‘Pakty i Fakty’: The Last-Ever Polish Interwar Cabaret Revue
default, ‘Pakty i Fakty’: The Last-Ever
Polish Interwar Cabaret Revue, center, ali_baba_teatr_plakat.jpg
On the evening of 2nd September 1939, and just before the third premiere of the new show Pakty i Fakty (Pacts and Facts) was about to begin at his Ali Baba cabaret, Kazimierz Krukowski was met with the harried theatre secretary Władysław Kieszczyński.
‘Director,’ he asked, frantic, ‘are we cancelling? The cashier wants to know if she is still selling tickets!’
‘Are you crazy?’ Krukowski spat back. ‘Cancel the premiere?’
‘Director, apart from the invitations we sent, we only sold 20 tickets – it’s no wonder, there’s a new raid within the hour, and it’s not known when these bastards will appear again. And besides, you will admit that the second day of war is not a very good date for the premiere…’ Kieszczyński shrugged, trailing off.
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‘The premiere must take place, even if we were to play to a completely empty audience.’
There was a pause, and then Andrzej Włast, who had been listening intently to the tense conversation, piped up from the corner.
‘Yes, it is – it is our duty to play’, he said, slowly.
‘Let’s not even panic – we’ll play as long as we can.’
[Dialogue trans. JB]
It’s not over till the ‘Pakty i Fakty’ sing
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Kazimierz Krukowski as Lopek in a scene from the film 'Ułani, Ułani, Chłopcy Malowani' (Uhlans, Ulhans, the Painted Boys), 1935, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
That frantic tête-à-tête between the producers and writers of Pakty i Fakty on 2nd September was the first sign that Poland’s cabaret and theatre boom in the Interwar period was entering its dying days – even if Warsaw’s glitterati did not want to believe all was over yet.
Although a certain level of panic might have been setting in as the war rumbled into its second day, a mere day before, that exchange between Krukowski and company backstage of the Ali Baba theatre could possibly have been lifted from a performance in one of the many cabaret shows of the Polish Interwar period.
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The war, although of course worrisome, was met in early September with an eerie sense of calm. At its worst, it was felt as a sense of heightened danger, or even a piquant thrill to some - with a sense of fighting spirit characterising initial responses in Warsaw. For most, it was mainly seen as simply a small, easily suppressible annoyance occurring in the outlying districts far from the bustling, lively, star-studded auditoriums of Warsaw’s city centre. The cabarets, the clubs, the dance halls remained open – and remained popular.
As Matthew Brzezinski writes in Isaac’s Army:
September 1, 1939, fell on a Friday, which partly explained the initial insouciance, the reluctance to rouse to a threat that would ultimately destroy 90 percent of the city and kill nearly half its inhabitants. It was date night, and the jazz clubs, movie houses and restaurants were packed.
There was a sense that something was afoot – seen in the slight rush on cash withdrawals and provisions, as well as in the establishments who, sensing danger, shuttered their doors and windows against the looming peril. Mostly, however, people tried to go on with life as usual, just as Włast encouraged. That was the artists’ job.
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The birth of the Ali Baba
The Ali Baba was the epitome of these last vestiges of Polish cultural resilience. It was to be the last theatre created by Włast, who established the premises together with Julian Tuwim’s cousin, Kazimierz Krukowski – Poland’s much-loved Lopek. Always sporting a dilapidated bowler hat, Lopek was the Polish cabaret’s everyman; the snobbish master of szmonces with an occasional tendency towards slips of the tongue, whose entire life as a Jewish shopkeeper was gradually revealed to the audience at Qui Pro Quo in some petit-bourgeois, ramshackle version of The Truman Show.
Włast, meanwhile, had been a powerhouse of Polish popular song. Known as the ‘King of Trash’, he always matched trends in light music with infectious, hackneyed yet melodramatic pieces which could appeal to Varsovians from all classes. Regarding Włast’s importance in the creation of the Ali Baba, Krukowski wrote:
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Powerful politics did not interest him at all, and he was never persuaded to write sketches or political monologues. I was even asked why I took the ‘graphic designer’ with me. But this was the prerogative of the revue show: after an ambitious song, which forced the audience to think or ponder about deep experiences, there had to be a number under the premise of being ‘for the audience’ and ‘for laughter’; a song or romantic piece, violent, or rhythmic, even jazz. It could be just about anything; the most important thing was for people to pick it up, remember it and sing after leaving the theatre. And for this, Włast was still good. He was the best in Warsaw.
The theatre was located in the former premises of the Malicka Theatre, within the magnificent-looking Panorama building on Karowa Street, which was home to a plethora of cabarets and auditoriums. Though the interior, as Ludwik Sempoliński describes, was far from satisfactory:
Everything was makeshift. The stage was huge, but deprived of a real backstage area and wings, and the dressing rooms were adapted to the needs of the theatre. Only in the 1930s did the Polish Association of Theatrical Artists update the stage and the backstage area to regular standards, at huge costs. The same can be said about the little room. It was located in the basement. One entered from the street into the hall and down the stairs into a relatively narrow auditorium. The stage was also small and had a modest backstage area. The dressing rooms were bearable, though separated from the stage by quite a long corridor.
The Ali Baba still premiered with much pomp and circumstance in April 1939, with Sezonie, Otwórz Się (Season, Open Up), featuring Ina Benita, Mieczysław Fogg, Alicja Halama and the unparalleled cabaret star Mira Zimińska. As Dziennik Narodowy (The National Journal) put it:
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'Sezonie, Otwórz Się' (Season, Open Up) at the Ali Baba Theatre in Warsaw, pictured: Mira Zimińska,1939, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
A new and valuable acquisition for the Ali Baba theatre is Zimińska – full of, as always, grace and temperament, and above all, ingenuity. Of course, Zimińska depends primarily on the repertoire; the funniest part of the last Ali Baba show is ‘Gas Alarm’, spoken excellently by this talented artist.
On 31st May came the highlight revue show of the theatre’s career: Orzeł czy Reszka (Polish Eagle or Reich/Heads or Tails).
The show, which would run until mid-August, would go down in Polish cabaret history. The magazine Robotnik (Robotnik) had the following to say:
The old Qui Pro Quo, Banda, Cyrulik – they have an indestructible life. They die from time to time, but then they are reborn from the ashes; young, lively, cheerful. I think that the next theatre after closing Ali Baba (may it happen as late as possible) will be called Phoenix. Here, only Jarossy [sic] is missing, and we are among nice friends. [...] An elaborate political revue, where we watch deliciously ridiculed Axis policy leaders, brings hurricanes of applause.
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The 'Serwus Jarosy' revue at the Qui Pro Quo cabaret in Warsaw, 1926, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The star of this ‘deliciously ridiculing’ show was the now legendary song Ten Wąsik (This Moustache), a perfect storm of classic cabaret and contemporary political spoofing. It had been written by Marian Hemar, who was rapidly turning into Poland’s next great poet; he had been rushed off his feet by propositions throughout the golden musical summer of 1939, but was impatient to write material for the Ali Baba, which had already recruited the golden crowd of the Polish cabaret scene.
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Ten Wąsik was performed by Ludwik Sempoliński dressed as Hitler, as part of Panopticum Figur Wojskowych (Collection of Military Figures). The programme also featured a burly Mussolini, performed by Wojciech Ruszkowski, alongside a Neville Chamberlain played by Fogg.
After interventions from disgruntled German embassy representatives and a panicked Foreign Ministry, Sempoliński would ultimately have to don a Goebbels costume instead – but the song survived unscathed, as he described:
Fortunately, the word ‘Hitler’ never featured in the song ‘Ten Wasik’, so they couldn’t criticise it, and it remained throughout the entire programme.
During the war, however, Sempoliński had to go into hiding for his participation in this performance. Hemar was also blacklisted.
The last days of the Polish cabaret
Before all of this, even as September approached rapidly, the song found another home in the latest Ali Baba revue, Pakty i Fakty, which premiered at the end of August. On 27th August, Wieczór Warszawski (Warsaw Evening) penned a promising appraisal of the theatre’s new show:
The Saturday premiere of Ali Baba, awaited impatiently by the entirety of Warsaw’s theatre scene, promises to be sensational. Excellent texts by Tuwim, Hemar and Włast; an amazing team of audience favorites with Żelichowska, Andrzejewska, Rakowiecki and, at the fore, Fogg; and the impressive scenery by Galewski will complete the picture of Ali Baba’s success so far. As the title of the new revue, ‘Pacts and Facts’, shows, it will have a lot of political satire and a lot of current wit, in line with the current themes of the Karowa Street theatre’s repertoire.
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Mieczysław Fogg during a performance at Cafe Fogg on Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw, 1946, photo: Stanisław Dąbrowiecki / PAP
Times were changing, however. The Ali Baba might have had aspirations to become the next Qui Pro Quo, with its scathing satires and amusing impersonations, but a more horrific situation, away from the stages of Polish cabarets, was becoming exposed. As Krukowski explained, ‘the joke about Hitler ceased to be a joke – it became a grim reality’.
Audience numbers were high – for the first couple of premieres at least, including a full house on 1st September.
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It was most probably on the following day, however, that the promising lights of the Polish cabaret were finally extinguished.
Nasz Przegląd (Our Review) was still singing Pakty i Fakty’s praises in the days before that show:
This coming Saturday, on 2nd September, the Ali Baba theatre performs the sensational premiere of a new political revue called ‘Pakty i Fakty’ by Tuwim, Hemar and Włast, in which the great artist, revue and film star Lena Żelichowska will perform for the first time; and one of the most talented actresses of the young generation, an unforgettable heroine of ‘Dziewcząt w Mundurkach’ (Girls in Uniforms), Jadzia Andrzejewska. Ali Baba will be headed by: public favourites Kazimierz Krukowski, Czesław Skonieczny, Zbigniew Rakowiecki, Mieczysław Fogg, Nina Wilińska […] The premiere of Ali Baba promises to be the biggest sensation of the fall season.
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Nazi German army on the outskirts of Warsaw, 1939, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Their revue came alongside a recommendation for the show Kto Kogo (Who Whom?), the latest revue at the Tip-Top cabaret, which featured Hanka Ordonówna, Chór Dana and Eugeniusz Bodo, among many others, which opened in mid-August. Both shows were testament to the still-vibrant life of Polish culture, even as September arrived.
But Pakty i Fakty quickly felt the brunt of political anxiety. Mieczysław Fogg, who performed a song as a soldier standing in front of the Belvedere, said:
Any moment, bombs could have fallen in the centre of Warsaw, and we, like every evening, were to fulfil our usual acting duty. Except that the theatre’s facade and showcases of photos, like the whole city, were dark.
Fiction was turning to reality in a rapidly incontrollable manner – and what was once funny or joyous, as Mariusz Urbanek writes in Tuwim: Wylękniony Bluźnierca (Tuwim: Frightened Blasphemer), became horrifying:
During the premiere, Lena Żelichowska had to encore an old poem by Tuwim, ‘Przed Paris’ (originally recited in 1919 at the Miraż [Mirage] cabaret), prophesying Germany, as then, 20 years ago, a defeat despite its first successes.
Express Poranny (Morning Expresss) also reviewed the new show on 2nd September. Their advert was placed next to one for Fryderyk Járosy’s new theatre, the Figaro – an enterprise promising modern theatrical performances, with its newfangled lighting installations, novel in Poland. Ultimately, it never opened.
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Today, all of theatrical Warsaw is going to Ali Baba (Karowa 18) for the premiere of the new political revue ‘Pacts and Facts’ directed by Kazimierz Krukowski. This revue promises to be quite sensational.
Of course, by then, that turned out to be far from the truth. Audience numbers had dwindled to almost nothing by 2nd September – as Fogg noted,
the room was empty, with a quarter full at most. The audience reacted weakly, as if in dementia, in apathy.
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Oaza restaurant at Plac Teatralny, 9 Wierzbowej Street 9 in Warsaw, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
That day, aside from Krukowski’s panicked conversation with the theatre’s secretary, other incidents signalled there was trouble ahead for Polish cultural spheres. Even though the audience was mostly empty, peppered only with the troupe’s actor friends and some critics, the theatre found it difficult to ready the show on time: there was no prompter, and there were few electricians to set up the scene backstage.
When the curtains finally opened, the actors – and the small audience – were met with an unprecedented performance. Krukowski explained:
A strange, amazing premiere. It seemed to the actors that we were telling the audience fairy-tales so fantastic and unbelievable that even in the minds of children they would evoke a reflex of self-defence.
By 3rd September – the day that England and France declared war – all, as Fogg described, was practically over.
We played a new program twice a day for the first three days of September [...]. On 4th September, a bomb dropped at night ruined our theatre. Kazimierz Krukowski, who was probably one of the first to arrive the next day, explained how miserable the damaged interior looked, with a surviving telephone dangling, deaf, from the rope.
The show was still advertised in papers printed that evening and released the following day, with the bomb falling too late for them to be amended.
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But it was their performance on 2nd September which went down in history as the last hurrah of Polish cabaret. This would be the last time that stars like Włast and Hemar, Fogg and Krukowski, would come together, even if the horrific reality of their futures had now, finally, began to sink in.
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Julian Tuwim & Marian Hemar – authors of the texts of the most famous pre-war cabaret, Qui Pro Quo. At centre, the legendary annouhcer Frydyryk Járosy, photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe
tuwim jarossy hemar.jpg
After that memorable night, Kazimierz Krukowski recalled leaving the theatre into Poland’s now anxious capital:
I went out to the hopelessly dark and empty streets of Warsaw. Thanks to some random thought, I remembered the ‘picture’ that went on the stage of the Qui Pro Quo theatre in 1930: the picture entitled ‘Twenty-Five Years Later’.
The year: 1955. The stage decorations – Monte Carlo, a bench, where Elna Gistedt and Fryderyk Jarossy at. She – a Swede, he – Hungarian, sprinkled with grey hair. They reflect on their times spent in the capital of this beautiful country, which became their adoptive homeland –‘the nicest – the most beautiful – the happiest period of their lives’.
They remember and dream:
If you saw Warsaw again,
come to Ziemiańska for black coffee.
Buy a bunch of lilacs on Traugutta,
and rehearse in the theatre.
To see Ćwikła and Junosa again in Poland,
Our native film at the Riałto Cinema.
God forgive me for asking for this –
Come back from the old days, even for a few moments ...
Written by Juliette Bretan, Aug 2019
polish artists of the interwar period
Sources: ‘Moja Warszawska’ by Kazimierz Krukowski (1957); ‘Gwiazdy Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej’ by Slawomir Koper (Warsaw: Bellona, 2013); ‘Being Poland: A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918’, ed. by Tamara Trojanowska, Joanna Nizynska, Przemysław Czapliński, Agnieszka Polakowska (2018); ‘Acting Out: Qui pro Quo in the Context of Interwar Warsaw’ by Beth Holmgren; 'Kabaret Hemara' by Ryszard Marek Groński, Marian Hemar, (PTWK, 1988); Theatre-architecture.eu; 'Isaac's Army' by Matthew Brzezinski (Penguin 2012)