Magician Christopher Howell at the Wintergarten entrance

Wintergarten Dreams

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 as their magic act. 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.

A PHONE CALL SETs IT ALL OFF

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

Sheila Wolf, Berlin’s sensational transvestite showgirl, was on the other end of the line. She’s a purveyor of spectacular variety artists wishing to book us as her Wintergarten magic act for her next Vaudeville Variety Revue show. 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!”

The wintergarten broken foot x-ray in our magic act

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 Bruce waiting in the wings. She would 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 1-minute history lesson

The Wintergarten shows began in an actual winter garden (of plants and glass walls) back in the 1880s. There they produced their 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. It was a few years before he appeared at the  Leeds City Varieties (1904). Then he appeared at London’s Hackney Empire (1911). Both of those are 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

Anyways, in 1944 the Wintergarten was destroyed by a bomb attack. So, for the next forty-eight years only its reputation and the legends of the performers who performed there preserved it. 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.

Wintergarten view from audience during magic act

It’s literally a 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. Not to mention other Wintergarten magic act memorabilia. And the toilets! You must see the toilets. Yes I just wrote that…

My great 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 we performed our fans waltz routine that Alan Wakeling inspired. That took us to the finale.

Wintergarten magic act FINALE

For that, we closed with Houdini’s signature illusion. An audience member examined a wooden trunk. Norvil then gets locked up inside.  Our special twist is the surprise ending. It’s our comedy double costume quick change. We created it 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. Now it seems like a dream full of magic and bottomless backstage champagne (thank you, Sheila). Berlin, bis wir uns wieder treffen! We’ll hold onto our Wintergarten magic act dreams from last time until we meet again! – CH

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

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