This is a truncated version of a talk I have given hither and yon over the years, as it is a pet topic of mine — a bit of history that is hidden in plain view. It is timed for the birthday of Revolutionary War hero Baron Friedrich Von Steuben (September 17), which is celebrated with an annual parade in New York City, followed neatly a few days later by German American Heritage Month (October), also the time of Oktoberfest.
The topic first grabbed me when we did an exhibition about it when I was p.r. director at the New-York Historical Society, and later when I did research for my book No Applause. The thrust of it is this: since America’s beginnings, one of the most major, most numerous and most influential non-Anglo immigrant groups have been ethnic Germans. Numerically, Germans and Austrians were neck-and-neck with the Irish in the 19th century. They not only settled in massive numbers in the mid-west, but also eastern states like Pennsylvania and New York, including New York City, where they had their own neighborhoods, Kleinedeutschland (Little Germany or Dutchtown, on the Lower East Side) and Yorkville. NYC, like St. Louis and Milwaukee, was full of German breweries. The word delicatessen is German. It is impossible to imagine the modern 4th of July had the Germans never arrived, for they gave us such staples as beer, cold cuts, hamburgers, hot dogs (adapted from Vienna sausage), mustard, pickles, pretzels, and brass bands. (I highly recommend episode two of Padma Lakshmi’s awesome show Taste the Nation “The All American Wiener” which brings home this point.)
And yet…somehow we don’t think of this stuff as “German”. Most Americans tends not to regard that stuff as “German food” in the way that we think of, say, spaghetti and meatballs as “Italian”. NYC still has a Little Italy and a Chinatown, but no German neighborhood. The St. Patricks and Columbus Day Parades are hugely visibile. The Von Steuben Parade, not so much.
What happened? Well…a few things. Here in New York City in June, 1904 the community was gutted by the General Slocum Disaster, NYC’s worst single day catastrophe prior to September 11. (Read about it here). A decade later there followed World War One, and anti-German feeling ran astonishingly strong across American, despite the German community’s number and high visibility. It was at that point that the communities made an active effort to assimiliate. Later, there was a further wave of that during World War Two. German pride naturally became regarded as unseemly when it had metastasized into a full-blown murderous mania back in the so-called Fatherland. (The irony is that many German immigrants to the U.S., including German Jews, had come here as political refugees, ever since the Revolution of 1848. Thus German-Americans were often the opposite of imperialists or Fascists). At any rate, many a Schmidt became a Smith during those years, and the process never really stopped. Added to which is the fact that, ever since the beginning, German-Americans had had an easier time of assimilating in the U.S. than most. Germans, after all, LOOKED like Anglos, and most of them were Protestant. Traditional prejudices about ethnicity and religion were less applicable. And so the Germans vanished in plain sight. And rediscovering their contributions becomes a matter of excavation.
As we wrote in No Applause, in the 19th century, Germans were largely instrumental in the birth of American show business by patronizing family-friendly beer gardens and pleasure gardens rather than wild and woolly saloons. This led to the “clean” environment of vaudeville. Koster and Bial were major owners of concert saloons, but more typical were San Francisco’s Gustave Walter and Morris Meyerfeld, who founded what became vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit, ultimately run by Martin Beck. Other German American impresarios included Gus Hill, Ike Rose, Florenz Ziegfeld , Gus Edwards, and Roxy Rothafel .
Lots of Germans and German-Americans dominated the circus world: The Ringling Brothers, the Sells Brothers, Carl Hagenbeck, and the Mighty Haags. The aformentioned Rose, Leo Singer, and Oscar Klinkhardt all managed troupes of little people, many of whom like The Doll Family, and Meinhardt Raabe, were also German. There was the strongman Eugene Sandow , trapeze artist Lillian Leitzel , and clowns Lou Jacobs and Otto Griebling
Just as vaudeville had stereotyped African Americans, Irish, Italians and Hebrews, et al, for a time the “Dutch comedian” was a vaudeville specialty (Dutch used in the sense of “German”). Many of them came from the vicinity of the aforementioned Kleinedeutchland. The most influential and imitated were Weber and Fields , but there were also Gus Williams, Cliff Gordon “the German Senator”, Kolb and Dill, The Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, and Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean. Shean’s nephew Groucho Marx also did such a character at the beginning of his career, until World War One made such an act impractical. Ford Sterling brought his German vaudeville routine to silent movies. Later faux German performers included Jack Pearl, and Lew Lehr. MUCH later there were Laugh-In‘s Arte Johnson, Get Smart‘s Bernie Kopel, Mel Brooks’ The Producers and, Hogan’s Heroes.
A not unrelated phenomenon were German comic strip artists such as Rudolph Dirks (Katenzenjammer Kids), Frederick Burr Opper (Happy Hooligan), Carl E. Schultz (Foxy Grandpa), Frank H. Ladendorf (Lads, Mischievous Willie) etc. Later there were Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz.
Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum was half German. Frank Morgan , who played the Wizard in the 1939 film version, also a German (real name Wuppermann). George Raft was German; his good friend Mae West was half. Fred and Adele Astaire were Austrian. Also German were Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Johnny Weismuller, and obviously Marlene Dietrich, and Lotte Lenya.
Buffalo Bob Smith of Howdy Doody was really named Schmidt. Some later and contemporary examples include Freddy Prinze (mother Puerto Rican but father German), Christopher Walken, Molly Ringwald, Dennis Franz, Ben and Casey Affleck , Kirsten Dunst, Liev Shreiber, and Tina Fey’s mother (hence she frequently worked German language bits into 30 Rock).
Also the Germans gave us important musical legacies. German marches, synpocated or “ragged” by African Americans gave birth to jazz. And German and Austrian operettas by Victor Herbert, Offenbach, et al were important precursors to American musical comedy,
Read about dozens more in the German interest section of Travalanche.
For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.