A charismatic Polish poet, lyricist and theatre manager, whose heart-rending songs helped to sustain a nation torn apart by conflict. Director of Polish Parade, the theatre troupe accompanying the Anders Army. Born 9 January 1907 in Kiev, died 12 September 1991 in Chicago.
Feliks Konarski was born in Kiev in 1907, and demonstrated a keen fascination in the stage from an early age, despite having little background in music. Indeed, he had one of the most startling introductions to the Polish theatre out of any of the interwar icons: at his mother’s insistence, he fled the city for Poland at the age of fourteen for a better education, armed only with a pittance of money, a few provisions, a change of underwear, and some new but tight shoes. In his book 30 lat pracy artystycznej poza krajem Ref-Rena i Niny Olesińskiej, 1941–1971 (editor’s translation: 30 years of Ref-Ren's and Nina Olesińska’s artistic work abroad, 1941–1971), Jan Bielatowicz describes Konarski’s early career in Poland:
Konarski…never studied music and plays instruments by ear…He was head of the theatre society by the time he was a middle school student in Kiev, even though many of the society were older than him. Having left Kiev on foot in 1921 (his parents stayed there), Konarski arrived in Warsaw to pass his final high school exams and enrol in university. However, science had less appeal to him than music and the stage. He started composing songs, playing the banjo. Konrad Tom was the first to give him a hand, in addition to choosing Konarski’s life-long pseudonym for him, one which Konarski didn’t particularly like.
Konarski acquired his pseudonym, ‘Ref-Ren’, allegedly because he always started writing songs from the refrain. But it was these very songs – pieces Konarski could churn out with unprecedented flair, garnering the interest of the already renowned Tom – which quickly became the backbone of his career. He learnt piano to expand his musical ability – and by the end of the 1920s, less than ten years after he had arrived in the country, Konarski was already composing for Qui Pro Quo and Perskie Oko. One of his first for Perskie Oko was the dubious foxtrot Gdzie jest twój tata? Smarkata!, sung by Zula Pogorzelska in the ‘Czarno na białem’ revue.
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The career develops
After Qui Pro Quo collapsed in 1931, Konarski worked for the Mignon theatre, then known as Wesoły Amor. Three years later, he co-founded Wesoły Murzyn, with which he toured across Poland, eventually settling in Lviv at the end of the 1930s.
Nevertheless, Konarski’s career had come at the expense of contact with his family: he had fallen out of touch with them in the 1920s after his mother had requested him not to write, though before then he had only received intermittent notes and packages. Yet, in 1939, he finally succeeded in communicating with his relatives still in Kiev, and discovered his father was dead, and his brother had been deported to Siberia in 1937.
Despite this news, Konarski penned his classic hit, Pięciu chłopców z Albatrosa, the same year – in memoirs written in 1966, Halina Rozwadowska recalled that it was “popularized so much that soon the whole of Warsaw was singing, humming and whistling” the tune.
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The outbreak of war
When war broke out, Konarski was still in Lviv, and allegedly performed for a time with Henryk Wars’s Tea Jazz Orchestra, before leading another orchestra on tour across the USSR. After leaving Russia in April 1941, Konarski joined the Anders Army, establishing a Polish Soldiers Theatre, which debuted in Tehran in May 1942. This merged with the remaining members of Wars’s Tea Jazz Orchestra to create Polish Parade, with Wars as manager and Konarski as literary director.
As the Anders Army travelled through Persia, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, soldiers were accompanied by a frivolous melee of folk songs, patriotic tunes, and sentimental routines, belying the war raging around them. Polish Parade also became a firm favourite of international audiences: British and Indian soldiers admired the sophistication of their revues, often performed under fire, and the troupe allegedly won an award for best Allied musical ensemble during the 1940s. It was in Italy, however, that Polish Parade would achieve its most renowned success: the song Czerwone Maki na Monte Cassino.
Anna Mieszkowska described the creation of the iconic song – which took place the night before the battle:
Konarski, as Gwidon Borucki told me, was gloomy and didn’t talk to anyone, which was unusual given his naturally cheerful disposition. He would play a bit of guitar or jot something down from time to time. One night he woke Fredek [Alfred Schütz] up and made him immediately play and correctly write down the notes for the lyrics he’d written on a random piece of paper. At three in the morning they woke Borucki up to give him the lyrics and notation so that he would sing. Instantly. He didn’t even protest too much. He felt it must be something important.
Konarski himself said the song was the only piece from his repertoire which “could cross all the borders and boundaries in the world, and unite Poles scattered all over the most distant places on Earth.” When Borucki first performed it, the soldiers sang along with the lyrics painted onto pieces of cardboard – Konarski recalled that “everybody was crying”.
There is even a photograph of Konarski himself performing at Monte Cassino, a heaving audience bursting at the seams around him.
The Rise & Fall of Polish Song
When the war ended, Konarski starred in the 1946 Polish-Italian film Wielka Droga (Great Way), directed by Michał Waszyński. He played an unnamed theatre director – alongside Polish interwar singer Adam Aston, who played an unnamed singer.
The same year, Konarski left for London. He initially performed in camps in Scotland and England, penning the songs Zwiędły liść (Autumn Leaves) and Piosenka starszego pana (The Song of the Elderly Gentleman) in 1946 – the latter he later performed for Polonia Records, recorded in England:
And to think that it's gone, that it's over
Those old evenings will not return.
He then went on to become a permanent cast member of the café at London Polish club Orzeł Biały, called Piekiełko. Recounting her experiences of the café, Maria Drue illustrated Konarski’s endless talents, even post-war:
Ref-Ren gave a repertoire without thinking – every week new songs, contemporary skits and poems. The fruitfulness and diversity of his work was amazing. We wondered when he found time to write?...After returning to London, Felek either watched television or bet on horses.
But Konarski soon had larger issues to contend with than horses – in 1948, he decided to split from Orzeł Biały, shattering Marian Hemar’s monopoly of Polish émigré culture. Konarski opened the competing Teatr Ref-Ren in Ognisko Polskie, whilst Hemar rebranded, establishing Teatr Hemar. It was Hemar’s own egocentric attitude which had first caused discontent, as he prevented any other experienced directors – like Konarski – from being involved in his theatres. Konarski then pushed Hemar’s buttons even further: he capitalised on the split, organising a parody of Hemar, Nasi za granicą (Our Abroad), which premiered on 8 December 1948. Reportedly “almost the entirety of Polish London” attended.
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Certainly Konarski’s performances would not be impacted by the move: he continued to perform in Chicago, preparing two revues a year and touring Polish Centres across the United States. He also established a radio programme, Czerwone Maki na Monte Cassino, which broadcast for twenty-five years, entertaining Polish-Americans with recollections and anecdotes, and helping to bridge cultural and generational gaps.
Konarski died in Chicago on 12 September 1991 – the story goes that he passed a day before he was due to return to Poland for the first time since the war. Irena Anders was one of many celebrity attendees at his funeral, and recounted how Konarski was “in an open coffin, dressed in the tuxedo in which he performed.” Polish cabaret historian Beth Holmgren, recalls visiting Konarski’s home in Chicago in the 1990s, remarking on the quirks of his personal life which were still residual after his death:
I rode in a car that sported his pseudonym, ‘Ref-Ren’ (Refrain), on its license plates.
And so, the Konarski sparkle never truly died.
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