Kurt Baum (1901-1964) was a stage actor, theatrical producer and documentary filmmaker.
Note: Not be confused with Kurt Baum (1908-1989), the Jewish Czech-born tenor who left Germany for the United States.
Kurt Joachim Baum was born in what was then known as Breslau, Germany (today the city of Wroclaw in Poland). A student of Max Reinhardt, in 1922-23 he was a member of the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar where he was engaged as an actor and singer. It is known that he had a small role in their production of Peer Gynt. At the end of October 1923, he quit Weimar for a new engagement in Wiesbaden, but in August 1928 he caught a ship from Hamburg to Walvis Bay. He was 26 years old and the ship’s manifest gave his profession as Schauspieler (actor). By 1932 he was in Johannesburg and acted with Violet Brady in Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Jewish Guild hall and when in that same year the University Players staged Hamlet, Kurt Baum from the People’s Theatre produced and played the title role. In 1935/36 he was director of the ambitious amateur group the Art Theatre and staged works like Stefan Zweig’s adaptation of Volpone, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms and Ronald Gow’s Love on the Dole. He also produced a new play by the South African playwright and critic Lewis Sowden entitled The Man in Checks and staged Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was later presented at the Empire Exhibition.
Always keen to try new things, in 1934 he made his first film, an experimental documentary called The Golden City, probably inspired by Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), which he must have seen while still in Germany. In 1935 he wrote his own play, called Esq. for the Art Theatre, and there was mention of him creating a puppet theatre for the Empire Exhibition. In 1937 the Rand Daily Mail reported that Baum was leaving the Art Theatre and was hoping to establish a new touring company with which to visit the larger small towns. By 1938 he was in Cape Town, where he produced Paul Raynal’s The Unknown Warrior for the Little Theatre, Desire under the Elms for the Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society as well as a student production of The Concert (perhaps the play by Hermann Bahr). His work caused the critic of The Forum to herald him as “the German theatre’s gift to South Africa” and credited him with experience in many famous operatic and theatrical centres. He was also said to be involved in furthering amateur theatre in Cape Town.
During this time he also did a lot of radio work, while in 1937 he staged a Yiddish version of Volpone (entitled Gelt) for the Jewish Workers’ Club. In 1938 he produced the opera Don Giovanni at the City Hall in Johannesburg, with the Governor-General and Lady Duncan in the audience. Finally, in 1939 his dream of establishing a touring company came to fruition. Called Die Ossewateater, it travelled with plays like Dood Neem Verlof (by Alberto Casella) and Ou Heidelberg (by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster). Unfortunately, the government of the time confused the company’s name with that of the Ossewabrandwag, the Afrikaans anti-British and pro-German nationalist organisation and closed it down. During World War II, while on tour in what was then South West Africa, Baum was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to the internment centre at Baviaanspoort. According to Harro Fromme’s autobiographical Mein Weg durchs Leben, Baum gave him acting lessons and advised him to take up singing. Apparently he and Baum attracted the enmity of the interned Nazis when they came to the assistance of a man of Jewish extraction who was being assaulted.
After his release, probably in 1946, he was again involved with the Johannesburg Art Theatre, but in 1947 he founded Era Films in Pretoria, which was planning to dub European Films into Afrikaans and also hoped to produce both features and documentaries. It is uncertain whether any films were actually made, but by late 1949 he was with the Department of Education to supervise the filming of the opening of the Voortrekker Monument for the South African State Information Office. He subsequently joined African Film Productions as writer and director and made a number of documentaries for the Information Office. His Arches of Faith (1950) won the ATKV Prize in 1951 and three other shorts were shown in competition at Cannes: Tickets Please! (1955), New Horizons (1956) and The Bride Wore Pearls (which he co-directed with Errol Hinds (1957). In addition Colourful Courtship was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1958. Interestingly, in 1958 he went to the United States to investigate magnetic tape which, it was reported, could record pictures and sound again and again. He died in 1964 and was not married. (FO)
(Note: In the National Archives of South Africa there is still a file on him dated 1940 to 1947 with the warning “restricted access”.)
Ghosts (1932), Hamlet (1932), Improvisations in June (1934), Volpone (1935), Desire under the Elms (1935), X-Y-Z (1935), Love on the Dole (1935), The Man in Checks (1935), Esq. (1935), The Revizor / The Inspector General (1936), The Unknown Warrior (1936), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1936), Volpone (in Yiddish) (1937), The Unknown Warrior (in Cape Town) (1938), Desire under the Elms (in Cape Town), The Concert (in Cape Town) (1938), Dood Neem Verlof (1939), Ou Heidelberg (1939). Except for Ghosts he produced all these plays and was usually on the stage as actor.
The Golden City (1934), Arches of Faith / ‘n Volk se Erfenis (1950), Meet the Malans / Aangename Kennis (1952), 300 years South Africa / 300 jaar Suid-Afrika (1952), Pearl of the Paarl / ‘n Taal se Opkoms (1954), Tickets Please! / Kaartjies Asseblief! (with Emil Nofal) (1955), New Horizon (1956), Colourful Courtship / Ndebele Troue (1956), The Bride Wore Pearls (with Errol Hinds) (1957).
Rand Daily Mail, 30 July 1937
Rand Daily Mail, 18 August 1939
Sunday Times, 16 July 1947
The Forum, 25 July 1938
Belling, Veronica Penkin - Yiddish Theatre in South Africa” a history from the late nineteenth century to 1960
Fromme, Harro - Mein Weg durchs Leben
Records at the Western Cape Provincial Library Service
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