Posts Tagged ‘Marlene Dietrich’

Marlene Dietrich – Bisexual Femme Fatale

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Marlene Dietrich was one of the few German actresses and singers to achieve International fame. Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in 1901, she started contracting her two first names to form “Marlene” when she was only eleven years old. Her mother, Josephine, came from an affluent Berlin family, and her father was a police lieutenant who died when Marlene was only ten.

Marlene Dietrich was known for her androgynous film roles and her bisexuality. She successfully marketed her “exotic” looks, although I always perceived her as severe and unapproachable rather than exotic. Her trade marks were her low and sensual voice, long and slender legs, top hats and tails and men’s tailored suits. She often performed the first part of a show in a body-sculpted dress and changed to top hat and tails for the second half of the performance. Dietrich’s vocal range was actually rather limited. She was a contralto.

The Career of Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) had an unusually long career, which started in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s when Dietrich acted on stage and in silent films. Her performance as Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) brought her International fame. Joseph von Sternberg directed that motion picture and created the life-long image of Dietrich as a glamorous and mysterious femme fatale by using light and shadow to their optimal effect. In The Blue Angel, Dietrich played a seductive cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a schoolmaster.

The same year, Marlene Dietrich left Germany for Hollywood and successfully starred in several other movies directed by von Sternberg. In the late 1930s, Dietrich, who openly opposed the Nazi regime, created a fund together with Billy Wilder and others to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany. In 1937, she even put her entire salary earned for the filming of Knight Without Armor ($450,000) into escrow to help refugees. In 1939, she became an American citizen and renounced her German citizenship. In 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, Great Britain and France during USO tours and even went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. During those last war years, Marlene Dietrich recorded Lili Marleen, which had been previously popularized by Lale Andersen. To hear Dietrich sing Lili Marleen, click

Marlene Dietrich received several honors from the United States, France, Belgium and Israel for her work in improving morale at the front during the war. Although she still made occasional films following World War II, Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a live entertainer.


Marlene Dietrich in 1951 at age 50.

Marlene Dietrich in 1951 at age 50.

In her sixties and seventies, the health of Marlene Dietrich deteriorated. She became increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol. A fall in 1973 injured her left thigh. A year later she fractured her right leg. Dietrich’s career ended in 1975, when she fell off the stage and broke her thigh during a performance in Sydney, Australia. She subsequently withdrew to her apartment in Paris and spent the final eleven years of her life bedridden and alone.

The Private Life of Marlene Dietrich

Unlike her professional persona, which was carefully crafted, Marlene Dietrich’s personal life was largely kept out of the public eye. In 1924, she married film producer Rudolf Sieber and had a daughter with him. Although the couple stayed together for only 5 years, they never divorced. Dietrich, who was bisexual, had a reputation of romancing her co-stars as well as other prominent figures. Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, John Wayne, Edith Piaf, Yul Brunner, Errol Flynn, George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart and others are said to have been among her conquests. Her husband knew of her affairs, accepted them and had a long-time lover himself.


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.


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.


Friedrichstadt-Palast – Berlin’s Top Revue Theater

Monday, November 6th, 2017


With 700,000 visitors annually and a seating capacity of 1,895, the Friedrichstadt-Palast is by far the most popular theater in Berlin and the largest and most modern show place in Europe. Located in Berlin’s central district of Mitte, it is also the last large historic landmark structure dating back to former East Germany. Today, major galas and events take place here, whiche include the Berlinale and the German Film Awards. Celebrities, such as Mikhail Gorbatchev, George Bush Sr., Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, have attended events in its walls. Marlene Dietrich, Udo Juergens and Liza Minnelli have performed on its stage.

The Checkered Past of the Friedrichstadt-Palast

The theater’s history goes back to the 19th century. In 1867, it opened as a market hall near Schiffbauerdamm, approximately 650 feet from its current site. For economic reasons, the venue closed again seven months later. Over the next fifty years, the building served as a food depot, a replenishment center for the Prussian Army, a circus arena and a nightclub. In 1919, following World War I, it re-opened as Grosses Schauspielhaus under the direction of theater genius Max Reinhardt. Revues by Erik Charell set the pace for the Roaring Twenties.  During the Nazi era, the theater was renamed Theater des Volkes (Theater of the People). In 1945, it was seriously damaged during repeated air attacks and eventually abandoned and taken over by the City of Berlin. In 1949, the city renamed the theater Friedrichstadtpalast (no hyphen). Due to structural problems, the building had to be closed in 1980 and demolished the following year.

Today’s Friedrichstadt-Palast

The current Friedrichstadt-Palast was rebuilt at Friedrichstrasse 107 and opened in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then, it has not only retained but broadened its reputation as a revue theatre that offers some of the most spectacular shows and technical marvels in reunified Germany.

Vestibule of the Friedrichstadt-Palast. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Vestibule of the Friedrichstadt-Palast. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Venues at the Friedrichstadt-Palast

The Friedrichstadt-Palast offers diverse programming from children’s shows and guest performances to festival galas. It specializes in complex shows that incorporate cutting-edge lighting and stage technology, over a hundred performers, and stylized acrobatic numbers. A ballet company, a show-band and a children and youth ensemble are in permanent residence. The ballet company includes 60 dancers from 26 countries worldwide. Its show band includes 16 musicians. And the children and youth ensemble consists of 250 Berlin children ranging from ages 6 to 16.

Current Show at the Friedrichstadt-Palast – THE ONE

The shows at the Friedrichstadt-Palast tend to be suitable for international audiences. Currently playing is THE ONE, a Las Vegas-style revue featuring song, dance, special effects and acrobatics. The show does not have an explicit narrative. Instead, it leads the viewer on a dreamlike journey through time in search of the person that means everything to us – THE ONE.

THE ONE grand show playing at the Friedrichstadt-Palast. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

THE ONE grand show currently playing at the Friedrichstadt-Palast. 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