Henry Hall’s Gestapo nights

ROBIN HOUS­TON un­cov­ers some un­palat­able facts about the fa­mous band­leader and BBC Ra­dio stal­wart’s vis­its to Ber­lin in the 1930s

The Oldie - - WHITEBOARD JUNGLE -

IT IS HAND-PAINTED on the wa­tered­silk, gold-braided ban­ner: ‘Henry Hall and his Orches­tra. It was great! Auf Wei­der­se­hen!’ An­other ban­ner bears the leg­end ‘Ber­lin, 28.2.39’. Oldies will re­mem­ber that from the 1930s into the 1960s, Henry Hall was one of the ma­jor stars of Bri­tish ra­dio. Un­der his ba­ton the BBC Dance Orches­tra used to broad­cast daily, and for many years af­ter the Sec­ond World War, Henry Hall’s Guest Night en­ter­tained mil­lions ev­ery Fri­day evening.

Many years ago I worked for a time in Hall’s May­fair of­fice. One day in 1973, while do­ing a clear-out, he of­fered me a cou­ple of care­fully wrapped packages which he said had been given to him by some fans in the 1930s. I failed to look at them at the time and packed them away. Do­ing my own clear-out the other day I found the two silk ban­ners and I was dis­turbed at what they re­vealed: in Fe­bru­ary 1939 – only a dozen weeks af­ter the ter­rors of Kristall­nacht and barely six months be­fore the start of the Sec­ond World War – Henry Hall and his Orches­tra had per­formed in Ber­lin.

It was no se­cret even in early 1939 that Jews in Ger­many were al­ready suf­fer­ing the hor­rors of what came to be known as the Holo­caust. As well as the camps, those Jews still at lib­erty were be­ing tor­tured by in­creas­ingly op­pres­sive laws. The world of popular mu­sic was not ex­empted. By the time Hall and his col­leagues ap­peared in Ber­lin all Jews were pro­hib­ited from at­tend­ing con­certs there, Jewish mu­si­cians were for­bid­den to per­form pub­licly and popular mu­sic writ­ten by Jews was pro­hib­ited.

To ful­fil his con­tract in Ber­lin, Hall would have had to com­ply with th­ese Nazi de­crees. He was not Jewish, but in­evitably a num­ber of his mu­si­cians were. And a large amount of popular mu­sic was by Jewish com­posers and lyri­cists. For in­stance, two big hits for Hall in those days were ‘Un­der­neath the Arches’ by Bud Flana­gan, and ‘Lit­tle Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day’ with words by Mau­rice Sigler and Al Hoffman. And one of Hall’s most suc­cess­ful mu­sic ar­rangers was Benjamin Frankel. It would have been im­pos­si­ble in 1939 to lis­ten to a Henry Hall con­cert or broad­cast with­out hear­ing any mu­sic writ­ten, ar­ranged, or per­formed by Jews.

But be­fore go­ing to Ber­lin, Hall was forced to agree to the Ger­man pro­moter’s de­mands to re­move any­body Jewish from his band and ev­ery­thing Jewish from his pro­gramme. Bri­tish news­pa­pers were quick to pick up on his com­pli­ance: ‘Henry Hall Booked For Ger­many, Won’t Play Tunes By Jews’ re­vealed one news­pa­per.

‘Henry Hall’s Aryan Pro­gramme’ read the head­line in an­other. ‘Mr Henry Hall, the dance band leader, last night replied to crit­i­cisms made of his forth­com­ing visit to Ber­lin, as it has been re­ported that he would com­ply with the Nazi reg­ula- tion of mak­ing the pro­grammes 100 per cent “Aryan”. Pub­lish­ers have co-op­er­ated with him in en­sur­ing that none of the works in his reper­toire will be by Jewish com­posers.’

Hall re­sponded to the crit­ics: ‘My band has al­ways been popular in Ger­many ... nat­u­rally I do not want to spoil such good re­la­tions by be­hav­ing in a way that would of­fend in Ber­lin. What I am do­ing is purely a mat­ter of com­mon sense. There is, af­ter all, plenty of Aryan mu­sic I can play – Cole Porter, for ex­am­ple, Noel Gay, and so on. We go to Ber­lin on Jan­uary the 26th.’

And so they did. The band ar­rived in the Ger­man cap­i­tal to ful­fil a four­week book­ing at the Scala Theatre. By de­cree the au­di­ence was to be en­tirely non-jewish. Many of them would be in uni­form, in­clud­ing that of the SS. And it was ex­pected that Hein­rich Himm­ler would visit, if not Adolf Hitler him­self.

On 1st Fe­bru­ary 1939 the band per­formed their first thor­oughly ‘Aryan’ pro­gramme. Hall re­ported they had a ‘ri­otous’ wel­come from the au­di­ence and the press. They played to ca­pac­ity ev­ery night, with three mat­inées ev­ery week. And it was not only Hall who was com­plicit with the Nazis; so was the BBC. The Cor­po­ra­tion trans­mit­ted the con­cert live from Ber­lin on 4th Fe­bru­ary.

The fi­nal per­for­mance was on 28th Fe­bru­ary, and it was then that Hall’s Ger­man fans pre­sented him with the ban­ners. He was paid lav­ishly, in ster­ling, by the pro­moter. Dur­ing the short time Hall had been in Ger­many, Hitler had threat­ened the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the en­tire Jewish race, Jews had been or­dered to sur­ren­der all their gold and sil­ver, and the com­plete ‘Aryani­sa­tion’ of Jewish prop­erty had been de­creed. Two weeks af­ter the band left Ber­lin,

Ger­many in­vaded Cze­choslo­vakia.

Back in Lon­don Hall wrote in the press about the Ger­man popular mu­sic scene, but also noted the ‘thrill’ he ex­pe­ri­enced in see­ing a torch-lit pa­rade of Hitler’s Stormtroop­ers. ‘It was a tremen­dous sight,’ he wrote, ‘made all the more im­pres­sive by the fer­vour of the fa­nat­i­cal civil­ians for whose ben­e­fit it was staged.’

Writ­ing his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy fif­teen years later, Hall was less en­thu­si­as­tic about what he had seen. ‘Uni­forms of one kind or an­other seemed to be ev­ery­where, and soon some of them – the Stormtroop­ers, for in­stance – gave us an un­easy feel­ing.’

Be­tween those two con­flict­ing views came the Sec­ond World War. Hall had been shame­fully ea­ger to dance to the Nazis’ tune in 1939 (and he was by no means the only Bri­tish en­ter­tainer to do so). But not sur­pris­ingly he changed his tune when the con­flict be­gan. He agreed to play a ma­jor role in morale-boost­ing for the troops and the gen­eral public, his pre-war tour to Ber­lin largely – but not com­pletely – forgotten.

The in­crim­i­nat­ing ban­ners. Right: Henry Hall in 1935

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