Sturm, Twang and the Imaginary Wild West in Europe
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Cowboy and Country-Western Saloons
Swinging door saloon, Pilsen, CZ. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber
Sam Corbett writes about U Bocmana, a country-western saloon in the current issue of the NYU student online magazine The Prague Wanderer. (He quotes me....)
Places like this are "wild western spaces" par excellence, and there are dozens of such saloons (with or without swinging doors and spittoons) in various European countries -- I have visited them in Germany, Poland, CZ, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia....
Some are just bars or cafes; some feature live music; some are full-service restaurants. Most are individual, privately-run venues, but in Poland there is even a chain of western-style restaurants called "Sioux." There is also a big chain of western-style steak-house restaurants in France (with outlets in Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg) called "Buffalo Grill."
One of my first experiences in the Imaginary Wild West was, in fact, a cowboy-style party in a country-western roadhouse in a remote village in southern Bohemia....I was led there by Willie Jones, an American who at the time was working as a singing cowboy at the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria. Along with a Slovak bluegrass group, we traveled in a three-car convoy from Pullman City into CZ.
The road house was in a village too small to appear on my map. From the outside it looked like an anonymous village restaurant, but inside it was decorated with Wild West paraphernalia including horseshoes, sepia photographs of Native Americans and Billy the Kid, and a framed arrangement of pistols and playing cards.
The occasion for the party was the 50th birthday of Franz Zetihammel, a figure well known on the Czech and German western show circuit for his portrayals “Fuzzy,” an “old coot” persona harking back to characters played by comic western actors such as Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Fuzzy has long straggly grey hair and beard and never appears in public without his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo tie and other jewelry.
A Czech country duo got the guests up and dancing with locally written Czech country songs and Czech covers of American hits such as John Denver’s “Country Roads” and even “I’m and Okie from Muskokee.”
One of the party guests, a man in his forties, was dressed head to toe in full cowboy attire, including sheriff’s star and a six-shooter – which Fuzzy at one point pulled from its holster, brandished at the dancers and then fired at the ceiling – fortunately, it was loaded with blanks....
(I haven't been back to that place -- I'm sure I could never find it again. But I ran into Fuzzy last year; he was working as the blacksmith at the Halter Valley private wild west town near Pilsen in CZ.)
Fuzzy, Halter Valley, 2007. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber
Here is a slideshow of several country/western saloons in Europe. All pictures (c) R. E. Gruber:
For several years I've been exploring the imaginary wild west in contemporary Europe -- observing and experiencing the many ways that Europeans embrace the mythology of the American Frontier to enhance, imbue or create their own identities. (Or, indeed, just have fun.) On this blog I will post pictures, stories and links relating to this multi-faceted subculture, from European country music to rodeos, theme parks, round-ups and saloons....
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years and currently coordinate the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant. In 2015 I was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC.