By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer
Apollo Maennerchor Club hasn’t looked this good in years. The team members who have been renovating the German club on South Dock Street in Sharon invite you to come to see its newly scrubbed, painted and remodeled interior for yourself on Saturday during Oktoberfest.
Be prepared to eat, drink beer and dance, too. Germans, like everybody else, love a big party where everyone in the neighborhood is welcome to have a good time.
Club officers say there’s more work to do but they’ve finished most of the remodeling with the help of a core group of dedicated members and dozens of energetic volunteers willing to get dirty to put the century-old landmark back in shape for a central role as a Shenango Valley destination.
Tom Amundsen, president, Dennis Hoovler, vice president, and Helmut Schumacher, treasurer, make up the slate of officers elected last year by an older generation of members who bought into the trio’s plan to make significant changes to reverse the club’s decline in membership.
Schumacher said they started by borrowing $40,000 to pay off debts and pull the club back from the brink of a public sale for unpaid taxes. Then they divided up responsibility for organizing the renovation project and closed last September to do the work.
Hoovler undertook management of such maintenance tasks as heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing and restroom fixtures and installing eight new beer lines in the draft system.
Amundsen organized the cleaning and repainting of the gorgeous “festhalle,” a large auditorium with dark beams, and a stage for German choir concerts, musical performances and other celebrations held on the second floor.
Schumacher was the construction foreman who supervised construction of a partition to divide a meeting room as well as the shoring up of a wall in the walk-in cooler and installation of its new concrete floor.
Hoovler credited trustees Steve Kocis, Russell Smith, Tim Clepper and Jeff Stidham for donating their mix of practical skills in painting and certifications to perform plumbing, refrigeration and electrical work that moved the project along smoothly.
They and other volunteers contributed nearly 3,000 hours of labor which the club could not have afforded.
“We had to clean everything from top to bottom. We painted the ballroom, the dining room, the meeting room and the festhalle,” Hoovler said. “We fixed the heating and cooling systems and we fixed the compressors. We revitalized the infrastructure of the building.”
The officers also have begun to shift away from the club’s recent past as a bar hosting pool tournaments and dart leagues to a traditional German “bierstube,” or beer hall and restaurant for families with children.
“The pool tables are gone and there’s only one TV in the place,” Schumacher said. “We want to concentrate on being a European-style restaurant with German food and a continental menu emphasizing traditional homemade food using as many locally grown products as we can. We won’t have a big menu but we want the food to be as good as it can be.”
Unlike most other clubs, Maennerchor is smoke-free and has given up its small games of chance state gambling license that other ethnic and veterans clubs rely on for a steady stream of revenue.
They’ve been trying different kinds of entertainment in recent months to gauge the kind of music a local clientele wants to support week in and week out.
“Entertainment has run the gamut, “Schumacher said. “We had a gypsy jazz band play a couple of weeks ago. We’ve had County Mayo, the Irish band. Downstairs we are using acoustic singles and duos. On Thursdays we have a bluegrass-country-folk jam session. It’s an eclectic mix. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Saturdays may be reserved as an opportunity to tap into the food and music of all other ethnic cultures, as well as German, that give Mercer County its character, he said.
Older members may have had their doubts but they voted to accept the younger team’s strategy to respect the club’s 19th-century roots while trying to attract supporters and members who aren’t German.
Membership is up, too. From a low of about 100, the rolls recently passed 550.
“We’ve been taking this direction for only a year and the older members are still enthusiastic about the club’s new direction,” Schumacher said. “I couldn’t be happier with the way things are turning out.”