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Bouffon Burlesque Clown Comedy Coney Island USA Juggling Performing Arts Photography Sideshow Street Performing Tattoo

Roc Roc-It, the Clown Prince of Berlin

Roc Roc-It makes carny gold out of everyday objects. Grinning like a roly-poly overgrown tattooed child, he ambles onstage declaring, “This is the most dangerous stunt ever!” Then he reaches into a black drawstring bag and pulls out an ordinary disposable latex glove.

Making a big hoopla over stretching the glove out, he finally manages to distend the cuff over the top half of his face. Then he proceeds to huff and puff, inflating the glove on his head until it resembles a bloated coxcomb or a balloon mohawk. The audience laughs at the ridiculous sight of a potbellied man wearing a blown up glove on his head, but as the glove gets larger and larger, the laughter turns to cringes and cries of protest. Roc-It jacks up the mounting anticipation with goofy pratfalls and sideshow banter until the glove finally bursts all over his face.

With ingeniously simple acts like these, Roc-It has earned the monicker Clown Prince of Berlin. He has indeed lived in Berlin for about ten years – in a caravan outside a squat in an industrial part of Kreuzberg – but Roc-It was actually born in a small town near the Black Forest. “I’m a country boy,” he says with a wide smile that reveals several missing teeth. After several failed apprenticeships, he finally found his calling on a trip to Barcelona. “I saw all these street performers working on the Rambla,” he recalled, “and I was like, yeah, wow, that’s what I want to do.”

Sleeping on the beach and practicing everyday, he built up skills in Diabolo and fire. He learned to hammer a nail up his nose and juggle balls. Then after five years performing throughout Europe, he found himself in New Orleans breaking up with an ex-girlfriend. “I had two weeks left on my visa,” he said, “and I thought, fuck it, I’m going to go and visit some friends in New York.”

It was on his very last day in New York that he made a fateful visit to Coney Island with no other desire than to do a final show on the beach. “I knew nothing about what a sideshow is,” he said, “My friends were jugglers, guys riding a toy unicycle, doing all this classical stuff, and my show was always a bit weirder. And I was always a bit weirder character. So for me, it was basically, like, okay, there’s the main show and I’m the sideshow.”

With that in mind, he put his kit an old green suitcase and painted the words CIRCUS SIDESHOW on it. He was carrying the suitcase when he strolled past Coney Island Circus Sideshow and caught the attention of impresario Dick Zigun, who invited him to perform. Roc-It was a hit and stayed on for the next three years. “They fired the midget,” he laughs.

“While I was in New York, I did a thousand shows a year,” he estimates, but his visa had run out and living illegally finally wore him down. “I was working so much and so intensively, I got injured quite a lot,” he remembers, “I knocked my teeth out. I broke several ribs on stage. I burned my face off. And at one point, it just got to be like, it’s too much.”

Since returning to Europe six years ago, he continues to wow crowds in burlesque shows and street festivals. Twice a year, he performs with Kabaret Kalashnikov, a variety show with an Eastern European storyline. On summer nights, you can find him in the middle of a circle of people at Alexanderplatz during Berlin Lacht Fest. He also regularly performs with the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow when they are in Europe.


“Dazzle them with brilliance or baffle them with bullshit,” he declares, rolling up his sleeve to display a motto tattooed on his arm, “Either it has to be really poetic or just so ridiculous, that it’s just as good.”

Roc Roc-it at Baum Haus Comedy Open Air 
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Burlesque Cabaret Music Performing Arts Photography Video

Weimar Cabaret and Le Pustra’s ‘Kabarett der Namenlosen’

This blog post is authored by our Berlin Correspondent Victoria Linchong.

For most of the world, the mention of Berlin invokes a decadent underworld of androgynous women in beaded gowns and men in monocles smoking from ebony cigarette holders while Marlene Dietrich straddles a chair and tosses out a saucy song. But you would be quite disappointed if you were trying to find that vanished world in Berlin today.

True, state-run varieté exists in every city, but these are mainstream family-friendly dinner theaters. They are not the underground cabarets of the Weimar era with its barbed political satire and transgressive sexuality. It’s hard to believe, but with the Nazis and the war followed by the division of the city, it’s only now that Berlin is recovered enough to start revisiting the legacy of its underground cabarets.

The glamorous mother of all Goldene Zwanziger parties in Berlin is the Bohéme Sauvage and that only began in Else Edelstahl’s apartment in 2006. The following year, neo-burlesque found its way from New York City to a Berlin tiki bar and this activated a new generation of underground cabaret. Since then, a dozen or so burlesque and cabaret shows have opened in various bars in Berlin, most notably Pinky’s Peepshow and Fête Fatale at Bassy Club, and Sunday Soirée at Primitiv. One of the latest and most exciting additions to this burgeoning scene is the Kabarett der Namenlosen, which premiered in Berlin two years ago. Invoking the unsettled ghosts of Weimar cabaret, it almost immediately was a legendary hit.

Kabarett der Namenlosen is the brainchild of Le Pustra, a performance artist originally from South Africa who performed for many years in London. On a visit to Berlin in 2012, he took a walking tour through Christopher Isherwood’s haunts in West Berlin. The tour guide mentioned the Kabarett der Namenlosen, a notorious open stage of the 1920s, where amateur performers were often reduced to tears by malicious audience members. Le Pustra was struck by the evocative name and after moving to Berlin, he set about creating a cabaret-theater piece around the idea of the nameless lost performers of the Weimar era.

Kabarett der Namenlosen is essentially a classic varieté revue with several international performers doing their signature acts loosely framed by a story. But it’s a vastly different experience from any other varieté in Berlin, with its lush visual style, copious nudity, and dark subject matter. Yes, there are plenty of comedic moments – a British Music Hall number with Miss Annabel Sings, a gag with Julietta la Doll as a telephone sex operator. But Le Pustra also plays a drag artist who is betrayed by a friend (performance artist Reverso) and London burlesque sensation Vicky Butterfly is heartrending as a flighty party girl who accidentally overdoses on cocaine. It’s an immersive experience that leaves you feeling like you’ve somehow traveled back in time to 1930, went on a bar crawl from the Kadeko to the Weiss Maus to the TingelTangel, and got to know some of the fragile and needy nightlife denizens of that fleeting time period.

The most evocative moment in this cabaret-theater piece comes at the end. The audience is given little pieces of paper with what looks like a German poem and the cast comes out with a large board with the same writing. Le Pustra begins to recite the English translation:

“What makes them think they have the right
to say what God considers vice?
What makes them think they have the right
to keep us out of Paradise?
They make our lives hell here on Earth
poisoning us with guilt and shame
If we resist, prison awaits
so our love dares not speak its name.
The crime is when love must hide
From now on we’ll love with pride.”

These are the lyrics to Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song), the hugely popular gay anthem of Weimar Berlin. At the end of the Kabarett der Namenlosen, everyone is encouraged to sing along using those little pieces of paper, which have the refrain in the original German. It’s a powerful moment, even if most audience members don’t know the song and have no idea that they are participating in a remarkable homage to all the nameless artists lost in the untimely end of Weimar cabaret.

Written by Russian émigré Mischa Spoliansky and native Berliner Kurt Schwabach, Das Lila Lied was first recorded in 1921 by the Marek Weber Orchestra. Even though censorship was relaxed and there were several gay cabarets in Berlin, it was still illegal to be homosexual, not to mention socially taboo. Spoliansky wrote the song under a pseudonym and no one knows who sang the original recording. Most people think the uncredited singer was Leo Monesson, one of the most popular crooners of the Weimar era, who is credited on over 1,400 recordings for all the major labels of the era and starred in 11 films.

Spoliansky, Schwabach, and Monesson were all Jewish. One by one, they fled Berlin as the Nazis rose to power. Spoliansky emigrated to London where he eventually became a film composer and never returned to Berlin. Schwabach had a more difficult time and hopped from London to Prague to Palestine during the war years. Although he found relative success after returning to Germany in 1949, he never recovered from the persecution he suffered and committed suicide in 1966.

Monesson also never recovered from the Nazi era. He went from Paris to Spain to New York, where he settled in the town of Ardsley and became a postage stamp dealer. In 1952, he applied for compensation to the Berlin State Office, asserting, “I managed, after 1933, never again to earn money by singing. My playing has been developed by German culture and elsewhere is strange and unpopular.”  

It’s the tragedy of these artists that gives the Kabarett der Namenlosen its profound depth of poignancy. At the end of the show, when Le Pustra has the entire audience singing Das Lila Lied, it feels like a bridge is finally being created between the underground cabarets of the Weimar era and Berlin today. After all this time, Berlin is finally able to pick up the threads from the 1920s that were so untimely cut short. The ghosts have been summoned, a ceremony has been performed, and at last, Berlin is free to embrace a part of its past.

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Original version of Das Lila Lied

 DAS LILA LIED (“THE LAVENDER SONG”)
Original German Lyrics by: Kurt Schwabach
English Translation by: Jeremy Lawrence

What makes them think they have the right
to say what God considers vice?
What makes them think they have the right
to keep us out of Paradise?
They make our lives hell here on Earth,
poisoning us with guilt and shame.
If we resist, prison awaits,
so our love dares not speak its name.
The crime is when love must hide.
From now on we’ll love with pride.

CHORUS:
We’re not afraid to be queer and different.
If that means Hell, well, Hell! We’ll take the chance.
They’re all so straight, uptight, upright and rigid.
They march in lock-step, we prefer to dance.
We see a world of romance and of pleasure.
All they can see is sheer banality.
Lavender nights are our greatest treasure,
where we can be just who we want to be.

Round us all up, send us away,
that’s what you’d really like to do.
But we’re too strong, proud, unafraid.
In fact, we almost pity you.
You act from fear. Why should that be?
What is it that you are frightened of;
the way that we dress,
the way that we meet,
the fact that you cannot destroy our love?
We’re going to win our rights
to lavender days and nights.

Kabarett der Namenlosen is playing from February 24-26 in Berlin. You can find out more on their Facebook event page. Hendricks Gin is a creative collaborator of Kabarett der Namenlosen. The show is produced by Boheme Sauvage.

 

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Categories
Comedy Dixon Place LaMaMa etc Music Performing Arts Photography PS122 Story Teller Television The Kitchen Vaudevisuals Interview Video Writer

Frank Maya – A Tribute – Video/Essay/Postcards/Interviews

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FRANK MAYA

Frank Maya: Out There By Victoria Linchong

Frank Maya once said that he turned to comedy “as a way to make the world safe for me.” The first openly gay comedian to appear on MTV and all three major television networks, Maya’s candor and wit helped pave the way for greater acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream media. As ABC News noted in a 1993 introduction to Maya, “Until recently, comics who wanted to succeed in show business never ever admitted they were gay. And they certainly never used their homosexuality as a punchline.”

Maya was born in 1950 to a middle-class Catholic family in Long Island. His Irish and Colombian background later became fodder for much of his comic material. A gifted musician and vocalist, he found work playing in cabarets and folk clubs after graduating from Hofstra University. In the mid-1970s, he met director John Jesurun and began venturing into the alternative music scene, then dominated by the Talking Heads and post-punk New Wave.

Fronting a band called the Decals, Maya became known for satirical songs that combined Latin-infused pop with absurdist poetic patter. Several of his songs also used toy instruments, recorded sound, or found objects such as scissors or a jar full of pennies. In one song, the refrain consisted of Maya shouting, “Pancakes!” with a recorded voice responding, “They’re ready!” Impish and whimsical as his songs were, they also were biting commentaries on consumerism and the banality of everyday life. His lyrics also revealed a quirky way with rhymes, “When you’re home for the holidays do you realize your dog looks upset? Does he realize during dinner, he’s simply the household pet?” The New York Times praised him as “a wacky pop iconoclast with enough star quality to have earned comparisons to performers as dissimilar as Laurie Anderson, David Byrne and Peter Allen.”

Maya was part of Jesurun’s legendary serial theater piece, Chang in a Void Moon, when it premiered at the Pyramid Club in 1982. His music performances had always verged on theater with interludes of acerbic monologues he called rants. In the mid- 1980s, he began focusing more on his rants, joining a growing cadre of solo performers such as Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, and Karen Finley, who were similarly examining American society through a personal lens.Pacing around the stage, he tackled pop culture, gender issues, and the mundanity of existence. Thirty years before the current outcry over the lack of minorities in mainstream media, Maya was commenting, “There’re a few movies like Cotton Club where they take all the black actors who’ve been out of work for ten years and put them in the same film… People say, ‘See we’re making progress.” His three-hour-long solo performances were performed at P.S. 122, La Mama, Dixon Place, the Kitchen, and Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun series. He also toured the mid-Atlantic states and performed in Germany.

During that time, Maya was known to paint his ears gold, perhaps to distinguish himself from other solo artists. He soon found a much more authentic way of differentiating himself. While Maya had made a few allusions to his sexual orientation in his music and his rants, he had never been completely overt about his homosexuality. His former partner Neil Greenberg believes that an anti-gay incident may have radicalized him. Whatever the cause, Maya began boldly declaring his homosexuality in 1989. At the same time, Maya was also realizing that he could achieve wider public attention by rebranding himself as a stand-up comic. “In New York they call me a performance artist…” he remarked in a 1989 Washington Post article, “But if you ask the Washington audience after my show, they’ll say, ‘He’s a stand-up comic.’ I always feel that my stuff is misinterpreted — it’s very funny, but it’s got serious points in it… But I’m not afraid of being considered a comedian as long as people like Lily Tomlin are considered comedians.”

Maya made his first openly gay appearance on HA! Comedy Network in 1990. His breakthrough to mainstream media happened at a pivotal time when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. Maya’s self-deprecating humor was a refreshing antidote to the widespread alarm in both the general population and the gay community. Here was a good-looking man without any effeminate traits, talking simply and naturally about being homosexual. “Comedy is about really being truthful,” he stated, “People are hoping the comic will tell them everything. So how can you hide your love life? It just seems impossible.” Though he joked about people in his audience who looked mortified, he said he rarely had hecklers and added, “”I guess people are still recovering from the fact that they can’t believe what I’m saying.”

Throughout the early 1990s, Maya appeared regularly at Caroline’s Comedy Club and MTV’s “Half-Hour Comedy Hour.” He also starred in his own half-hour special on Comedy Central. His last show Paying for the Pool ran at the Atlantic Theater for eight weeks. It was described as, “A one-man show in which Maya talks about his childhood and coming-out experiences.”

Maya was diagnosed with AIDs in 1995 but continued to perform. In The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater, Carmelita Tropicana remembers him at a conference for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) four months before he died. Despite a high fever, he did his entire set and had to be persuaded to go home early. Although friends were tearful over his impending death, Tropicana recalls, “[Frank] hated the tender sweet image of white helium balloons flying up to the sky in memory of those who have died of AIDS. He was angry, he wanted something loud, an uzi, a bomb to explode.” An upfront iconoclast to the end, Frank Maya was 45 years old when he died.

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Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 9.47.12 PM1986 Postcard for Frank’s performance at CBGB

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Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 9.49.45 PM1986 Postcard for Franks Maya’s performance at LaMama Cabaret

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Frank Maya at The Kitchen1990 Postcard for Frank Maya’s performance at The Kitchen.

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Frank Maya’s Music

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FRANK MAYA ACCORDING TO HIS FRIENDS: Uncut, Unexpurgated, Unabridged

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Postcard for Franks Maya’s performance at PS122 – 1989

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Frank Maya - Paying for the Pool 1993

Postcard for performance at Atlantic Theater – “Paying for the Pool” 1993

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MORE ABOUT FRANK MAYA – Performance Videos

Frank Maya at Dixon Place (circa 12-31-91)

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REFERENCES

Brown, Joe. “A Little Tattle Tale” Washington Post; 17 March 1989.

Holden Stephen. “A Wacky Pop Iconoclast” New York Times; 15 July 1983.

Holden, Stephen. “Frank Maya, 45, Performance Artist and Solo Comic.” New York Times; 10 Aug 1995.

Holden, Stephen. “Music Noted in Brief: Frank Maya, Singer, Satirizes Consumerism.” New York Times; 30 March 1983.

Rizzo, Frank. “Maya’s Punch Line Reaches a Broader Audience.” Hartford Courant, 22 Sept 1993.

Solomon, Alisa, and Framji Minwalla. The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. New York: New York UP, 2002.

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Thanks to Neil Greenberg,(postcards, videos,interview) Ellie Covan,(interview, video) John Jesurun (interview) and Victoria Linchong (Writer/Profile) for their great contribution to this post!