If you love to go a-wandering and you think everything is wunderbar, then you should hear Hildegarde, the 64-year-old German immigrant who plays accordion, sings in German and English and yodels at Hoppe's Old Heidelberg in Van Nuys.
Once you enter through the beer barrel-shaped front door of this German restaurant, Hildegarde is easy to spot. She's the sweet-faced, white-haired woman who wanders around the room with a huge, black accordion strapped around her neck.
"The accordion is good because it's portable, but it's also very heavy," Hildegarde--who goes by one name only--confessed breathlessly during a break one recent night. Her break didn't last long. Eager customers at the next table wanted her to play "Beer Barrel Polka," an often-requested song.
Sings in 3 Languages
"I play three different language versions of that song," she said, "the English version, the German version and the Czechoslovakian version."
This popular ditty always seems to roil up Old Heidelberg patrons, who enthusiastically sing along, clap their hands and whistle whenever Hildegarde plays it. But, then again, the customers at Old Heidelberg react spiritedly no matter what Hildegarde plays.
A Franz Schubert piece incited a large family to hum along. The accordion version of the theme from "The Godfather" inspired a young couple to yell: "Whoa, he-eey . . . be careful, be careful!"
When Hildegarde squeezed out the notes of "Return to Sender," two shiny-faced, neatly suited men shouted "Bravo!" and drummed their fingers with rhythmic precision.
"I play all sorts of songs," said Hildegarde, who has been performing at the restaurant for five years. She says she has a couple of hundred songs in her repertoire.
"I like semiclassical music and the so-called standards. I like rock 'n' roll to a certain degree but not this hard rock. The ones who get used to it, fine, but I grew up in a different generation. I like music a little more melodic."
Hails From Leipzig
If she appreciates fine music, there's a reason. Hildegarde, originally from Leipzig, East Germany, comes from a musical family. Her father was a music teacher who taught her to play 15 instruments. "All string or accordion," she said. "The violin was my first instrument."
At age 10, she suddenly found she could yodel. "I don't remember how it happened," she said. "There are no lessons for yodeling; either you can do it or you can't. I don't know how to explain it.
"You have to loop it (your voice) over in a certain way. You sing it high and low . . . and then high again. You have to turn it over. Mine is more like a Swiss yodel. In Germany, they called me the 'Little Nightingale.' "
As a young woman, Hildegarde studied at the Koncertier of Music in Leipzig and at the Trossingen in West Germany.
She emigrated to the United States 34 years ago and now follows somewhat in her father's footsteps. In addition to entertaining at the restaurant and playing for private parties, Hildegarde is a music teacher.
"I don't practice every day. It wouldn't hurt, but I don't," she confessed. "But I work every day. I teach out of my house. I have a big house."
"My grandkids, they started to study music, but then they dropped it," she lamented. "I hope maybe one of my great-grandkids would really love music. I hope I can live as long. But everybody gets sports crazy here, then when the girls reach a certain age, they just like boys. You must have dedication for music," she said firmly.
Fans Appreciate Her
Hildegarde's fans at Old Heidelberg may not have dedication but they do have appreciation. "I've never been to Germany, but when I go, I hope there's lots of Hildegardes there," gushed Geoff Bennett, 31, a regular patron who is of German descent. "Watching Hildegarde is so hip that even Spielberg doesn't know about it."
Bennett discovered Hildegarde by accident. "I was just looking for a good German restaurant," he said. "I didn't know what to expect . . . and here comes this strolling accordionist."
First-time diner Sarah Folger, 25, was pleasantly surprised, too. "I like to hear her yodel," she said. "You don't get to hear that that much these days."
Sandy Beal, the restaurant's hostess, thinks Hildegarde calms the diners. "She's such a nice addition to the ambiance here. In these days of all the crashing and banging of music, it's such a nice, calm contrast."
The clientele's heritage may also have something to do with Hildegarde's popularity. "Maybe one-third of our customers are German, but maybe another third have German background or German grandparents," Beal said.
Nostalgia Runs High
Hildegarde agrees. "People all say, 'It's fantastic, it's wonderful. It brings back memories.' Especially if I play 'Edelweiss' or 'Happy Wanderer' . . . and they all want me to yodel."
"I don't want to brag about it, but it seems almost everybody likes me. Even the little kids say: 'Let's go there where the accordion player plays,' " Hildegarde said.
Then she struck up a familiar tune: "Coming 'Round the Mountain."
"Did you know that 'Coming 'Round the Mountain' and 'Where Has My Little Dog Gone' are really German tunes? They are," Hildegarde said.
Ten o'clock rolled around. Hildegarde's 5 to 10 p.m. shift had ended. "Oh, is it 10 o'clock? All right." Her fingers squeezed out a chord. " Auf Wiedersehen, " she trilled, "auf Wiedersehen. "