Felix De Cola interviewed by his son Lee in 1981, whom he calls ‘Buddy’.
Felix De Cola was born 17 Sep 1906 Cape Town. He was born in Brunswick Road in a part of Cape Town called Tamboerskloof .
His father Gustav Ginsberg was born Beuthen 1870/71 (Upper Silesia, now in Poland). He went to South Africa (SA) after his older brother Franz had settled there.
Felix states that his father’s father was Siegfried, a schoolteacher in Beuthen.
Mama Ginsberg (The mother of Gustav) moved to Berlin where she was maintained by Franz Ginsberg.
Franz Ginsberg (Great Grandfather of Graham Ginsberg) had a soap factory (which was eventually bought by Lever Brothers) and a candle factory. He was Senator in SA and one of the signatories of 1910 Articles of Incorporation of the Union of SA.
Gustav went on a walking tour through Europe. He reached Vienna. He was a very good violinist and played in a gypsy band there. In Vienna he met and fell in love with a gypsy girl whom he nearly married. Wiser counsel prevailed.
Gustav completed his dental degree (Felix did not know where in Germany) and then went to SA.
Felix married Edith Mendelssohn in King Williams Town 1901/2. Edith was born Boston, Mass. 1880 (Felix says 1980 in error). Edith was a daughter of Mendelssohn also known as Martin (?spelling). He was in the shoe(?) business in Boston. Edith’s parents married in Russia and came over to the USA.
She had several sisters and two brothers who went to SA where they became successful businessmen. Edith’s sisters included the elder Lilly and Josie and another who was a very good pianist.
She went with her family from USA to SA just before the end of 19th century. The Mendelssohn family settled in Kimberley where they lived through the Boer War. Edith remembered sheltering with her family in the diamond mines during the bombardment of the town by the Boers who were besieging it. Edith said that it was ironic that whilst they almost starved in these mines, they were surrounded by non-edible diamonds worth millions of dollars.
Gustav and Edith lived in Cape Town 1906-10. Felix remembers little of this time except a tramway that ran around the city.
1910 the Ginsbergs moved to Swakopmund in South West Africa (SWA) where he worked as a dentist. It was a dreary little town. They lived in an apartment house, the top floor of which was occupied by two Greeks who ran a tobacco factory there. Felix remembers hearing the “tock-a-tock, tock-a-tock ” sound of the tobacco cutting machines.
Swakopmund was like a western mining town.
There was no mining in Felix’s family but his Uncle Franz had a diamond mine at Kolmanskop, SWA.
As a dentist in Swakopmund Gu did very well. Every 3 months he would go on a tour of interior of SWA with his portable treadle-drill and treat the people including the miners. They paid him not in money but in gold dust and diamonds.
By 1911-12 Gustav had amassed a fortune by the standards of those days: £30,000-£40,000.
Return of family to Europe. It was a hard life in Africa, Gustav always wanted to return to, and settle in Europe.
First they made a tour of Europe. Felix remembered seeing the Kaiser pass by on horseback in Berlin.
The family eventually settled in Stuttgart. The reason for this choice was that Stuttgart was a cultured town in pleasant countryside, an overnight journey from Paris, Vienna and Berlin.
Before settling in Stuttgart the family had spent about 6 months in Switzerland. Gustav had a cousin in Zurich. Gustav had a brief venture into the fur business there. A scar on Felix’s leg bore witness to the time in Switzerland when Felix became accidentally impaled on an iron railing on a fence over which he was attempting to climb. They lived in Eggeri (a resort town) near Zurich. Felix states in the recorded interview that he thought the family went to Europe (? The stay in Zürich?) for a short trip, then back to SA before returning to settle in Stuttgart.
They had an apartment on Hölderlin Platz; Gustav’s surgery was on Schloss Strasse.
The practice was very successful. Felix remembers they possessed a Blüthner piano.
Gustav was a German and English speaker, he did not speak Afrikaans.
In August 1914 WW1 broke out and whole family was imprisoned for one night.
By this time Gustav had become a British Subject whilst living in SA. He was interned as an enemy alien at Rühleben. First and briefly he was held at Spandau, the clearinghouse for Rühleben. Then he was interned at Rühleben near Berlin, an old racecourse. About 4000 civilian prisoners were interned there. The internees were housed in converted stables there. They were treated reasonably there. At Rühleben Gustav was very active in the camp orchestra. Other very good musicians interned there including the pianist Max Power (who later became a British subject). They played all the great piano concertos and put on performances of Gilbert and Sullivan in which men had to play the female roles, as there were no women in the camp. Music saved Gustav’s sanity.
No visits by family allowed to the camp but letters were permitted. Edith was very upset by the internment of her husband. She was very anti-German. She had to report to the police once a week, as she was a foreigner. She risked big trouble on one of these occasions when she told an official that, “it would be a tragedy for the world if Germany wins the war”.
Felix did not remember missing his father too much whilst he was interned. The boys (Felix and his brother Eric) spent much time doing things which distracted them including hiking with their friends in forests around Stuttgart. On one of these hikes they met an old gentleman wearing a fur cap who asked them their names. It turned out that this was Graf Zeppelin, the inventor of the Zeppelin, who had an estate just outside Stuttgart. Fe remembered that when this man died his coffin was transported from Berlin to Stuttgart by a Zeppelin draped in black cloth.
After two to two and a half years Gustav was released, as there was a bad shortage of professional manpower in Germany. He was allowed to practice as a dentist under police supervision.
Felix hardly recognised his father when he was released.
After Gustav’s internment all family fortune had been used up or lost.
Gustav was a very good violinist. Edith was a good pianist. Neither Gustav nor Edith had ambitions as professional musicians: both were excellent amateurs who enjoyed playing. One of the first pieces Felix remembers hearing being played at home was “Romance in F” by Beethoven.
Edith was lousy cook, a good mother but very possessive especially when Felix married Pearl.
Felix began playing the piano in Stuttgart. Edith taught him piano there.
Eric and Felix attended the Rosenberg Realschule in Stuttgart. During the war a teacher said something very unpleasant to Felix and Eric: ” I refuse henceforth to instill into you the milk of German Wisdom”
After his release Gustav rebuked the school’s principal for being so stupid as to penalize the two young boys so badly.
In Germany during WW1 there were great scarcities especially of food. This was in contrast to the Great Depression when one could buy food if one had enough money. During WW1 there was virtually no food to be bought.
Edith was canny woman. On one occasion bought 100 lb. of rice, which they ate during the war. Felix remembered Edith sending the brothers around all the drugstores of Stuttgart to buy up large stocks of Nestlé’s baby food which she knew was nutritious. They lived on this and the rice throughout the war.
Rationing in Germany was very bad. On a foraging trip out in the country Edith stopped for a meal at a Village Inn at which farmers offered them stocks of food. The peasants did not want to be paid in money but wanted Edith’s coat. Felix does not remember how this was resolved.
There were air raids. One of the first of these in Stuttgart hit soldiers in a barracks. Many people thought that they had been specially targeted but aerial bombing in those days was much more hit-and-miss than the ‘pinpoint’ bombing of more recent times.
They were always afraid at full moon. Full moon was a high-risk time for air raids. The raiding pilots could fly at night and the city was well illuminated for them. It was known as ‘Fliegernacht’.
When it was known that ‘planes had crossed the border, trams attached white flags as air-raid warnings to the poles which carried electricity from the overhead wire. A warning of 3 gunshots signified that the ‘planes were over Stuttgart. The family would enter the cellars where for example wine was stored (below the basement) to shelter. They slept in the cellar quite often.
When Gustav was interned the family gave up their flat and lived at the surgery.
A family called Senghas lived above the Ginsberg’s surgery. Herr Senghas was an engine driver who drove trains to the battle-front: Edith was horrified when she saw Frau Senghas cutting up and making dresses out of pieces of fine Belgian lace which her husband had brought to her from wartime Belgium.
Their son Eugen, who had a mole on his lip, was a good friend and classmate of Felix. Many years later, in 1968, Felix visited Stuttgart and looked up Eugen whom he met and identified by the scar on his upper lip where the mole had been removed. Eugen acted as if he did not recognise his childhood friend; Felix felt that he did recognise him but for some reason did not want to acknowledge this.
During the WW1 the family experienced no animosity from neighbours etc, animosity was only at an official level.
At the end of the war in 1918 there was Revolution in Germany. The whole of Germany collapsed: there was chaos. There was anarchy. The army had dispersed. Soldiers broke out of their barracks, entered official buildings and emptied files and records on to the street. Everything had broken down completely in Germany.
Felix remembered that their neighbour was a retired German general. Two privates came to his apartment. He greeted them in full uniform, sword at his side. The privates, wearing red ribbons around their caps, demanded his sword. He then slapped one of them across the face, took out his sword and broke it across his knee.
Gustav decided that the family must leave Germany immediately. In November 1918, Gustav and his family took off without any official permission, without passports, 3 days after the Armistice.
The family went to the railway station in the clothes they were wearing without any baggage except Eric’s ‘cello and Gustav’s violin.
There were no officially run trains in Germany at this time. Soldiers who wanted to get home commandeered trains. Soldiers who knew how to drive them drove trains. They filled the train with soldiers, fired the engine, and set off.
The family took a train that was going north to Frankfurt. There they spent the first night sleeping on the platform. They were probably the only civilians on the train: the rest were returning soldiers.
At stations along the way soldiers did not even wait to open carriage doors, they smashed the glass in the windows with their rifles and climbed through.
At the Dutch border volunteers from the Society of Friends (the Quakers) looked after them. Felix says he remembered the food in Holland tasted so sweet after what they had had to eat in wartime Germany (e.g. bread made with sawdust, potatoes and artificial butter made with who knows what).
After two weeks in Rotterdam, they boarded a small trawler for Hull . Felix remembered the captain telling them that twenty-four hours before another such vessel had hit a mine and was blown-up.
They had to get to England as they wanted to return to SA. They waited for two years to get on to a ship for SA. Large numbers of people – returning soldiers, refugees from Europe, civilians – wanted to get to SA. Hence the long wait for a ship.
They lived in Bournemouth (West Southbourne) where Felix went to school. Felix learnt to speak English quickly by age 8/9. Until then he used to talk to his mother in German and she would reply in English. Edith spoke English but only broken German. Whilst in Bournemouth, the family was helped financially by the South African High Commissioner Spitzer and also by Franz Ginsberg.
In Bournemouth Gustav conceived the idea of setting up a noodle factory in SA as there were no such factories there. He travelled to Brescia in Italy to buy specialised equipment that he needed, for example a ‘granola’ (for fabricating the dough) and a special press for extruding the pasta in various shapes.
1920 they arrived in Cape Town. Gustav set up his noodle factory in Bree Street. He soon sold the factory.
1921 they went back to South West Africa. In Windhoek Gustav started to practice dentistry again. Felix went to school there.
Soon Gustav became ill and suffered a lot of pain as he had cancer of the liver. They returned to Cape Town in 1922 for medical attention.
Eric stayed with his mother in Cape Town and Felix was sent by his mother to school in Bloemfontein where he lived with his aunt Lilly and where he received the news of his father’s death.
Gustav was a very intelligent, sober minded man. He was very tolerant.
He maintained that “the truth was a wavy line between two extremes. There was no such thing as one side being absolutely right or the other being absolutely wrong. There was always a point of compromise between them…”
He was very popular with people.
He was successful as a dentist in both South Africa and in Germany where if it had not been for WW1 he would have stayed with his family and practice in Stuttgart. As Felix put it “the goddam war screwed up everything”.
Gustav and Edith were a happy couple: “ideally happy”.
The only disturbance of their family harmony was Eric. He was a rebel: a disruptive influence in the family. He never conformed to the discipline and spirit of family life: “a family delinquent”.
Eric and Felix were always very friendly. Eric did not resent Felix’s successes.
For Eric was very successful.
[He went to London to work with the BBC. He never visited USA.
Eric became a national hero in SA where he worked in radio. He was the top radio personality of SA. He had a radio school.
He left radio (or rather he was "pushed out"). This destroyed him.
Although he had no pension, he made enough money being a Master of Ceremonies to shows, and making occasional broadcasts.]
Edith joined Felix in Bloemfontein and they went from there to Johannesburg, then to Pretoria where they took a house in 1922/3. Felix’s piano teacher in Pretoria was Madame Rhodes. In Stuttgart he had received tuition from a Frau Dondorf
In Bournemouth he had no piano teacher: his mother taught him.
In Pretoria Felix had his first job. He worked in Mckay’s music store where his knowledge of German (many of the scores were written in German) and his piano playing ability served him well. His job was to sell the latest music. He remembered one occasion when he played one of the latest pieces available (‘Always’ by Irving Berlin) for a customer but with his own added syncopation. She bought the score. Several days later she came back to the store to complain that when she played this piece it sounded quite different from what the salesman had played!
He learnt to play ragtime in the music store. Late at night he would turn on a player piano and insert a piano roll. These were often ragtime pieces that had been generated by two people playing fourhanded. He realised that the pieces of music were not being played exactly as written in the scores. Fe placed his fingers on the keys whilst the player piano played and learnt by experiencing the feel of the movement of the keys how ragtime was played. He learnt through his fingers. He realised that chords needed to be widened and that harmonies need to be changed.
It was in this way that Felix developed the facility he had managed to acquire.
At this time Felix also had a small dance band.
Felix got a job as the accompanist to the musical comedy artiste Florence Smithson (she commanded much the same admiration, as did later Julie Andrews). They had a six-month tour around South Africa and Rhodesia. They did one-night performances in small towns as well as bigger places. In Rhodesia Felix remembers that they visited small places with names such as Kwe Kwe and Chamva Also visited Bulawayo and Salisbury.
In Salisbury he fell in love with the daughter of the manager of a hotel. When it was time to leave, he presented her with a string of pearls and she gave him a set of gold cufflinks with his name ‘Felix’ engraved on each. He still had them at the time of the tape interview.
Whilst on tour Felix sent letters and money to his mother.
He gave his first radio broadcast in 1922 in Johannesburg. People would send requests for him to play pieces of classical music. He would then play these pieces in his own ragtime versions. If he knew the tune he could then render it in ragtime.
Most of the requested pieces were popular works such as the “Moonlight Sonata” and “Melody in F” and Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song”.
Felix and Edith moved from Pretoria to Cape Town.
Then they moved to Durban where he had a dance band comprising his mother, Charlie Low (a violinist) and his wife and daughter. They played in a restaurant on the Esplanade.
Eric was now Johannesburg. There he worked in a brewery.
Eric and his mother did not get on well with each other.
By now Eric had broken off from the family completely.
From Durban to Laurenço Marques . Edith and Felix played in a silent movie house, the Teatro Varieta , owned by a Mr. Buccelato .
After a while there, Edith and Felix had the yearning to play in Cairo, at Shepherd’s Hotel. This never happened.
They went back to Cape Town where Fe set up his School of Piano. He had a couple of assistants. It did very well. There was a great demand for lessons in playing jazz. Everyone wanted to learn what was then known as ‘Syncopation’. Felix gave lessons, with two assistants, at his school, made gramophone records, and prepared mail-order tuition courses.
Felix later sold it on to Dave Jacobs (brother of Sybille Jason, ” a little movie star in the City of Cape Town”). This school still existed at the time of the recorded interview.
Felix became known as South Africa’s ‘King of Jazz’
He had his own dance band and it played at all of the important dances.
In 1925 he was invited by the then Governor General, the Earl of Athlone, to perform at Government House in Cape Town where a dance was being held for the Prince of Wales who was visiting SA whilst on a round-the-world tour. Whilst Felix was playing quietly in the background the Prince of Wales came up to him and said, ” I have been taking tap-dancing lessons from Mr. Astaire in London. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind playing ‘Ain’t misbehavin’ “. This Felix did. At this point the Prince of Wales started tap-dancing in front of the surprised assembled guests.
Once a year he took a month off to devote his time to playing the piano.
Felix was a prominent pianist in S.Africa. He played as soloist in piano concertos with Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. He played the concertos of Grieg, Schumann and other well-known composers and even one Felix composed himself. He gave the first performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in the Southern Hemisphere. He was quite prominent pianistically.
He describes himself as being a “classical popular musician”.
He also played on the radio.
In 1930 Felix went to London for a month. There he attended many concerts and shows.
He was able to see performances by great names such as; Kreisler, Budapest Quartet, Menuhin (then aged 16), Gerald Du Maurier, Noel Coward and Gerrtrude Lawrence (the two latter were playing in “Private Lives”). “Bitter Sweet” was running. He also saw “Evergreen” starring Jessie Matthews. He returned to SA when his money ran out.
1933, much to Edith’s disapproval he married Pearl Eckhard. Pearl was Miss Cape Town in 1935 or 1936, before she married Felix. Felix and Pearl were considered a glamorous couple. Their daughter Joan was born in 1935 in Cape Town.
Pearl Eckhart had three brothers. Edith liked Pearl, they used to play bridge together.
However she was not acceptable to Edith in the role of wife for Felix. Felix was the apple of his mother’s eye. No wife he chose would have been good enough for her. In fact no woman would have been acceptable to her as a wife for her son. Not even “Diana Spencer, had she been available! ”
Edith had an unreasoning possessiveness. She did not care about Eric.
By the time Felix married, Felix maintains that he (Eric) had married and divorced 3 or 4 times. Sometimes divorcing then remarrying the same woman.
Eric and Felix were always friendly to each other, though did not see much of each other. Eric was in Johannesburg and Felix in Cape Town.
Pearl had two friends who were sisters: Nancy and Helga. Whilst Helga was in a beauty parlour in Berlin she met the Hollywood director Tay Garnett.
She fell in love with him and followed him back to Hollywood where they married. Nancy joined her sister in Hollywood and also married.
Some time later, 1937/38, Pearl was invited by her two friends to come for a holiday with them in Hollywood. She went, leaving Joan with Felix in Cape Town. A little later Felix went out to join Pearl in Hollywood, also for a holiday, leaving Joan in Cape Town. When he went to Hollywood Felix had an idea that he might eventually want to move there. So although they fully intended returning to SA, Felix got himself issued (on the Quota System operated in those days by the US government) with a permit to allow him to immigrate from SA to the USA.
Felix decided to stay in USA. Felix had decided that he could achieve no more in SA – he had reached the pinnacle of his career there. War was beginning to break out. These facts decided Felix that USA was the place for him to stay.
Joan was sent over to the US by boat and was to have been met in New York by Pearl. However the boat she was on landed at Boston and she had to be taken by train to NY.
Felix left Cape Town just after the Munich Agreement in 1938, a few months after Pearl had left. He did not return to SA until 1960 (when he did a concert tour of Southern Africa).
He sold his house in Cape Town, his music school. An attorney in SA handled all this. The money was transferred to the USA.
After working for a bit as a freelance, his first job in USA was as staff pianist for the radio station KMPC located in an office opposite the Beverly Wiltshire.
He ran a show called “Lend me your Name”. People would ring in with their names and Felix would improvise pieces using the musical letters from their names.
At this time they were staying with Nancy (who had divorced her SA husband Tony and remarried Howard), Helga’s sister and her husband Howard in a flat on Formosa.
About 1940 Felix and Pearl divorced. “It was quite friendly divorce”.
Joan lived with Pearl. Both taught at the prestigious Westlake School for girls.
Felix’s next job was in Bill Jordan’s ‘Bar of Music’ playing two pianos. Bill Jordan had two branches: one in Los Angeles and the other in Miami Beach. When Bill was at Miami Beach in the winter Felix worked at the other branch in LA and vice versa in summer. It was in Miami Beach that Felix met his second wife Elizabeth. She was a social worker.
In 1940, just before Pearl Harbour, Edith came over to the USA. She bought with her all of the books and music that Felix had left in Cape Town. She died shortly afterwards as a result of a cancer. Elizabeth and Felix married in Los Angeles after Edith died.
Felix was called up at the outset of WW2 but was classified ‘F4′ and rejected on medical grounds. Felix could not serve in WW2 because of his punctured eardrum (a side effect of scarlet fever contracted as a child in Swakopmund). He had 50% hearing in his left ear.
They lived first on North Alfred Street.
Then one night whilst driving home from a show at Bill Jordan’s, Felix and Joan spotted a house on Martell Ave which Joan thought would make a perfect home. This they bought for $8900 from a Mrs Harlan. Felix said that this purchase was “the only really intelligent business deal I made in my life”.
In Los Angeles Felix worked in shows, high school and college concerts, radio shows and early TV.
In 1971 he worked on the boat ‘Rotterdam’ on a round the world cruise. Then he did the same on other cruise ships. He had an engagement on the ‘Old Monterrey’, on which his son Lee had joined him briefly.
Felix did not consider himself to have been a good businessman: not aggressive enough and also to diversified in his interests and activities: mail order, ‘easychord’, records and ‘music cards’.
In the USA Felix always wanted to “recreate a life in a home of my own as I had in South Africa”: to have “a cave of my own”. Felix was aware that the German tradition of music in the family was a strong influence in his life. In Los Angeles he had an overpowering desire to have a home of his own, to have friends over to play music together, not to worry about disturbing the neighbours. This he achieved.
 Born Felix Ginsberg. His older brother Eric Egan was born Eric Ginsberg.
 Now called Bytom in Poland.
 December 26th 1872 (ref.:Bytom Births 1866-74 Deaths 1849-74 Gubernia: Piotrkow / Province: Katowice. From LDS Films on Jewishgen’s JRI-Poland). S.Rindl et al., compilers of the Ginsberg family tree record his birth as December 27th 1873.
 Gustav Ginsberg was actually son of Nathan Ginsberg.
 Rosalie Berg
 I believe that Franz was inspired by the factory which had been recently started by the Lever Bros. in the UK. (ref: South African Jewish Times Sept. 1947)
 May 25th 1902 in the synagogue, Kimberly (ref: Cape Mercury, May 1902). Eric born May 14th 1903(ref: cape Mercury, May 1903)
 On Sunday 11th February 1900, Cecil Rhodes displayed following proclamation in all parts of the town of Kimberley: “SUNDAY. I RECCOMMEND. WOMEN AND CHILDREN. WHO.DESIRE.COMPLETE.SHELTER.TO.PROCCEED.TO.KIMBERLEY.AND.DE BEERS SHAFTS.THEY.WILL.BE.LOWERED AT ONCE IN THE MINES FROM 8 O’CLOCK.THROUGHOUT. THE NIGHT. LAMPS. AND GUIDES. WILL. BE.PROVIDED C.J.RHODES
(ref.: ‘The Boer War’, by Thomas Pakenham. 1979. London:Geo Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd.
 Adrian Egan suggests that this return to Europe may have been to a change in regulations relating to the ability of dentists with German qualifications to practice in South Africa. Since Gustav was practicing in South West Africa, which was at that time a German colony, this is unlikely to be the explanation. However, this might just have been the reason for Gustav choosing to work in Swakopmund rather than somewhere in South Africa that was at the time under British jurisdiction.
 Elise Gundelfinger who was taught the piano by Edith told me that she was a superb pianist. She was also the best sight-reader in Cape Town.
 As did Frau Dondorf (see later in this text).
 This is the only street that I could find in an atlas of Cape Town with a name sounding like that which Felix names on the recorded interview.
 Where he was able to practice despite the change in ownership of the Colony. See footnote 7.
 I am not sure how this is spelled!
 The year that the BBC started broadcasting in the UK (Information from John Watson, Norwich)
 The Felix De Cola School of Modern Piano Syncopation, Ottawa Chambers, Plein Street, Cape Town.
This is the address given on a printed score of Felix’s music also in National archives of South Africa.
 Opened at the Adelphi Theatre, London on December 3rd 1930 (information from John Watson)
 Information confirmed by M. R., my aunt, without her having heard the interview.
 Felix was nominated in 1948 for one of the first Emmy Award for one of his television shows, “The Felix de Cola Show”. (ref.: “The Lost Mind” Entertainments awards database on the Internet)
The Felix De Cola Show and Children’s Piano Music Lessons
A commenter on Youtube.com wrote this about Felix:
“Thank you SO MUCH for posting this rare TV footage of Felix De Cola, who I mostly know as a radio host on KABC radio in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He was truly a dapper character, a suave but humble exponent of the arts. These sorts of minor celebrities get lost in the ebbing tides of pop culture memory. It’s good to see him tickling the ivories in this long-gone black and white ’50s world.”