Joan Blondell in Dachau

A cigarette card image of Joan Blondell on display at Dachau
I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.


Visiting Dachau, June 2015
That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.
As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit.  Eventually, or rather suddenly, this changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

“Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.
Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now.  Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.

The Couple in Grandmother’s Bed

I have said nothing yet about my trip to Germany.  It was not any old sightseeing tour, mind; nor was it a carefully mapped out homecoming, which makes it all the more difficult to capture in a few indifferent words.  The thing is, I had not been to my native country in over two decades; and, during that time, not going back to what folks presume to be my home evolved into a programmatic, defining rejection of the notion that home equals country of origin.  I vowed never to return, except in a pine box.  That I did go back at last, in the similarly confining encasement that is the cabin of a budget airline craft, required a great deal of preliminary introspection—and a leap over the shadow to which I had tried to relegate my past.

The department at the university where I teach was taking students to Berlin for its annual outing.  Previously, I had been on the departmental trip to Budapest; and while that adventure was an adulterated delight, owing to transportation problems in the form of a broken bus and a missed flight, I thought that it would be petty to stick to my principles and stay put while my partner, as head of the School, was joining our students and colleagues for a week in the town known for Cabaret, communism, and Currywurst.  Besides, Berlin is too far from my native Rhineland to be thought of as “home” or trigger unwanted back-where-I-come-from reminiscences.  So, to Berlin I agreed to go . . .
Now, a few days before we were scheduled to depart for the German capital—which hadn’t been capital at the time I left former West Germany for the East Coast of the United States—I received one of those infrequent e-missives from the fatherland that are reserved mainly for anniversaries, holidays, and assorted disasters.  My sister’s message read that my grandmother had contracted a virus while hospitalized for a fracture—her first hospitalization in well over half a century—and that, unless I acted posthaste, I might never see her alive again.
Unlike the mater of my father (both deceased), my maternal grandmother had kept in touch with me during my years abroad.  She had learned, decided—or perhaps never thought twice—to accept me, which, given her youth in fascist Germany, is a triumph of spirit over doctrine.  For years, she had been sending her regards to my same-sex partners, companions my other grandmother thought best accommodated behind barbed wire, if they were to be granted living space at all.
So, a few days before I was scheduled to depart for Berlin, I booked a flight to Düsseldorf to see Oma.  I suffered a great deal of anxiety going by myself, going to see relatives I had abandoned years ago and walking down streets I had known during what, not in retrospect only, was an unhappy youth.
Luckily, I had friends on whom I could count: a cousin came to collect me from the rather remote airport and old friends offered quarters and shoulders should my visit prove overwhelming . . . or my arrival too late.  Such comforts notwithstanding, it was disconcerting to visit Ella at the hospital, especially since it involved having to wear a protective mask that obscured my face so that she did not recognize me.  I had not announced my visit lest she might think that, if even the prodigal grandson was coming to see her, her condition must truly be touch-and-go.  It was sobering to be greeted like a stranger, but also deserved, I thought—until at last there was a look of recognition in her eyes and a warm smile radiating from her lips.
Not having booked a hotel room, I stayed in grandmother’s apartment that night.  There I was, sleeping in the bed of a woman who might not see another morning and who, as it turned out, would never sleep in it again, though live she did.
We all have our security blankets, I suppose.  Mine is made out of immaterial stuff, a fabric as gossamer and yet as tangible as the air on a sultry summer’s evening as I had known it well to the west of Wales.  Lying there, alone in Ella’s bed, I surrounded myself with voices at once strange and familiar; voices of a safe, distant past—a past that was none of mine.

On a night rendered restless by thoughts of loss and futility—a life in danger and a life wasted in the refusal to be faced—I belatedly tuned in The Couple Next Door, a late-1950s serialized radio sitcom.  Written by and starring Peg Lynch, whom I had once seen performing one of her husband-and-wife sketches during an old-time radio convention, The Couple controlled the crowds with which my thoughts were teeming.  It comforted like no cotton coverlet could, warmed like no drop of Scotch.  Though not soundly, I did sleep that night, wrapped up as I was in a cocoon of sound . . . a quilt to muffle the guilt I felt for not returning sooner and for being defined instead by a quarter century of negation . . .

The “Invisible Rudolf”: Behind the Mike of a Radio Criminal

“As you know, in many countries in Europe the people are only permitted to hear what their government wishes them to hear through government controlled radio stations.” With that reason to be grateful for being an American, uttered on 8 June 1941, veteran announcer Graham McNamee introduced listeners who might have tuned in to Behind the Mike to hear the “sound effect of the week” or learn how radio series were readied for commercial sponsorship to a kind of broadcasting unlike anything heard over NBC, CBS, or Mutual stations. Despite imposed strictures, McNamee continued, there operated “within these countries or near their borders courageous men and women who, opposing the government, broadcast at the risk of their lives the truth as they see it to their fellow men.” Recusant, daring, and hazardous—such were the cloak-and-dagger operations known as “freedom stations.”

For anyone broadcasting—indeed, for anyone lending an ear to those broadcasts—the German government had a word: “Runkfunkverbrecher” (radio criminal). It also insisted on having the last word: a decree to silence those opposing the regime that would turn the cornerstones of democracy into gravestones.

Just how dangerous was it to turn off the Volksempfänger and tune in those secret stations instead? In Voices in the Darkness (1943), British historian Edward Tangye Lean (brother of film director David Lean), offered this piece of evidence from the Strassburger Neueste Nachrichten, dated 15 March 1941:

The Nuremberg Special Court has sentenced the traitor Johann Wild of Nuremberg to death for two serious radio crimes. Both before and after the coming into effect of the radio decree he behaved as an enemy of state and people by continually listening to hostile broadcasts from abroad. Not content with that, he composed insulting tirades whose source was the enemy station.

As Lean points out, propaganda minister Goebbels issued a “list of stations to which listening was allowed.” Along with their ration cards, German citizens received a “little red card with a hole punched in the middle of it so that it might be hung on the station-dial of a radio set.” The card read:

Racial Comrades! You are Germans! It is your duty not to listen to foreign stations. Those who do so will be mercilessly punished.

Warnings were not always heeded and what was “verboten” on the air became increasingly sought-after. So, the radio-savvy Nazis devised a method to catch “Rundfunkverbrecher” in the act. Explaining how that was done was one of the “criminals” who, along with McNamee stood Behind the Mike that afternoon.

Introduced as “Rudolf,” a “young man who [had been] in charge of one of these freedom stations,” the guest speaker, having first explained how such cloak-and-dagger operations were originated by stray Nazi Otto Strasser, went on to explain:

Well, the Germans would set up mobile stations in automobiles. These stations were on the same wavelength as the freedom stations. They would play loud records as they drove through the streets. If you were listening to a freedom station and the mobile transmitter playing loud records would pass your door, your radio would pick up their broadcast and blare. Following this mobile transmitter was another car, full of Gestapo, the secret police. They traced the blare and you’d be under arrest and in a concentration camp.

“Rudolf,” who now lived in the US, proudly announced that he was “becoming an American citizen”—a “citizen of a country that needs no freedom stations,” because “here,” he reasoned, “you can hear the truth.”

The United States would not enter the war for another six months; and even though commercial broadcasters were reluctant to embrace the kind of “important messages” that were not designed to hawk a sponsor’s wares, propagandists were gradually emerging from Behind the Mike—though it would be considered rather unorthodox to have the “truth” delivered in a Germanic voice.

Still, American broadcasters could learn a lot from “Rudolf”—if, indeed, McNamee’s guest was the man whom a British newspaper had dubbed “Invisible Rudolf—the Voice of Austria.” As a contemporary historian, Charles Rolo, describes him in Radio Goes to War (1942), Rudolf was an “ex-Viennese lawyer” whose gravest “Verbrechen” it had been to impersonate Hitler on the air, making the kind of Versprechen (promises) for which the Führer was best known around the world—those he had no intention to keep . . .

Eur[e]vision

I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.

Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”

Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.

Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.

Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?

While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.

I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.

That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.

Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.

“The Hut-Sut is their dream”; or, Accent on Eurovision

Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:

Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.

According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.

Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.

The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?

“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:

Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.

By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.

Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.

In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).

A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:

I went everywhere for you
I even did my hair for you
I bought new underwear that’s blue
And I wore it just the other day.

The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?

Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!

Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.

“. . . and it was built to last”: A Message from Buchenwald

I rarely hear from my sister; sometimes, months go by without a word between us. I have not seen her in almost a decade. Like all of my relatives, my sister lives in Germany. I was born there. I am a German citizen; yet I have not been “home” for nearly twenty years. It was back in 1989, a momentous year for what I cannot bring myself to call “my country,” that I decided, without any intention of making a political statement about the promises of a united Deutschland, I would leave and not return in anything other than a coffin. I don’t care where my ashes are scattered; it might as well be on German soil—a posthumous mingling of little matter. This afternoon, my sister sent me one of her infrequent e-missives. I was sitting in the living room and had just been catching up with the conclusion of an old thriller I had fallen asleep over the night before. The message concerned US President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald, the news of which had escaped me.

Just in time, I turned on the television to listen to the President’s speech, and to the words of Buchenwald survivor Elie Wiesel. I was relieved to hear the President talk of the Nazis as “human.” His predecessor would no doubt have resorted to “evil.” How much more meaningful is the word “human”—an acknowledgment of shared responsibility that forces us to relate rather than stand apart from any presumably unmitigated horror, thereby encouraging us to look at ourselves as potentially capable of the acts we are so eager to denounce as “inhuman.”

I was stirred, too, by the seemingly incongruous message of Elie Wiesel, who expressed himself at once doubtful and full of hope, who spoke of the futility of war at the very site of triumph over tyranny. Yet how can one avoid resorting to the violence of the paradox, whether used in the despair of reason or for the purpose of achieving the kind of harmony the metaphysical poets knew as “discordia concors”? How else, if at all, can one account for the life and deaths at Buchenwald, for the monstrously rational, the efficiently profligate, the methodically mad?

One of the first Americans to have witnessed and documented Buchenwald shortly after its liberation was CBS news commentator Edward R. Murrow. On 15 April 1945, three days after first setting eyes on the concentration camp, Murrow confronted his listeners with a report prefaced by the following disclaimer:

Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you’re at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio. For I propose to tell you of Buchenwald.

Bringing his eyewitness account to the ears of his fellow Americans, Murrow yokes together the incongruous to evoke the incalculable. Putting his finger on the imbalance of recorded figures and observable facts, he weigh in on the scale of humanity’s failure and thereby succeeds in making the measureless ponderable. Broad statistics are presented alongside minute details. Observations of suffering are contrasted with references to Buchenwald as the “best concentration camp in Germany,” a camp “that was built to last” yet built for annihilation.

Murrow speaks of an orderly pile of bodies, a prominent political figure starved beyond recognition, a warning against pickpockets in a scene of horrendous crime, and a new beginning of Buchenwald’s internees that coincided with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At one point, Murrow’s report takes us into a “clean” kitchen that supplies next to no food:

[The German prisoner, a communist, in charge of the kitchen] showed me the daily ration: one piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb. On top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every twenty-four hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each ten men who died. He had to account for the rations, and, he added, “We’re very efficient here.”

“If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald,” Murrow adds, “I am not in the least sorry.” After all, had he not begun his report with the incongruous invitation to “switch off the radio”?

I knew switching off only too well. As a child and adolescent growing up in West Germany, I felt the incongruousness of being a good German keenly. I was raised in a small village in which a synagogue rotted away unnoticed, history and hope debased as a pigsty. At school, classmates echoed their parents by defending Hitler as the builder of the Autobahn; at home, my paternal grandmother openly spoke of her awareness of what was happening to her Jewish neighbors—and then severed her connections by reducing me to the pink triangle I had pinned on myself by coming out.

I have been weighed down by collective guilt. I have lived under the terror of the extreme left and experienced the lure of the ultra-right as a stance of ultimate defiance. I failed to reconcile my responsibilities of facing history with any chance of personal happiness. So I left.

Perhaps I have been on the run ever since; trying to distance myself from the past I made my present an evasion. My life abroad has been, by and large, an existence in the neither here nor there, its escapism more shameful than my inescapable origins. Yet how else can we expect to make a clean start of it if our feet remain stuck in the soil we are anxious to shake?

It was with some unease that I realized just what I had been watching before my sister returned me to the reality of now: a neat puzzle in which every murder is accounted for and executed according to plan; a “very efficient” murder mystery that reduces horror to a formula borrowed from an old and politically incorrect nursery rhyme; film released, no less, in the year of the death camp liberations. You see, before I listened to the speeches at Buchenwald I had been counting down bodies in And Then They Were None.


Related recording
Edward R. Murrow’s report from Buchenwald (15 April 1945)

Related writings
“The Wannsee Konferenz Maps Out the Final Solution”
“Arthur Miller Asks Americans to “Listen for the Sound of Wings”
“From the House of Terror”

Cranky Doodle Dandy: George M. Cohan Feels So Free

Jumping Jehosophat! It sure feels good to rant about our elected government—some force that, at times, appears to us (or is conveniently conceived of) as an entity we don’t have much to do with, after the fact or fiction of election, besides the imposition of carrying the burden of enduring it, albeit not without whingeing. Back on this day, 4 May, in 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System allotted time to remind listeners of the Free Company just what it means to have such a right—the liberty to voice one’s views, the “freedom from police persecution.” The play was “Above Suspicion.” The dramatist was to be the renowned author Sherwood Anderson, who had died a few weeks before completing the script. In lieu of the finished work, The Free Company, for its tenth and final broadcast, presented its version of “Above Suspicion” as a tribute to the author.

Starred on the program, in one of his rare radio broadcasts—and perhaps his only dramatic role on the air—was the legendary George M. Cohan (whose statue in Times Square, New York City, and tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, are pictured here). Cohan, who had portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right was playing a character who fondly recalls Grover Cleveland’s second term, but is more to the right when it comes to big government.

The Free Company’s didactic play, set in New York City in the mid-1930s, deals with a complicated family reunion as the German-American wife of one Joe Smith (Cohan) welcomes her teenage nephew, Fritz (natch!), from the old country. Fritz’s American cousin, for one, is excited about the visit. Trudy tells as much to Mary, the young woman her mother hired to prepare for the big day:

TRUDY. Mary, I have a cousin.

MARY. Yeah, I know, this Fritz.

TRUDY. Have you a cousin?

MARY. Sure, ten of ‘em.

TRUDY. What are they like?

MARY. All kinds. One’s a bank cashier and one’s in jail.

TRUDY. In jail! What did he do?

MARY. He was a bank cashier, too [. . .].

Make that “executive” and it almost sounds contemporary. In “Above Suspicion,” the American characters are not exactly what the title suggests. That is, they aren’t perfect; yet they are not about to conceal either their past or their positions. Trudy’s father is critical of the government, much to the perturbation of Fritz, who has been conditioned to obey the State unconditionally:

SMITH. Jumping Jehosophat[chuckles]. Listen, the State’s got nothing to do with folks’s private affairs. Nothing.

FRITZ. Please, Uncle Joe, with all respect. If the State doesn’t control private affairs, how can the State become strong?

SMITH. Oh, it will become strong, all right. You know, sorry, it might become too darn strong, I’ll say. And I also say, let the government mind its own dod-blasted business and I’ll mind mine.

To Fritz, such “radical” talk is “dangerous”; after all, his education is limited to “English, running in gas masks, and the history of [his] country.” He assumes that Mary is a spy and that anyone around him is at risk of persecution. To that, his uncle replies: “Dangerous? Well, I wish it was. The trouble is, nobody pays any attention. By gad, all I hope is that the people wake up before the country is stolen right out from under us, that’s what I hope.”

“Above Suspicion” is a fairly naïve celebration of civil liberties threatened by the ascent of a foreign, hostile nation (rather than by forces from within). Still, it is a worthwhile reminder of what is at stake today. Now that the technology is in place to eavesdrop on private conversations (the British government, most aggressive among the so-called free nations when it comes to spying on the electorate, is set to monitor all online exchanges), we can least afford to be complaisant about any change of government that would exploit the uses of such data to suppress the individual.

“Dictaphones,” Smith laughs off Fritz’s persecution anxieties.

I wish they would some of those dictaphones here. I’d pay all the expenses to have the records sent right straight to the White House. That’s what I’d do. Then they’d know what was going on then. [laughs] They’d get some results then, hey, momma?

These days, no one is “Above Suspicion.” Just don’t blame it on Fritz.

Fa(r)ther?

Historically speaking, it is difficult for me to get the larger picture. When I express anything amounting to a weltanschauung, I go all philosophical. Perhaps, I live too much in the confines of my own peculiar everyday to engage with the political events and developments that shape my existence. Life in the United States has taught—or, at any rate, encouraged—me to live in and for the now, a modus of going about one’s affairs that is more personally rewarding even though it might not always be quite so socially or globally responsible. Seizing the day for the sake of that day and its glories alone is not something to which Germans, in particular, are prone; they are more likely to seize opportunities for the future, or another country, for that matter.

In the old world, people tend to plan for what might happen in generations to come; they are anxious to map out what they presume to lie ahead, sometimes for as much as a thousand years. I suppose that, once those old world futurists went west to seek their fortune, they needed to learn to reconcile themselves to the vagaries of the wilderness, to fight everyday battles, to carve a niche for themselves right out of those woods.

In societies that have a medieval past in which the individual matters less than the tribe, fascism and communism are more likely to flourish than in the United States. Creating order out of the chaos that is time not yet present so as to provide for the future of one’s kind makes even genocide justifiable.

I wonder whether, had I been born American and grown up the in United States during the 1930s, I had possessed the foresight to anticipate just what this kind of mindset is capable of undoing and getting done. Would I have been an isolationist or urged for an involvement in the European conflict? Would I have been all peacetime business as usual or seen war as a way of insuring the future of an ideal?

I trust that, for all my shortsightedness, I would have seen right through a man like Father Charles Coughlin, who, back in 1939, continued to rail against the warmongers in the US. Using the microphone and Social Justice magazine as means of reaching the American multitudes, he went so far as to recruit school children for his cause. On 19 March 1939, the notoriously anti-semitic priest offered prizes to any youngster—Christian, Jew, or gentile—who could best express reasons to stay out of a foreign “entanglement” involving military action. One answer suggested by the announcer of Coughlin’s radio addresses, who was also a spokesperson for Social Justice, hailed economic sanctions as a modern mode of warfare.

In 1936, Father Coughlin could still count on a popular magazine like Radio Guide as a forum to pose a challenge to “Franklin Doublecross Roosevelt,” the President he had staunchly supported some six years earlier. By 1940, Coughlin’s influence was vastly diminished, his motives questioned, his hypocrisy exposed. In an issue of Radio-Movie Guide for the week of 16 to 22 March 1940, news editor and radio historian Francis Chase, Jr. shared the outcome of his investigation into Coughlin’s mysterious absence from the airwaves on 4 February of that year when a “series of cryptic and intriguing announcements” informed the listening public that Coughlin “would not appear to speak and intimated that dire and sinister forces were at work to prevent his addressing the radio audience.” Chase’s subsequent

investigations showed that neither [station] WJR nor the Coughlin radio network had censored Coughlin’s address. Neither had the Catholic Church nor the Federal Communications Commission. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that Father Coughlin, and Father Coughlin alone—was responsible for the weird performance after exhorting, through his announcer, all listeners-in to telephone their friends and get them to their loudspeakers.

Apparently, Coughlin was determined to present himself as a martyr threatened to have his tongue cut off by those who did not like what he had to say. Among those who very much liked what Coughlin said—and who liked what his staged disappearance from the airways might imply—where the editors of Hitler’s Völkischer Beobachter, who sneered that, in a so-called free America, Coughlin was facing censorship for the “truths” he dared to speak.

Was Coughlin, who envisioned a fascist “Corporate State” to do away with what he argued to be a corrupt United States, consumed with the larger picture in a foreign frame? Or was he, Canadian-born and barred from the Presidency, picturing mainly himself in whatever frame suited him best or was most likely to accommodate him?

However far-reaching or far-fetched his scheming, much of what the far-righteous Father espoused Chase demonstrated to be personally motivated. When Coughlin denounced the worshipping of the “God of Gold,” for instance, and argued it a “Christian concern” to restore silver to “its proper value,” the US government disclosed that the Thunderer of Royal Oak owned “more silver than any other person in Michigan.” While loudly condemning “Wall Street gambling,” Coughlin was known to have played the stock market.

Sure, even the larger picture—a vision, however ghastly or inhumane—is only a reflection of the minds that conceive it; but in how far are the likes of me, whose frame of mind is too narrow or too feeble to get hold of that larger picture, content to be framed by the masterminds who seize the opportunity of creating, mounting and authenticating it?


Related recordings
Coughlin broadcast 19 March 1939
Coughlin broadcast 4 February 1940

Related Writings
“’I hold no animosity toward the Jews’: The Father Coughlin Factor”

That’s a Sound All Right, but It Ain’t Music

As much as I enjoy Hollywood musicals, I’ve never sat through The Sound of Music. In fact, before I moved to the US, I had never even heard of the film, let alone anything of the true story behind it. Being born and raised in Germany does have its advantages, you might say; but I am not inclined to be flippant about censorship. Fact is, depictions of Nazism in popular culture were carefully filtered in (West) Germany, even decades after the end of the Third Reich. The reminders of past atrocities and the shared culpability for them were apparently deemed too humiliating or distressing to audiences out to enjoy a bit of cinematic escapism. Perhaps, the decision not to exhibit certain films or to edit and dub them so as to render them inoffensive was based on the notion that the horrors hinted at or exploited for their melodramatic value were too severe to serve as mere diversions. In any case, I was not exposed to the Von Trapps. And when I had my first glimpse of them, I did not feel particularly sorry to have missed out on the acquaintance.

I was as much turned off by the 1960s look of what was meant to have been the late 1930s as I was by those cloying sounds and images. This picture needed to be altogether darker, the music more haunting, more angry and sorrowful than “My Favorite Things.” For years, I avoided what to many remains a sing-a-long occasion. A few weeks ago, the stubborn Teuton in me surrendered at last and got a discount ticket to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at the London Palladium, a production launched and shrewdly promoted back in 2006 by an American Idol-style singing contest in which the British public, along with Sir Andrew, went in search of the perfect Maria.

I can’t say that the West End changed my mind about The Sound of Music. Sure, there are bright and eminently hummable numbers in it, but what is left of the story has less weight than the average supermodel. What is at stake for Maria is not life or liberty, but a chance to trill a few more tunes. No moral dilemma, no sense of danger, no signs of turmoil as Maria grapples with the difficulties of choosing between the convent and the conventional. I don’t expect a treatise on the relationship between fascism and the church; but I sure am tired of those insipid scenes of Sister Activity to which nuns are reduced in popular culture.

In the production’s single instance of dramatically effective set design, the auditorium is transformed into a fascist venue, as brown shirted guards appear in the isles and swastika banners are imposed onto the walls of the Palladium; but the machinery, the show tune factory that is The Sound of Music, does not permit any forebodings to build, any doubt or dread to work on the spectator’s mind. The pageant must go on, dispassionate and smooth as clockwork.

Not everything was quite so well oiled that evening. I knew that what had been mounted here would not amount to anything resembling absorbing melodrama the moment I saw Maria atop a circular platform that was slowly and laboriously tilted in an obvious but feeble imitation of Ted McCord’s Oscar-nominated cinematography. The hills were alive all right; you could hear them aching so loudly that Maria—not the one chosen on the reality program but a paler substitute (the chirpily unengaging Summer Strallen)—couldn’t climb any high note piercing enough to deaden them, spread out as she was on that giant pizza like a slice of parma ham, extra lean.

Less dulcet than the tones produced by those tectonic shifts was whatever emanated from the gaping jaws of the Captain, impersonated that night by Simon MacCorkindale, whose credentials as an actor include, need I say more, featured roles in Falcon Crest and Jaws III. “If you know the notes to sing,” Maria instructs the children in “Do-Re-Mi.” Well, you still can’t “sing most anything” if restricted by the vocal chords of a MacCorkindale, whose rendition of “Edelweiss” should have resulted in his immediate seizure by Nazi officials. The Sound of Music was the croaking Mac’s first—and, let the nuns of the world pray, his last—venture into musical theater.

Decidedly more rewarding both tunefully and dramatically is the current West End production of Carousel at the Savoy, which I saw the following day. Starring Jeremiah James as the troubled Billy Bigelow and an earthy, buxom Lesley Garrett as Nettie, it proved a nutritious alternative to pizza with the Von Trapps.

"Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter": A Visit at Kaltenmeyer’s

K A M M A N. I am sure a lot of readers of Radio Guide magazine would have found “Bruce ___, ‘Professor Kaltenmeyer’ as easy a crossword puzzle clue as “Jane ___, comedienne” or “___ Wallington, announcer.” From 1932 onwards, Bruce Kamman played the good-natured and much put upon teacher of the gang at Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten, a weekly comedy program that originiated from WMAQ, Chicago. Kaltenmeyer’s is one of those popular programs that have all but disappeared into thin air, the exception being the 12 December 1936 broadcast (which you may access on Jerry Haendiges’s invaluable “Same Time, Same Station” site). Reminiscent of and anticipating German schoolboy comedies like Heinrich Spoerl’s Feuerzangenbowle or Erich Kästner’s Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (both 1933), Kaltenmeyer is a winsome trifle of a show. Each week, the Kindergarten opened with the catchy signature “Just for Fun”:

Kaltenmeyer’s starting,
Let’s all go to school.
In this kindergarten,
Where nonsense is the rule.

Indeed, much of it is nonsense, some of it song. Fibber McGee and Molly team Jim and Marian Jordan were featured on the program; until the fall of 1936, they were among the Professor’s international crowd of poopils. The 12 December 1936 broadcast (an excerpt of which was later rebroadcast on Recollections at Thirty) includes the somewhat incongruously wistful “Sweetheart, Let’s Grow Old Together” and offers at least one memorable pun involving the definition of the word “indisputable,” which one Kaltenmeyer’s rambunctious kids (adults all) manages to put into the following sentence: “Indisputable weather we’re having.”

It is Bruce Kamman’s voice, though, that adds “indisputable” charm to the nonsense. It is the kind of Sig Ruman-Frank Reichert voice—warm, avuncular, and too Jean Hersholt to be altogether ridiculously, let alone threateningly Teutonic. According to Francis M. Nevins’s The Sound of Detection, the Cincinnati-born Kamman, who entered radio as early as 1920, would continue his broadcasting career off mike, namely by producing and directing episodes of the Ellery Queen mystery-cum-celebrity quiz program.

Kamman’s days as Kaltenmeyer came to an end once the Germans began to wage war in Europe. In 1940, well before the United States entered the Second World War, Kaltenmeyer stopped saying “Auf Wiedersehen.” The character was removed from the Kindergarten, and what was left of the show folded soon thereafter.

I guess, when you make a career of sounding like Sig Ruman, you were expected to start shouting “Sieg Heil!” or hiss sinisterly and subsequently expire, rather than be permitted to send kindly greetings like “Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter” (“stay well and cheerful”) to the American people, whatever their heritage or dialect. Clearly “good old days” recalled in the theme song were over.

Now, let’s all go to back to the school that was radio and solve the puzzle . . .