Four Peaks Oktoberfest celebrates 50 years of fun in Tempe | Phoenix New Times


Four Peaks Oktoberfest: 50 years of beer, brats and benefiting nonprofit

After 50 years, Four Peaks Oktoberfest organizers reflect on the history and impact of Tempe's giant German festival.
This weekend, Tempe Beach Park will transform once again into the Valley's longest-running Oktoberfest celebration.
This weekend, Tempe Beach Park will transform once again into the Valley's longest-running Oktoberfest celebration. Emma Randall
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More than 50 years ago, Dick Neuheisel and his wife, Jane, were strolling along the picturesque streets of Vienna, Austria. Dick spotted some dresses in a shop window and suggested buying one for Jane. They were dirndls, though, she told him, the traditional dresses with a fitted bodice and full skirt that many don during Oktoberfest celebrations. She'd have nowhere to wear it in Tempe.

“He said, 'Well, let’s go home and start an Oktoberfest,'” Jane recalls.

At the time, the couple, who founded Tempe Sister Cities with then-Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell, were mulling over ideas for a fundraiser for the new nonprofit. As it turned out, their international shopping trip inspired the longest-running Oktoberfest event in the Valley. It runs Friday through Sunday.

The first festival, then called the Way Out West Oktoberfest, drew about 200 people and raised roughly $800, Jane says. This weekend, the now-named Four Peaks Oktoberfest will say "prost" to 50 years of welcoming Germanophiles and revelers while raising funds for a unique nonprofit that has sent more than 1,000 students and adults around the globe.

“This is a milestone and one that probably a lot of people didn’t ever think we’d get to,” says Tempe Sister Cities President David Carrera. “It represents the hard work of an all-volunteer organization to make it happen.”

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Four Peaks Oktoberfest will tap into 50 years for its upcoming event.
Four Peaks Oktoberfest

What is Oktoberfest?

The first Oktoberfest was held in Munich, Germany, on Oct. 17, 1810, to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian King Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The five-day celebration ended with a horse race in a meadow dubbed Theresienwiese. The following year, the race was revived and the event instead celebrated the area’s agricultural achievements — and introduced food and drink as a cornerstone of the festivities.

The German folk festival continues on "Therese’s Green" today as a two-week celebration that begins in September. It is most recognized for its massive tents with rows of folks noshing on roasted chicken, singing and clinking large glass steins that are hauled to tables by strong, dirndl-clad waitresses.

Oktoberfests began spreading to the U.S. with German immigration. The first stateside Oktoberfest was held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1961. The Neuheisels are from Wisconsin and were familiar with the German-centric events.

The first Tempe Oktoberfest was hosted at the old Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Apache Boulevard.

“We invited people to come wearing jeans or lederhosen and dirndls,” Jane says.

The inaugural event was particularly memorable because the pig — a roasted centerpiece of the food offerings — went missing. It turned out to be a prank, but the missing swine made headlines.

“I said it was worth a million dollars of advertising,” Jane recalls.
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Valley Christian High School senior Lilly Zienkewicz (right) with her German "sister" Friederike Burger in Regensburg, Germany. Zienkewicz participated in the Tempe Sister Cities exchange over the summer.
Lilly Zienkewicz

Funds benefit ‘eye-opening’ cultural exchange

Four Peaks Oktoberfest has always been the primary fundraiser for Tempe Sister Cities, which was founded in 1970. The sister cities movement began in 1956, born out of during the administration of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War. The aim was helping people from across the globe connect to build relationships that promote peace and understanding.

"President Eisenhower reasoned that people of different cultures could celebrate and appreciate their differences and build partnerships that would lessen the chance of new conflicts," according to Sister Cities International.

The Tempe chapter's first sister city was Skopje, North Macedonia. The relationship began in 1971 when Skopje was still behind the Iron Curtain. Today, the organization has relationships with 11 international cities and hosts exchange programs for Tempe students and professionals, including teachers, with nine of those cities, including Regensburg, Germany; Zhenjiang, China; and Cusco, Peru.

“The international exchange is eye-opening; it is world-changing,” says Four Peaks Oktoberfest event producer Paul Sheard, who went to China as a student delegate in 2002.

Students who are selected are sent to their sister city for five weeks during the summer and live with a host family. The Tempe students then host their sister city peers in their Arizona homes.

Valley Christian High School senior Lilly Zienkewicz enjoyed traveling, so she applied for the exchange and found herself in Regensburg this summer.

“This was my first time going overseas, so that was quite an experience," she says. “It was a lot of fun. I got to meet a lot of new people."

While she and her new German friends found themselves pointing out silly differences, like Americans driving big cars and Europeans not putting ice in drinks, she says they also realized how alike they are. Traveling alone for the first time also boosted her confidence.

“Before the trip, I was pretty introverted," says Zienkewicz, who adds that she wants to become a physician's assistant after graduation. “[Now] I’m a lot more of a leader and a little more outgoing."

Sheard, a former Tempe Sister Cities president who started volunteering at Oktoberfest as a teen, says he supports the event and organization year after year because of the impact the exchange program continues to have on him. The relationship he forged with his "brother" in China and the perspective he gained abroad "are experiences that I still lean on today," he says.

For Cecilia Iole, a former Tempe resident who is now an actress in Chicago, visiting Lower Hutt, New Zealand, was the first time while growing up that she felt her impending independence.

“That experience shaped who I am as a person now and how I am able to dive head first into a lot of adventures," she says, "and to not be afraid to try new things."

While many Oktoberfest celebrations are hosted by communities or breweries, organizers and delegates say the Four Peaks Oktoberfest event stands out thanks to its mission.

“Because of Oktoberfest, we can fund those travel plans 100%. There’s no out-of-pocket for our students or our adults that exchange,” Tempe Sister Cities President Carrera says. “We couldn’t do it without Oktoberfest.”

The accessibility that Tempe Sister Cities creates by covering the costs is important, Zienkewicz says.

“It really allows everybody to get the opportunity to travel and experience the culture," she says. "Now I have friends all over the world."
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Franz Feldmeier, third from left, is Regensburg's sister city president. As part of the Oktoberfest celebration, a Bavarian band of former student delegates has traveled to Tempe to perform for the past 20 years, Feldmeier says.
Franz Feldmeier

Volunteers come from around the world

It takes a lot of manpower to host the massive festival in Tempe. Some 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers are needed every year, organizers say. Many include the students and families who are delegates or alumni of Tempe Sister Cities.

Carrera began as a volunteer working at one of the food tents with his daughters – both of whom went on exchanges.

“I was amazed then as I am now at this event. It’s so big,” Carrera says.

Volunteers from sister cities make the trek to reconnect and celebrate together in Tempe. One such volunteer is Franz Feldmeier, who participated in the teacher exchange in 1989. The Regensburg sister city president says he’s often asked how Tempe’s event stacks up to the festival in Munich.

“The character is the same, but the surroundings are different, of course,” Feldmeier says.

The Four Peaks Oktoberfest has been called one of the best celebrations in the U.S. But, Feldmeier says it's the people and commitment to building community through these cross-cultural exchanges that keep him connected to Tempe — so much so that he calls the city a “second home” and was named an honorary citizen at the 2012 Oktoberfest event.

“It opens the world, number one. That’s important,” he says. “It’s the very personal relationships. The motto [for sister cities] is one friendship at a time.”

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Four Peaks Oktoberfest benefits Tempe Sister Cities. The nonprofit's president, David Carrera, is pictured at Hackett House with Oktoberfest event producer and former student delegate Paul Sheard.
Sara Crocker

Looking back on Oktoberfest, forward to nonprofit's future

The Tempe event has evolved over the years. It has changed locations, often outgrowing its space. And organizers have worked to stay relevant in the community, especially as other Oktoberfests began to pop up around the Valley. That has meant adding new experiences, such as country line dancing, a magician to entertain children – and once even hosting a wedding.

Sheard says the organizers also have a motto, “Rain or shine, we still stein.”

It’s a mantra that was put to the test in 2018, when remnants of a hurricane brought historic amounts of rainfall to the Valley. After inviting everyone who was getting drenched into the covered VIP tent, Sheard says organizers began to pivot, feeding everyone and asking bands to play acoustic sets.

“People were having a grand old time,” Sheard says. “Sunday was bright and shiny, and everyone came back.”

Organizers also have worked hard at keeping the Oktoberfest “a family event, not just a beer-drinking event,” says Jane, who chaired the event for nearly 30 years and ran the historic Hackett House in which Tempe Sister Cities resides.

Continuing in that tradition, Sheard notes that this year will feature carnival games and rides as well as a zone for children’s activities.

The pandemic brought its own set of challenges. In 2020, the festival went virtual and in 2021, it was canceled. Now, the nonprofit is focused on modernizing its headquarters and returning to normal.

“It’s just like we’re coming back,” Carrera says. “The phoenix is just rising again. It’s so exciting to have all of that happen.”

Four Peaks Oktoberfest presented by BetMGM

Oct. 13-15
Tempe Beach Park
80 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
Tickets may be purchased in advance online for $16; day-of for $20.
People age 21 and younger may enter for free. Sunday admission is free for all.
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