(Full Story) Rowlette’s Col. Cullmann out as 2020 Oktoberfest MC

City of Cullman cites bigger role for Burgermeister at smaller event

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Col. Cullmann (Larry Rowlette, left) hoists a stein with Burgermeister Steve Moore at Cullman’s 2019 Oktoberfest. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – For the first time since 2001, it appears that Cullman’s Oktoberfest celebration will go on without its Colonel. Social media around the community lit up Friday with word that Larry Rowlette, who has portrayed Col. Johann Cullmann since 2000 and has played an official role in the city’s festival since 2001, was informed he will not be the master of ceremonies (MC) for this year’s event.

Rowlette posted Friday on his Facebook “Col. Johann Cullmann” page: “To set the record straight, I was informed yesterday by Nancy Clemmons Moore, with the message from the Cullman Park and Rec Board, that my services as the Colonel to MC and host Cullman Oktoberfest were not needed. I was informed I could dress up and walk around and maybe be available at the Caboose for photos if anyone wanted one. 

“I chose to not reduce my portrayal as ‘The Colonel’ to such a secondary level. I’ve poured my heart into being your Col. Cullmann for 20 years and ‘your’ Colonel doesn’t walk around on the edge not to be seen or heard. That’s not who ‘The Colonel’ was when he founded Cullman and that is not who ‘The Colonel’ is today….therefore, 

“As sad as it makes me, I will not be attending Cullman Oktoberfest this year. If the leaders of Cullman Oktoberfest don’t need ‘The Colonel’; as I have been informed, they have a MC and host for all the events. Then the decision has really been made for me.”

On Saturday, Rowlette told The Tribune that Moore- who is president of the City’s Oktoberfest Board- informed him Thursday night, “that Park and Rec and the board, she said that they came from a meeting today, and that they had decided that they didn’t need me- you know, the Colonel- to emcee any of the ceremonies; they didn’t need me to host any of the events. They had somebody else that was going to do that. 

“And I said, ‘Well, what do you want? What am I supposed to do? What do you need the Colonel to do?’ ‘Well, you can dress up and you can come, and walk around and talk to people, and if you wanted to go down at the caboose and be available for photo ops, that would be okay.’

“And I asked her, ‘Is that all you want the Colonel to do?’ I said, ‘I’ve emceed, done all the games, and hosted and have done everything for 20 years. I don’t understand.’ And she said- well, of course she was apologetic, was talking about it was not her decision; she was just calling to let me know they got somebody else to do all that. I said, ‘Well, you know, with all due respect, the Colonel is much more than just walking around on the outside and just being available for photo ops.’

“It’s more than that. It’s getting people involved and hootin’ and hollerin’ and making sure that everybody’s having a good time, and making sure that the Burgermeister’s having a good time, and making sure that the festival continues to run. Can other people do that? Well, sure they can; I mean there’s lots of people that can host and emcee events. I mean, it’s not a thing that only the Colonel can do; that’s not it. It’s just that’s what I’ve always done, and they don’t want me to do that anymore.

“I told them, I said, ‘I just cannot in good faith reduce the role of the Colonel to such a minimal level.’ I said, ‘That’s not the Colonel. It’s not how the Colonel was put together, it was not the intent, and I can’t participate like that. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.’

“They didn’t tell me, ‘You can’t be the Colonel.’ They told me, ‘You can dress up and come and walk around and talk to people.’ We just don’t want you- essentially- we don’t want you in a leadership position, without really saying that, because I asked them, ‘What about stein hoisting and pickle eating and opening ceremonies and tapping the keg and all that? I’ve always done all of that, and led the new Burgermeister through all of that, and kept everything going. And the Miss Oktoberfest: I’ve done all of that.’”

According to Rowlette, when informed that the City had someone else-not specified to him- to perform all of those duties, he told Moore that he would not attend the festival.

Oktoberfest planners talk about the festival and their decision

On Saturday, The Tribune sat down with Moore, Cullman Parks, Recreation and Sports Tourism (CPRST) Executive Director Zac Wood and CPRST Recreational Development Director Christy Turner to talk about numerous changes to this year’s festival. CPRST and the Oktoberfest Board worked together on the event in 2018 and have partnered for the event since last year.

According to Moore, the partnership “went great because, let me tell you, as an Oktoberfest Board, it took a lot of time to put it together. When we partnered with Park and Rec, we had a lot more help that we did not have before, manpower. It was much easier putting it together last year, because they have the manpower, the employees to help do it. Taking it down was much easier last year, because they have the manpower and the help, the resources that we did not have as an Oktoberfest Board or Committee. So, from my part, it made my life much easier.”

Turner added, “I enjoyed working with Nancy and everybody from Oktoberfest Committee that came out and worked with us last year. I thought it was a huge success for a first year partnership, I thought it was great, and look forward to it for many more years.”

Moore continued, “Anybody who knows me knows I love Oktoberfest. I’ve been doing this since 2008, to make it better for Cullman. That’s my goal, is to make everything better, that we can, for our community, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. And this (partnership) helped us a thousand percent.”

Said Wood, “This year, 2020, has been an extraordinary year, obviously, for everyone. This year’s Oktoberfest is no different. We are just thankful that we’re actually going to be able to have an Oktoberfest. In the beginning, we weren’t real sure, with everything going on with COVID. So we’re happy to say and announce that, yeah, we’re going to have an Oktoberfest, but it’s going to be condensed. It’s going to be greatly condensed to two days, about 36 hours of Oktoberfest. But we feel like that the public wants to do that. We want to find a way to do something and have something for the community, and we feel like it’s very important. So that’s the way it’s changed the most, is, I think, the time frame.”

Major changes in the event include fewer bands (including the absence of Terry Cavanaugh and the Alpine Express), no school choirs (due to limitations on choir programs at the schools), no inflatables for kids and the cancellation of school tours and Senior Day. Activities will be moved from the Festhalle to Depot Park. 

Said Moore, “We are trying to make this Oktoberfest the best we can with what we have to work with, because of our restrictions.”

“We could easily just shut it down and not have anything,” said Wood, “but that’s not the right thing to do . . . It would be easy to say, ‘Let’s just not have anything this year,’ but we don’t want to do that. We want to try to have something. People want something to do; they’re ready to get out of their house and do something.”

What happened to Col. Cullmann?

Wood said, “This year, we wanted to include the Burgermeister, and since it was a condensed Oktoberfest anyway, give the Burgermeister the opportunity to be more involved in the event, from MC’ing the event. Thirty-six hours is all we have, so we thought it would just be better this year to let the Burgermeister have more involvement in those things.”

Moore talked about the planning meeting Thursday morning, at which the decision was made to move Rowlette out of the MC role this year:

“We went over the schedule, what we were going to be doing, and we were talking about where Larry was going to be, and his role would be condensed than what it had been in the past.

“So as to who was going to call him, I have known and worked with Larry the longest, have more of a reputation one on one with him. So I was asked could I call him. I talked to Larry on Thursday night, told him that we wanted him to be there during the opening ceremony, stand up there with everyone, and that he would not be the MC. Now, at that time, I did tell him that (Cullman Regional Airport General Manager) Ben Harrison was going to be the MC.”

Wood added that Harrison, a former Burgermeister, will also be visiting some area schools during Oktoberfest week with the current Burgermeister Steven Sides.

Moore continued, “It was a hard conversation, because Larry wasn’t- it was hard to tell him he wasn’t going to be the MC, that Ben was going to be our MC, that we still wanted Larry to walk and mingle with the crowd as Col. Cullmann, and that we would like for him to be over at the caboose taking photos, because so many people like their picture made with Col. Cullmann, but that we were going a different way this year- 2020 has been a different year; our festival has been shortened- and that we were trying something different this year.

“It wasn’t to say that it wouldn’t be back to normal next year, but this year we have a day and a half and we’re trying things a little different.

“Larry told me that he would think about it. He called me back Friday- yesterday afternoon- and told me that he was declining, that that was not the role of the Colonel- to be walk around and being photo ops. I asked him that I wished he would reconsider and be a part of it. I was sorry he felt that way. He let me know his family was mad about the decision that we had made. I asked him again, ‘I hope you’ll reconsider. I’m sorry you feel this way. You’re still able to mingle in the crowds and (have) pictures made,’ and I was sorry he felt that way.

“Then my phone started blowing up last night. I received numerous phone calls early this morning, many texts, that he was calling me out on Facebook. I was just the messenger. We want Larry to be a part, just a different role this year.”

Moore concluded, “This was not a direct threat against Larry Rowlette; this was not against him. We would still like for him to be there as the face of Col. Cullmann; he just has a different role. It’s a different year for Oktoberfest for everybody: our churches, everything. It is different this year because it’s condensed, and he doesn’t need to take it so personally.

“And one more thing: the mayor did not have anything to do with this decision. He has called the mayor out on this, and this is not the mayor.”

“Or the council, or the Park and Rec board,” added Wood. “This is Zac Wood as director, this is Christy Turner, our committee, Oktoberfest Committee’s decision. That’s it.”

All three were emphatic that Rowlette’s Col. Cullmann has not been banned, that the decision had only to do with giving the Burgermeister every opportunity for involvement in a greatly abbreviated event, and that “Col. Cullmann” will still be welcome at Oktoberfest, even after the controversy.

Said Wood, “We, as a group, still would love for Larry to be there as the Colonel, as Col. John G. Cullmann. He’s more than welcome to be there, but his role would be different. It would be walking and working the crowd, but it just wouldn’t be being that MC.”

Still the Colonel

Rowlette told The Tribune that he intends to continue as Col. Cullmann, just not downtown. 

Said Rowlette, “People are going to wonder why I’m not there. I wanted people to know that, number one, it is my decision, but it’s my decision because of this. I wanted people to understand that, because I’ve been part of Cullman for so long, that they need to understand why. They also need to understand that the City of Cullman does not have the power to say, ‘You can’t be the Colonel anymore.’”

Colonel still tapping the keg

The Colonel will be hosting Goat Island Brewing’s “Goatoberfest” celebration Sat., Sept. 26. Rowlette said he was asked to come for the brewery’s keg tapping that will take place around 4:30 p.m., adding that he was told, “We’ll tap the keg, we’ll laugh, we’ll cut up, we’ll have some games that night. Can you come and host that for us?” The Colonel will be there.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com