originally published June 2, 2012
It was only a matter of time before Ms. Wiki insisted I write about a Belgian country singer / amusement park tycoon. Of the millions who are no doubt out there, whistling, yodeling, and shilling tickets to the Tilt-O-Whirl, I have been directed to Bobbejaan Schoepen.
Bobbejaan (whom I shall refer to as ‘Bobby’ because it’s quicker to type) was born with the modest name of Modest Schoepen in a noisy town called Boom. His music career took an early detour in front a full house at the Ancienne Belgique in Antwerp. He added the haunting South African tune “Mama, ek wil ‘n man hé. Nee mamma, née ‘n Duitseman, die wil ek nie. Want Schweinefleisch dit lus ek nie”, which translates as “Mommy, I want a husband. No mommy no, I don’t want a German ‘cause I don’t like pig meat.”
Needless to say, the Nazis in the crowd did not become instant fans. Bobby was hauled away and the concert hall was shut down for three weeks. The young singer found himself trading in his guitar for a shovel, as he politely offered to help the Germans out with some forced labor in exchange for them not killing him. If you’re dying to hear this song of controversy, I found a version that I’m certain sounds exactly the same as the way Bobby sang it, performed by a Dutch bastardization of the Spice Girls.
After the war, Bobby found his niche in country music. He adopted part of the title of another South African classic, “Bobbejaan klim die berg” as his new first name. The title literally translates as “Baboon Climbs The Mountain,” but maybe baboons are revered as gods in Belgium, I don’t know.
His first hit record dropped in 1948. “The Yodeling Whistler” sounds exactly like you’d think it would sound. Here’s an English version he recorded later. That year Bobby outgrew Belgium and became a hit in the Netherlands, spreading his cowboy cheer to a huge audience. He even went overseas to entertain Dutch troops in 1949, earning a medal for courage and self-sacrifice for performing near the front line. I’m not entirely certain where in Indonesia Dutch troops were battling or with whom in 1949, but I suppose that’s not important to the story.
The 1950s were a good decade for Bobby. Country music was at the peak of its popularity worldwide, and Bobby rode the dusty wave. In 1953 he became one of the first Europeans to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1957 he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he toured the US under the pseudonym ‘Bobby John’ (though I think he would have been more memorable to audiences had he gone with the literal translation and called himself ‘Baboon’).
For one tour, he traveled with his own circus tent because he was tired of dealing with club owners and venue rental rates. He turned his show into a spectacle, even picking up Midnight, the horse from the Zorro TV series, to use for stunts and as an added attraction for his fans. The horse was a big draw, at least until he stepped on an exposed electrical wire and fried on the spot.
In the early sixties Bobby had a massive European hit with “Ik heb eerbied voor jouw grijze haren” (translated as “I Respect Your Grey Hair” – no, really), but he was getting tired of the constant touring. He and Josée, his new bride, bought a slab of marshland and built his own theatre and a large stretch of beach. Bobbejaanland opened in 1961, and attracted artists from the Dutch, Belgian and German cabaret scene to perform. Bobby himself put on as many as five shows per day.
People flocked to the attraction, but it wasn’t long before they wanted something more fun to do besides listen to weird whistling and German cabaret music – I know, it’s hard to believe. Bobby and Josée started adding a few rides, and by 1975 the place became a theme park first, music venue (a distant) second.
Bobby’s prize possession was a Nudie Mobile. This sounds like a strip club on wheels, but unfortunately it refers to a white Pontiac covered in American coins, designed by Nudie Cohn, the guy who designed Elvis Presley’s rhinestone-covered onesie. Bobby used the car to travel around the park, and he was convinced it was the greatest attraction in the place.
Eventually, Bobby’s musical career faded into the cacophonic roar of bells, motors, laughter and screams at his amusement park. He became a businessman. There were still musical performances at the park, but he seldom played. Instead he tended to the books and the day-to-day operations of his new empire. Bobbejaanland was voted the best amusement park in Europe, apart from the trademark-character-heavy Asterix park and Euro-Disney.
The park’s website (once translated into English by Google Chrome) is a cavalcade of hilarious examples of how ad copy from one language doesn’t always flow smoothly in another. Take the description for ‘Dizz’, a spinning roller coaster ride: “Anyone who has sat in his life will now be divided in two: the time before and time after DIZZ.” Or for the train-coaster called ‘Bob’: “Are you someone who kicks look up? Climb aboard, sit you down and not forget to make!” I’m not sure if they’re telling you that the seats are built so you can poop while you ride. Then there’s the hard-to-deliver promise made by the Giant Frisbee ride called ‘Sledgehammer’: “Who is looking for kick to the Sledgehammer experienced. The biting wind, speed and power of the Hammer makes you forget everything.”
Bobby was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 1999, which he soundly beat into dust. Still, it was time to slow down, so he sold the theme park to a Spanish company and retired.
As you all know, yodeling/whistling was a huge fad in the 2000’s (at least in my home), so Bobby returned to the music scene. He started performing in 2005, then released his first album in 35 years, Bobbejaan, in 2008. He died in May, 2010, the day after his 85th birthday.
My European theme-park-loving fans have no doubt heard of Bobby and his life’s work at Bobbejaanland. For some of you, his story can inspire you. Yes, you can sing an offensive song with an excessively wordy title, get locked up for it, and still go on to chase your dreams of electrocuting a horse. Rock on, Bobbejaan.