Posts Tagged ‘Claire Waldoff’

Claire Waldoff – Quintessential Ur-Berliner

Monday, November 13th, 2017


Often referred to as an Ur-Berliner (the epitome of a Berliner), Claire Waldoff (1884-1957) was one of Berlin’s most popular cabaret singers and entertainers during the 1910s and 1920s. She sang in the straight-down-to-the-point Berlinisch – the Berlin dialect – known to combine heart with unabashed bluntness. In reality, Claire Waldoff wasn’t from Berlin at all. She arrived in the city when she was in her early twenties and took to Berlin like a fly to flypaper. You might say, she became a Berliner to the core.

Claire Waldoff’s Rise and Fall

Born as Clara Wortmann in Gelsenkirchen, a town in the northern part of Germany’s industrial area, Waldoff was the eleventh child in a family of 16. She wanted to become a physician, but the family didn’t have the money to pay for her studies. As an alternative, she she chose singing and acting. In 1906, Claire Waldoff visited Berlin and was immediately captivated by the city’s cosmopoletan style and temperament. Initially, she played in some minor roles until she landed a singing engagement at a nightclub, called Roland von Berlin. That was in 1908. In a dress bought on credit, flaming red hair, gravelly voice, one eyebrow mockingly raised, cursing and smoking cigarettes on stage, she became a star overnight. Her friends included many prominent artists, such as Marlene Dietrich, with whom she performed on stage.

Audiences loved Claire Waldoff. She usually wore a simple blouse along with a tie and slacks. One of her famous songs was Ach Jott, Wat Sind Die Maenner Dumm (Oh, God, How Stupid Men Are). For a first recording on Gramophone, click

After coming to power in 1933, the Nazis quickly banned Claire Waldoff’s appearances because many of her composers and lyricists were Jewish. Besides, they considered her songs too suggestive. It was also no secret that Waldoff lived and operated a gay-lesbian-salon with her long-time lesbian partner, Olga “Olly” von Roeder. Following World War II, Claire Waldoff lost all of her savings in the West German monetary reform of 1948 and was forced to live on a meager pension, provided by the City of Berlin.

Claire Waldoff Remembered

A monument, created by Reinhard Jacob, and located in front of the Friedrichstadt-Palast immortalizes Berlin’s sassy cabaret singer.

Claire Waldoff monument, located in front of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, Berlin. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Claire Waldoff monument, located in front of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, Berlin. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Leierkastenmann of Yore

Monday, March 13th, 2017


“Dear Leierkastenmann, start from the top once more …” is the beginning of a sentimental tune about Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Often cranked out on a barrel organ and recorded by Marlene Dietrich, Hildegard Knef, Walter Kollo, Claire Waldoff, Bully Buhlan and many others, the song evokes a yearning for simpler times. The German lyrics are:

Lieber Leierkastenmann,

Fang nochmal von vorne an.

Deine alten Melodien

Von der schoenen Stadt Berlin.

Stehst du unten auf dem Hof

Wird mir gleich ums Herz so doof.

Noch mal so’n junges Blut sein

Noch einmal im Tanz sich zaertlich dreh’n.

Lasst man Kinder, lasst man gut sein,

Uns’re Stadt Berlin ist doch so schoen.

What is a Leierkastenmann?

Leierkasten is the German word for street organ or barrel organ. Pins on a large barrel store the music. A person – usually a man – turning a crank to activate the music is called a Leierkastenmann. A woman is a Leierkastenfrau. The organs were designed to be small and mobile enough to be carried or rolled from street to street and courtyard to courtyard, where the Leierkastenmann would play his tune and hopefully collect some coins before moving on. Most of these street performers cranked barrel organs for a living, and most of these street organs had 20 or fewer pipes and weighed only a few pounds. Due to their small size, their barrels could only contain a few tunes of fixed length, which greatly limited the Leierkastenmann’s repertoire. Most of the tunes played were excerpts from operas, operettas and marches.

When was the Leierkasten popular?

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was the first to authorize permits to crank a Leierkasten in public. Licenses went to invalids of the Seven-Years-War to help them make a living. In 1810, Prussia copied Austria and issued permits as well. Not every duly licensed Leiderkastenmann owned his own Leierkasten, however. Many rented the relatively expensive instruments from the manufacturer.

As the number of organ barrel operators increased steadily in the second half of the 19th century, Berlin became the leader of German Leierkasten manufacturing. Up to 3,000 licensed operators cranked a Leierkasten on a daily basis in Berlin alone. As these men moved through the city, residents opened their windows and threw a paper-wrapped five- or ten-Pfennig coin to the Leierkastenmann. I was a little girl in the 1950s and remember being allowed to throw a wrapped coin to the Leierkastenmann five stories below. I watched keenly as he spotted the change, doffed his hat and moved on.

In the 1950s, the popularity of the Leierkastenmann had already declined. The increase in automobiles made streets and public spaces noisy places. The noise drowned out the Leierkastenmann, and radio and record players filled the void. The exception was a well-known Leierkastenfrau (woman barrel organ player) by the name of Elsa Oehmigen, who continued to practice her trade throughout Germany until 1992. However, she rarely played in public places, but usually performed at private events.

Leierkastenmann of Today

The Leierkastenmann of yore does not exist anymore. Most current owners of a barrel organ are collectors or lovers of the instrument. In addition to a few antique barrel organs, there are many more modern street organs in existence. The latter do not operate on pinned barrels, but use perforated paper rolls (similar to player piano rolls) or sometimes even electronic systems.

"Orgel-Ebi" Eberhardt Franke in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Photo courtesy of

“Orgel-Ebi” Eberhardt Franke in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Photo courtesy of

Once a profession to make ends meet, the Leierkastenmann has become an icon. In 1987, German sculptor, Gerhard Thieme, memorialized the Leierkastenmann by creating a bronze sculpture, which now stands in the beer garden of the Café Reinhardt in the Berlin’s Nikolai Quarters.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of