Swing Dancing "Verboten"
By Eberhard Wardin
Fifty years after the end of the Second World War, the fabrication of historical legends and the concealment of facts are assuming grotesque proportions, even where harmless amusements are concerned. The propaganda image of the German must be inflated to mammoth proportions to shore up the myth of German guilt; Germans generally are depicted as cultural barbarians.
One searches in vain today for any mention of the extensive variety of both light and serious entertainment available in Berlin almost until the end of the war. American films (for example, "Police Car 88") were shown in cinemas all over Germany between 1935 and 1938. "The Broadway Melody of 1938", starring Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, and comic dancer Buddy Ebsen, was the biggest film hit in Germany, running in every cinema in Germany for weeks at a time, ahead of the most popular German film, "Der Sterne Schein ist mein und Dein" (The stars' twinkle is mine and yours).
German dance bands played German, American and British song hits, even "swinging" German dance tunes, such as "Küß mich, bitte, bitte küß mich" (kiss me, please, kiss me), or "Das Fräulein Gerda". Clarinetist Erhard Bauschke played "swing" at the "Moka Efti" in the Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, complete with tie and tails. The Parish-Mills jazz standard "Organ Grinder Swing" was particularly popular (the original lyrics--"Who's that coming down the street? With that good old organ grinder's beat," etc., being rendered into German as "Hofkonzert im Hinterhaus, Alle schaun zum Fenster raus", etc.).
Later afternoon dance tunes included not only the well-known Guy Lombardo hit "Penny Serenade" (the original lyrics--"Once I strayed 'neath the window of a lovely señorita"--being rendered into German as "Ich stand einst unterm Fenster einer Señorita"), not to mention the subsequent popularity of the "Lambeth-Walk" (a British dance tune and dance popularized in America by Arthur Murray in 1938, taken from the London play "Me and My Girl"; the dance is described as a "walking dance done in a jaunty, swaggering, strutting, knee slapping style"); nobody thought anything of it. John Abriani's Italian orchestra played "Musik für Mizzi" in the "Blumengarten Oberschöneweide", while Tullio Mobiglia's Italian orchestra was quite popular in a number of Berlin bars.
Jean Omer's Belgian 15-piece orchestra with lady vocalist was still playing at the "Delphi Palast" as late as 1943; Jomny Rambell played the well-known big-band jazz standard "Moten Swing" (written by Kansas City musician Bennie Moten, whose big band was taken over by Count Basie), at the "Efti", both in Berlin. Somewhat later, at the "Delphi", also in Berlin, trumpet player Günter Herzog--enjoying a deferment from military service, even at that time--appeared with a 15-piece orchestra, described in neon lights on the roof as "a new star in the Delphi", the entire roof of the "Delphi" being designed to resemble a starry sky.
Kurt Widmann, an excellent trombonist, could still be heard with his orchestra in the "Red Room" of "Imperator" (a multi-story Berlin café and restaurant with dance hall) in 1943, playing a repertoire consisting entirely of "swing". At least 12 top orchestras were already playing in Berlin as early as 1936, in Berlin's most expensive hotels (such as the "Adlon", "Eden", and "Esplanade") as well as in less expensive dance halls (for example, Bernhard Etté or Walter Lemke's German-American dance orchestra, or Pat Bonen and his Orchestra, on the first floor of the "Hochhaus am Alexanderplatz", which was still standing in 1999).
The house orchestra at the "Delphi", conducted by band leader Heinz Wehner, repeatedly played at other hotels as well. Trumpeter Kurt Hohenberger and his Orchestra appeared at the "Quartier Latin" and the "Femina"; Barnabas von Gezy played at the "Hotel Esplanade" for many years. As late as late 1943, melodious recorded versions of "Deep Purple" and "I Promise You" were released on the "Brunswik" label, featuring Danish vocalist Fin Olsen. In Berlin, "Brunswik" recordings of English clarinettist Harry Roy, were widely sold; particularly popular song hits included "Tulip Time" (an "Andrews Sisters" hit) and "Stop Beatin' 'Round the Mulberry Bush", (a smash hit chiefly associated with the Count Basie big band), and "Boo-Hoo" (a Carmen Lombardo hit resurrected by Little Richard in the 1950s). The orchestra of the English-language radio-station in Sottens, Switzerland, played "swing" every evening, with listeners all over Germany. British pianists Ivor Moreton and Dave Kay played hits like "A Tisket, A Tasket" (an Ella Fitzgerald hit). A particularly popular new release in Germany itself was "Bei Dir war es immer so schön", recorded with only trumpet and piano. Another extremely popular tune was the sentimental Harry Warren-Al Dubin Broadway standard "September in the Rain"; recordings of "Amapola" by "Rumba King" Xavier Cugat (also a big Jimmy Dorsey hit) were available in a record store and music shop located near the Jerusalemer Kirche, Berlin. I personally bought these records while on furlough from the Russian front. One of the most popular hits was the Jimmy Dorsey hit "Sweet and Lovely," known in Germany as "Wen ich liebe".
Dancing was permitted in Berlin as late as 1942 and was prohibited in 1943 as a result of the danger of air raids and as a gesture of respect for German soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front; the same danger made the prohibition superfluous. Dance music continued to be played for listening, however; many of the listeners being soldiers on furlough. Over-zealous Party officials naturally objected to overly-grotesque or distorted "primitive" dance styles, especially when accompanied by gestures indicating opposition to the regime: a "political show" featuring jazz numbers in Hamburg. A jazz number known as "Two Left Feet", by Fun Candrix, was particularly disliked by over-zealous Party officials, but the music itself was not prohibited.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, as well as Radio London's great dance orchestra featuring guitarist Eddy Peabody, played at the Berlin "Wintergarten" in 1938 with great success. "Swing" achieved its height of popularity in Berlin during guest appearances of orchestras conducted by Teddy Stauffer, Fud Candrix or Ernst van't Hoff (said to have played the "best swing in Europe", with "a slow drag") at the Wilmersdorf in Berlin as late as August 1944, as well as in the "Cafe Leon" on the Lehniner Platz (Berlin). Despite the horrendous losses through air raids, despite the collapse of the "Heeresgruppe Mitte" (Central Army Group), Hans Warner Kleve's 16-man orchestra still played dance music ("it was a very lively atmosphere"). Kleve said later: "Every dance band had American tunes in its repertoire, people requested these tunes, and the bands played them. Nobody thought anything of it!".
The Cafe "Leon" was used as the stage for small-scale artistic productions for the "Jüdischen Kulturbund" (Jewish Cultural Association) between 1935 and 1937, probably for an exclusively Jewish audience. Franz Thon, subsequently the leader of a "big band" on NDR [radio], Hamburg, "played 'private gigs' for an exclusively Jewish audience there in approximately 1937!"
German dance orchestras even accompanied German troops to remote areas of distant occupied territories, playing "swing" for the Russian civilian population as soon as the combat situation permitted it, for example, in the "City Theater of Brjansk". A similar event from my own experience was held in a building at the Potschinok airport, with a smaller band (featuring songs like "Wind weht weit übers Meer", and others) to entertain pilots from "Kampfgeschwaders General Wever" and Colonel Rudel's "Stukageschwader Immelmann" as well as Hungarian pilots fighting on the German side. An orchestra conducted by a non-commissioned officer named Kistenmacher also played on the "Soldatensender Minsk" (Minsk Military Radio); this was in addition to the dance orchestras of numerous other European radio stations, many of them, even in Italy, featuring a group of female vocalists called the "Grasmückentrio" ("The Three Warblers"). Lutz Templin's Orchestra--not to mention "Charlie And His Orchestra"--played excellent swing music, transmitted night after night by the "Kurzwellensender Berlin" (Berlin Short Wave Transmitter) for the soldiers of the Ostheeres (Army of the East), of which I was a member. The 35-piece orchestra of a mobile military transmitter containing many former American POWs--musicians who joined voluntarily--was probably unsurpassed, even by the American-British orchestras entertaining the troops. These broadcasts, which were also transmitted to North Africa, were a great annoyance to the Allies. The mobile military transmitter was often electronically located and bombed soon after beginning its broadcasts, after which the broadcasts were interrupted and relocated; the broadcasting then resumed.
Programmes consisting of classical music, piano concerts and song evenings were, of course, also available to German soldiers all over Europe, but German attitudes towards "swing" were really quite the opposite of what people today imagine. To musicians, as well as for the most non-musical listeners, "swing" represented the art of chorus playing and improvisation, constituting the fascination of this style of music! It should be added that the legend of the guilt of the Reichsmusikkammer, represented by the slogan "Swing Dancing 'Verboten'" was nothing more than an advertising slogan for a record company!
The Big Band era, and the wild heyday of the Nat Gonella, Les Brown and Woody Herman orchestras, is long gone, and with it, the sentimental memory of quiet melodies of German orchestras on Berlin short-wave transmitters located in radio transmitter huts in the deep snows before Moscow.
Very few people still remember listening to "So wird's nie wieder sein" or "I'm in the Mood for Love" over field transmitter headphones, played for Germany's best--our comrades in the infantry--starting after the fading of the credits of the "Belgrader Jungen Wachtpostens" on the "Soldatensender Belgrad" every night at exactly 10 P.M., and closing with "Lili Marleen" at 12 midnight, when the trumpeter for the military radio transmitter in Rome played a softly sentimental rendering of "Arrivederci", signing off until the broadcasts started crackling again in the ether of the following grey morning.
Source: Knud Wolffram, Tanzdielen und Vergnügungspaläste: Berliner Nachtleben in den dreißiger und vierziger Jahren; von der Friedrichstraße bis Berlin W, vom Moka Efti bis zum Delphi, Reihe deutsche Vergangenheit, Vol. 78: "Stätten der Geschichte Berlins", Edition Hentrich, Berlin 1992, pp. 214-216, ISBN 3-89468-0-47-4.
First published in German in Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung 4(3&4) (2000), pp. 353f. Translated by Carlos W. Porter.