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Telling the tale: German-language Tell play returns for what may be the last time
Times photo: Anthony Wahl Pitmaster Maria Osborn follows the script while overseeing a recent rehearsal of the Wilhelm Tell Drama in New Glarus.

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• WHAT: 75th Wilhelm Tell Festival

• WHERE: Downtown New Glarus and the Wilhelm Tell grounds, W5199 County W in rural New Glarus.

• WHEN: Friday, Aug. 31 to Sunday, Sept. 2; the German version of the play is at 2 p.m. Sunday, and the English version is at 2 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday. All performances take place at the festival grounds.

• COST: The play is $10 for adults, $5 for students; many other events throughout the weekend are free.

• MORE INFO: Full schedule at

NEW GLARUS - This weekend marks the expected swan song of the German-language Wilhelm Tell play, 75 years after residents of Swiss heritage first staged it in New Glarus as part of the annual Wilhelm Tell Festival.

Tuesday night under a dusky sky, a lively group of volunteer actors gathered to rehearse the drama auf Deutsch. They're performing it in the same wooded acreage where local volunteers have staged it since 1953.

"Let's do Apfelschuss!" cries out Mary Osborn, using the German word for "apple-shot," the climactic scene of the show. Osborn, a Swiss native married to an American, is driving from her home in Delavan to participate for the first time.

Osborn remembers as a child reading an article in a Swiss magazine about this annual tradition in the American city of New Glarus. She laughed at the serendipity of her life. Forty years after she moved to the States to be a nanny, she's volunteering for that very festival she read about all those years ago.

Audiences for the German-language version of the Friedrich Schiller drama have dwindled over the decades. In 1941, three years after the festival started, volunteer actors started also performing the play in English.

Two years ago, the festival dropped the German version. It's back this year in honor of the 75th anniversary and likely for the last time unless more young people step up to keep it going.

But many of the actors Tuesday said they're hoping it won't die after this weekend.

They're a feisty lot. It's apt for a play about a 13th century Swiss rebel who helps free Switzerland from the yoke of Austrian rule.

"I have killed this gentleman, murdered him, every year for 27 years," joked Howard Christensen, who plays Tell, about his friend Peter Etter, who plays the play's tyrant, Gessler. The two men are wisecracking and laughing after the rehearsal.

Christensen grew up in Wausau and studied German in high school. When he got his driver's license at age 16 in the mid-1960s, he said, his first road trip was to New Glarus to see the Tell play.

He improved his German while stationed with the military in Bavaria in 1971. Later that decade, he started acting in the Tell play in New Glarus. He's stuck with it every year since then.

His friend, Etter, was born in Germany in the 1940s but has lived in the States most of his life. A former school superintendent in New Glarus, he said he participates because he loves German literature.

"You don't mess with Schiller. It's like Shakespeare," Etter said, adding, "If you want to keep your heritage alive, you have to get involved."

Another German native, Eduard Freer, drives from Madison to play the part of Hans auf der Maur. He's a first-timer this year in the Tell play.

"It's always a treat to hear your second language," he said. Keeping the German play alive is a "synergistic opportunity" for the local festival and high school or college students studying German.

The topic of emigration and language sparks a discussion among the men. Etter is adamant that immigrants to the U.S. should learn English. But he's just as enthusiastic that immigrants like him honor their culture.

The Tell play is "a wonderful way to celebrate my Germanic heritage," he said.

Etter and his fellow volunteers see a future for the German play in the youngest members of the cast, Xander Priest, 7, and his sister, Madelena, 5.

Their mother, Kaela Priest, grew up in Minnesota and married a fellow American, but she's using her background as a Ph.D. student of German at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to raise her children bilingual. She speaks almost exclusively German with them at home.

"It's opened doors for them," she said. She and her husband and the kids are newcomers to the New Glarus production and have been driving from their home in Waunakee to participate.

Like the other actors, she said she'd like to see the German version of the play continue next year.

If little Madelena is the youngest member of the cast, Dean Streiff is one of the oldest. The 82-year-old said he's been in or attended every single production since the first in 1938.

"Back in '38, that was about the only thing going on," he said. He played a choir boy in that production. Amazingly, he's held the same role, the hunter, since 1947.

Streiff and two others from the original production, Katie Elmer and Dennis Streiff, are being honored as marshalls of this year's festival parade.

Dean Streiff's son, Matt, has been in the production since he played "the baby of the peasantry" as an actual baby in 1971. He says he expects attendance this weekend to be about 1,000 - double what it has been in recent years.

He worked with Monroe's Minhas Craft Brewery to create a special beer to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the festival. The label, which he designed with the help of a college friend, honors the nine people who have played Tell over the years since 1938. The beer, a lighter amber, will be for sale this weekend.