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 Hermann, and the Turnverein were flourishing, and there was room for a new male chorus in the
growing German community. 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 and Austria during World War I and the years following, including the disastrous inflation in 1923, had now passed, and immigrants were 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 as founders. A. Jensen was elected the president and C. Janke the choir director. The founding date was set at January 15, 1925. The name chosen was "Houston Liederkranz" in
memory of a former club by that name. Both the Houston Sängerbund and the older Liederkranz were founded in 1883 upon 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 Abbott and Barnes Streets in the Heights district, a neighborhood with many German-speaking residents. The building, which occupied two city lots, was bought from the First Church of the Nazarene, who built it in 1922.
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 now has a perpetual duration. According to the 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.
Singing and social life continued at a strong pace during the 1930's. 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. In order to encourage participation by the non-singing women in the club, twelve
ladies, under the leadership of Gertrud Koetter, formed The Ladies Auxiliary on November 4, 1938. The Ladies Auxiliary performed an invaluable service throughout the years in a supportive role to promote the
goals of the Houston Liederkranz. They 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.
Membership in the Houston Liederkranz declined during World War II. Post-war immigration from
German-speaking countries reached a peak in the early 1950's and brought with it new members.
Economic conditions in Europe improved considerably during the 1960's with the result that immigration to
Houston from overseas declined sharply. This resulted in a marked loss in the number of singing members. Because singers were needed desperately and 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.
The U.S.-born members who show an interest in German heritage through active participation in the choir and by
other work for the club have always been welcome as members in the Houston Liederkranz. Walter Fritsche (1930-2000), choir director from 1962 to 1999, is a good example of a Texas-born German descendent who
was very active in the club. The singers are proud of Walter's long service and feel very fortunate to have, as his successor, Vicky Hemme, and since 2000, John Scarcella.
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. 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 three lots in order to make room for additions. Construction on the additions began in 1976 and was done almost entirely by Liederkranz members until it was completed in October 1982.
In 1981, as remodeling 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.
The HKV delighted Houston's German community with gala productions during the Karneval season until 2001.
In February 1981, a commercial real estate firm wanted to acquire the club 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, 5100 Ella Boulevard, took place on September 17, 1983.
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 is 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 Medalion Hotel.
For many years, the club's children have been rehearsing German and English Christmas carols in the fall of
the year in preparation for the annual Christmas party. Jeannie Schoennagel, called "Ms. Jeannie" by the children, directed this part-time Kinderchor from 1984 until 1996. Since then, the Kinderchor was
directed by Martha Miller until 1999, while children's folk dancing was taught by Betty Rathkamp, Renate Ranostaj, and Erich and Karen Wolz until 2000.
In 1993 the "Shanty-Chor Houston" was formed with male singers from the Liederkranz. The inspiration for
forming this new shanty choir came from the Chorgemeinschaft "Lied-Hoch" of Glückstadt and Hamburg, Germany. The Chorgemeinschaft Texas and Chorgemeinschaft "Lied-Hoch" have been exchanging visits since
1967. In recent years, the German group formed a shanty choir, which performed for the Texans on their visit to Germany in 1993. The Shanty-Chor Houston is based on German models and sings sea shanties
in Low German, High German, and English.
The Houston Liederkranz hall continues 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 the late honorary member, Otto Kuntscher, whose poems have become treasures of the club:
Liederkranz: Dein woll'n wir gerne uns'res bestes Streben weih'n.
Sollst, der lieben Heimat ferne eine Burg des Deutschtums sein.
Du wirst kräftig Dich entfalten, schnell erblühn zu Macht und Glanz..
Bleib uns lange noch erhalten Houston's schöner Liederkranz
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