By Kristina McCloskey, Co-Dramaturg of No Stakes Theater Project’s Cabaret
“Then I saw the giant city Berlin and was overwhelmed. I immediately sensed the special character of this city, its unheard-of tempo, its temperament, its incredible brio...I fell passionately in love with Berlin. Not because the city was beautiful or the Imperial capital, but because it was Berlin, with its special atmosphere, its vivacious and curt character”
- Weeste noch ...! Aus meinen Erinnerungen, by Claire Waldoff, 1953
Claire Waldoff won the hearts of the Berlin public with her short, stocky build, bushy red hair, and casual dress. She stood absolutely still while singing, only occasionally moving her head, rolling her eyes or using harsh, guttural vocals for expressive purposes (also common for me waking up in the morning).
Her brash, straight-forward nature epitomized a Berliner sense of humor. An example of this is below in her song “Ach Jott, Wat Sind Die Männer Dumm” (“My God, How Stupid Men Are”) below:
She lived openly as a lesbian with her partner Olga “Olly” von Roeder, and often took to portraying both the “men” and “women” characters while leaning into the innuendo-heavy songs she was known for. Although she portrayed solely lower-class characters, she appealed to audiences of all class-levels.
Waldoff’s popularity allowed her to travel from club to club around Berlin, moving about in fashionable social circles and turning into a personification of the modern Berliner (despite not being from there originally). Much like other women on the cabaret stage, Waldoff’s voice became the voice of the new age, reflecting the changing world around her.
Erich Kästner described the singing cabaret woman a voice for the emotions, experiences, and agonies of the time. She may not be beautiful or have a lovely voice, but “She sings what she knows. And she knows what she sings. And some of the things she performs stay with you for years.”
Her particularly stirring song “Es Gibt Nur Ein Berlin” (“There’s Only One Berlin”), which was banned by Nazis in 1933, is below:
Max Hansen first appeared on stage in cabaret at the age of 17. In 1924 he moved to Berlin and regularly performed at the The Metropoltheater am Nollendorfplatz, and was a major name in operettas, revues, cabaret and radio. His greatest success was originating the role of Leopold the Waiter in The White Horse Inn.
In 1932, Hansen satirized Adolf Hitler as a homosexual with his song “War’n Sie Schon mal in Mich Verliebt?” (Have you ever been in love with me?).
This went over just about as well as you’d expect. Max then decided to go for gold by parodying soprano Gitta Alpár in drag in a film that same year.
In 1933 he left Berlin for Vienna, and then moved to Denmark in 1938 after the German invasion of Austria. He founded his own theater in Copenhagen. After the war, he returned to Germany in 1951 to reprise his role of Leopold the Waiter at Berlin’s Theater am Nollendorfplatz, so he truly won the waiting game on that one. Well done, Max.
Anita Berber was raised by her grandmother after her parents (both artists) divorced, and her mother left to perform at the Chat Noir cabaret stage. After training in rigorous physical dance, she reunited with her mother in Berlin and they moved into an apartment together to really solidify the whole pageant-mom/daughter situation they had going for them. By 1918, Anita had begun her silent film career, was a well-known model, and performed solo.
Anita had an androgynous, unique allure, as you can see in two different styles of her dance work in silent film in the video below:
Anita also starred in the first film with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual man – Different from the Others.
In Berlin in 1919, Anita had a suite at the Adlon and would spend her nights touring the hotels and elegant restaurants of the city wearing nothing by a sable coat, her pet monkey around her neck and an antique brooch packed full of cocaine, AKA my standard Friday night.
Anita was an open bisexual, and was rumored to have dated Marlene Dietrich before marrying poet and dancer Sebastian Droste. No word yet on how her mom felt about all this.
Anita and Sebastian were immediately drawn to one another and convinced they could create something bold, new and shocking. They began rehearsals for their production of “The Dances of Depravity, Horror and Ecstatsy” as well as super heavy cocaine use (I can assure you, this hasn’t been the case for Cabaret…yet). Their relationship went about as well as you’d expect, and Sebastian ultimately robbed her and fled to New York. Anita went back to mama in Berlin, and then married gay American dancer Henri Chatin-Hoffman two weeks after meeting him. Byeeee, mom.
In 1925, Otto Dix painted a now-famous portrait of her when she and Henri were in Düsseldorf on tour:
Anita died from an advanced state of pulmonary tuberculosis, which she collapsed from while on tour for her and Henri’s production of “Dances of Eroticism and Ecstasy”. She was 29 years old.
Some excellent resources to check out if you're as fascinated by these folks as I am: