HISTORY OF THE HOUSTON LIEDERKRANZ
by Franz Schoennagel
Toward the end of 1924 a small group of German-speaking singers under the guidance of Constantin Janke decided to form a new male chorus in Houston. German social clubs of the time such as the Houston Sängerbund, Sons of Herman, and the Turnverein were flourishing, and there was room for a new male chorus in the growing German community in Houston. During the next few months, Mr. Janke and his group worked diligently to recruit male singers from the older German population of Houston as well as from recent immigrants. The hard times in Germany during World War I and the years following, including the disastrous inflation of 1923, had now passed, and German immigrants were once again coming to Houston.
The first membership meeting of the new singing group took place on January 22, 1925. The twelve members present were designated the founders, namely: C. Janke, A. Jensen, A. Heidrich, W. Bretschneider, E. Kuntscher, F. Schenck, H. Einfeldt, G. Einfeldt, H. Boedecker, K. Pfennig, P. Danjus, and H. Stichweh. A. Jensen was elected the first president and C. Janke the first choir director. The founding date was set at January 15, 1925. The name chosen was Houston Liederkranz in memory of a former club of that name. Both the Houston Sängerbund and the older Liederkranz were formed in 1883 upon the dissolution of a still older singing society called the Houston Männerchor.
With its love of German song and fellowship, the new group thrived and in its first year put on two concert evenings, four family nights, one riverboat ride, four birthday parties, one picnic, and a Christmas party. These activities became a precedent for Liederkranz functions for many years to come. Two years later, on March 16, 1927, the ambitious new club acquired a clubhouse at 3519 Barnes Street in the Heights district, a neighborhood with many German-speaking residents. The building, which occupied two city lots at the corner of Abbott and Barnes Streets, was bought from the First Church of the Nazarene, who built it in 1922. The purchase price of $5,250 was paid by one of the Houston Liederkranz members, Arthur Heidrich, who held the loan and the deed until 1938. An indebtedness of $1,500 that remained in 1938 was paid to Mr. Heidrich with loans from 15 members, upon which the property was deeded to the Houston Liederkranz.
A charter from the State of Texas was obtained on October 17, 1934. The club, which was officially named The Houston Liederkranz, was incorporated as a voluntary association not engaged in profit. The charter was renewed in 1978 and has a perpetual duration. According to the renewed charter of 1978, the purpose for which The Houston Liederkranz is formed is exclusively for social and recreational activities through involvement and participation in German language, music, art, and culture. Despite the lean economic times of the 1930's, singing and social life in the Houston Liederkranz continued at a strong pace. The choir performed primarily as a male chorus, but a mixed choir also existed. A theater group was started by Paul Danjus and Oskar Sauerbrey. It was directed by them and later by Hermann Stichweh during the 1930's and 1940's before World War II. The women singers worked enthusiastically for the progress of the club. Later, in order to encourage the active participation of the non-singing women in the club, twelve ladies, under the leadership of Gertrud Koetter, held the first meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary on November 4, 1938.
The Ladies Auxiliary performed an invaluable service through the years in a supportive role to promote the goals of the Houston Liederkranz. The ladies have served innumerable delicious meals at club functions, which contributed to the Gemütlichkeit, and at the same time raised funds that were used by them to help maintain and beautify the club's facilities. The Ladies Auxiliary discontinued meeting formally in 1997. A Food Committee, under the direction of Frank von Possel, continues to provide a menu in keeping with traditional German culture and taste. The Ladies Auxiliary regularly supported charities such as the Red Cross, Tuberculosis Institute, and Quaker child relief, and immediately after World War II worked tirelessly to send food packages to the people of war-torn Germany.
Membership in the Houston Liederkranz declined during World War II but increased again after the war ended. Post-war immigration from Germany reached a peak in the early 1950's and brought with it new members and new singers.
Economic conditions in Germany improved considerably during the 1960's with the result that immigration to Houston from overseas declined sharply. This and normal attrition resulted in a marked loss in the number of singing members during that time. The Houston Liederkranz had been singing as a male choir. Because singers were needed desperately and because the ladies of the Houston Liederkranz expressed an interest in singing, it was decided in 1971 to officially change the choir from a male choir to a mixed choir. This change attracted new members. Houston's population growth in the 1970's, created by an oil boom, also brought singers to the club who had been active in German clubs in other parts of the United States. During the 1970's, business meetings were conducted increasingly in the English language to allow participation by members who were not proficient in German. The U.S.-born member who shows an interest in the German heritage through active participation in the choir and by other work for the club has always been a welcome member in the Houston Liederkranz.
Walter Fritsche (1930-2000), choir director from 1962 to 1999, is a good example of the Texas-born German descendent who was very active in the club. A fourth-generation German-American, he was choir director longer than any other Liederkranz choir director, and he has been a willing worker for the club in many other ways. In appreciation, the members presented Walter with the title of "Choir Director Emeritus" at the club's 75th anniversary celebration on September 16, 2000. The choir has performed on invitation at many outside functions and thus has contributed to the culture of Houston. The club also has supported the Chorgemeinschaft Texas by hosting choirs from Glückstadt and Wiesbaden, Germany, and by the participation of its singers when the Chorgemeinschaft visited those choirs in Germany. The experience has been a valuable reciprocal exchange of culture and understanding. Upon Walter Fritsche's retirement as choir director in January 2000, Vicky Hemme graciously consented to direct the choir on an interim basis. Largely with her help, a new choir director was found, and as of September, 2000, the singers began a new choir year under a new director, John Scarcella. It was under John Scarcella that two CD's were made in 2004. One was of the Houston Liederkranz choir, and one was of the Shanty-Chor Houston.
During the mid-1970's, it became clear that the hall was becoming too small. An adjacent lot was bought in 1974, and plans were made to expand. The beginning of expansion was financed by funds that had been accumulating in the club's treasury in part from a charter flight fund-raising program. Charter flights to Germany had been arranged by President Walter Kuhrt, and the Liederkranz benefited by receiving membership dues from charter flight participants. After the 29th Sängertag of the Deutsch-Texanischer Sängerbund in May 1975, which the Houston Liederkranz hosted on the cleared grounds of the newly-purchased lot, the clubhouse was moved to the center of the three lots in order to make room for additions on three sides of the building and for parking. Construction on the additions began in 1976 and was done almost entirely by Liederkranz members until the last item of the building program was completed in October 1982.
In 1981, as construction on the enlarged hall was nearing completion, a new auxiliary of the Houston Liederkranz, the Houston Karneval Verein (HKV '81), had its beginning. The first Prunksitzung, which is a variety show of the type found in the German Rhineland, took place in January 1982 under the direction of Hans Boentgen. Hans Boentgen, who at the age of 22 became president of the HKV '08 in Hoechst and thereby the youngest ever to preside over a Karneval Verein in Germany, applied his talents and experience to the new auxiliary and brought a new dimension to the Houston Liederkranz. Acting and performing abilities of many Liederkranz members, in the tradition of German Karneval, were brought into the open by this exuberant new auxiliary. Prunksitzungen took place continuously from 1982 until 2001.
In February 1981, a commercial real estate firm approached President Peter Knaut with an offer to buy the property. Although the property was not for sale, it eventually became clear that a sale could be made that was beneficial to both sides and that made possible the purchase of a suitable new lot and new building. The work that the members had put into remodeling the old hall now had value in negotiating for a new one. The members ratified the sale in the annual general meeting of January 9, 1983. Construction was contracted under close supervision by Building Chairman Raymond Orsak, as well as by the club's president, Peter Knaut. Grand opening of the new hall at 5100 Ella Boulevard took place on September 17, 1983. Distinguished honored guests included Houston's mayor, Kathy Whitmire, and Councilman Larry McCaskle as well as the leaders of numerous other German organizations in Texas.
The 39th Sängertag of the Deutsch-Texanischer Sängerbund was held in the new hall on May 19, 1985. Since then, the number of Sängerbund singers has increased to such an extent that even this new hall was too small for it, and the Houston Liederkranz was faced with the happy problem of having to host the 550 attendees at the 49th Sängertag in May 1995 off-site, in the ballroom of the Medallion Hotel. The 59th Sängertag will take place in May 2005 in the Chandelier Ballroom of the SPJST hall.
In 1993, those members of the Houston Liederkranz who belonged to the Chorgemeinschaft Texas visited Glückstadt and Hamburg in northern Germany. The Chorgemeinschaft Texas, composed of singers from German-Texas clubs in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, was hosted by the Chorgemeinschaft "Lied-Hoch", which was composed of singers from the two German cities as well as a number of smaller towns nearby.
The male singers from the choirs of these north German towns had formed a shanty-choir as a sidelight to their concert performances and for the enjoyment of the Texans. It was this German sea-shanty singing that inspired Garry Fritsche and other singers from the Houston Liederkranz to form a German "Shanty-Chor" when they returned to Houston. Garry's vision involved using the special talents of particular Liederkranz members. As shantymen (soloists), three north German immigrants, Frank von Possel, Wolfgang Heuer, and Horst Britsche were recruited. Frank even served as cook in the German merchant marine in the 1950's. This group grew to include Jack Porterfield and John Scarcella as shantymen. Bill Schneider (1993-2002) on button accordian, Ed Ranostaj on piano accordion, and Willi Boehm provide melodic accompaniment. Horst Britsche, Ewald Burckhardt, Wolfgang Heuer, Dale Woodruff, and Frank von Possel play rhythm guitars. Erich Schoennagel plays bass guitar. The original 15 men, directed by Franz Schoennagel (1993-2003), comprising the male chorus has grown in numbers and enthusiasm. The group calls itself Shanty-Chor Houston.
The repertoire of this group consists of shanties and sailors' songs in Low German, High German, and English. Even the English and American songs sung by this group come from German songbooks and are being sung by the shanty choirs of Germany. Preliminary inquiry to singers of the Nordamerikanischer Sängerbund suggests that the Shanty-Chor Houston may be the only serious German shanty choir in the United States.
For many years, the club's children have been rehearsing German and English Christmas carols in the fall of the year. The children were led during the 1970's and early 1980's by Ursula Rosch and Maria Fritsche. Jeannie Schoennagel, called "Ms. Jeannie" by the children, directed this part-time Kinderchor from 1984 until 1996. Martha Miller then directed the Kinderchor until 1999. Betty Rathkamp, Renate Ranostaj, and Karen and Erich Wolz led these children in a children's folk dance group during the 1990's until 2000. This group is an outgrowth of the Rathkamp Folk Dancers, led by Monroe and Betty Rathkamp, which has rehearsed and performed in the Liederkranz hall for many years.
We are indebted in part to Otto Kuntscher for the history that he wrote in 1950 for the club's twenty-fifth anniversary. Also, some of our older members, especially Harvey Meiners, Walter Fritsche, Ewald Schulz, and Carla Schuebel recalled facts related to the club's history. It is fitting to list the names of presidents and choir directors of the club in appreciation of their leadership. The list has been compiled in part from memory by some of the older members.
With permission of the author,
Presidents list updated by Rolwyn (Stan) Thornton, March 6,2015
A. Jensen, 1925-1927
Oskar Sauerbrey, 1928
Carl Muench, 1929,1930
G. Einfeldt, 1931-1934
Peter Moeller, 1934, 1935
Hermann Stichweh, 1948-1952
Otto Kuntscher, 1953, 1954, 1965
O. Brunner, 1955, 1956
Harvey Meiners, 1957-1959, 1962, 1963, 1969
Richard Dittrich, 1960, 1961, 1966
Hans Micklitz, 1964
Peter Knaut, 1968, 1976, 1981-1983, 1987, 1988
Walter Kuhrt, 1967, 1970-1975, 1978
William Schneider, 1977
Edna Brown, 1978
Walter Fritsche, 1979, 1980, 1989
Horst Britsche, 1984, 1985, 2002-2006
Ingrid Wilhelm, 1986
Fred Groth, 1990, 1992, 1993
Garry Fritsche, 1991
Kurt Haug, 1994
Erich Schoennagel, 1995, 1996
Harlan (Bud) Taylor, 1997, 1998
Joachim Modlich 2007-2010
Ewald Burckhardt 2011
Irene Pfingsten 2012-2016, 2018
Rolwyn (Stan) Thornton, 1999-2001,2016 - 2017
Robert (Bob) Bracken, 2017
Ralph Turley, 2017, 2018
Lawrence (Larry) Denk, 2019
Constantin Janke, 1925-1927
E. Gruss, 1928-1931
R. Kirmse, 1931-1935
Karl Amelang, 1935–1955
J. Strohmer, 1955, 1956
T. Dieckert, 1957-1962
Walter Fritsche, 1962-1999
Vicky Hemme, 1999-2000
John Scarcella, 2000- Present
May the hall of the Houston Liederkranz continue for a long time to resound with German choir singing, German music, and German culture, and may it long remain a home for those who seek these German activities. In the words of Otto Kuntscher:
Liederkranz: Dein woll'n wir gerne uns'res bestes Streben weih'n
Sollst, der lieben Heimat ferne eine Burg des Deutschtum sein.
Du wirst kräftig Dich entfalten, schnell erblühn zu Macht und Glanz.
Bleib uns lange noch erhalten Houston's schöner Liederkranz.
Abstracts of Lots 14 and 15, Block 6, Riverside Park Addition, City of Houston, Harris County, Texas.
Gish, Theodore G., 1982, Germans in Texas, Houston Center for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fred R. von der Mehden, Series Editor, 29 p.
Kuntscher, Otto, 1955, Houston Liederkranz 25th Anniversary booklet.
Tiling, Moritz, 1913, German Element in Texas.
May 1, 2005