Schwules Museum will present the first exhibition on “the German Mr. Ziegfeld”: stage director and theatrical legend, Erik Charell (1894-1974), the creator of the 1920s glamorous revues at the Grosse Schauspielhaus, revues that starred Marlene Dietrich, the Comedian Harmonist, Joseph Schmidt, Siegfried Arno, Max Hansen, Claire Waldoff and many others. It is also the first exhibition ever to deal explicitly with the topic of operetta and homosexuality.
In the 1920s, Erik Charell brought the kind of international revue to Berlin that Florenz Ziegfeld and other were producing on Broadway. After a series of pure revues, Charell started adapting classical operettas and turned them into up-to-date jazz spectacles, most notably the Merry Widow which survives in many unsurpassed recordings of its star Fritzi Massary. Charell then embarked on a series of new creations which made him world famous: the “historical operetta trilogy” Casanova (with Michael Bohnen, La Jana and the Comedian Harmonists), Drei Musketiere/Three Musketeers (with Alfred Jerger and Siegfried Arno) and finally Im weißen Rössl (with Max Hansen, Otto Wallburg, Camilla Spira and Paul Hörbiger), written with composer Ralph Benatzky, and designed by Ernst Stern. They were international successes of the highest order. Even the New York Times raved about these productions; stars like Charlie Chaplin flocked to see them while in Berlin.
After 1930, Charell left the Grosse Schauspielhaus and turned his attention to a new medium: he created the film operetta Der Kongress tanzt with music by W.R. Heymann, another world success and still considered one of the finest examples of early sound-film-operetta. After the Nazis took over, Charell went to the US and directed the film Caravan for Fox Pictures in Hollywood, White Horse Inn and Swingin’ the Dream on Broadway. After the war, Charell returned to Germany. In 1950 he created another world success: Feuerwerk with music by Paul Burkhard. The hit song “O mein Papa!” was played by practically everyone who is anyone.
Frustrated with the way operetta was being performed and perceived in post-Nazi Germany, Charell turned his back to theatre, produced the film versions of Im weißen Rössl in 1952 and Feuerwerk in 1954, then retired to Switzerland to collected art and enjoy life. He died in 1974 and left his estate to his long term lover Friedrich Zanner, a native from Innsbruck who had appeared in the New York production of White Horse Inn as a Tyrolean slap dancer.
The exhibit at the Schwule Museum will present costume and scenic designs by Ernst Stern, a 3D architecture model of the Grosse Schauspielhaus, photos of the stars and productions, many documents of Charell’s life, and quotes from friends and colleagues that give an idea of what kind of person Charell was.
There will also be two “listening stations” where you can enjoy rare historical recordings of the various Charell shows, including a highlight version of Madame Pompadour played by Ernst Hauke and his orchestra. In short, it’s a visual and acoustical treat that no one who is interested in the history of operetta in Germany should miss… Or the history of operetta. Full stop.
Curators: Dr. Kevin Clarke (Operetta Research Center Amsterdam), Wolfgang Theis
Collaborator: Anke Vetter