The dulcet thump of the karaoke track to Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” wafted over a recent downtown-loft party, as a stick-thin, towheaded, turtlenecked Teuton dreamt of a white Christmas. “Überwhite,” he rumbled, in a thickly accented basso profundo.
“I’m getting the feeling you’re not feeling Heino,” he continued, as a mentally challenged man wearing a seersucker jacket took the stage. “You vant to feel Heino — real German engineering.” The differently abled front man dropped the jaws of dozens of stylish industry types as the two dueted on “I Got You Babe.”
Heino, as the German crooner Heinz Georg Kramm is known, has sold more than 30 million records since the 1960s. “He looks ridiculous and he sounds even weirder,” explains Canadian-born writer-comic Marc Hickox, who has been impersonating Heino for nearly eight years. “I find the minimalism of his act hilarious.” A veteran of Toronto’s Second City sketch-comedy troupe, Hickox won the Canadian Comedy Award for best one-man show in 2003, ironically for The Heino Happy Höur variety revue. The notice granted Hickox a permanent position as a superhero-sounding “alien of extraordinary ability.”
Many years have passed since the 70-something performer graced the stage of Alpine Village, Torrance’s Teutonic fantasyland, and that’s where Hickox — whose Toronto hometown was known as Berlin prior to World War II, and still boasts the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany — comes in. “I have some friends in Toronto, who saw him as a kid,” Hickox notes, “but he’s a shadow of his former self. He was at his peak in the ’70s, but now you could equate him to Elvis — if Elvis hadn’t died.” And if Elvis had favored waltz beats and been a cross-eyed, right-leaning albino with a yen for writing songs, Jimmy Buffett–style, about bars in Mexico, carnivals in Rio and Bill in Oklahoma.
Heino gained notoriety by resuscitating traditional German “wanderlust” songs, which became taboo after the Nazis appropriated them. From there, he launched the late-’60s program Sing Mit Heino, lip-synching while hiking with lederhosen-clad tykes. The demented-looking Deutschlander is championed by the likes of Jello Biafra, and was honored in song by Canuck punkers the Hanson Brothers, with “You Can’t Hide the Heino” (“Down in the rathskeller, up in the schloss/Everyone in Deutschland knows who’s boss”). Resplendent in white tuxedo, an ’80s Heino and Nina Hagen gave us one of the most unlikely duets ever (“Hi Nina, Hi Nina, Heino”).
Pre-YouTube, Hickox discovered a videotape of Heino’s ’70s variety show, Hallo Heino, compiled by New Jersey’s legendarily oddball radio station, WFMU. “I really enjoyed the visual element of his records,” Hickox says. Heino posed with poodles, on mountaintops, “and when I saw the footage … he’s so stiff, so rigid, yet he was a huge sensation in Germany. I’ve assimilated a little Tom Jones, and I’ve got the Jägermeister swagger, which makes him more loosey-goosey.”
Hickox structures the show in two parts, and the intermission features Heino videos. “Most people don’t know he’s even a real person. I’ve got a wireless mike, and for the first half of the show, I wander around musically interrogating people,” Hickox explains. “I planned it as confusion for the first act, realization during intermission, and appreciation in the second act,” which is essentially karaoke with a twist. “I stick to classics, anything that sounds ridiculous with a German accent.
“The idea initially started as an experiment in anticomedy, in awkwardness,” he says. “But what I discovered was that there is always at least one German person in the room, or someone with German grandparents, and I’ve just unlocked some bizarre childhood memory. An awareness of Heino exists on a low level, all over the world.” Hickox has received messages from Switzerland, France, England, Lichtenstein, Spain, Iceland. Although he’s performed as Heino! at weddings and a funeral, and as far afield as Cuba and Buenos Aires, Hickox’s “home-field advantage” lies within Silver Lake’s Red Lion Tavern, where he’ll be making an appearance January 29 with Croatian keyboardist Mate Carich, the “Paul Shaffer to Heino!’s Letterman.”
Hickox came to Los Angeles to write and act, but “I don’t get excited going out for Taco Bell commercials,” he says. “I do get excited about doing Heino.”
He once met the singer at the café he owns just south of Cologne. “I was in costume, kissing little old ladies and signing autographs,” he says. “And he came out of his office, made a little joke.” Hickox’s German friend translated the singer’s awareness of his act. “I had an argument with Martin Short one night. He said the character was great, but you’ll get sued unless you change the name. I said it’s a great character because it’s a real guy, and once I met him, I felt Heino could give a rat’s ass.”
Marveling at the German spirit, Hickox notes, “Is there any other nation in the world where David Hasselhoff would be treated like a god? I won’t rest until we have him at the Red Lion, eating a hamburger, wasted mit Heino!”