Wiener dogs only add to Old World charm

If you've never been to Old World in Huntington Beach for the dachshund races, you should put it on your bucket list.

Yes, it's a little weird, and yes, it's really fun. There's a lot of yapping and a freaky kind of enthusiasm, but it's hard not to like.

Add to it the beer tasting, brats, authentic outfits and a senior citizen contortionist, and it's the closest thing we have in Orange County to a year-round circus.

Inga McKellop thought up the dog races 20 years ago, and she still serves as the master of ceremonies. Beginning Sept. 11, with the start of Oktoberfest, wiener dogs will race every Sunday until Oct. 30. For details visit oldworld.ws. Proceeds benefit the Kiwanis Club of Huntington Beach.

"When I started, it was just fun for me. I didn't even have a dog in the beginning," she said, laughing. "Now there are more than 1,000 dogs involved throughout the year."

And boy can those dogs run.

The writer H. L. Mencken once said the dachshund was "a half-dog high and a dog-and-a-half long." But for some reason that doesn't seem to slow them down.

Owners don't take the races too seriously — although some drive every week from as far as Castaic and San Diego — but they do claim bragging rights. And by the end of the racing year, some can even walk away with trophies.

The dogs can get a little cranky if they lose. Some are not above inviting their competitors to the parking lot to settle the score.

"They're a very protective breed," McKellop said, diplomatically. "They're a very opinionated dog, just like Germans. I'm German so I can say that."

McKellop takes pride in keeping up traditions. As the world changes and loses its memory, it's good to maintain historical roots, she said.

The stores in Old World, for example, have sometimes struggled to stay open, especially as older owners retire.

"Originally, they were all German or mostly European stores," she said. "Everything was European. But over the years, very few of the younger generations took over the stores. There are some of the original owners from over 40 years ago. But that generation is retiring or gone."

She said the Old World model should serve as an example for younger shopkeepers who want be more involved in their local community and heritage, whether it's German or Vietnamese or Cuban. Her parents opened a coffee store in Old World 38 years ago, then later retired and passed it on to her.

"I love Old World," McKellop said. "My mom just passed a week ago. German people came on a boat here and had a hard life, and then when they saw this interesting area of Old World was built 40 years ago, they went to it and lived upstairs and had their stores downstairs, just like it is in old Europe. And it became a home away from home for them."

There is a familiarity among the visitors to Old World. They know the festivities are created just for them. Unlike a mall, which tends to be distant, Old World feels like family.

In the beer tent, you can sit at long tables and join strangers. It's a welcome departure from the isolated booths at chain restaurants.

Here, you might be asked to raise the starting gate for the dog races.

You might also be asked to assist the famous contortionist and gymnast Heidi, who likes to be called just Heidi. She also doesn't like to divulge her age. Reportedly, it varies from 53 to 93.

If you were to ask her, she would probably say, "Can a 93-year-old do this?"

And then she would perform an acrobatic maneuver that would put modern yoga enthusiasts to shame.

It's all these things and more that make a trip to Old World worth the small admission.

It's quirky and campy but full of life.

"We're trying to keep our background and our history a little bit alive for family, for friends and for the culture," McKellop said.

Prost to that and pass the pretzels.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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