Want to catch that unique Berlin feeling? Then head straight for Clärchens Ballhaus. This legendary dance hall and beer garden was first opened in 1913 and has survived two World Wars, life behind the Berlin Wall and all the rebuilding and reshaping of the German capital since reunification. Here, time has stood still – a place where you will find authentic charm, not trendy shabby-chic.
The Ballhaus in the 1930s
Originally founded by businessman Fritz Bühler with his wife Clara, who was known as ‘Clärchen’ (‘little Clara’), Clärchens Ballhaus started life as Bühlers Ballhaus and soon became a popular dance hall. During the dangerous years that immediately followed the First World War, it hit hard times and was even rented out to host illegal and bloody sword fights. The Golden Twenties then ushered in the jazz era and dance halls became all the rage. When Fritz Bühler died in 1929, Clara took over. She proved to be a formidable and resourceful owner who stood up to the Nazis and then continued running things when the Soviets took over in 1945. But the GDR years proved difficult and by the time Clara died in 1971, her Ballhaus had turned into a rather sad and seedy establishment. Then in 2005, it was taken over by new management who have successfully turned it into a well-loved Berlin institution once again.
The front building was destroyed in the war and the Ballhaus is now set back from the street with its bold iconic sign over the entrance, originally designed by Otto Dix and illuminated at night. Strings of white lights guide you down the main path and through the garden area, dotted with plenty of tables and chairs. Once inside, you step back in time. Over a century has passed, and yet nothing seems to have changed. The ‘foyer’, complete with original cloakroom, opens into the main ballroom. Here dark wood panelling, candlelit tables and antique bars surround Clärchen’s legendary dance floor. Only the rotating disco ball gives a hint of modernity.
There is dancing every night – except Sundays, which feature an afternoon Tanztee (Tea Dance) instead. On Mondays it’s Salsa, on Tuesdays it’s Tango, on Wednesdays it’s Swing and once a month there is a ‘Gypsy Restaurant’ evening. Fridays and Saturday are ‘Schwoof’ nights when DJane Clärchen and a live band move from Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha on to Elvis and hit singles after midnight. The great thing about Clärchens Ballhaus is that everyone and anyone seems happy to take to the floor. It’s just one big cross-generation party.
The staircase to the first floor
Upstairs, above the main ballroom, there is an even bigger treat in store – the amazing ‘Spiegelsaal’ (‘Hall of Mirrors’). Before the bombs fell in the 1940s, this was the dance floor reserved for the more ‘refined’ and wealthier local residents. After the war it remained closed and then, after 60 years of neglect, it was reopened to the public in 2005. Now it is often used for dance classes, concerts and private functions and at the back there is a small bar with a seating area outside. The ballroom area has largely been left just as it was in 1945, complete with broken stucco and damaged mirrors. In the dim light of the chandeliers and flickering candles the atmosphere is magical and the original elegance is unmistakable.
Inside the Spiegelsaal
On Sunday evenings the Spiegelsaal provides a perfect setting for chamber music performances. A couple of weeks ago I went along to hear the talented young Amatis piano trio. It was simply breathtaking – both musically and atmospherically. Past and present seemed to merge together and create a unique Berlin experience, in a very special building. In mid-summer (from 19th July to 28th August) the Spiegelsaal Sunday evening concerts move outdoors to the Bode Museum.
The wonderful Amatis Piano Trio
You don’t have to put on your dancing shoes or attend a concert to enjoy Clärchens Ballhaus. The food is good too, with a great ‘Mittagstisch’ (daily set lunch) and the service is friendly and welcoming. Or just turn up one evening for a beer and a Berlin bulette or a glass of wine and a pizza, then see how the mood takes you. It’s open daily from 11am and closes ‘when the last guest leaves’.
For further details of Clärchen’s events programme and its fascinating history check out the following websites: