The Colonel has been demoted.
Larry Rowlette, who has personified Cullman's founder, Col. Johann Cullman, for the past 20 years at Oktoberfest was told this week that his services as master of ceremonies for the annual event would not be needed.
"I can't say it surprises me, it disheartens me, but it doesn't surprise me," Rowlette, aka "The Colonel," said. He said Oktoberfest officials told him he was still welcome to dress the part and take photos with visitors at the festival, but Rowlette said the diminished role is not in character for Col. Cullman or the man who has portrayed him for the past 20 years.
"The colonel is so much more than that. That's not the colonel that the people of Cullman want to see," he said. "They expect to see a colonel out in front of everybody, getting everyone involved and being the leader of the ceremonies. Anything less than that, I'm not doing what the people want me to do."
Rowlette took on the persona of Col. Cullman in 1999, after being asked to bring Cullman's founder to life for Oktoberfest. He spent months researching the real man behind Cullman's founding and debuted the Colonel at the 2000 Oktoberfest celebration.
As part of his duties, "The Colonel" would kick off the festival, engage the crowd and emcee the Miss Oktoberfest contest. "As a leader, I do whatever I want to do and need to do to make sure everyone is included and everybody is having a good time. And at the same time, I'm promoting Cullman's heritage and tradition and what makes Cullman special," Rowlette said.
He had already begun preparing questions for the Miss Oktoberfest contest when he was told on Thursday that he wouldn't be emceeing the events for the Oct. 2-3 festival.
"I put a lot of work into it already," said Rowlette.
The Cullman Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department took responsibility for Oktoberfest last year, and Rowlette said he knew it was likely that his days as emcee were numbered. "It's like having a sick grandfather. You know he's going, but when it does, it still hurts," he said.
Zac Wood, director of Cullman Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said the decision to replace the emcee was based on the shortened schedule for the festival. "We wanted to give the Burgermeister a bigger role this year, considering the abbreviated schedule this year," he said. "Burgermeister Steve Sides and Ben Harrison, who will serve as emcee, will share much of the responsibilities."
He added that Rowlette was given the option of making an appearance at the festival as Col. Cullman, but ultimately, it was up to Rowlette to make that decision.
"Things are different this year, and we wanted to make changes," Wood added. "We're just grateful that we can have the event this year."
Rowlette said while the Colonel won't be at Oktoberfest, the character is not gone for good. He will make an appearance at the Oktoberfest kickoff at Goat Island Brewery and other events.
"I get called to do stuff all year long portraying the Colonel," he said. "I've done it for so long, when I put on the Colonel outfit, I become the Colonel. When I am in costume, I am the Colonel."
Rowlette said he wants to make clear that no one is asking him to stop portraying Cullman. "It's not that they told me I can't be the Colonel anymore," he said. "They told me that if I want to, I could hang around down at the caboose and be available for photo ops. Well, the Colonel doesn't just sit around and be available for photo ops. That's not true to who Col. Cullman was and it's not true to who I am."
Since posting about the change of plans on Facebook, Rowlette said he's heard from hundreds of people about the decision to use someone else as emcee.
Some have said they will not attend this year's festival, already reduced from a week to two days because of the coronavirus, but Rowlette said he's not encouraging visitors to stay away.
He said Ben Harrison, who will be taking over the master of ceremonies duties, and Burgermeister Steve Sides are good friends. "Please go support Ben," he said. "I love Steve to death. Go support Steve."