Berlin remembers fun and frolics at the Scala

Germany's varieté show culture blossomed during the 1920s – but was soon shut down by the Nazi regime a decade later. A commemorative plaque has now been laid at the site of one of its best known venues, the Scala.

Berlin's Culture Senator Klaus Lederer (Left Party) unveiled the commemorative plaque on Tuesday on Martin-Luther-Strasse in Berlin's Schöneberg district where the Scala Theater once stood. Alongside stood art historian Michael Wolffsohn, the grandson of the erstwhile manager of the Scala, Karl Wolffsohn, whose theater was expropriated by the Nazis before he fled to Palestine.

Karl Wolffsohn had opened the Scala Theater in 1919 with the help of several financial backers, most of whom were Jewish. It came to embody the spirit of the so-called Roaring Twenties in Weimar Berlin. 

The world renowned close-harmony ensemble, the Comedian Harmonists, performed regularly at the Scala, as did contortionists, trapeze artists and other circus performers. And then there were the Scala Girls, who made sure that dissipation was the only thing on male patrons' minds.

Indeed, the Scala symbolized the legendary hedonism of the Weimar years ahead of the darkest chapter of German history.

Read moreIn Berlin, life is still a cabaret

Long legs, short skirts: an image of the Scala Girls taken in 1928

A dimly-lit circus show                                                      

The varieté show genre had already arrived in German in the late 19th century, the cabaret format in part inspired by the infamous can-can in Paris' Moulin Rouge. But it took another quarter of a century of varieté for the stage concept to become a peculiarly Germany institution.

It was a revue show with something for everyone — a mixed bag filled with circus acts, dance number, theatrics, comedy, music and much more, always presented in dimly lit rooms. Sometimes it would be more of a dinner theater set-up, with food and wine an important part of the experience.

Berlin boasted several such spaces during the 1920s; in addition to the Scala, there were venues such as the Plaza, the Wintergarten and the Friedrichstadtpalast. But other cities certainly knew how to compete: Düsseldorf had its Apollo Theater, Bremen the Astoria and Hamburg the Hansa.

Some of these theaters have undergone a revival in the past few decades, opening new venues and featuring world-class varieté acts. Others, like the Scala, are confined to the history books.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Stage of superlatives

A touch of Las Vegas in Berlin: the stage of the city's Friedrichstadt-Palast. Movable segments allow for a flexible design at the world's largest theater stage. Its show staircase, coined the Magic Stairs, includes 50 steps, each adjustable by height. Depending on the production, up to 100 dancers strut their stuff on stage.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Circus, cabaret and theater

For decades, the former market hall was a circus and a cabaret. In 1919, the famous German theater producer Max Reinhardt re-opened the venue as "Grosses Schauspielhaus" (Big Theater). He used the huge building to stage classical productions in epic fashion. For its opening, Reinhardt staged Aeschylus' "Oresteia."

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

High tech from the start

In 1919, the main stage was already cutting edge. Along with an 18-meter revolving stage and several adjustable forestage elements, the most up-to-date lighting and effects technologies were in use. Erik Charell's musical "Im weissen Rössl" and Erwin Piscator's political revue "Trotz alledem" were celebrated as big successes. After the Nazis assumed power, the theater was closed.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Dictatorship and liberation

Under Max Reinhardt, the theater presented the most successful revues of the Golden Twenties. But the Nazis appropriated it in 1943, changing the name to "Theater des Volkes" (Theater of the People) and using it to stage propagandistic operettas. Shortly after the war, dance revues were put on stage again in the bomb-damaged building.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

New masters, new tasks

In 1947, the Soviet commandant's office took possession of the palace. Berlin's municipal authorities also assumed control of the theater, dubbing it Friedrichstadt-Palast (Friedrichstadt Palace). From then on, it was used for major political events like the founding of the GDR's youth organization. Later, popular TV shows were produced there.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Fabulous legs

During the GDR era, the Friedrichstadt-Palast was famous for its chorus line. With 32 professional female dancers, it boasted the longest lineup of female legs in the world. This picture shows a slightly shortened version of the chorus line from the early 1980s.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Renewal and reopening

In 1980, the theater in central Berlin - with its 120 years of history - was closed for safety reasons. In 1984, East German leaders built a huge new palace just 200 meters away on the Friedrichstrasse avenue. It would be the last grandiose building created by the crumbling communist state. Pictured: Wolfgang E. Struck, long the theater's artistic director, gets the key to the new venue.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Glitz and glam

The new palace no longer just shines on the inside. The Friedrichstadt-Palast's front building has an art nouveau facade reminiscent of the early days in this glorious theater's history. The main building, made of concrete, takes up an entire city block. Shows such as current production "The Wyld" unfold there in Las Vegas-style extravagance.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

International and community-minded

The Friedrichstadt-Palast ensemble comprises 60 male and female dancers from 28 nations. The theater is known for its diversity, as well as its support of the LGBT community. In 2012, the promoters of Berlin's Christopher Street Day gay pride parade awarded the theater's management a special commendation for civil courage.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Nefertiti takes the stage

"The Wyld," the venue's latest production, tells the story of the creatures of the night in Germany's buzzing capital and features a love story oriented between heaven and earth. Berlin's arguably most famous local gets in on the act: Ancient Egyptian sovereign Nefertiti, whose world-renowned bust is part of the permanent collection at the city's New Museum.

Temple of the night: Berlin's Friedrichstadt-Palast

Mystical journey

German producer Roland Welke and French fashion designer Manfred Thierry Mugler are responsible for the new show. The management describes it as simultaneously "modern and archaic, droll and futuristic." It's the most expensive production in the history of the Friedrichstadt-Palast.

tla,ss/sb (with dpa)

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