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Nobiz, Prague

Vaclav Glazar brings to life the “old songs” that used to be heard all around Prague.

 Magazine Feature Features Archive  
October 2009 Email this to a friend
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Life is a cabaret

By Mircea Ticudean

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Vaclav Glazar's home is in Nusle, a turn-of-the-last-century neighborhood hanging on the sides of a valley that runs right through the center of Prague. The flat is small and cluttered with items of faded beauty. The run-down sofas look like a perfect home for lazy Persian cats, but there are none in sight as we sit down on a late rainy afternoon to talk about Glazar's cabaret called Srdce a kamen, or Heart and Stone.
 Glazar doesn't like me to call Heart and Stone a gay cabaret. Some of the performers are gay, as is Glazar himself, but many are not. Being gay is not a requirement to be hired.
 "I need them to have something to give to the audience, and when I hire them I don't judge them by the crotch," says Glazar, right hand on my left knee.
 Wrapped in a burgundy robe, sipping Carlsbad mineral water, the 63-year-old Glazar might be an aristocrat, but he doesn't talk like one.
 A few minutes into the interview he departs from his literary Czech and jumps into wild Prague slang while he talks about his enemies: the communists and the capitalists.
 Before World War II, Prague had 81 cabarets. Now there is only one, which is run by Glazer. And he is happy to explain why his stands alone.
 The communists earned Glazer's wrath by closing Prague's cabarets after the second world war, calling them "vulgar" and "immoral." The capitalists killed the local entertainment once the communists were gone, by bringing in foreign-language entertainment.
 "It was all in bloody English!" complains Glazar.
 After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the Czech people broke free from the Soviet Union, Glazer claims that every other local boy put on lipstick and false eyelashes and hit the tourist bars dressed like Cher.
 Glazar, an actor known to most Czechs as the corpulent matka predstavena (mother superior) from a 2003 movie comedy called Kamen‡k, has a low opinion of cheap drag shows designed to appeal to foreign audiences.
 So when Glazar opened his own cabaret in 1996, he wanted it to be a Czech affair. No Cher and Madonna impersonators, please. Instead, he wanted lots of "old Prague songs."
 The music that Glazar cherishes as the essence of traditional Czech entertainment is what used to be sung in the Prague pubs since time immemorial, or at least since the 19th century, when the middle-class Czechs started to have a life of their own in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
 The music is not about love, but rather of amorous adventures, of infidelities carried out or only planned, of secret encounters in a place where nothing can stay a secret for long. Glazar says the music, although not totally free of pathos, is mainly supposed to cheer up the audience, rather than make them weep.
 "We're simply clowns," says Glazer, who plays the "fat mamma" character in his shows. "That's what we are."
There is no Greenwich Village or Castro in Prague, and some say there will never be one, although a bigger concentration of gay bars can now be found in Vinohrady, a wealthy neighborhood near the central railway station. The gay scene might be out of the closet, but it hasn't left the basement. In this capital of a million cellars, a lot of the gay life is still hidden from the eyes of the general public.
 Prague has no tradition of gay marches or pride day celebrations. But every June, Glazar's cabaret takes a boatload of guests on a trip down the Vltava River. When the boat pulls away from the dock, so does the public display of gay life for another long year.
 There is only one bar in Prague where gay people can look the passer-by straight in the eye: the glitzy Club Valentino, a massive complex with a street-level pub and two dance floors. Most of the rest are downstairs. It's not that they are hidden away, as many of the straight bars are also below ground. The reason seems the centuries-old sense of propriety common in Central Europe.
 But then there's charm in some things hidden. Places like U Ceskeho Pana, not far from the Jewish Quarter (a two-room cafŽ with a mixed crowd) and Piano Bar (a classic neighborhood bar, with dim lights and a friendly staff) right under the rocket-shaped television tower, have a nostalgic feeling that would probably vanish if you took them out of the cellar.
 So would U Rudolfa, a smoke-filled pub that is popular with a working-class crowd. It doesn't display a rainbow flag or any other sign that it is a gay bar, so if that Ukrainian day laborer gets up from your lap at midnight and tells you "Sorry, I am not like that," there's a chance he means it.
 The bartender claims that a busload of elderly German tourists once decided that it looked like the perfect place to stop for a beer. The front room couldn't accommodate everyone, so the bartender sent some into a spare room in the back. When the Germans happened to look under one table, they were shocked to find an amorous young gay couple.
 Some gay establishments prefer a local clientele, rather than surrendering to tourists like the rest of the city. Their staff claims it's not the foreign customers that are the problem, but rather what they (often unwittingly) bring along with them. Prostitution is huge in Prague, a city that unites the money of the wealthy West with the young flesh from the poorer East, from here to the Balkans to Ukraine.
 One day in the heart of the city, waiting in line at a newsstand in central Wenceslas Square, I heard an older gentleman inquiring in loud, German-accented English about where he could find "some boys." The vendor offered him the gay map. "No, no!" the German yelled. "I want them young!" The knowledgeable vendor asked him just how young, then directed the man to the places near the railway station where there will always be "some boys."
 Other establishments, such as Glazar's cabaret, just prefer the old-fashioned ways. In these places you wouldn't feel unwelcome, but might have trouble trying to communicate in English.
 But you'll be taught the word for "beer," and sometimes that can take you far.
In 1961, Czechoslovakia was one of the first European countries to decriminalize consensual same-sex relationships. That law, however, contained a caveat.
 According to Jiri Fanel, author of the Gay Historie, it warned that "homosexual acts that might offend the public" could still be punished by up to five years in prison. That vague amendment, writes Fanel, was a warning to the gays to keep their sex lives behind closed doors.
 Today the Czech Republic, which in 1993 split from Slovakia, is much more accepting of gays than many of its neighbors. Recent polls show that 75 percent of the largely atheist Czechs approve of gay civil unions -- the exact percentage of people who oppose them across the border in Catholic Poland.
 Back at Heart and Stone, Glazar remembers an older straight couple who'd visited the cabaret once, then came back after a couple of months. "We want to thank you for opening our eyes," they said after the second meeting, and pointed at two young men sitting on a bench outside the theater.
 "Our son has been gay all along, and deep down we knew it, but we never talked about it," they said to Glazer. "After your show we decided we should, and now we have two sons instead of one."
 Glazar doesn't see himself as an activist, and insists that his cabaret is "for everybody." He says he has deliberately widened his audience from the initial "gay groupies" to a variety of people, straight and gay, who want to have fun.
 But Glazer admits that his status of a local gay icon has made him into a very big shoulder to cry on for dozens of people who had problems coming out.
 More than once, Glazar says, such young people would bring their parents to the show to give them a hint or set the scene for a proper discussion later.
 "Some visits end in embraces or at least a promise of acceptance. Some end in tears, but those are few. In fact, I can't remember any!" says Glazar, always the comedian. His sudden, massive laugh must be audible in the street outside his flat. "I must have made them up!"     

"We're simply clowns," says Vaclav Glazer, who plays the "fat mamma" character in the shows at Heart and Stone cabaret. "That's what we are."

The music that Vaclav Glazar cherishes as the essence of traditional Czech entertainment is what used to be sung in the Prague pubs since time immemorial.

Heart and Stone
(Trojicka 10, Prague 2)
Piano Bar
(Milesovska 10, Prague 2)
(Vinohradska 40, Prague 2)
U Českych panu
(Kozi 13, Prague 1)
U Rudolfa
(Mezibranska 3, Prague 1)


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