Dinner and a Show

The birth of the theme restaurant.


in Archive

Berlin in the 1920s boasted a string of theme restaurants that rank as
the forgotten precursors of Disneyland and Las Vegas. The most popular
was the colossal Haus Vaterland (Fatherland House) on Potsdamer Platz,
where customers entered beneath an electric sign that announced “Every
Nation Under One Roof” to wander through a domed entertainment complex
that took up a whole city block. Inside were 12 restaurants, each with
live music and its own international gimmick — Turkish cafe, Western
saloon, Hungarian peasant tavern, Spanish flamenco bar. Like a World’s
Fair pavilion, it was a palace of high kitsch. The most popular venue
was the Bavarian Wine Terrace, which gave an ersatz view over a giant
fake painted Rhine, complete with a poetically ruined castle. Every
hour, the lights dimmed, fake lightning flashed, thunder clapped, and
sprinklers sent a light summer rain shower to refresh the happy crowd.

More exclusive was Heaven and Hell on Kurfürstendamm, where the maitre d’, dressed as Saint Peter, would direct diners to either sides of a stage. The infernal side was a flaming cavern bathed in red light, where waiters dressed as devils would occasionally torment the diners with pitchforks. The less adventurous could choose the side of heaven for soft lighting and calm blue décor; here, the tables were decorated as puffy cotton clouds and waiters were winged angels. Both saints and sinners enjoyed a moral lapse at midnight, when leggy showgirls would enact “Twenty-Five Scenes from the Life of the Marquis de Sade” or “The Naked Frenchwoman: Her Life Mirrored in Art.”

But the most original boîte — whose style is still copied but has never quite been equaled — was the Residenz-Casino on Blumenstrasse, where 86,000 electric lights reflected off spinning mirror balls that opened like flowers and mechanical geysers shot towers of colored water from gilded fountains. Its unique attraction, depicted in the film Cabaret, was the private telephones at each of the numbered tables, allowing guests to speak to any attractive stranger whose gaze met theirs from across the room. In order to court one another further, guests could choose from a special menu of 135 small gifts and have them sent through an elaborate system of pneumatic tubes to other tables: Perfume, rings, cigars, even leather-bound tickets for dirty weekends would appear magically with a sensual purr of pumped air. At the time, Germany’s scientific and industrial achievements were world famous, with 15 scientists winning Nobel prizes in the 1920s alone. But as in the entertainment industry, the majority of pacesetters were Jewish, and after the rise of the Nazi party many emigrated to the United States. • 21 July 2009

SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Gordon, Mel, The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity, (Los Angeles, 2006); Voluptuous Panic: the Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Los Angeles, 2000); Hall, Peter, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation and Urban Order (New York, 1998).


Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.