Thursday, May 31, 2001

Forest View Gardens will go down singing

Customers, staff, family gather to say 'auf Wiedersehen' to 61-year tradition

By Polly Campbell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Germany, inns and restaurants have a table called the stammtisch, the root table. It's where the establishment's regular customers sit: their root business. Often it's a big, round table, with a special flag distinguishing it.

        This weekend, every table at Forest View Gardens will fly a stammtisch flag, as the regulars come back to the German restaurant in Monfort Heights for its final days of business. There will be people in the sold-out audience who have been coming for 20 years. They eat German food and listen to the young servers who put down heavy trays to sing show tunes and arias, often with a skill and panache that drop jaws.

[photo] The server/singers rev up diners with group songs Saturday night at Forest View Gardens.
(Yuli Wu photos)
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        These loyalists who stay are the roots of a business that is best known for its employees who come and go. These employees come to Forest View Gardens as promising young singers and musical theater actors who have made it into the prestigious voice program at University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music (CCM) or other schools. They leave Forest View to pursue careers all over the world.

        “All were great singers. Some were shy, and we brought them out a bit. Others had egos we had to bring into scale,” says Trudie Seybold, who owns Forest View Gardens with her husband, Kurt.

        The Seybolds are retiring and selling the Forest View building and land, which will be used to build condominiums. They could find no one willing to carry on a 61-year tradition begun by Mrs. Seybold's mother, Jennie Klose.

        Last Saturday, on the next-to-last weekend, the songs were from Annie Get Your Gun, and the restaurant was booked solid for the first time in a while.

        The regulars were there, tending bar, making strudel, playing drums, arranging music. Mr. Seybold's daughter, Sandra, who's a stockbroker, was making the breaded fried emmentaler. Vic Ciepiel, a CCM graduate and Forest View Gardens alumnus from 20 years ago, was doing the sauerkraut balls. Bill McKinney, a former chef who left to start his own restaurant, Beech Flats, was helping out. Jan Conrads, who has done all the arrangements, was playing piano, filling in as host, waiting on tables and singing as Annie Oakley.

[photo] Fay Fischesser sings with Miami University graduate Robby Hudson.
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        In the servers' station, the cast of server/singers was getting ready for a night with two dinner services and two shows. It's hard work, they agree, but the tips are great, and you get to sing.

        Soprano Alma Jean Smith has been at Forest View for three years. Once her son graduates from high school, she's planning to go back East, where she sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She'll miss her Forest View job.

        “It's like being in the cast of a musical company, the closeness,” she says. “It is really hard work, but we don't mind.

        “Everyone has a niche. Some sing opera, others do German songs or show tunes.”

        Jim Abeggler is about to leave for a job in theater in Sarasota, Fla. Alison Acord is working on a master's degree at Xavier University.

        The idea of Forest View as a dinner-entertainment combination was Mrs. Seybold's, but the restaurant was started by her parents, both natives of Germany who met at the Citizenship House in Cincinnati. Karl Klose was an ironworker, Jennie was a talented cook. They bought a small rustic restaurant out in the country and opened it in 1940. It joined other German restaurants opened in Greater Cincinnati, including Grammer's, downtown; Mecklenberg Gardens in Corryville and the old Lenhardt's on Reading Road.

[photo] Owners Kurt and Trudie Seybold are closing the restaurant and retiring.
        All through the war years, the Kloses served German food for parties, bowling banquets and to the public on Sundays. They avoided war-time rationing because they owned their own cows, and had a huge garden.

        “My mother was known for her beautiful wedding receptions,” Mrs. Seybold says.

        When younger, Mrs. Seybold waited on tables and worked in her parents' restaurant, but her real love was singing. She went to the Conservatory of Music, then to Philadelphia where she taught choral music and coached opera.

        In 1975 her mother hurt her hip and could no longer run the restaurant. It was not easy to return to Cincinnati and take over, but Mrs. Seybold did, with the help of her two sons, Jay and Eddie Russell.

        It was when she thought of employing singers as wait staff that Mrs. Seybold found her calling.

        “My greatest gratification has been working with young people.” she says.

        Every employee's 8-by-10 glossy photo goes up on the walls and beams of the dining room, and some — those who have sung at the Metropolitan, on Broadway or with the Stuttgart or San Francisco operas — go up on the Hall of Fame in the front hall.

        Robby Hudson is a graduate of Miami University who will be singing with the Cincinnati Opera this summer. He is a natural at this, leading the crowd in German drinking songs and getting volunteers from the audience up onstage.

        It's a minimal set, with just a pianist and drummer for accompaniment.

        Ted Babst is on drums. Mr. Babst showed up at Forest View about 25 years ago.

        “They happened to mention that they were looking for a drummer,” he says. “My grandmother said I could play drums. They hired me.”

        He was 13, and an adult, usually his grandmother, had to come to work with him. She sat and folded napkins with Mrs. Seybold's mother.

        “I've seen the singers come and go. I just stayed,” he says. “It's fun, and the Seybolds are good to work for. Besides, they wouldn't let me go. I run the soundboard.”

        Another regular started a long Forest View run in a similar fashion. A guy who had seen a sign saying a German restaurant and beer garden was opening stopped in and told Mrs. Seybold: "You need an Irish guy who looks German to play accordion.” It was Jack Frost, who played accordion at Forest View every weekend for 23 years until his health made him cut back his hours.

        Most memorable for Mr. Frost have been the singers who found a way to fit in to the restaurant's format.

        “I remember Tom Hammons, now a nationally famous opera singer,” Mr. Forst says. “He had a great shtick, where he'd tell the audience he had a new aria and needed their attention. Then the band would play “Tequila.” The only vocal part of that song is when he'd whisper into the mike "Tequila!”'

        Mr. Hammons, a native of Cincinnati and graduate of Walnut Hills High, is a bass baritone who sings at the Metropolitan. He remembers “Tequila,” too.

        “I never had a wide repertoire of party songs, and one night I was just desperate,” he says.

        He also remembers the camaraderie among the singers, even under very tense conditions. “And Kurt and Trudie did so much to put a little extra money in singers' pockets. It was a significant thing.”

        Bruce Fields came to Forest View Gardens in March 1979. He and his wife were about to go to Germany and thought they'd try a German restaurant here first. The food wasn't that good, he says, but the atmosphere was nice, and they loved the singers. He's been back 1,036 times, and probably will make it 1,038 this weekend.

        “The food got a lot better,” Mr. Fields says. Saturday, he was sitting at a table with Fay and Jim Fischesser and other friends, all of whom met at Forest View Gardens.

        “This has been a big part of our lives for 22 years,” Mrs. Fischesser says. “We come once a month. We met good friends here who we see outside the restaurant. I was trained as a singer, so I loved it. I don't know what we're going to do instead.”

        Mrs. Fischesser joined singers on stage Saturday to sing “Edelweiss” — and she can sing. Mr. Fields donned an Indian blanket and was on stage for an Annie Get Your Gun number. The stammtisch loved it.

        The restaurant's business has slowed the last four years or so, Mrs. Seybold says. Some tour groups, for instance, have detoured to regional gambling boats. The Seybolds tried to sell to someone who would take over the business a couple of years ago, but it didn't work out.

        “(The business) is not for old people,” Mr. Seybold says, and that's easy to understand when you see the hands-on hustle the couple commit themselves to every night.

        So this June, it won't be just the singers leaving town for auditions and summer stock. The Forest View cook, Vincent Browne, a Caribbean native who makes strudel and spaetzle like he was born in Germany, is returning to Nevis to open a restaurant. Mr. Babst, the drummer, is thinking about getting a band together. And the Seybolds will be resting and traveling.

        “It's been a great experience, a good living, a good time,” she says.

        There may be one more homecoming, though.

        Just before dessert is served, Mr. Ciepiel, the “visiting” sauerkraut ball-maker, takes off his apron and gets up onstage to sing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, dedicating it to Mrs. Seybold who, he says, “helped me with my voice, my cooking, everything.”

        After 20 years in New York, Mr. Ciepiel is coming back to Cincinnati to open a restaurant with his wife, Mary. They will employ young singers. It's to be called Vito's Cafe, and the food will be Italian, but the voices will carry on the Forest View legacy.


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