On September 13th 1913, Fritz Bühler opened the dance hall “Bühlers Ballhaus“ (Bühler’s Ballroom) in the back of Auguststrasse 24/25. The venue quickly became a prime address for a mix of the Berlin’s ‘haut monde’ and blue-collar labourers, all in quest of a relaxed ‘Schwoof’ (the Berlin vernacular term for ‘dance’).
The venue became known as Clärchens Ballhaus after Bühler was killed in WWI and his widow, Clara – a Prussian farmer’s daughter and one of the first women in Berlin to allegedly earn a driving licence – took over the business.
When exactly the buildings were erected no one knows – official records were lost during WWII. One rumour has it that they were commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s butler…
The front building was so badly damaged by bombing that it had to be torn down, which made the entrance to the Ballhaus visible from the street. The decimated area was latterly turned into a pleasantly ramshackle garden that today serves pizza, beer and other unpretentious delicacies to patrons.
In his 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin had his hero Franz Biberkopf come here for a drink with his friend Meck, who has just been restored to health after losing an arm. “They wander down to the Alex in their same old jogtrot, then a short way through the Gipsstrasse, where Franz takes him to the Alte Ballhaus…”
The German illustrator and photographer Heinrich Zille had his regular place at the bar, where he used to sit and draw.
The poster, still used today, was designed by an artist called Dix, but it was not the famous Otto.
While the crowds swayed along to the popular ballads of the time in the ground floor ballroom (pictured above), the more dignified ladies and gentlemen of the Spandauer Vorstadt (Mitte as it’s known today) would dance in the mirrored ballroom upstairs…
The Third Reich banned “non-German” dance styles (tango, jazz etc.) but Claerchens not only stayed open but became a haunt for Nazi officers until finally closing in 1944.
Under socialist rule, the Ballhaus was open again, albeit with a slightly different crowd encompassing rowdy soldiers, factory workers and travelling salesmen. Some came from the West for the cheap beer and “loose women”, drawing in their turn Stasi agents and ‘official’ prostitutes.
The downstairs ballroom remained open after the fall of the wall. In 2005 theatre impresarios David Regehr and Christian Schulz took over the venue and finally re-opened the upstairs mirrored ballroom – Spiegelsaal -to the public, making a pledge to keep it (and the rest of the building) in its original post-war state.
Since then, the ballroom has become one of the celebrated historical spaces in the city, sporting its war-era damage with pride.
The atmospheric interior has been used in recent times as a film location for various high profile films, such as “Valkyrie” with Tom Cruise and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards” (with Brad Pitt).
Even schlepping up and down the dilapidated staircases is like being trapped in a temporary time warp.
Claerchens also has a few hidden areas, such as a smaller, separate room used for private events, parties and meetings.
Behind the main ballroom lies a charming dining area set in a conservatory…
And a pleasant garden!
Meanwhile, the front garden has attracted various Berlin street artists, who have brought the venue up to date with contemporary – if sometimes nostalgic – motifs…
Yet despite its popularity today with everyone from ageing German patrons to international hipsters, the venue keeps one foot firmly in the past. The menu remains simple (pizza, meatballs), the music is defiantly untrendy (swing, tango, gypsy music). And the cloakroom is still manned by Günter Schmidtke, whose family has been dealing with customers for several decades, greeting them with a workaday charm and hint of ‘Berliner Schnauze’ that also seems to represent a bygone era.
Some of the historical information above was reproduced with kind permission from AFP. You can read their original article here.
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