From Camp Performer to Camp Inmate
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Published in: September-October 2022 issue.


BERLIN CABARETS between the wars had their fair share of homosexual headliners (“homosexual” being the period term). Wilhelm Bendow, affectionately known as Lieschen, portrayed a scatterbrained, giggling “nance” whose naïve questions and double entendres provoked hilarity. Claire Waldoff, a regular at the lesbian clubs with her henna-dyed Prince Valiant hairdo and husky voice, sang of “Kicking the Men Out of Parliament.” They were both wildly popular with all ranks of society.

            Despite their unabashed sexual identities, both performers managed to outlive the Nazi regime. Because of a tour to London, Waldoff was forbidden to appear onstage and retired to provincial obscurity. Bendow’s silliness kept him in favor until 1944, when a remark deemed to be politically offensive caused him to spend the last months of the war in a labor camp. He survived to become the beloved “Uncle Willi” on postwar West German television. A more dire fate was reserved for Paul O’Montis. Despite his great celebrity as a stage and recording star, O’Montis was completely erased from the record after his death in a concentration camp. Only now, with the issuance of a biography in German by Ralf Jörg Raber and a CD of fifty of his “greatest hits,” can his career be reconstructed. However, many blanks remain in the record.

            O’Montis was born Paul Emanuel Wendel in a small Hungarian town in 1894. German Protestants in a Magyar Catholic community, his family soon moved to Riga. The Slavic culture of the Latvian capital was dominated by a German-speaking population and a Russian administration, so young Wendel grew up a polyglot. At seventeen he wrote the libretto for an operetta that was performed at the German theater there. Despite several successes in that line, he moved to cabaret songs or chansons almost by accident.

            When the First World War broke out, the German residents of Riga were regarded as a Fifth Column by the Russian government. Still a minor, Wendel was packed off to a civilian internment camp in Siberia, where he began entertaining to piano accompaniment. As the Tsarist regime unraveled, he escaped in 1917 and wound up at a variety theater in revolutionary Petrograd. Because of his fluency in Russian, no one suspected that he was an enemy “Kraut.” Eventually he managed to get back to Riga, where he starred at the Casino-Theater, offering “intimate songs” packed with innuendo. By this time he had adopted the stage name Paul O. Montis (later O’Montis).

            His local celebrity brought him to Munich and Berlin, where he continued to write libretti for operettas. In the Friedrich Hollaender revue Laterna Magica he came to public notice, classified as a Vortragskünstler, which means an artiste who delivers patter with his songs. O’Montis appeared in silent films, published a good deal of pulp fiction, and was a jack of all trades in the performing arts. His enduring fame and fortune, however, came with the new medium of radio. His frequent appearances there led to lucrative recording contracts, beginning in 1927 and resulting in seventy popular “platters.” His first great hits were typically suggestive: “Was hast du für Gefühle, Moritz?” (“What kinds of feelings have you, Moritz?”) and “Die Susi bläst das Saxophon” (“Susie Blows the Saxophone”).

            O’Montis’ voice was a light tenor, very much of its time; analogues would be the voices of Noёl Coward and Fred Astaire. Our contemporary Max Raabe (b. 1962) and his band have tried hard to recreate this somewhat effete style. American radio had popularized “Whispering Jack Smith,” so O’Montis was billed as “the whispering chansonnier.” The microphone afforded him a wide variety of effects and enabled him to make points and suggest nuance effortlessly. Critics raved about his “shrewdly balanced technique.” One of them explained: “His technique is to put across the most banal and popular chansons in such a way that they are also fun for more demanding people, because, by standing above them, he wittily satirizes them.”

Figure 1. Advertisement for O’Montis recordings.

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Laurence Senelick is the editor and translator ofCabaret Performance: Europe 1890–1940.