Much like New York’s German American community itself, the German American Steuben Parade maintains kind of a low, dignified profile. As compared with, say, the St. Patrick’s and Columbus Day parades, the Steuben Day parade (which is just as big, I might add) doesn’t get a lot of airplay. In fact, you may never even have heard of it — or New York’s German community, for that matter.
In the 19th century, Germans were second only to the Irish in terms of ethnic presence here. And they’re STILL here; they merely assimilated. Two World Wars had something to do with that. The irony? America got millions of desirable Germans, starting with the ones who fled the backlash after the Revolution of 1848 and the increasing militarism and oppression in Germany in the late 19th and early-to-mid twentieth century. With them came some of the world’s best music, food…and beer. Need I say more? Well, I will. Here are some vaudeville-related facts about the Germans in the U.S.:
- The Germans brought that wonderful institution the beer garden with them. Its civilized family atmosphere (in contrast with the rowdier saloons) became a model for what came to be known as Polite Vaudeville.
- The Germans brought their music with them, including marches, which when played with syncopation by African Americans, gave birth to ragtime and jazz.
- The Germans (Austrians especially) brought light comic opera (operetta) with them, which rapidly morphed into the American theatrical form known as musical comedy.
- Many important theatrical impresarios of the vaudeville era had their origins in the German-speaking community: Koster and Bial, Oscar Hammerstein, Florenz Ziegfeld, Morris Meyerfeld, Martin Beck, Roxy Rothafel, Gus Edwards, and Gus Hill.
- Vaudeville performers with German origins included Fred and Adele Astaire, Mae West (half German), Eugene Sandow, Ethel Merman, Hildegarde, Van and Schenck, the Great Lafayette, Lila Lee, Fritzi Scheff, Emma Carus, Albertina Rasch and Otto Fries.
- And dialect humor being what it was in the vaudeville era, there were innumerable German stereotype comedians (known in the parlance of the time as “Dutch acts”) beginning with the grand-daddies of them all Weber and Fields, but also including the Rogers Brothers, Kolb and Dill, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon (“The German Senator”), Billy “Beef Trust” Watson, Ford Sterling, and – wait for it – Groucho Marx. (Groucho actually spoke a little Plattsdeutsch; his mother’s family came from Northern Germany).
This year I’ll have an enhanced appreciation of the celebration, having gotten a firmer grasp of the Germans in my background. Like all Anglo-Saxons, I naturally have early Medieval ancestors from North Germany (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) and many Frankish ancestors besides. I’ve discovered Medieval ancestors from all parts of Germany, Cologne, Cleves, Bavaria,Thuringia, Westphalia, Rügen and the Palatinate. In comparison with my English, Scottish, Irish, French and Dutch ancestry, my RECENT (modern) German ancestry is quite small. I’ve found a small handful as late as the late 1500s. My most recent full-German ancestor is my (7th) great grandmother Margaret Cypert (1716-1799), whose parents moved to Pennsylvania from Strasburg, I’m assuming for religious reasons (Margaret was a Quaker).
Come celebrate their contributions today. The parade marches up Fifth Avenue from 68th to 86th Street today from 12 to 3pm. More details here.