Otto Kahn (1867-1934) is best known to posterity as a banker and financier, but theatre and show biz buffs come across his name from time to time and I’ve had occasion to mention him here occasionally so today we give him a shout-out. Basically, he is a lot like Oscar Hammerstein if Hammerstein was vastly more interested in business, and had gotten less involved in the artistic end. It’s a question of emphasis. Like Hammerstein, Kahn was a German Jew who loved music, learning to play several instruments while young. His father however insisted he become a banker. Starting out as a humble clerk he rapidly rose to where he was running the Deutsche Bank branch office in London, and then he finally came to America, where among many accomplishments he reorganized the railroads, increasing efficiency and profit, and helping avert financial crises.
Kahn became a millionaire many times over and he spread it around. Notably, he became president and chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Company (notable again because Hammerstein provided the Met’s principal competition). Kahn also was the director of several other theatres and arts organizations and was the chair of the New York committee that ran the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations in 1916, at which a distant relative of mine performed.
There are a couple of Marx Brothers connections to Otto Kahn. One is that the character of Rosco W. Chandler in Animal Crackers seems, physically at least, to be a spoof of him. And Groucho used to tell this story about him: “I knew a fellow named Otto Kahn. His close friend was Marshall P. Wilder, who was a hunchback. One day they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue and Kahn turned to Wilder and said, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ ‘Really?’ said Wilder. ‘I used to be a hunchback.’
Kahn’s son Roger Wolf Kahn became a jazz bandleader; we wrote about him here.
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