At the Theater an der Wien,
Leon Askin performed under the direction of Paulus Manker in the very
successful Vienna Festival production of “Der Vater” (“The
Father”) written by Joshua Sobol. In Joshua Sobol’s polydrama
“Alma – A Show Biz ans Ende,” which has achieved cult
status, Leon Askin appeared every summer since 1996 as a contemporary
“witness”, since he knew Alma Mahler-Werfel personally.
"We - Joshua Sobol, Paulus Manker, myself
and a few others - were sitting in 'Schnattl', a bar in the Josefstadt
neighborhood, and the topic of conversation turned to Alma Mahler-Werfel.
I said: 'Yes, I knew Alma Mahler-Werfel. I met her and Franz Werfel
through the Piscators in Paris, before the two of them escaped from
France over the Pyrenees. Alma Mahler-Werfel was also a good friend
of my future wife, Lies: they were neighbors in Beverly Hills, they
went to the theater together, they went shopping together. So, of course,
I got to know Alma.' Whereupon Paulus Manker immediately hired me."
"Alma was a fascinating woman, not only
because she was friends with or married to some of our most important
artists. After Gustav Mahler's death, she married Walter Gropius, then
Franz Werfel, and had a stormy relationship with Oskar Kokoschka. The
Viennese didn't ever completely forgive her for that. Many people even
hated her for it. Nevertheless, no dress rehearsal of the Vienna State
Opera could begin before Alma was in the house. 'Has Alma arrived?'
They didn't want to start without her. Why? Because Alma was married
to one of the greatest 20th century composers. It was Alma who had made
Mahler's work famous. Who on earth knew Mahler's work? Beethoven, Mozart,
Schubert - sure. But Mahler? The Viennese were not ready for a composer
like Mahler. Alma made sure that Mahler was played - by the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra, as well as by other famous orchestras. It is only through
Alma's efforts that Mahler is today part of the repertoire of all major
In 1935, Leon Askin was the director of the
popular Viennese political cabaret, the "ABC", when he met the dramatist
"In August, 1935, Hans Weigel came to me
in the 'ABC' to tell me he would no longer have much time to write for
the cabaret. To make the loss of my principal writer easier to take,
he had brought along a replacement, commending him warmly: 'Here is
a young man who writes regularly for the Arbeiterzeitung, as well as
poems and songs for the Wiener Werkl. He'll write your main sketches
for you now.' And so, the dramatist Jura Soyfer was introduced to the
"Jura Soyfer was indeed a wonderful addition
to the creative ensemble of the 'ABC'.
He wrote text for the prose playlets in the program, as well as some
fabulous chansons, such as 'Voll von Hunger und voll von Brot':
'Full of hunger and full of bread
is this wonderful earth.
In poverty and richness is this earth,
without limit is this earth.'
"With this chanson, the playlet 'Weltuntergang'
('The End of the World') was the success of the season. Had Jura Soyfer
not died of typhus in Buchenwald, he would have become one of the most
important German language dramatists of the 20th century. It fills me
with pride and satisfaction to have been the one who first put Jura
Soyfer on the cabaret stage."
While Leon Askin was director and artistic
director of the "ABC" cabaret in 1935, he met Josef Meinrad.
"One day, a young blond man came to me
and, in an atrocious Austrian proletarian dialect, declared: 'I wuell
a Schauspuela wern, i tua olles!' ('I want to become an actor, I'll
do anything!'). He also told me that he wanted to be a parish priest
and that he was a trained carpenter. At that, I sat up and took notice,
since carpenters were much harder to find than actors. So I hired him
"That would-be priest with the barely intelligible
dialect was to become the future wearer of the Iffland Ring, Josef Meinrad."
Leopold Lindtberg was a student and associate
of Erwin Piscator. He later became the artistic director of the Düsseldorf
Municipal Theater where Leon Askin was engaged for five months in 1932.
"During one of the first rehearsals,
he came to me and said: 'With you, you've really got to break up the
ice!' The meaning of this observation was clear to me. All Dumont actors,
myself included, were stuck in the Dumont method. To come from Louise
Dumont was considered by many companies the best reference one could
have, while many other theaters were not so keen to hire Dumont actors
because of their distinct method. However, Lindtberg trusted my talent
and let me play four important roles."
In 1961, Billy Wilder cast Askin in his film
"One, Two, Three."
"To film with Billy Wilder is a pleasure
and a special experience for any actor who aspires to perfection; he
is a true master of his trade. Some young directors and actors consider
Wilder a good, but old-fashioned director. But what is old-fashioned?
Films such as those that Wilder made don't fit with the current action-oriented
trend. There are hardly any comedies anymore in the Billy Wilder style.
If it is old fashioned to characterize a role perfectly, then I can
only quote Raimund and say: 'Wünsch guate Nocht, do wuell i liaba Gärtner
blieben' ('Say good night, then, 'cause I'd rather remain a gardener')."
"Wilder's films always had a polished,
complete plot. The brilliance of a director consists in the realization
of this effect."
Leon Askin met Otto Preminger in 1937 in
a Josefstadt production of Emmet Lavery's Jesuit drama "Die erste Legion"
("The First Legion").
"Director of this Josefstadt production
was Ludwig Otto Preminger. Actors feared him because of his manner on
the stage. There were actors who refused to act under him. I was fortunate
enough to know Preminger personally, and he proved to be a great personality.
I have never forgotten his humanity and generosity. I know that Preminger
sent large monthly dollar amounts over a long period to an actor who
had fled Vienna and, because of his accent, could find no work, neither
in Hollywood nor in New York."
"As a director, he knew his trade and knew
what theater- and film-goers wanted. He was no Reinhardt, neither was
he a Piscator; he created audience-pleasing productions. But as director
in the Josefstadt, he was one of the first theater directors to stage
contemporary American plays in German language."
"We started our careers at just about the
same time - Preminger as assistant to director Jahn at the 'Komödie'
and I as student at the 'Neue Schule.' Years later, when had completed
basic training in Los Angeles and was already a sergeant in the US Army,
I used to visit Preminger regularly on Sunday mornings. We had breakfast
together at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel: he, seated in the bathtub, and
I, in my uniform, at a small table next to it."
On the advice of Bertha Zuckerkandl, Leon
Askin contacted Maria Ley in Paris in 1938. She was known for her support
of refugees, and, besides which, was married to the director and actor
"The result of my first meeting with Piscator
was that he hired me to do a whole range of things-director's assistant,
secretary, auditor, associate and errand boy."
"At that time, I didn't yet know at all
Piscator the man, but Piscator the director meant something to me. Back
then, I really didn't have any idea of his actual importance to the
theater. Within a short time, however, I became a great fan of his conception
of theater, and I still am to this day."
"Erwin Piscator had become a committed
pacifist as a result of his experiences in World War I. His pacifist
attitude also expressed itself clearly in his productions. Once I said
to him: 'If you were to stage a French bedroom farce, it would probably
also have a pacifist undertone.' Piscator looked at me for a moment,
somewhat perplexed, and then he laughed and said: 'You know me pretty
well, don't you!'"
Louise Dumont-Lindemann, former Vienna Burgtheater
actor and colleague of Max Reinhardt, was the founder and long-time manager
of the famous Düsseldorf Theater.
"Louise Dumont was difficult to describe
and perhaps even more difficult to know. She was neither arrogant nor
distant, but rather simply unapproachable. Her face was a strong face,
framed with short, metal-gray hair. With her deeply-set black eyes,
she penetrated her surroundings. She looked severe, but in her look
was also kindness-even if only recognizable to those who knew her well.
Louise, as we called her, was not particularly tall, yet her bearing
was that of a queen of antiquity."
"Louise Dumont died on May 17th, 1932 of
a pulmonary edema. On our Holland tour, Louise had come down with a
bad cold and developed pneumonia. In spite of her fever-weakened state,
she insisted on continuing to play what was to be her last role, Mutter
Sorge in the second part of 'Faust'. Her last words on stage-'There
he comes, there he comes, Brother Death'-were as a prophecy of her own
death, which was to come a few weeks later."
In 1928, when Leon Askin played a small part
as an extra in the Reinhardt version of "Kabale und Liebe" ("Love and
Intrigue"), he met Max Reinhardt in person.
"During a dress rehearsal in the Reinhardt
Theater, in my role as servant, I stood shyly in the doorway to the
salon where the President was in a serious argument with his son Ferdinand.
Suddenly I felt the cold, steely eyes of the master directed towards
me. I was nervous, and the palms of my hands began to perspire and my
knees to tremble. He seemed threatening to me, as he came towards me,
and I nearly ceased to breathe. Reinhardt was staring at me, or rather,
at my three-cornered hat which, in his opinion, did not sit right. With
a quick gesture, he pushed it to the left. 'Remember that for the rest
of your life,' he said as he turned away to continue with the rehearsal.
That was the first and last personal contact I had with this brilliant
Leon Askin met Bertolt Brecht in 1946.
"Only once did I meet Brecht personally.
It was in 1946, at the invitation of Kadidja Wedekind, Frank Wedekind's
daughter. Brecht was interested in producing Wedekind's 'Lulu.' Both
of them - Brecht, as well as Kadidja - needed money. Otherwise, they
were quite different people. Brecht was of the opinion that 'Lulu was
also a political play, whereupon Kadidja nearly became hysterical. What
had begun so promisingly ended in a horrible fight which lasted until
well into the night. The only person to benefit from this meeting was
I. I would probably never have otherwise so easily had the opportunity
to observe and to listen to this great man. Naturally, I went on to
learn much more about Brecht from my mentor and friend Erwin Piscator,
who was also mentor to Brecht."