Hanns Wolters, born Hanns Wollsteiner, died December 12th, 2000 at the age of 93, having lead an esteemed life in the entertainment industry. It began in the roaring 20s of Berlin, Germany when he was impresario to major British orchestras like Jack Hylton and Marek Weber. Hanns Wolters also booked Marlene Dietrich on her first gigs as a hand and leg model until her breakthrough roles and departure for Hollywood. She never forgot her first impresario and saved his life by securing the paperwork for him to leave Nazi-Germany and escape to Paris.
Hanns Wolters was married to Mitzi Bera, who was sharing the limelight at Berlin’s famous Metropol Theater with the legendary Fritzi Masari. Mitzi was quite the German celebrity then and Hanns fell in love with the star. Max Wollsteiner, his father, was a successful businessman running the famous bank Kuczynski in Berlin. He was also one of the founding fathers of the National Jewish Fund. The Wollsteiner family considered itself Prussian-German. They had lived in Germany for more than 300 years and the family could trace itself back to the prominent Rabbi Katzenellenbogen in the 13th century.After Ms. Dietrich rescued them, it was quite difficult for the young couple to make ends meet in France. They could not obtain permission to work. The little money they were able to sneak out of the country evaporated quickly. “Mitzi and I were desperate. We had a small apartment in a cheap hotel. There was no space for cooking, so Mitzi had to cook meals on the bidet in the bathroom.” But they were alive, unlike many of the people they had left back in Germany. The situation got better for a while, when Hanns met an old business friend who was organizing shows for the big fashion houses in Paris. He was searching for someone to organize events outside of Paris and he gladly worked around the work-permission issue and took care of Hanns and Mitzi for a short time.
“Wherever I liked to be – Hitler got jealous and he invited himself to come there too…” Hanns Wolters used to joke. The couple was living between Nice, Biarritz and Paris, when Hitler invaded France and again the young couple had to flee. This time they followed the advice of his father Max Wollsteiner and they left for Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic to meet with him. The reunited family went from Karlovy Vary to Prague, where the father had arranged for tickets and money to go to Palestine. Then Hitler raided Czechoslovakia. The Gestapo took most of the family possessions shortly before their departure and froze all of their bank accounts. After intense negotiations, Max was able to free some money and get the tickets, as well as the necessary passage documents and visas for the family to leave the next morning. It would be the last night the family would ever be together. Max died shortly after their last supper from a massive heart attack “Well, at least he died thinking of the prospects for a better life in Palestine.” Hanns often mused.
Hanns and Mitzi had to leave the next morning without being able to attend his father’s funeral or sit shiva – a sad fact that Hanns resented for the rest of his long life. Arriving in Palestine in the 30’s must have been quite a shock. Hanns recalled his first impressions of Israel, “The boat was arriving and in front of us was the pier, the white desert, a couple of houses and tents, some fishing boats followed by palm trees and camels. Tel-Aviv was supposedly a big harbor city in Palestine – I was mortified, because I thought to myself after seeing it, how am I going to support Mitzi and myself here? I was an impresario and Mitzi an operetta singer. Remember, we arrived with almost no money, after the Gestapo took everything we had in Prague.”Rescue came in the form of the Australian Imperial Forces and the British Troops, who needed to be entertained for their long and strenuous stay in the desert during WW2. Shortly after being introduced to the generals, Hanns obtained an assignment and joined the army. He was responsible for troop entertainment. So, Hanns found himself running up and down the streets of Tel-Aviv and Haifa trying to find new talent – mostly singers and dancers, while Mitzi was performing as part of, “The Troupers Show” every night to entertain the troops while also acting as creative director. Other acts included singer Walter Jenner, Lily Palmay and the dancing Six Sweet Hearts.
The economy in Palestine was difficult, but compared to the holocaust in Europe, Hanns and Mitzi considered themselves to be very lucky. Palestine was not completely safe either in those days and Hanns would recall an evening invitation on a yacht when he and Mitzi missed the boat – a boat that would explode an hour after its departure at the hands of Arab terrorists. “I always had a guardian angel,” he used to say.
Still Hanns was able to thrive for a while in Palestine. In the late thirties and early forties, he managed to buy land in the desired Denia area of Haifa. He was also able to get into business with many other impresarios worldwide and he made contact with the Fleishmann family in the Catskill Mountains. The family was running hotels and entertainment establishments in the “borscht belt”.
Later on Mr. Fleishmann would provide the papers to get Hanns and Mitzi to the United States. That became necessary after the Australian and British troops left Palestine and Hanns had virtually no income prospects. They left Palestine with no money for the USA on the MS Bremen.
Upon his arrival in the USA he found work as a host in restaurants amongst other odd jobs peculiar to a German gentleman. His English was not up to speed yet and it was difficult to get settled in the new world. America had its own problems and was not particularly interested in catering to emigrants at the time, with many Americans finding it difficult to adjust after WW2 and getting reintegrated as civilians.His first job back in the entertainment industry was given to him by Jules Ziegler in the late 50s. Mr. Ziegler was the owner of an established talent agency located on Fifth Avenue, with many ties to film and television companies in the USA. He was intrigued by the worldly Hanns Wolters, who was able to find him native foreign speakers for his many international assignments. Hanns’ first job there was to take care of the newly founded international voice-over department. He was working at the agency during the day and at night he was still hosting in restaurants. Mitzi was giving singing lessons from home to make ends meet.
During the Eisenhower years, life was on the upswing and the money situation for the young couple began to improve. Hanns knew that at Jules Ziegler he had only limited opportunities to climb up the ranks. He was a foreigner with little experience in the American entertainment world. His German contacts were worthless, since Germany was defeated with an uncertain future and certainly there was no money prospect there. A big, new translation company in Detroit offered him exclusivity for this clients to record international voice overs. Jules Ziegler was not willing to accept the job for little money, but Hanns did – and he started his own business in 1962 under the name “Hanns Wolters Theatrical Agency”.
The business blossomed quickly because during this time New York was converting from Radio City to Television City. He found his niche in the agency world with foreign talent. That supported the already thriving voice over business. The translation company in Detroit acquired General Motors as their exclusive client which helped to expand business. He was soon able to move his agency into the prestigious 342 Madison Avenue building – adding advertising agencies, film productions and the television industry to his clientele. Finally Hanns could afford Mitzi a decent life. They could travel and moved to posh 80 Park Avenue. The sixties and seventies proved to be a stable and successful time for the couple. Finally, they achieved the fulfillment that had so long eluded them.
In the early eighties, the rents for commercial buildings skyrocketed. Mitzi likewise was in her 80s and her health was in steady decline. After fifty years of marriage they started to downsize and moved from the prestigious 342 Madison building to a smaller office at 10 W 37th Street. Hanns Wolters, contrary to his wife who was now retired continued to go to the office every day to supervise activities from 10-1pm. He was in his 80s. “Retirement from what?” he always asked.
In 1985 his wife died of a heart attack at the age of 95. Hanns was never the same. His own health deteriorated soon after and eventually he hired Oliver Mahrdt in 1996 to help with day-to-day business. Hanns Wolters died in 2000 at the age of 93.
Hanns Wolters: Emigré Impressario
An exhibition honoring the late Hanns Wolter’s life was on display in the Leo-Baeck Institute’s beautiful Katherine and Clifford H. Goldsmith Gallery, located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street, on the mezzanine level. The exhibit was on display from October 30, 2007 through January 2008. Click here for details on this event.
Copyright Oliver Mahrdt
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