Known as The King of Tango. A renowned artist of the interwar period in cabaret and theatre, and member of artistic organisations ZASP and SPATiF. Born on 30th May 1894, died 20th December 1965.
Hanusz was the son of Jan and Albina, with ancestral roots in the ancient Korwin-Szymanowski family. Born in Warsaw, he grew up in Kraków, graduating from a classical high school – though he quickly turned his interests to theatre, studying in a dramatic school from 1909-11, along with taking singing lessons. This education stood him in good stead for his first public performances in 1910, when he began recordings for the label Syrena-Electro, under a multitude of pseudonyms, including Paweł Weiss, Józef Czarnecki, W. Lepecki, I. Trembecki, Władysław Kochański, S. Wasilewski, J. Kelter, Andrzej Kulesza and St. Ostrowski. Hanusz also used the pseudonym Paweł Weiss, to record for the labels Pathe, Stella Concert Record, Efte Płyta, Beka, Scala Record and Grand Gala Record.
Hanusz made his stage debut in 1911 at the Polish Theatre in Sosnowiec, although he did not want to remain confined to one theatre, and so began to tour around the provinces for five years, performing at the Zagłębie Dąbrowskie Theater and in Częstochowa. Hanusz appeared for the first time in Warsaw on 22nd November 1913 in the operetta Milionowa spadkobierczyni (Million Heiress) in the Małe Miniatury theatre in Nowy Świat Street, where he was dubbed a ‘Baritone from Kraków’. He also played in Łódź in 1915 at the Bi-Ba-Bo theatre, favourite haunt of Julian Tuwim, who wrote skits for performances there.
Success in Warsaw
In 1916 Hanusz finally made the permanent move to Warsaw, mirroring the journey taken by many other aspiring stars in the era, such as Eugeniusz Bodo. His talent and ability was quickly recognised, with Varsovians soon celebrating his work, following performances in almost all revue theatres, such as Qui Pro Quo, Morskie Oko, Sfinks and Czarny Kot. It was in Czarny Kot that Hanusz became one of the first to bring tango to Polish audiences, singing Ostatnie Tango (Last Tango) by Emile Deloire in 1919. Multiple copies of note music to the two versions of Ostatnie Tango feature photographs of Hanusz on the cover, emblazoned with the description that the song was ‘from the repertoire of Karol Hanusz’.
By the 1920s, Hanusz’s name was appearing alongside other renowned stars of the period, like Zula Pogorzelska and Mira Zimińska, in newspaper advertisements and cabaret programs. He was known for his exuberant elegance even at this early stage of his career, performing multiple numbers in shows, and receiving elaborate gifts, including a shirt of expensive silk handmade by women working at a linen factory on Świętokrzyska Street, near the dressing room.
But Hanusz also had to contend with the difficulty of his sexual attractions: it was common knowledge that he was homosexual, though such desires were criticised at the time. Reports of Hanusz’s performances suggest his homosexuality came across most in his acting, which are also hinted at in a review of the Black and White revue which, only critical of Hanusz, deemed him a ‘mannered singer’. This criticism was repeated for the show Precz z nagością (Down with Nudity) which vilified his performance of Titina as ‘tasteless’.
It has even been considered that Hanusz’s greatest hits, Ja lubię grube (I like thick), Dymek z papierosa (Cigarette Smoke) and Zuzanna, which portray a sexually active feminine character, allude to his homosexuality.
But Hanusz was never overly explicit about his homosexuality. Other gay figures in the period frequently disguised their true feelings through masquerade, allowing Hanusz to hide behind actors and dancers in order to escape condemnation.
Gossip about Hanusz’s homosexuality has particularly focused in recent years on the star’s relations with Eugeniusz Bodo, despite a lack of any hard evidence – suggestions extended through Polish Television's recent BODO film. Hanusz and Bodo were undoubtedly close: Hanusz was five years’ Bodo’s senior, and though it is not known how the pair met, Hanusz rapidly became Bodo’s tutor, sharing experiences and tips, as well as introducing him to central players in theatrical circles. In 1920, they joined the army to fight in the Polish-Bolshevik war, though the imminent cease fire meant they experienced no active service.
Their professional partnership in theatre was soon to divide after Bodo turned to the new technology of film, causing his fame to escalate beyond Hanusz’s – though the pair remained friends.
It must not be forgotten that Hanusz too starred in films from 1922-28, playing in four silent films; though Bodo’s foray into cinema with sound necessarily set him apart. Hanusz’s roles were mainly limited to unnamed parts, though the 1928 Przeznaczenie (Destiny) saw him star in his first named role as Alfred Szubin. Hanusz’s last performance in film was in the 1928 Polish-Austrian historical drama Huragan (Hurricane), a world away from the carefree theatre he knew best.
A few years later, Hanusz would, however, return to cinema, supporting the novel international trend of multiple versions of films. He managed the Polish version of Paramount on Parade, a series of music hall sketches originally arranged by Elsie Janis to accommodate different languages, which was also one of the first Polish-dubbed films.
But Hanusz’s true love remained the stage, where his fame was most prominent; regarded a ‘famous singer’ by 1933. He also worked to support other rising stars of the age like Hanka Ordonówna. She had begun her career with the name Maria Anna Pietruszyńska, a title Hanusz deemed too common and un-theatrical. Legend states that he was the one who helped fashion her pseudonym, evoking a recent production of Mickiewicz’s Ordon’s Redoubt to suggest Anna Ordon, from which the derivative Hanka was born.
By the 1930s, Hanusz’s career was at its peak, prompting a new direction of dramatic theatre: he appeared at the Ateneum theatre in the musical comedy Mądra mama (Wise Mom) alongside other notable performers such as Lodi Niemirzanka, Antoni Fertner and Jerzy Marry. Two years later, in 1937, Hanusz was performing in multiple bands in Poland and France, and by then was considered one of the most renowned contemporary artists.
Unlike many of his co-stars, Hanusz decided to remain in Warsaw during the war, performing on stage in public revue clubs including Kometa, Nowości and Nowy Miraż, as well as singing in cafes. A copy of the newspaper Nowy Kurier Warszawski from 1942 indicates he performed in Cafe Ziemiańska a day after Mieczysław Fogg, whilst an edition of the paper from 1943 lists his role providing an accompaniment at a piano. Advertisements of artistic performers at cafes during the war show Hanusz’s name often printed larger than any others.
But the war and its aftermath would take its toll on the cabaret world Hanusz knew so well: with Warsaw razed to the ground, the cabarets and revue theatres disappeared, alongside the loss of Bodo in 1943, and Ordonówna in 1950. Some stars had also left Poland for new lives in America or England, whilst others remained but never took to the stage again.
Hanusz’s path, however, was different. Despite the eradication of his past environment, he still took to the stage, performing monologues and singing, as well as recording songs – though he appeared almost lost in the new post-war world, and clutched at the memory of his career beginnings by touring in Krakow, Poznań, Łódź and Katowice in the years immediately following the war. From 1951, Hanusz performed in Warsaw and other large cities in concerts organised by the umbrella system of PPIE, the ‘State Enterprises of Artistic Events’.
One of his later hits was the apt Szumiały mu echa kawiarni (The echoes of the café were heard), a song originally from 1915, but revived by Hanusz in 1958. In 1964, he celebrated the 55th anniversary of his artistic work.
A year later, on 20th December 1965, Hanusz picked up a young man from a station in Warsaw, a surreptitious rendezvous necessitated by the lingering condemnation of homosexuality. They returned to his apartment, and it was there that the boy would brutally murder Hanusz. Little trace can be found of the incident, a testament to the continuing denigration of homosexual behaviour – as a result, Hanusz’s fame quickly faded, and he is seen now as a mere subsidiary performer alongside the great names of Bodo and others. Nonetheless, his grave bears the words 'Pieśniarz Warszawy’ (‘Singer of Warsaw’) – his role in kick-starting the careers of other performers, as well as bringing new styles of performance to Polish audiences, was essential to the interwar cabaret age.
Written by Juliette Bretan, June 2018.