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    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Entries in Stella (3)

    A Singer’s Revenge Saves Frederick’s Nightspot

    Shortly after the scandal with the Russian Imperial anthem (please see my previous post), Yury Morfessi’s Turkish benefactor unexpectedly died.  His heirs had no interest in continuing to sponsor the nightclub he had established, as a result of which Morfessi had to look for a new home.  He found a new partner, the famous Russian Gypsy singer Nastya Polyakova, and for the new location settled on an abandoned garden in the Chichli neighborhood.  What attracted them to this outlying location was that Frederick’s Stella was nearby and appeared to be doing very well.

     

    Yury Morfessi.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of his famous songs--the tango "Chernye glaza" (Black Eyes)

     

    Nastya Polyakova.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of her famous songs--"Rasstavaias', ona govorila" (While Parting, She Said)

     

    Morfessi and Polyakova named their garden “Strelna,” after a famous restaurant in pre-Revolutionary Moscow.  The name’s additional advantage, especially for foreign ears not attuned to the niceties of Russian phonetics, was that it echoed Frederick’s “Stella,” which, moreover, was only two short blocks north on the same street.  Thus, anyone heading to Stella from the city center would automatically pass Strelna first, whose entrance beckoned with a dazzling array of electric lights. 

    Whether plotted and planned, or the result of fortuitous coincidence, Morfessi’s and Polyakova’s strategy worked.  Strelna began to siphon off Stella’s clients, leading Morfessi to boast that as Thomas’ “‘Stella’ dimmed,” Strelna’s affairs “blossomed” and went “blissfully well.”  The drop in attendance at Stella could have been its death knell, especially because of all the other financial difficulties that still hung over Frederick.  But fortunately for him, this is when Isa Kremer decided to pay Morfessi back for insulting her when she refused to rise for the singing of “God Save the Tsar.”

    Fuel shortages in Constantinople at this time resulted in electricity being rationed, and the Allied High Command established curfews for restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.  Owners naturally chafed at the restrictions, and some, like Frederick, tried unsuccessfully to appeal for permission to stay open later.  However, others, like Strelna, simply ignored or circumvented the regulations and often continued to operate until daylight broke over Chichli. 

    One night, when all seemed to be going very well, the Interallied Police suddenly arrived and shut Strelna down.  They also announced that as an additional penalty Strelna had to stay closed for eight days.  Someone had denounced Morfessi to the authorities.  Rumors soon reached him that it was Isa Kremer, and he of course concluded that she had done it to pay him back. 

    Establishments such as Strelna stood on a very fragile financial base and needed a constant flow of cash to function, so an eight-day closure meant the end.  Soon after, another disaster fell on Morfessi in the form of a huge municipal tax bill.  All of this proved too much for him.  He abandoned his Constantinople affairs, surreptitiously boarded an Italian ship, and left Turkey forever.  But Polyakova followed Kremer’s example and switched to performing in Stella as well, thus giving Frederick a second, highly popular singer. 

    Frederick had survived a close call, and although others would try to resurrect Strelna, none succeeded long enough to challenge him directly again.  Isa Kremer continued to perform for him twice weekly during the summer and with such success that he extended her booking through the fall and winter, after he had moved to a theater in Pera for the coldest months.  She drew crowds so large that many had to be turned away; a newspaper commented that even if Stella had been “three times” the size, it would still have been unable to fit everyone who wanted to hear her.  Only in February of 1921, after a collaboration with Frederick that lasted nearly nine months, did she move to another theater in Constantinople; then in the spring she left for Europe and the United States. 

    When I was working on my book, I learned that Kremer's papers were in a Jewish center in Buenos Aires and I had hopes that they might contain something about her time singing for Frederick.  But, alas, that was not the case.

    Frederick’s First Constantinople Nightspot Almost Goes Under

    Frederick Thomas was not the only “Russian” to escape to Constantinople.

    Despite the apparent successes of the White Armies in the Russian Civil War in 1919, waves of evacuees from southern Russia kept crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople, as a result of which the city was becoming increasingly Russified.  Among the new arrivals were many popular performers, some with experience running their own shows and theaters, and all needing to make a living.  

    Russian restaurants began to pop up all over Pera, the European quarter of Constantinople, with names like “Russky Ochag” (Russian Hearth), “Russky Ugolok” (Russian Cozy Corner), “Anglo-Russian Artistic Circle”—often with music, singing, or variety shows.  Most tried to play up the “broad Russian nature” that foreigners found highly seductive—an atmosphere of unbridled revelry and excess, now tinged with a delicious sadness over a lost glorious past.  Frederick discovered that the competition for a slice of the city’s nightlife had suddenly heated up.  Were it not for a bit of skullduggery on the part of one of his performers as well as some luck, Stella, his first venture, could well have gone under. 

    The singer Isa Kremer had become a major star in Russia during the Great War and arrived in Constantinople from Odessa in the beginning of 1920 during the so-called “second evacuation” of the city; the Bolsheviks, who had first occupied the city in April 1919 (shortly after Frederick escaped) and then been temporarily driven out by the White Army at the end of the year, were now back for good. 

    Kremer was a small, spunky woman with a wide mouth, a big voice, and a charming manner on stage who had trained for the opera before switching to an international repertoire of lighter songs—Neapolitan, French, Gypsy, Russian, Yiddish, as well as her own compositions.  Her popularity survived the Black Sea crossing and the cosmopolitan audiences in Pera quickly embraced her as a “diva.”  Frederick and Kremer may have met in Moscow; he undoubtedly knew her by reputation, especially because one of her most famous songs was the evocatively entitled “Black Tom” (but which, apart from the name, has nothing to do with Frederick). 

     

      

    Isa Kremer

     

    However, musical fame is not the only thing that followed Kremer from Russia.  As often happened in cases like hers, émigré politics did as well; and paradoxically, this is what also led to her unexpected role as Frederick’s savior. 

    Soon after landing in Constantinople, she became a headliner in a successful nightclub in Pera operated by Yury Morfessi, an older, but also hugely popular singer whose career in Russia began a decade before the war and who had even performed for Nicholas II.  Part of the reason for the success of Morfessi’s nightclub was its location in a luxurious townhouse that belonged to a rich Turk who was an admirer of the singer’s juicy baritone. 

    One evening in the spring of 1920, all the top Allied brass were there, including French, British, and American admirals, and the staff of the supreme Allied commander, French General d’Espèrey.  Also present were numerous Russian refugees, both military and civilian.  The Allied officers were very sympathetic to the White Russians, with whom they shared a loathing for the Bolsheviks, and the atmosphere was charged with patriotic and military fervor.  Consequently, when the Russians requested that the orchestra perform “God Save the Tsar,” the old Russian Imperial anthem, the Allied commanders joined them in rising to their feet.  The one exception was Isa Kremer, who, as Morfessi later described it, “demonstratively” remained seated.  Infuriated by her behavior, and egged on by a French colonel who felt that his superiors had been slighted by Kremer’s behavior, Morfessi confronted her.  He accused her of long-standing Red sympathies dating back to the time of the Bolshevik occupation of Odessa in 1919 (there was some truth to this), and ordered her to leave.

    Morfessi’s loss would be Frederick’s gain, and not just because he got to hire Kremer.

    (To be continued).

    Frederick, the Rumanian, and Big Plans in Constantinople

    In addition to being the most modern hotel in Constantinople, the Pera Palace was one of the main centers of social and business life in the city, and a crossroads for people who either had money or ideas about how to make it. 

    Shortly after he arrived at the hotel, Frederick Thomas ran into an old Moscow acquaintance, the Rumanian musician Nitza Codolban, a large-nosed man with slicked-back hair, sad eyes, and a big smile.  He was a virtuoso of the cimbalom, an instrument resembling a hammered dulcimer that was very popular in Gypsy music. 

     

    Nitza Codolban (L), and his brother Nicky, at the Empress Club in London in 1951

     

    Codolban recalled later how struck he was by Frederick’s passion and eagerness to confront the difficulties ahead:  “I’m going to try something desperate,” the black man proclaimed, “and I’ve got a few ideas.” 

    Frederick went on to explain that he was going to start everything from zero.  He described how he had overcome far bigger obstacles than the Black Sea to stop now.  He also said that he liked this new city, which even reminded him of Moscow a bit. 

    He then swore to Codolban, as he said he had already sworn to his wife, that he had had enough.  No matter what happened in Constantinople, he would never leave.  This is where he would die, he declared, after “conquering the Bosphorus nights,” in Codolban’s florid recollection. 

    “And so, will you join me?” Frederick concluded with his memorable smile and extending his hand.

    Much impressed by Frederick’s energy, Codolban decided that he would put off leaving Constantinople and, in an allusion to their shared Moscow past, agreed to work in what he assumed would be a “new Maxim,” a descendant of Frederick’s famous venue in Moscow.

    But Frederick was not ready to move so quickly:  “Not a Maxim yet.  You have to move slowly with luck,” he explained, “I’m going to start with a Stella.”  (To be continued).