Poodles, generally speaking, are droll dogs, oddly coiffed objects of ridicule. It’s the do, the froufrou do. But looks can deceive. Poodles are smart, funny, athletic—the canine equivalent of Olympic gymnasts. I know, I live with two remarkably talented Poodles who appeared together at the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and the legendary Cirque Medrano in Paris. Handsome and charismatic, Erni and Lord were professional acrobats. But I’ve never had the pleasure of watching them perform. By the time we met, their careers were history. They were “lost” dogs, Poodles on the loose, in search of someone who cared. I was that someone.
The Six Orellys were European acrobats, cascadeurs. In 1927, they sailed to America and toured the US, their props strapped to the running boards of a big black Packard sedan. The stars of the act rode in the back seat —lithe white Poodles barking at skyscrapers and grain elevators. All pom-pom poodle cuts and sophisticated canine spunk, Erni and Lord were the seventh and eighth Orelly.
On stage and off, the Orellys recorded their lives and their Poodles with a small box camera. These images have been preserved for decades in an intimate album, its cover wrapped by hand in a jacket of Chinese paper, names, dates and places written on brittle black pages. When his sister-in-law died, Edy’s album slipped into the stream of anonymous photo images that course through the world, fragments of lost-and-found lives torn from their context by circumstance. It is a unique artifact, a candid portrait of an era, orphaned by fate and found by chance at a global garage sale on an electronic cul-de-sac called eBay.
That is how Erni and Lord came to be lost, and then found. Two Poodles in need of someone who cared, they now live with me. As a collector of vernacular photographs, I am fascinated by their artless aesthetic, inherent mystery and fugitive state. But in the case of Erni and Lord, it was I who was collected, completely captivated by this mysterious history of Poodle and human lives.
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The Orellys were neophytes who loved America, professionals who embraced life. Though facts in the album are as slight as acrobats, truth is to be found in the images, photos that resonate with wit, resilience, laughter, love and loss. Here are six performers (and two Poodles) still very much in search of an audience.
America at the end of the Jazz Age was a three-ring circus of cultural exuberance, material excess and societal unrest. It was an era of free-wheeling modernity on the cusp of crisis. In 1927, things were looking up. Charles Lindbergh soared solo over the Atlantic Ocean in a little silver plane, Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, the pop-up toaster and sliced bread were invented. By 1930, Louis Armstrong had recorded “Body and Soul”; the new German Reichstag opened with 107 uniformed Nazi Party members in attendance; and the Orellys had returned to Europe, to Berlin, where they faced an uncertain future.
Edy’s album was lovingly constructed for an audience intimate with its content. Its narrative is visual, essentially unwritten, and thus the search for answers often turns back upon itself, back to the image as sole evidence of a journey, a balancing act. Upon their return to Europe, confronted with tragic circumstance, Edmund, Theresia and Edy Hartenberger; Leo Stein; Pipi Bradna; and Willy (whose surname remains a mystery) continually reinvented the act in their struggle to survive. Aging snapshots place the Orellys and their Poodles in Amsterdam, Norway, and Sweden; in Denmark with the Cirkus Frankoni; and at the Cirque Medrano in Paris. The Six Orellys became four, then three, then two; the act’s final incarnation was obliquely christened “The 2 Reillys.” The album ends abruptly in 1938.
With the invaluable assistance of Natasha Gerson, a Dutch journalist who is also the granddaughter of gypsy performers and ringmaster of a small European circus, the story of Erni and Lord and their fellow Orellys is being painstakingly reconstructed, like the shell of an egg dropped by a juggler. Enough pieces are in place to suggest that Edmund and Theresia Hartenberger were Edy’s parents; that Edmund resisted returning to Germany in 1930, and died shortly after their return; that Leopold Stein and his fiancée made it back to the US in the late 1930s; that the Hartenberger home was destroyed during the Battle of Berlin; that Edy survived the war but with an East German address; and that Edy and his wife, the 2 Reillys, are buried in a cemetery outside Chicago with Theresia beside them.
What became of Erni and Lord? In the back of the fragile album, large white Poodles with froufrou do’s can be seen in photos taken in Sweden, on the canals of Amsterdam, and in Denmark. We do know that Erni and Lord were consummate professionals, members of a family of performing Poodles, beloved dogs who had the run of a convivial home that stood behind the Berlin Opera House. Before the war, before the bombs began to fall, family, friends, fellow artists and precocious Poodles gathered on the balcony of that home, drinks in hand, bantering with opera musicians who flocked to the fire escape at intermission, cigarettes glowing in the dark. We know that the Reichstheaterkammer, the Third Reich’s Theater Ministry, eventually forbade the appearance of animal acts that did not demonstrate the “superior mastery” of humans over “wild” animals. Needless to say, French Poodles living, working and tumbling with collegial humans failed to meet Nazi standards of professional conduct.
But we also know that Erni and Lord, European to the bone, took part in quintessentially American rites of passage: vaudeville, the state fair, the three-ring circus and the classic American road trip. They were pioneers with panache and joie de vivre, precursors of Kerouac and Steinbeck’s Charley, but with greasepaint and applause. And while I cannot say for certain what became of them, I have no doubt that Erni and Lord, all pom-pom poodle cuts and sophisticated canine spunk, would be thrilled to know that they are back for an encore.