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Friends and family remember late Phyrst legend Ernie Oelbermann
Tyler Arnold | The Daily Collegian Aug 24, 2015 - Original article here
Phyrst owner Ernie Oelbermann — known for performing sing-along songs and leading Penn State chants at his bar — died Aug. 12 at the age of 90. Friends, family and others in the State College community are still reeling from the loss of the popular musician and local legend.
Since the late 1960s, Oelbermann and his band, the Phyrst Phamily, would perform songs for their customers.
Recalling the many nights Oelbermann played, current Phyrst manager Tim Riefel said with a chuckle, “Oh man, it was crazy.”
People would arrive at the bar two hours early to get a seat to see the Saturday night show, according to a 1986 Daily Collegian article. Lines to get into the Phyrst on a Saturday could be backed up onto the stairs and out the door, even in snowy weather.
Oelbermann always received a standing ovation from the crowd, Riefel said. Even when customers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, they managed to form a lane for Oelbermann to walk up to the stage, Riefel said.
The people in the audience would chant “Ernie” as he entered, Molly Countermine said. Countermine played in the band in 1999 and 2000 and is the daughter of one of the original Phyrst Phamily members, Terry Countermine.
Val Hutton, who enjoyed going to see the Phyrst Phamily in the 1980s, said it was so crowded that “you couldn’t move.”
Terry Countermine said the Phyrst Phamily was the perfect name “because it truly was a family.”
When she went on the stage for the first time, Molly Countermine said, everyone welcomed her like she was “the little sister.”
Phyrst employee Jim Eckess added that the “phamily” included not just the band, but everyone in the audience.
Once Oelbermann would walk on stage, the band would start off with singing the “Phyrst Phamily” theme song, which it also ended its set with, said Kathy DiMuccio, Oelbermann’s daughter.
“It's Saturday night, it's Saturday night. Kick off our shoes and what do we do? Go down to the Phyrst and suck some brew,” the song began, according to a 1986 Daily Collegian article.
This was not a “typical college bar,” Terry Countermine said.
Eckess said the band would play a lot of old folk songs from the ’20s and ’40s that at the time, “the people’s parents knew.”
Terry Countermine said the act became popular right away because people like to get involved.
As the years went on, they added more sing-along songs, Molly Countermine said.
One part of the show that Eckess remembered clearly was when the band sang the folk song “Good Old Mountain Dew.” During that song, a band member nicknamed “Mountain Dew Dan” would “dress as a hillbilly” and carry around a “jug of fake moonshine.”
Oelbermann led the band for a little more than 30 years, DiMuccio said.
Oelbermann gave the band stability, Terry Countermine said, and without him it probably would not have lasted.
DiMuccio said Oelbermann loved to get to know the students who went to the bar. He would drink with students and talk with them about their lives, she said.
DiMuccio said her father would tell her about the students when she walked into the bar and he would have stories about all of them.
He was always positive and cheerful, offering a smile and a hug, Molly Countermine said.
Eckess said Oelbermann’s personality was important. Oelbermann was gregarious and generous, and most people enjoyed working for him, Eckess said, adding he would sometimes “let us drink while we work.”
Eckess said the Phyrst tradition known as Table Wars originated as a way to pass the time when people, mostly students, were waiting for the Phyrst Phamily to come on stage. Table Wars is a game where tables exchange chants and get booed for mistakes.
The Phyrst still hosts live bands. Oelbermann created the fun atmosphere, Riefel said, and “paved the way” for what the Phyrst is today.
Molly Countermine also noted that Oelbermann “really, really, really loved his wife, Becky.”
Becky was well known because she used to go down to the Phyrst with her husband, DiMuccio said.
Terry Countermine said the team of Becky and Ernie was “one of those special couples.”
Oelbermann will have a private funeral on Saturday in State College, Molly Countermine said.
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