principles of up-to-date design in lighting, ventilation, and construction techniques.”
The design also had advantages for the dance group. “The fact that the dance floor was round was a super-plus” notes Marlene. “In folk dancing, people are dancing together in a circle, not in lines” she elaborates. It seems that audiences also benefited from the main floor’s design. “With rows of tables around the dance floor, the audience could see everything, including what our feet were doing,” says Marlene. With a host of new members-including two more of the founders’ own kids-Werner Fricker and Stefan Muller-the budding dance group now had a lovely space in which to perform dances.
The discovery of dances by Emily Fricker was one aspect of the group’s history that I find particularly interesting. The first places Emily looked were her local libraries in Horsham and Willow Grove. There, in the pages of folk-dance books, Emily found German and Hungarian dances as well as dances originating from other nationalities that she adapted, such as a Norwegian Mountain Dance which became an ‘Alpine Mountain Dance.’
As tends to happen, one of these library books led her to another source, the Folk Dance House in Flushing, New York-where Emily would occasionally venture to acquire new dances. When asked how she feels about her role at this time, Emily puts it simply: “It was a goodtime, and it was interesting.” Of all the dances added to the group’s repertoire, the Strauss Waltz-and the “Night in Venna” event of which it was a part-hold a special place in Emily’s memory. In addition to the beautiful music and dancing, early on, couples would don authentic Austro-Hungarian costumes, with the young men wearing soldier uniforms and the young women wearing gowns.
Invitations to take the show on the road also marked the dance group’s early history. “We got invited to things almost right away” recalls Marlene. When speaking about an early dance group event at Lake George, NY, Linda Galgon says, “it was an experience.” A German restaurant owner had invited Die Heimatklaenge band, led by her father, John Galgon, to perform there during a 3-day weekend celebration of German culture. In what would become commonplace, the dance group joined the band for the trip. And so, the restaurant owner got more than he bargained for, in a good way. “We had the people going,” Linda recalls. “(They were) clapping, swaying, and humming even if they didn’t know the song.” “All kinds of people from all over…dancing to the German music that was foreign to some of them.”
Another event that the dance group was invited to early on was the very first Steuben parade held in Center City in 1968. This event commemorated the contributions of General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben and other German-Americans. On that day, 50-60 participants comprised of Die Heimatklaenge, members of the U.G.H. dance group, and members of the Danube Swabian Association of Philadelphia and Vicinity marched around Independence Hall, which at that time still housed the Liberty Bell. It was a proud day for the group, especially Michael Wagner, who, by his account, “got to carry the American flag because I was the tallest.”
The dance group would also be invited to participate in the Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein’s annual Volksfest. According to Marlene Fricker, the dance group performed at the Fest for ten years. “It was a lot of people, and it was always a lot of fun,” she shares. One fond memory she relates is of the Cannstatter’s directors and band going around from club to club, singing a song or two with them, and concluding the visit with a prost. She also fondly remembers her participation the Altweibermuehle (the annual reenactment a German folktale that takes place at the Fest.) “Women would be plucked” she says, to undergo a magical transformation from old wives to beautiful young women through the power of a magic mill. When leadership of the dance group passed from Emily Fricker to her daughter, Marlene, it too would undergo a transformation, shaping itself into an award-winning competitive team in the Gauverband Nordamerika.
Before that would happen though she would first have to solve an entertainment problem closer to home.
by Mike Stirm II
This is the first part of a two-part series about the history of the German Hungarian’s Cultural Group. If you haven’t already, go and read Part II.