Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Die Kleine Cornelia: The Berlin Brat

Today, Cornelia Froboess is an actress.  As a teenager, she was a pop star known as "Conny".  But our story concerns a little girl called Die Kleine Cornelia ("Little Cornelia"), who entertained German audiences in the early 1950s.

Her father, Gerhard Froboess, was born in Weisswasser, Germany, May 10, 1906.  At the age of 11 he was playing his accordian in restaurants, entertaining the guests with dance music.  Later, he put together a small band with some school mates and gave afternoon performances at a silent movie theatre.  A fan of American jazz, Gerhard formed a new band in high school, the Ohio-Jazzband.  They played some lively numbers, and it wasn't long before they were the most popular dance orchestra in Leipzig -- an unexpected development, to say the least.  He acquired the nickname "Professor Hot".

But Gerhard had other interests, too: ham radio, and tinkering with electronics.  He went to Kothen and studied high frequency technology and electroacoustics.  He landed a job at Telefunken, where he worked for a few years as a sound engineer, initially making field recordings; afterwards, as the war broke out, he went to work at Tobis film studios as a sound engineer and mixer.

It was this facility for electronics that made Gerhard "indispensable" and kept him out of the war, allowing him to continue with his music.  He had his first records during the war, "Ich liebe nur dich allein" ("I Love Only You"), "Treppauf treppab" ("Upstairs, Downstairs"), and others.  His wife Margaretha, herself a gifted singer, joined him, and they entertained the troops in Wehrmacht programs.  Margaretha's singing career was cut short when she became pregnant.  Gerhard was hoping for a boy, and had already chosen a name: Sebastian Cornelius.  The couple fled to the town of Wriezen to escape the bombing of Berlin.

Gerhard kept his job at Tobis, and on October 28, 1943, during the filming of JUGENDLIEBE (1944), he received a phone call from Wriezen: Margaretha had given birth to a girl.  Gerhard was initially disappointed, but he was at least able to salvage part of the name, and so they called their daughter "Cornelia".

Cornelia grew up at 27 Gottschalk Street in Berlin's Wedding district, a working-class neighbourhood.  She was a little brat who was used to getting her way, and called her father Dicker ("thick") with playful impudence, though she sometimes called him Papi.  An only child, her parents doted on her and filled her bedroom with dolls and toys, though she slept on a folding bed.

Cornelia packing her dolls -- and maybe even her badehose

A 1952 article in Der Spiegel describes how road workers made a large mound of sand on her street.  The children played a game they called "King's Hall" by building two thrones out of the sand, one for the king and one for the queen.  It tells a lot that Cornelia was the queen.  A follower she was not.

Cornelia went home and burst into her father's music room complaining about an old man with long teeth and "as little hair as you", and that he stunk like a thousand men.  The children had been throwing sand at him and he had threatened to call the police.  She told the story with hands on her hips, as though she were in the right!  Clearly she wanted to get her side in first, in case a policeman should come knocking.

The little troublemaker, no doubt taunting her neighbours

In the first few years following the war, Gerhard had little time for Cornelia.  He worked as chief sound engineer at the Soviet DEFA, a film studio in East Germany run by the state, then started his own music publishing company, Melodie (originally Froboess and Schlag, later Froboess and Budde, when Rolf Budde bought 50 percent of the company in 1947) and increased his output of compositions, such as Die Sonne geht schlafen, which became a hit.  From 1946 to 1949 he published a magazine also called Melodie, subtitled Illustrierte Zeitschrift fur Musikfreunde ("Illustrated Magazine for Music Lovers").

Despite the musical environment in the Froboess home, Cornelia at first showed little interest in following in her father's occupation, though she'd wake him every morning with her rendition of a popular tune called Open the Door, Richard, which she'd changed to Open the Door, Gerhard.

But one day in February 1951, Gerhard was struggling with a new arrangement for a song written by Werner Muller and Hans Bradtke called An der Ecke steht ein Schneemann ("On the Corner Stands a Snowman"), while 7-year-old Cornelia sat in the corner playing with her dolls.  The session dragged on until Muller, leader of RIAS Tanzorchester (dance orchestra), and Gerhard, his musical director, concluded that what the song needed was a children's choir.  Cornelia jumped to her feet and insisted that she sing the Snowman song.  Cornelia was used to hearing her father banging away at the piano for hours while composing, and would learn the melodies almost unconsciously.  Humouring the little girl, all were astonished by her untutored vocal talent as she belted out the tune without hesitation or flaw, despite being an impromptu performance.  That same day, Gerhard made a demo tape recording of Cornelia singing the Snowman song with the Metropolitan Vocalists.

Gerhard accepted an offer to play the ballroom at the Kindl brewery in the borough of Neukolln.  Not surprisingly, the crowd was roaring drunk and paid no mind as Froboess, on piano, led the Metropolitan Vocalists through their usual repertoire.  Fortunately, Gerhard had brought Cornelia along to test out the Snowman song.  Without the slightest qualm she stood on the stage and began singing.  The clattering beer steins fell silent.  The little brat had their attention, and by the end of the song Cornelia was surrounded by an unruly mob of clamouring admirers.

Impressed, Erica Bruning, one of Gerhard's lyricists, presented him with the words to a new song, O, diese Jore, about a girl who dreams of being a boy, which she'd written for Cornelia.  Gerhard immediately set it to music, and it was performed by Cornelia at a talent show.  Another little girl took first prize for her poetry reading.  No matter; for Cornelia, singing for an audience was nothing more than play.

Another of Gerhard's lyricists, Hans Bradtke, was an architect who found work as a cartoonist after the war.  He also designed covers for the sheet music published by Froboess and Budde and, realising that one could make money writing the words underneath all those little notes, decided to give it a try.  His first effort was Pi-pa-paddelboot in 1948.

Hans Bradtke and Gerhard Froboess

That spring in 1951, Bradtke suggested they collaborate on a song for Cornelia.  Gerhard was open to suggestions. One morning while shaving, Bradtke came up with lyrics about swimming in the Wannsee, a lake in western Berlin, where the popular beach was always crowded.  He committed the words to paper with lather still covering his face and delivered them over the phone to Gerhard, who, with equal excitement, came up with a melody almost immediately.  The song was called Pack die Badehose ein ("Pack Your Bathing Suit").  Gerhard made a demo recording of Cornelia singing the song, but as usual it was only for home use.

"Dicker, lass mich doch det singen!"

Gerhard made a visit to Hans Carste, head of the entertainment division at RIAS (a post-war radio station in the American sector of Berlin) to drop off some sheet music.  He had taken Cornelia with him and she groaned about how boring it was waiting in the car, and asked if she could come inside.  Gerhard acquiesced, and during their visit Carste gave the little girl a chocolate bar.  In return for his kindness, Gerhard insisted that she sing him a song.  She felt imposed upon, but nevertheless sang O, diese Jore.  Carste was impressed enough to promise her a spot on a future radio program.  Two weeks later Gerhard was asked to give a concert at the Titania Palast, a grand movie theatre in Berlin, from which RIAS regularly broadcast live shows, and to bring Cornelia along.

With Hans Bradtke (top) and Dad, from HOR ZU #36 (1951)

Margaret suggested that Cornelia sing Pack die Badehose ein, and on the day of the show in May 1951 both parents were terribly excited -- and very nervous.  Cornelia had only ever sung in public twice before, in a beer hall and at a talent show.  They were worried she'd freeze in front of the microphone facing an audience of a thousand.  Cornelia didn't share their misgivings.  She was backstage doing cartwheels.  She couldn't wait to perform! 

With the Schnoneberg Boys' Choir

When it was her turn she leapt onto the chair placed in front of the microphone and sang Pack die Badehose ein, accompanied by the Metropolitan Vocalists.  As usual, her voice, though cute, wasn't dainty.  She delivered the tune in her Berlin dialect with an impudence that made it seem like she was scolding the listener.  She was cheeky, uninhibited, bold -- but these qualities were all part of her charm, and she was a sensation.

DER SPIEGEL, August 6, 1952

A few days later, the show was broadcast over RIAS, and all of Berlin was talking about Cornelia.  That same day a recording was made of the song -- without her!  It was given to the Schoneberg Boys Choir, under the direction of Kurt Drabek.  Apparently the person responsible for this deplorable decision assumed that the song itself was the attraction, and that this unknown 7-year-old couldn't possibly sell any records.  When Gerhard heard of this he was understandably irate.  He demanded that his daughter be the one to sing the song, and a new recording was made.  Cornelia was accompanied by a Hammond organ and, oddly, the Schoneberg Boys Choir.  For the other side of the record she sang Ich wunsch mir ein neues Kleidchen ("I Wish For a New Dress").

The Schoneberg Boys' recording of Pack die Badehose ein went unnoticed, but when Electrola released Cornelia's version soon after in June 1951, just in time for summer, it was an instant hit!  "Die Kleine Cornelia" shot to fame.

Cornelia's first music book

In her wake came a succession of record companies trying to cash in.  The lyrics were translated into other languages, or rewritten entirely.  And where they couldn't find a little girl who could perform to their standards, they'd bring in an adult who could imitate a child's voice.  But they were just flashes in the pan.

The song was popular even in the U.S. -- at least in Pittsburgh.  Disc jockey Art Pallen played Cornelia's Pack die Badehose ein on his program at WWSW.  According to an article by Win Fanning in the October 2, 1952 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Apparently thousands of Pittsburghers were laying out some 89 cents for a record in a language they didn't understand, whose title they didn't know, sung by a little girl with an odd name in a distant land..."

Cornelia started getting fan letters.  The offers came pouring in for concerts and television appearances -- and movies.  She had a minor role in a film called SUNDIGE GRENZE ("Sinful Border"), which was shot from July to September.  It was the first time Cornelia had ever left Berlin.  The role, as originally scripted, was slightly larger, but a scooter accident left Cornelia with a split lip, and some scenes requiring close-ups had to be cut.  An odd vehicle for her to debut in, the film dealt with the problem of smugglers exploiting children, using them to run contraband across the border connecting Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

For her next two records, Cornelia returned to her earliest songs: An der Ecke steht ein Schneemann, released in September as the B-side to Hei, so eine Schneeballschlacht ("Hey, So It's a Snowball Fight"); and O, diese Jore, with Die Kleine mit der Mundharmonika ("The Little Girl With The Harmonica"), released in February 1952.  The majority of Cornelia's records would be co-written by her father, who occasionally wrote under the pseudonym Eric Langenfeld, and very often included a boys' choir, whose harmonious chorus countered the girl's sometimes harsh vocals.

Singing the "snowball fight" song.  (From EINE NETTE BESCHERUNG.)

1952 was a busy year.  Three new records were released, as well as two movies and an appearance in a Christmas special called EINE NETTE BESCHERUNG ("A Nice Mess"), which aired on television.  She played a major role as Susanne in the comedy, DREI TAGE ANGST ("Three Days of Fear"), released in May, and a minor role in the film IDEALE FRAU GESUCHT ("Ideal Woman Sought"), released in August.

Cornelia's concerts were taking her all over Germany and other parts of Europe.  She was especially popular in the Scandinavian countries.  And everywhere she went Gerhard accompanied her. 

DAS STERNCHEN, a children's magazine supplement, from STERN #44 (November 1953)

Beginning in the middle of June 1952 while they were in Mannheim, Heinz Hoffmeister, the local concert director, hired a teacher named Mrs. Muller after the school board in Berlin complained that Cornelia was absent.  Mrs. Muller tutored the girl two or three hours a day in German, math and the natural sciences.  Cornelia occasionally sent postcards and letters to Miss Franke, her teacher in Berlin, describing her experiences and the places she visited, perhaps to convince her that it had some educational value.  She also kept a diary chronicling her travels.

She was amused by her fame.  Kids came in droves to get her autograph, and she was happy to accommodate them.  There's no telling how many photo cards she signed, which she did slowly and precisely, neatly and legibly, as though she were in school practising cursive letters.  Nary a photo was taken of her in which she didn't have a big bow in her hair, certainly her trademark.

Deutsche Illustrierte (November 21, 1953)

Through it all Cornelia remained unchanged.  She still played with her dolls at home, and played with her friends in the street.  She kept up her usual quota of mischief in the neighbourhood, and came home with her clothes all dirty.  The lyrics to Cornelia's 1952 song, Am liebsten spiele ick uff unsern Hof, included the names of her friends Helga and Hannelore, probably at her behest, since the composers, Froboess and Bruning, had originally used the names Max and Walter.

A sketchy plot was devised for a film titled PACK DIE BADEHOSE EIN, with a projected Christmas 1952 release date, but the plan never came to fruition.  Cornelia, in what would have been her first starring role, was to have played a tomboy, and one can imagine that she might have sung O, diese Jore at some point in the movie.  It's unfortunate that the film wasn't made, because she never did become a movie star -- at least, not as "Die Kleine Cornelia".

1953 was a far less productive year, with three records constituting Cornelia's entire output.  But she still had a busy concert schedule and travelled extensively, and was featured on magazine covers.

Postcard with still from STARPARADE


She appeared in two films in 1954: DIE GROSSE STARPARADE in September, and AN JEDEM FINGER ZEHN ("On Each Finger Ten") the following month.  In STARPARADE, she sings Ro-Ro-Ro-Ro-Robinson while driving a cart drawn by a couple of ponies.  In fact, the entire cast takes turns incessantly performing their own versions of the song.  It's obvious from her scenes that the 10-year-old Cornelia wasn't the least bit shy, prancing, dancing and skipping along with all the energy and enthusiasm needed to make a musical successful.  That year also saw the release of five records.  The last disc contained Ro-Ro-Ro-Ro-Robinson and An jedem Finger zehn, taken from the two films.

Cornelia was 11 when her last film as a child was released in August of 1955.  In LASS DIE SONNE WIEDER SCHEINEN ("Let the Sun Shine Again"; the title was taken from one of Cornelia's songs, released in February of 1953), she had another major role, playing a girl named Angelika.  The dog (named Bimbo) used in the movie was actually Cornelia's pet.

Two records were released that year.  Bimbo, backed with Eine kleine Mandoline, was released just after she'd turned 12, and it would be her last as "Die Kleine Cornelia".

South African EP, late 1950s

She more or less took a break from music, and Die Kleine Cornelia was quickly forgotten.  She reinvented herself in the late 1950s as a teen idol named "Conny", making hit records and starring in a number of movies.  Conny was far more successful than Die Kleine Cornelia ever was, and the younger girl has mostly faded into obscurity.  Gerhard Froboess died February 26, 1976 in Berlin.

It's unfortunate that Cornelia's potential as a major child star of the early 1950s was never fully realised, but at least Die Kleine Cornelia left one indelible mark: "Pack die Badehose ein" is still a catchphrase in Germany, even if few people remember where it came from.