Hamilton’s ‘Klaberheads’ vie for national attention

Now, with a third generation bringing German music into the digital age and a fourth generation working its way into the show, the “Klaberheads,” as they are sometimes known, are getting heard on the national stage.

The 12-piece band spent last weekend in New Braufels, Texas, at the 10-day Wurstfest, one of the nation’s biggest Oktoberfest-style celebrations, playing alongside Grammy-nominated bands and bands from Germany.

“To be included in that was a really great honor,” said Erika Klaber, granddaughter of the band’s founder and current leader. “It was very refreshing to be around other bands who had the same goal of bringing joy to the audience.”

Klaber said that although the band got in on its first application, the process was pretty rigorous and intimidating.

“It sat on my desk for a few years, but the timing came together that this would be the year to try,” she said. “We have a promotional video now that lets people see what we can do.”

“They had pretty strict rules on what you can and cannot play,” said her father, Franz Klaber Jr., who turned leadership over to his daughter a few years ago after he suffered a stroke, but has recovered enough to continue performing with the band.

The band wasn’t allowed to perform “The Chicken Dance” more than once over the course of its three performances and had to play 75 percent polkas and waltzes.

The origins of the orchestra lay with the first Franz Klaber, an ambitious 25-year-old German tool-and-die maker and violinist from the village of Prösen in Prussia, south of Berlin, who came to America in 1930. While he spent his career at the National Can Corporation, where he worked his way up to plant manager until his death in 1963, Klaber also began immediately to pursue his burning desire to form an orchestra, and the group performed as a quintet his very first year in America.

His three children joined the band as soon as they were old enough, and when his father died, Franz Klaber Jr. took over the reins at the age of 23.

Along with his brother Bill, Klaber Jr. worked to bring a new product to their audiences — respectful of their past, yet eager to develop a more contemporary image, which led to the “Klaberhead” moniker.

“We would perform parodies of Jimmy Buffet songs to make them more German,” Klaber Jr. said. “A teacher from Cincinnati said, ‘Hey, you guys are the Klaberheads’ and it just stuck.”

They adopted a parrot in lederhosen to be the mascot, and Klaber Jr. will even don a mascot costume to amp up the festivities.

Erika Klaber, who has a degree in music and was a founding member of the Miami University Steel Band, has brought her own innovations to the traditions. Instead of sheet music, the band now reads charts from computer monitors, and in keeping with her father’s promise to buy her a steel drum if she could play some German songs on it, she does. Blindfolded.

So far in their travels, the Klabers have not met a German band with the same longevity, so it is quite possible that the Franz Klaber Orchestra is the longest-running family band in the country, and with Erika’s daughter Emily Muench now singing and cavorting on stage, the Franz Klaber Orchestra has a pretty good chance of celebrating a 100th anniversary.

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