Reel Life: their voices still carry | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Reel Life: their voices still carry 

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In 1927, when American popular music was the rage in Europe, an acting student in Berlin decided to create a German version of the Revelers, a male vocal quartet from the U.S. That student, Harry Frommermann, had a strange and enchanting ability to imitate musical instruments with his hands and mouth, and he'd already written songs for the nonexistent group.

Frommermann advertised for voices under 25 years old. From the many applicants, he selected a pianist and four singers, including an opera student, a street musician, and a singing waiter in a Bulgarian restaurant. Through rigorous rehearsals (a fine was charged for being late) the six were transformed into a tightly woven harmonic group known for its smooth singing and onstage antics. As two members would later say, the Comedian Harmonists overcame power struggles and personality conflicts to "breathe in harmony" and "harmonize as human beings." Frommermann was the heart and soul of the group, writing scores of songs.

The Comedian Harmonists made their first record in 1928 and were soon playing to sold-out houses throughout Europe and the U.S. The bandmates appeared together in dozens of films. They shared the bill with such stars as Marlene Dietrich and recorded in several languages. They lived lavishly, surrounded by women and wealth, while the Weimar Republic declined. In 1934, at the height of their international popularity, they were forbidden from performing by the Nazis--three members of the group were Jewish.

The three Jews--Frommermann, the son of a cantor; second tenor Erich Collin, son of baptized Jews; and baritone Roman Cycowski, a former rabbinical student from Poland--wanted to emigrate. The others didn't. So the group split in half--the Jewish part performing in exile, the "Aryan" one remaining in Germany. Both halves eventually disbanded.

Frommermann served in the U.S. Army, digging latrines and entertaining troops. He later acted as a translator at the Nuremberg trials and worked in radio. He tried to start new singing groups but always failed. Broke and broken, he took a job on an assembly line in New York. Sometimes he was so disheartened he would lock himself in the bathroom and sob. He eventually returned to Germany, where he recorded "The Flight of the Bumblebee," imitating more than 20 instruments as a one-man orchestra. He died in 1975 while listening to the radio.

Roman Cycowski quit the group in 1940, later becoming a well-known cantor in San Francisco and Los Angeles. "I was as popular as I'd been earlier," he said. "I'm proud I left the group to become a cantor." He retired to Palm Springs, where he died this past November, the last Comedian Harmonist. He was 97. Reflecting on Frommermann's fate, he said, "His life was bitter. The Comedian Harmonists caused him anguish."

Now, after 60 years, the group and its music are experiencing renewed popularity. University of Chicago professor Sander Gilman has been a fan ever since he heard an old 78 rpm recording about 25 years ago. "The music is really good," he says. "It's witty and absolutely the kind of thing that hits with an audience today." He also says the group's story is a natural for the stage. A musical, Band in Berlin, is just starting previews on Broadway, and another play, Barry Manilow's Harmony, which opened in La Jolla in 1997, is said to be Broadway-bound. (The Orange County Register called Manilow's musical "accomplished" but also suggested it was "Cabaret with a lot more Nazis.")

This Sunday at 6 PM The Harmonists, a 1997 hit German feature film, will close the European Union Film Festival (before it later opens commercially) at the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive and Jackson; admission is $7. The film includes original recordings, digitally remastered. Then on Sunday, February 28, at 4 PM, the Film Center will screen Eberhard Fechner's three-hour 1976 documentary, The Comedian Harmonists: Six Lives, which includes interviews with the four surviving members and their intimates. For more information on either screening, call 312-443-3733. --S.L. Wisenberg

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Comedian Harmonists uncredited photo.

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