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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

The Casino Club

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Surreys lined up in front of the Nimitz Hotel on a misty evening in Fredericksburg. The men, dressed in long-tailed coats, derby hats and bowties, stepped down first and extended a hand to the ladies wearing bustles, button shoes and long free-flowing dresses with tight waists and puffy sleeves. As darkness closed in, the glow of coal oil lamps spilled out the open door.

The occasion was an 1891 Casino Club Ball although it could have been a scene from a G. Harvey painting.

When the Germans immigrated to America they brought with them the belief that the arts were essential to the social, emotional and spiritual well-being of a community. Wherever they went they organized theater companies and orchestras. Music and drama thrived, even in isolated frontier towns like Fredericksburg, Texas.

There were no movies or radio in those days. While Vaudeville-style tent shows sometimes came through the Texas Hill Country, most entertainment was, of necessity, homegrown.

Thirty Fredericksburg citizens organized the Casino Club in 1886 to promote the fine arts, especially music and drama. Those citizens put on their own plays, designed their own costumes, organized their own orchestras and put on their own concerts. In the process they created their own form of entertainment that reflected the culture of America and Europe.

The entertainment may have been homegrown, but it was not crude. Local playwrights wrote and produced some of the shows, often in the German language. On other nights Shakespeare or Goethe wrote the plays while Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner composed the music.

Some nights began with a play and ended with a dance. Chairs filled the floor space in the Nimitz ballroom as the evening began. If the crowd was especially large, some people watched from the balcony above and from the upstairs windows.

Fredericksburg Texas Casino Club
A Fredericksburg Casino Club production. Date unknown.
Courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society.

The audience knew the play was about to start when the prompter, known as the "Souffleur," crawled into his box in front of the stage. The box was just large enough for a chair and an oil lamp to illuminate the prompter's script.

When the prompter was in place, an usher dimmed the coal oil house lights along the sides of the hall while turning up lamps that served as footlights circling the stage.

No one applauded. That would have been bad manners. The curtain simply opened and the play was on.

Later, when the performance was over, the usher turned up the house lights, patrons pushed the chairs against the wall and the band, organized and conducted by H. R. Richter the jeweler, tuned up.

When all was ready, dancers galloped, polkaed and waltzed until the coal oil lamps burned low. When the lights flickered it was time to go home.

One of the Casino Club's big events was the New Year's Eve dance. A midnight, as soon as the church bells rang, the entire group marched into the dining room for a midnight supper.

The Casino Club held a yearly Masquerade Ball on Tuesday before Lent. Members dressed as crazy characters, legendary creatures and exotic figures from faraway lands.

On arrival at the Nimitz some members performed short skits, cleverly written and practiced for weeks in advance. Judge J. T. Estill then led the grand march into the ballroom. The march was really a fashion show.

Months of thought, planning and hard work went into the costumes. Dr. Albert Keidel once came as a stork. Sylvester Kleck and Carl Ransleben dressed as a horse with Felix Weirich as the rider.

Edward Wahrmund came as hunter with a pack of hounds chasing Max Wahrmund, disguised as a bear, and Oscar Ransleben, dressed as a deer. August Schuchard once led in a group of Sing-Sing prisoners chained together and wearing striped prison clothes.

'Then with the new century the tastes of Americans changed. The pageantry and pretentiousness of the Victorian Age fell out of favor, suppressed by the rising power and influence of the middle class.

The Fredericksburg Casino Club was especially quiet during WWI. It didn't seem right to have fun while soldiers were dying in France.

After the war the Casino Club quietly faded away, replaced by the movies and radio.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" August 15, 2022 Column
Sources:
"Life in the Gay Nineties," The Radio Post, May 4, 1946.



"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • Early Radio - Window to the World 8-1-22
  • Making House Calls with Dr. Keidel 7-15-22
  • The Johnson Treatment 7-1-22
  • Robert Penniger: Early Editor of the Fredericksburg Standard 6-15-22
  • Checking In With John Ostrow 5-29-22

    See More »


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