A Theatre Organ Trip to Eastern Germany 2001

Thomas Klose

Thoams Klose is an acknowledged expert on and connoisseur of theatre organs in Germany. The following article combines a series of postings by him on the SecondTouch-L internet discussion line in June, 2001.  Thomas has kindly consented to their inclusion in the Journal.

All photographs, unles otherwise attributed, are by Thomas Klose.

In May I took another organ trip to East Germany which actually shouldrather be called Middle Germany, as East Germany as a consequence of WW II became part of the Peoples' Republic of Poland. However, most people simply refer to the five new lands as to East Germany.

Again I went together with my father and my good friend Willi Wiesinger, the latter being one of the top rank German theatre pipe organ enthusiasts. We had decided to do some research on a few particular pre-war installations.

There had been many rumours, tales and evidence of two of these in my archive files. There had been 146 pipe organs in German cinemas before the last war and there is still more research to do than probably anyone of us could do in a lifetime.

 

The Grassi- Museum, Leipzig

First target of our tour was the Grassi-Museum in Leipzig which belongs to Leipzig University and holds a comprehensive collection of musical instruments. Tales had been told for many years of the Welte cinema pipe organ, formerly installed in the Ufa-Palast in Erfurt (Thuringia). It was a two-manual instrument with horseshoe-shaped console, built in 1931 and opened in the cinema on October 22, 1931 with E. Siegmund at the console.

Long before the re-unification of Germany plans had been made to re-install this instrument in a custom built silent movie cinema attached to the Grassi-Museum. However, we did not know for certain that there was really more than just the console left and stored.

In March I made an inquiry via e-mail and received a photo of the console a couple of weeks later.  A letter came along telling that funds presumably up to 500,000 DM would have to be raised to achieve the project of reinstalling the organ in an extension to the museum.

Although the Grassi-Museum is in the main town it is certainly not the town center of which people say that much work has been done on restoring many of the buildings. The buildings around the museum give a very sad and depressing look of destruction as if nothing had been done since the end of the war. Many of them are unfit for human habitation. The museum itself is undergoing a major 3 million DM restoration that will most likely take between eight and ten years to complete.

We were told an invitation to tender had just been made to organ builders for the rebuilding of the organ. We were not allowed to see the console in their warehouse. The mains had been switched off completely for an unknown reason that very morning. We left Leipzig under the impression that it will take a long time to hear this organ sing again.

Goerlitz

Next we went to a town called Bautzen which in West Germany, I am afraid, is best known for its prison since the war. The town is flourishing with plenty of rebuilt houses in the old city centre.

We wanted to talk to members of the staff at Hermann Eule,  organ builders since 1872, who had maintained both theatre pipe organs in Goerlitz in former times. I had been in touch with this company about two years ago and had already received some copies of files concerning the organs in Goerlitz.

The old company records were presented to us again but did not reveal any news beyond the fact that both instruments obviously had been serviced regularly every six months. Two of the trainees who had been working on those instruments in the 1950s are still with the Eule Company as organ builders. We went to see them in the metal workshop but none of them was able to recall details from memory. One became silent at once as soon as cinema organs were mentioned. The other guy was carefree enough to mention he has a CD of a theatre pipe organ in Birmingham that produces "funny noises" at home.

The Capitol Cinema in Berliner Strasse in Goerlitz had 800 seats and was opened in 1922.

The Welte organ was installed in 1929. I have no further information on the number of manuals and ranks of this instrument. Bearing in mind that Welte started to supply horseshoe consoles in 1929, it should have had at least two manuals. Literature does not name an artist but in Goerlitz we heard that both the Capitol and the Ufa-Palast (later Palast-Theater) were owned by the same company and both instruments were at times played by the same organist.

The organ was taken out of the cinema in 1960 and scrapped, although it had been regularly serviced and used quite a long while for variety shows and to accompany singers.

After the re-unification the Capitol housed the first ever video shop in Goerlitz, after all the seats were taken out. A couple of years ago the building was sold to a West German company who took control over another 22 former cinemas in East Saxony . A bar and night club were installed in the front of the ground floor towards the street. The cinema itself is full of bricks and scrap and torn furniture as shown in the picture that I took.

 

We also inspected rooms underneath the stage, left and right on stage level and above but could not find a single trace of an installation of a pipe organ nor a place in the wall where there could have been shutters before. The stage had been newly covered with plywood and modern PVC carpets that again obliterated any old marks on floors or walls.

On the left hand side of the staircase that leads up to the balcony I found one of those old fashioned lights still hanging on the wall. There must have been plenty of these throughout the building in the old days.

 

The Ufa-Palast (Schauburg), a 970-seater, was opened in 1922 at the corner of Jakob- and Bahnhofstrasse. However, by early 1931 the theatre was altered in order to become the most prestigious cinema in town and to make room for a theatre pipe organ.

Christie op. 2719 special, a two manual model A1 organ, according to Christie order book #  7 had been ordered March 12, 1928 for the "Die Kamera" cinema, 14 Unter den Linden, Berlin W8.

The order, however, as a few others, was pinched by Wurlitzers through their German rep, Baron J.H. von Puttkamer, who had acquired "Die Kamera" as Wurlitzer's show room in Berlin and got Wurlitzer op. 2015 installed instead. My information from different sources on this particular organ are contradictory. It should therefore be subject of a separate article.

The Christie organ was diverted and installed in the Bavaria Cinema in 180 Friedrichstrasse, also Berlin W8, a theatre with 800 seats and thus more than double the size of "Die Kamera". Dr. George Tootell opened the Christie on June 14, 1928, the very same day he also opened Christie op. 2698 in the Clou Concert Hall in Berlin.

But op. 2719 did not have a long lease of work in the Bavaria Cinema. It was dismantled again by 1930 or early 1931, most likely following financial problems as a consequence of the worldwide economic crisis and was forwarded to the Ufa-Palast (Schauburg) in Goerlitz, a town divided by the river Neisse which also became the Polish border after the last war. All the cinemas, however, had been erected in the Western districts of Goerlitz.

After the Ufa-Palast had been altered the Christie was installed and opened May 13, 1931.

 

Both the organ and the cinema must have been very successful. During our stay in Goerlitz we happened to meet a former manager of the Ufa-Palast, now Palast-Theater, who not only shared his various memories with us but also brought along his photo collection with unique pictures. Mr. Erwin Hafemann had spent most of his life working in the theatre in various positions. The two black/white pictures are courtesy of Erwin Hafemann who kindly forwarded professionally made reproductions of these unique views. Both pictures must have been made by the early 1950s.

 

Mr. Hafemann’s predecessor as manager, Mr. Kurt Doehner, was also resident organist in both the Capitol Cinema and the Palast-Theater. Both cinemas were united under the same ownership for a long time. According to Mr. Hafemann's memories, Mr. Doehner used to start every performance by playing his signature tune and was highly respected by local patrons for his artistry on manuals and pedals for interludes and playing them out by the end of the show as well as accompanying singers in variety shows. Mr. Doehner also set up clear instructions for the organ maintenance through Hermann Eule Organ Builders, as verified in a letter to the organ builder dated September 19, 1949.

By 1953 the Christie organ was taken out of the cinema and definitely scrapped. Obviously tastes had changed considerably and room was needed to install wider screens for new projection systems.

By 1982 the Palast-Theater was altered again and divided into five smaller cinemas which are successful to the present day. Most of the original plaster work was carefully retained. The former large auditorium has about 300 seats, the balcony was separated and divided into two little comfy cinemas. Two more had been erected on the stage behind the curtain, one on top of the other. Both organ chambers to either side of the stage had been removed for the benefit of these cinemas and their projection rooms. The following three pictures show the large cinema as it is today including the old plaster work along the ceiling, covering the organ grills and framing the stage.

 

For our last visit we chose the Babylon Cinema in Berlin, built by famous architect Hans Poelzig which we had visited a couple of times since July 1992. It is the only cinema in Germany that still has its original theatre pipe organ since opening day. The 2/14 Philipps organ was opened by Pierre Palla on April 11, 1929. A picture, courtesy of Berliner Morgenpost, from the 1950s shows the main entrance of the cinema in the corner house.

1950s view of Babylon Theatre - Courtesy Berliner Morgenpost

In 1948 the Babylon was altered and declared the premiere cinema for the Defa-Productions movies produced in nearby Potsdam-Babelsberg. It stayed the most representative cinema in East Berlin with a former seating capacity of 1,200 until the 1960‘s. But in 1993 it was closed due to the break of a prop in the roof construction. A major rebuilding project started in 1999 which cost about 11 million DM so far. Entry and lobby were remodeled according to Poelzigs ideas of the 1930s, the large auditorium was equipped with modern seating (447 altogether) and decorated in 1948 fashion which includes a wall that separates the balcony from the main auditorium, a feature that Poelzig never had planned or built. In the course of reconstruction of the cinema, a second and smaller studio cinema was erected in the back stage area.

 

The organ had been completely overhauled by Dr.-Ing. Dagobert Liers, a professional Berlin organ builder. The organ chamber is located on the left hand side of the stage, the console is movable and can be turned towards the screen for silent movie shows which have started again two months ago. The final picture shows Dr. Liers (left) and Willi Wiesinger (right) at the console of the Philipps.

 

 To view the specification of the Philipps 2/14 organ, click for WORD FORMAT (.DOC) or for HTML FORMAT (.HTM) if you do not have MS Word

Supplementary notes by Ian McIver:

For further information on German theatre organs, I can recommend the following websites:

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