This time of year, visions of classic dancers can easily be had. Whether it’s the Rockettes performing their annual Christmas Show at New York’s Rockefeller Center, Tchaikovsky’s immortal Nutcracker Suite put on by a local theater company, or simply an old television rerun of a Lawrence Welk Christmas special.
The car radio, grocery store Muzak and holiday sing-a-longs can also conjure up visions of dancers and dancing. The classic Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” features a ninth day boasting “nine dancers dancing.” I think most of us appreciate this holiday staple for the challenge of singing it, more than anything else. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the traditional reverse counting folk song of anonymous nature— “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” However, spiked eggnog is more of an accompanying drink du jour to “Twelve Days” over plain old beer at a “spirited” yuletide party.
For those not familiar, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that lists a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days that make up the Christmas season, starting with Christmas Day). It does this in a playful, cumulative manner.
The song is thought to be of French origin and was actually published in England in 1780 without music. Instead it began simply as a chant or rhyme. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin.
This week’s “Story in Stone” is about a former Frederick couple who constituted a dancing team that were well-known to locals and vaudeville audiences of yore across the country. They were known as “The Professor and Mrs. Karl Von Rabe.” Their full names were Karl Emil Rabe and Nora Jane (Deter) Rabe and they rest in peace in the shadow of a large oak tree on the southwest corner of Mount Olivet’s Area R. The first day I first visited their gravesite, I was entertained to see falling leaves “dance” across their grave monuments commonly known in the industry as “Hickey Markers.”
Karl Emil Rabe was born October 5th, 1879 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He grew up learning the traditional dances of his home and surrounding countries in Europe. He came to America in October of 1898, settling in New York City. Karl married a Frederick girl named Nora Jane Deater a short time later on December 4th, 1900 in Troy, NY. According to naturalization papers filed a short time after, the Rabes lived at 305 W. 45th Street. In summer of that year, Nora born November 22nd, 1882) appears in the 1900 census living in Baltimore with siblings and listed her profession as that of an opera singer.
In 1914, the Rabes were living in Chicago and employed as house artists in residence at the Bismarck Winter Garden, a prosperous dinner and dance club in “the Windy City.” This was the launch pad for them to become known as celebrated masters of dance. So much so, the Rabe’s were invited to attend a dancing masters’ convention in Cleveland, Ohio that summer. This chance opportunity led to national acclaim and attention for the couple as they soon became the darlings of the press. A wire feature in mid-July was done on the couple and their introduction of a new dance craze for the time entitled “The Aeroplane.” And to think of the novelty as the Wright brothers had done their thing only 11 years prior at Kitty Hawk. And in case you were wondering, the first airplane to land in Frederick occurred in 1911. This article was published by hundreds of newspapers across the country.
The following week newspapers featured the Rabes again with an illustrated article introducing “the Trasko Waltz.” A website entitled Sonny Watson’s Streetswing.com gives credit to the Rabes for introducing this ballroom dance here in the US. It was described as “basically a waltz with a pirouette” and said to be based on dances of Karl Rabe’s native home of Denmark.
The Bismarck Gardens unto itself could have lent inspiration for our local Peter Pan Inn that inspired big band leader turned restaurateur, Richard Baumgartner. This once graced Urbana. In the case of Bismarck Gardens, the ethnic Germans of the old Lake View neighborhood of Chicago along with other parts of the city, liked to celebrate their heritage as it pertained to drinking.
Bismarck Gardens was located at the southwest corner of Grace and Halsted Streets in old District of Lake View. It opened in 1894 by brothers Emil and Karl Eitel to serve the sizable number of German-Americans living on Chicago's North Side. The park-sized space quickly became one of the city's most popular summertime beer gardens. It featured ample shade trees, electric lamps, an outdoor stage and dance floor, and plenty of beer and music.
An attractive entertainment hall was also built so to permit year-round operations. Bismarck Gardens did have issues with its neighbors much like the neighbors surrounding the venue—primarily parking and noise! Other issues that would severely impact the Rabes and their employment at the Bismarck over the next few years were World War I anti-German sentiment, labor strikes, and Prohibition Act of 1919. Bismarck Gardens had to renamed to Marigold Gardens by 1916, in response to rising anti-German sentiment in the city before and during the First World War.
Speaking of the Great War, draft records (completed in early fall of 1918) show Karl Rabe’s completed form and lists him working as a vaudeville employee for the United Booking Company. Rabe recorded the Palace Theater on Broadway in New York City as his place of employment. At this time, he was living at 415 S. Market Street here in Frederick, however he registered in Savanna, Georgia.
On Ancestry.com, I found records that show the Rabes visited Denmark in 1922 and in 1925, performed a tour in Australia. Outside of that, I haven’t been able to find any further articles or census records through the 1920s and 1930s. My hunch is that they were active in the Roaring Twenties but had to keep low profiles, and the Great Depression and 1930s provided lean opportunities for ballroom dance masters.
When the energetic couple decided to settle into retirement around 1940, the Rabes came back to Frederick and opened an antique shop at 47 E. Patrick Street—Nora Jane Antiques. The couple took up residence not far from Mount Olivet at 102 McMurray Street.
I found a small article announcing Karl Rabe’s illness and hospitalization at Frederick Hospital. It described the former dancer saying that he was best known around town by the nickname of “Karlie.” It went on to say: ”Mr. Rabe won the affection and respect of everyone with whom he met. His lively spirit and loving nature far surpassed any ordinary person."
Karl died March 31st, 1957. Nora Jane would only outlive her husband by nine years, passing on November 15th, 1966. Oh, to imagine the thrill and view from their perspective on the Bismarck Gardens dance floor back in the day performing to full houses in Chicago at Christmastime?
This certainly brings to mind the imagery and lyrics of another popular song about dancing during this holiday season. Performed by both Frank Sinatra and the amazing brother-sister vocal duo of the Carpenters, “The Christmas Waltz” is one of my personal favorites, and surely would have been enjoyed by Karl and Nora Jane had they had the chance to dance to it.
It's that time of year when the world falls in love
Every song you hear seems to say
"Merry Christmas, may your New Year dreams come true"
And this song of mine in three-quarter time
Wishes you and yours the same thing too