Magician Christopher Howell at the Wintergarten entrance

I’ve never actually made a bucket list but one thing that would be on it if I had one would have been to perform at The Wintergarten Varieté in Berlin.  And it kept coming up: people all the time telling me after they’ve seen my Norvil & Josephine, act “Oh the Germans would devour this act!”  I could only hope someday they would.

Famous are the rumours of how ravenous the Germans are for cabaret and variety: a fantasy world full of extravagant characters, impossible spectacles and tantalising stories that live on long after the curtain has dropped.

Then it happened.  One dark October night last year while Norvil was meditating in his aviator armchair with a whisky tumbler poised in one hand and a billiard ball dancing through his fingers in the other… while at that very same moment Josephine was being spotted across London town fluffing her ostrich feather fans while contorting upside down from a chandelier… the phone rang next to Norvil.

On the line was the legendary Sheila Wolf, Berlin’s sensational transvestite showgirl and purveyor of spectacular variety artists wishing to book us for her next Vaudeville Variety Revue show.  And we were set!  I started to prepare the show and blow the dust off my years of German at school and university.  All was bubbling with anticipation until … in January… after a foot pain that kept getting worse…  Desireé who plays Josephine went for an x-ray and texted back the result from the consultation room: “it’s a break!”

London to Berlin: Norvil to Sheila:

“So Sheila… a little something has happened…”

Josephine in crutches could have been a clever twist.  But lucky for us, we had the wonderful Tink of The Dream Performance waiting in the wings to play Josephine’s sister Florence.  And a few weeks later off we went with our 100+ kilos of equipment, props and costumes with our destination: The Wintergarten.

A one-minute history lesson: The Wintergarten shows began in an actual winter garden (of plants and glass walls) back in the 1880s with the first small variety performances.  There was a particular focus on Akrobaten and Zauberkünstler (if you’ve blown the dust off your German lately as well, you’ve likely guessed that means ‘acrobats’ and ‘magicians’.)  Houdini performed there in 1900, a few years before he appeared at the  Leeds City Varieties (1904) and London’s Hackney Empire (1911) – two other magical theatres where we’ve been fortunate to perform our show in his footsteps. (If you’d like to be in on some amazing secrets about Houdini, by the way, here’s a must-read.)

Historical posters at Wintergarten Variete

In 1944 the Wintergarten was destroyed by a bomb attack and for the next forty-eight years it was preserved only by its reputation and the legends of the performers who had performed there.  Then in 1992 the name was transferred to the theatre where it lives today in Potsdamer Strasse. The stories from inside Wintergarten began being told again.

It’s a literal palace to variety, full of memorabilia from famous acts, magical photographs and posters. Two sweeping staircases lined with spectacular artefacts and costumes flank the auditorium as you go up to the balcony.   And the toilets! You must see the toilets. Yes I just wrote that…

My late mentor Eugene Burger always said: in a performance, every moment counts. Every second.  So in our twelve minute Wintergarten act, we had exactly 720 seconds to make count.  We opened with our comedy magic hoops routine; the magic classic where the hoops melt into and out of one another.  It’s the routine we use to introduce our characters to the audience. Following on from that was our fans waltz routine that was inspired by Alan Wakeling. That took us to the finale.

For that, we closed with Houdini’s signature illusion – with an audience member examining a wooden trunk where Norvil is then locked up inside.  Our special twist is the surprise ending in the form of the comedy double costume quick change that we created when we got through as finalists in the Magic Circle Stage Magician of the Year competition last year.  Norvil not only escapes, but he also appears (to his own surprise) in Josephine’s dress; whereas Josephine is found locked in the trunk now wearing a bunny costume instead.

720 seconds.  And it all indeed went down a treat.

The run was all over too soon though and now seems like a dream full of magic and bottomless backstage champagne (thank you, Sheila).  Berlin, bis wir uns wieder treffen!  Until we meet again!

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