A Silent Servus: Peter Alexander (1926-2011)

Bidding farewell to Austrian entertainer, singer and musician, Peter Alexander

The beauty of the untouched Austrian scenery. Sky rising mountains with a sugar-like snow topping, grass-green fields, a crystal clear lake and the idyllic hotel-restaurant Weißes Rössl. The clumsy waiter Leopold, a man, undyingly in love but also unworthy of the beautiful owner Josepha Vogelhuber, greets the guests streaming in from near and far. The charming and highly musical Leopold, played by the young Peter Alexander, is a lively character whose jumping, singing and dancing whilst serving scrambled breakfast eggs brightens up not only the day of his guests, but of an eager TV audience.

The shooting of the 1960s musical, was not always easy, and even the one-take-wonder Peter Alexander had troubles. Kissing Waltraud Haas, his Rössl Wirtin got complicated as the actor’s wife Hilde was on the set that day. The director impatiently waited to shoot the scene, recounts Haas on Barbara Stöckl’s “In Memoriam: Peter Alexander.” Alexander felt so awkward kissing another woman in front of his beloved life-long companion that it didn’t look real. Finally, the director had to ask her to leave the room. Then – at first awkwardly, and finally with convincing commitment – he managed.

Peter Alexander Ferdinand Neumayer was the Frank Sinatra of the German-speaking world, the most famous Austrian entertainer of the past century.

The actor and master show man, who died Feb. 12, sold over 46 million recordings in Germany alone, in the German-speaking area it was a record-breaking 50 million recordings. He produced over 150 singles and 120 LPs and performed in over 40 cinema productions between 1948 and 1972. His songs remained in the charts for 144 weeks. Six major tours followed the enormous success of Peter Alexander and made him travel through Austria, Germany and Switzerland. He won eight Bambis, four Golden Cameras, three Golden Europes and the Golden Microphone among numerous other awards. His TV show The Peter Alexander Show reached a record-breaking 79% of the TV viewers, a rating that has never been repeated in Austrian TV history.

On Vinyl and Film

Born in Vienna in 1926, Peter Alexander’s theatrical talent was discovered early, in primary school when his skills for parody amused the classroom. In 1944, he was drafted to serve in the navy in World War II, and in 1945, was taken prisoner of war in Great Britain however not forgetting his passion for theatre. After his return to Vienna, his parents wanted him to study medicine. After one class session, Alexander had had enough. He presented them with another plan: He would go into the theatre, become a singer and an actor, inspired by his idol Frank Sinatra.

Three years after graduation with honors from the famed Max Reinhardt-Seminar, his first single was released in 1951 – “Das machen nur die Beine von Dollores” (Only Dolores’ legs can do that). His career soared, embracing everything from pop hits to operetta, movies and cabaret and finally his legendary variety shows on stage and television The Peter Alexander Show sizzled with his legendary parodies of everyone from the royal family to the Golden Girls, so hilarious that the Queen of England might not have been amused about it.

Under a marble arch, the huge double doors swing open. With the suspended gate of royalty, Queen Elizabeth II sweeps in with a graceful gate, wearing a light brown evening gown to accompanying fanfare. Coming closer to the camera, she asks in a strangely Austrian accent “Do we have some troubles in the family?” addressing Prince Charles. He gets up instantly from his massive wooden desk, singing a desperate Mamaaa as if bursting into tears, following by a distinctive Mamaaa from his wife, Princess Diana. Who is this? Not the British Royal Family, surely? No. It is Peter Alexander in God save the Gin, a parody on the British court.

His movie characters covered a huge range, nearly all comedy. In Graf Bobby, Peter Alexander acts in cowboy boots and hat, jumping down the twisted staircase  singing „one two three weiter kommt ein Cowboy nie, weil bei drei schon die Schüsse fallen“ (a cowboy can only count to three because at three they start shooting). As Doll the clumsy waiter in Im weißes Rössl, he cavorts about the inn in black trousers, vest and bow tie, enchants the guests on screen and off, persuading everybody that “im Salzkammergut da kann man gut lustig sein” (the Salzkammergut is a good place to have fun) hoping they’ll forget the rain.

Too Many Losses

The love of his life Hilde who he lovingly called Schnurrdiburr crossed his ways in 1952. In the same year they got married. Hilde, herself a talented actress, retired from her active on stage life to manage her husband’s career. Their marriage lasted without a scandal for over 50 years. But then, after the highs came the lows in Peter Alexander’s life. After 17 months in hospital, Hilde passed away in 2003, a heartbreaking loss for Peter Alexander that would make him withdraw from the public even further.

Another blow of fate reached Peter Alexander when his daughter Susanne died in a car accident in Ko Samui, Thailand in 2009. For him, it marked the loss of his second Lebensfrau who had supported him and gave him a reason to continue his struggle through life after Hilde passed away.

In the days since his death, Peter Alexander has been born again on the screen, in film and documentary, in a search for some adequate assessment of our loss.  We have known him well, but it is never enough.  In one anecdote recounted by Austrian moderator Barbara Stöckl on “In Memoriam: Peter Alexander,” we are taken back to his first concert with the Wiener Sängerknaben in the Austria Centre in Vienna. He was nervously pacing up and down backstage, reciting his lyrics over and over again. The young boys watched him in fascinated surprise; they knew stage fright when they saw it. So one of them walked over to Alexander, Stöckl recounted, a very young boy, who piped up, “Herr Alexander, are you nervous?” Breaking into a warm smile, Peter Alexander replied “Yes, very.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, the little boy said “Musst aber nicht! Du bist ja eh leiwand!” (There is no need to be nervous! You are amazing!)

Acting was Peter Alexander’s passion, yet he never lost his stage fright, an indicator for taking his work very seriously. To bring the distinctive Peter Alexander charm across the screen, preparation was highly important. An unprepared Peter Alexander would not even show up at rehearsal.

“If there was something wrong with the sketch, however, he would forget his lines. That was an indicator for us, the producers that we had to change it,” recounts Günther Huber, former editor of The Peter Alexander Show, at Barbara Stöckl’s show.

Peter Alexander: the most successful entertainer of the past century | Photo: Dueren/DPA/picturedesk.com

A Piano for Company

In celebration of his 80th birthday in 2006, the German channel ZDF dedicated an evening to his work and life, the Traumschiff Gala. Peter Alexander, invited to the event, stayed at home. However, he sent a video message to all his friends who wanted to celebrate with him. To them, it was clear that he would not want to come. His time on stage was over. On the enormous screen in the studio, a tired and sad Peter Alexander, with a bare smile on his face appears. Sitting in front of a piano, almost slumped over, not in the upright and proud posture that once defined him, it seemed as if his will to live had already left him.

Staring at the piano, he told the audience that he had bought it for himself for his 80th birthday. He was lonely; the piano would keep him company. He turned to the keyboard and began to play, his bony fingers flying over the keys, as he hummed along, the tunes reveal some Jazz melodies, a passion he discovered during his time in England as a prisoner of war. With sad, watery eyes, he stared into the camera and whispered a line from one of his most famous songs „Dankeschön, es war bezaubernd, dankeschön, wenn wir auch auseinander gehen, gibt’s doch ein Wiedersehn!“  Thank you, it was magical, thank you. And if we are apart, we still will meet again.

The Wiedersehen never came. It was his last TV appearance.

Final Years

To many Peter Alexander’s departure from the stage already felt too much like a death, and the public was unable to stay away, to honor his wish to spend his final years in peace away from all publicity. The press still haunted him, photographers snapping his picture going to the cemetery, or sitting at a stonewall with tears streaming down his cheeks. In these photos, the entertainer, singer, dancer and musician is almost unrecognizable. After more than half a century in the limelight, his only wish was to be left alone.

For this writer, Peter Alexander was the spirit of so many childhood Sunday afternoons relaxing after lunch with my family in front of the TV, the catchy tunes, the sparkling comedy bringing tears of laughter and the enveloping pleasures of home, ordinary moments suddenly so special. With his passing, a measure of childhood memories slides deeper into the past, and I feel myself yearning to have once again the times of such irresistible, uncomplicated happiness.

Servus Peter and Dankeschön!

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