Gerhard Bronner

Eminence grise of Viennese cabaret


Gerhard Bronner, cabaret artist, actor, director and producer: born Vienna 23 October 1922; three times married (three sons, one daughter); died Vienna 19 January 2007.

Gerhard Bronner was a leading proponent of Vienna's noble tradition of witty musical cabaret laced with political satire, and was active in many aspects of musical theatre in Austria for more than 50 years.

He wrote comedies for the stage, created scores of television entertainments, made many recordings and himself listed his various careers in the arts as musician, performer, actor, artistic director, theatrical producer, and film producer. Yet it may well be for his legacy of cabaret songs and as éminence grise behind one of Vienna's best-known post-war cabaret venues - the Marietta Bar in the Spiegelgasse - that he will be remembered most fondly.

Born in Vienna in 1922, he grew up in the working-class district of Favoriten, with a childhood he evoked in one of his most poignant songs, "Das Favoriten-Lied", and during which his family often afforded refuge to a youthful local activist who was excluded from his own home for his socialist affiliations - the young Bruno Kreisky, who went on to become Austria's Social Democrat Chancellor from 1970 to 1983.

Bronner was in turn forced to seek refuge in order to escape Nazi anti-Semitism. Other members of his immediate family perished as a result of persecution; he himself escaped only by risking a hazardous journey towards the Black Sea, in the course of which he had to swim the Danube from Bulgaria to Romania, losing a comrade who drowned before he could reach dry land. Bronner continued to Palestine, where his skill as a pianist secured him employment entertaining British forces. He was asked to join an Ensa concert party that had lost its pianist, and was thus automatically recruited into the British army, acquiring official papers that described him as a British subject, and, as part of the "Cliff Gordon Show" playing at El Alamein a week before the battle.

After the Second World War he stayed on in Haifa running the musical programming of British Forces Radio, before, in 1948, being offered a job in London with the BBC. On his way there he stopped in Vienna, for his wife to visit relatives, and stayed - in part as a result of seeking refuge, this time from the weather, by entering the Marietta Bar to shelter from a shower.

Having faced the unenviable decision whether to remain in a city from which he had barely escaped with his life, he began to produce controversial political numbers for the radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot, and to arrange his renowned cabaret shows at the Marietta Bar, which he later acquired as owner. This period, during which Bronner appeared with performers such as Helmut Qualtinger, Georg Kreisler, Luise Martini and Peter Merz as the "nameless ensemble", has been described, not just by Bronner himself, as the golden age of post-war Viennese cabaret.

Shows were produced with names such as Blattl vorm Mund, with ironic echoes of a German phrase that expresses the outspokenness to which cabaret has traditionally aspired. The dialogues that Bronner performed with Qualtinger based on the character of Herr Travnicek have had lasting fame; similarly, in creating an outlet for Georg Kreisler, who returned to Vienna from exile in the United States in 1955, he provided opportunities for this extraordinary talent to find its voice in the German-speaking world. Kreisler went on to rival Bronner himself as one of the great figures in German-speaking musical cabaret; sadly, their relationship soured after their initial collaboration.

Some of Bronner's cabaret numbers from the time have had enduring appeal. They range from what has become almost a signature piece about a party to celebrate the end of a course of dancing lessons - an ostensibly respectable occasion that descends into a knife-fight when brawling Viennese teddy-boys quarrel. Another recounts the attitude of Vienna's jeunesse dorée, who feel they have free rein in their personal behaviour, confident in the knowledge that whatever goes wrong, daddy will sort things out. One of the most biting is the ditty in lilting Viennese dialect in praise of the "Angel-Maker" - in Bronner's explanation of the term, the local back-street abortionist.

Bronner's many achievements in musical theatre include a translation of My Fair Lady that arguably surpasses the original in verbal craftsmanship, and, fittingly perhaps, a version of Cabaret. This underlines how Bronner, who spoke fluent English and lived in the US for some years, was willing to act as artistic broker between nations.

A great anglophile, he was particularly pleased with a version of Die Fledermaus that he provided for Covent Garden in 1977, and he also translated Gilbert and Sullivan. His love of English music encompassed admiration for Elgar, Holst, Walton, Britten and Vaughan Williams, but he also regarded Flanders and Swann as an influence, as indeed was Noël Coward, who, according to Bronner, once made a pass at him.

In 1996, in an echo of his projected journey to London in 1948, he brought his English-language version of a production by Alexander Waechter, Kamp!, to the city as part of the Festival of Austrian-Jewish Culture. This was a programme of cabaret songs based on texts recovered from archives compiled at Theresienstadt concentration camp. Bronner had provided replacement music for many of these songs, and in so doing gave a London audience an opportunity to experience the wit and the charm of this typically Viennese medium in an emotive historical context with which he was himself only too familiar. One can only be grateful that Bronner escaped the fate of Fritz Grünbaum, the cabaret performer who died in Dachau.

Bronner subsequently worked with Grünbaum's artistic partner Karl Farkas, and their joint presence on stage embodied the passing of a cultural baton from one generation of Viennese Jewish performers to the next; from the veteran to the "upstart". No one could have done more than Bronner to ensure that the medium retained its vibrancy; he composed or contributed to more than 2,500 songs over the course of his career.

His last stage appearance, broadcast by the Austrian station ORF, was on New Year's Eve.

Colin Beaven

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