EXPIRED: 05/17/10 – Bobbejaan, 85, was a Belgian musician, yodeler, comic actor and whistler who gave it all up to become a successful entrepreneur and businessman – running an amusement park. Then in the last few years of his life he went back to his roots and, in his 80’s, made one of the most poignant collections of music of his career.
Born Modest Schoepen in Antwerp, Bobbejaan was considered by many to be one of the key pioneers in Flemish and Belgian vaudeville. His career as a musician got a late start — he was in his mid-twenties before he made his first performance — scoring an audition for Brussels radio in 1944. In 1945, he began performing with Kees Brug under the name Two Boys and Two Guitars. It was during this time that the nickname Bobbejaan took hold, the word coming from the South African song “Bobbejaan Klim Die Berg,” which translates to “The Baboon climbs the Mountain,” that the two played.
In 1947, he went off on his own, and met the man who would help boost his career in those early days, Jacques Kluger. Kluger helped Bobbejaan score a gig playing for American and Canadian troops stationed at the Nuremburg Trials, and Schoepen’s popularity led to a subsequent German tour. While touring — and playing gigs back home — Bobbejaan was convinced to start recording songs in Flemish, and his first single, “De Jodelende Fluiter” (The Yodeling Whistler), became his first hit upon release in 1948. The next great milestone in his career took place in the 1950s, when Schoepen was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN, making Bobbejaan the first non-British European musician to perform there — 1953 would see him play there three times, alongside such luminaries as Roy Acuff. That decade was rounded out with further European shows and tours, as well as an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. His American adventure continued for a while, even seeing Bobbejaan record albums at RCA studios under the name Bobby John. He was also the Belgian representative at the 1957 Eurovision Song Contest. A busy decade, to say the least. The ’60s would see him tour more and more — eventually adding a circus tent to his touring caravan, to make it easier and more efficient to tour Europe on his own, as well as undertaking the precarious role of musician and actor. He appeared in five musical films in his time, some German and some Belgian.
At one time he was so popular that the Rolling Stones asked to meet him, but he blew them off, fearing they were to juvenile.
But he didn’t care for the United States and wanted to settle down. So in the late 50’s he bought a huge tract of land in a marsh in Lichtaart, Belgium. On it he built his own music theater. The ’60s would also see the development of his large tract of land from a performance venue to the theme park it would become in the ’70s – he named it after himself – Bobbejaanland.
By the 1980s, Bobbejaan’s park became one of the Continent’s leading amusement parks. The park, its shows, its visitors, and its development became the focal point of his career until 1999, when Bobbejaan was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Soon after, he would sell the park, and once his illness had gone by the wayside, Bobbejaan returned to his first — and most important — passion, music. In 2005, he appeared and performed at the Saint-Amour Festival, and was inducted into the Radio 2 Belgium Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2007, Bobbejaan was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ancienne Belgique, and in 2008, he did something he hadn’t done in 35 years: release a new album. Recorded in Miami, Bobbejaan was well received, and featured a number of modern Belgian musicians. Later that year, the already well-rewarded performer was inducted into the Whistler’s Hall of Fame, the first for a European.