Football, elites and the stage, the case of Adolf Dymsza

Dymsza flowers

Adolf Dymsza, holding a bouquet of flowers on the football pitch

Football ever since it became a mass sport has always attracted famous fans.  Presidents and prime ministers are present at important matches hoping to bask in the residual glow of success and a host of celebrity hangers on hope to do the same.  Of course many famous people are genuine fans, indeed in England some base their celebrity on football, a classic case in point being David Baddiel and Frank Skinner at the 1996 European championships, the camera panning to them every time there was a moment of note.

In Poland the famous have also been attracted to football, Polish PM Donald Tusk is for example a fan of Lechia Gdańsk and recently deceased internationally renowned composer Wojciech Kilar was a fan of Ruch Chorzów.  But what is the relationship between celebrity football fandom and elite structures?  This post will explain these dynamics by looking at the case of Adolf Dymsza, perhaps the most famous actor in inter-war Poland and his love of football and sport in general.  What does the rise and fall of Dymsza’s career tell us about how football and power structures are interlinked?

The rise of Dymsza

Kadry z filmu Sprawa do za³atwienia

Adolf Dymsza was born Adolf Bagiński on 7 April 1900 in Warsaw’s old town. The city at the time was not the relatively affluent capital of a European state but the rather unloved centre of Russian rule in partitioned Poland.  His were quite humble origins – his father worked as a low-ranking railway official.  Many who reported his later success said that Dymsza was the proverbial ‘man from nowhere’ and although that’s not strictly true he certainly made his own luck.

Dymsza began in show business during the first world war.  In 1915 as the German army occupied Warsaw a host of cabarets and theatres sprung up across the city.  The young Dymsza decided to chance his hand at the stage and appeared in a number of cabaret shows before appearing in a propaganda theatre in the current capital of Belarus Minsk, where troops of the newly established Polish state were stationed.  Dymsza and his theatrical companions were forced to flee the East in 1919-20 as the Soviet Red Army moved inexorably westwards.  All seemed lost for an independent Poland until Polish forces, led by Marshall Józef Piłsudski defeated Trotsky’s Red Army just outside of Warsaw – a battle subsequently called by Poles ‘The Miracle on the Vistula.’

Piłsudski’s success on the battlefield meant the rebirth of an independent Polish state.  The new state was initially racked by problems; it was exceedingly difficult to bind Polish territories together into a political and economic whole after 123 years of partition under three different empires.  Poland was also extremely divided socially – between peasant and worker’s parties, large landowners and urban intellectuals.  It was also ethnically divided – ethnic Poles only consisted of 69% of the new state which possessed large communities of Jewish, Ukrainian and German citizens.

In an cultural sense though the inter-war period was a golden age.  For the first time Polish artists, filmmakers and entertainers had the chance to develop their repertoire free from the beady eye of the censor.  This meant the flowering of theatres, cabarets, cinemas and music halls and it was in the nation’s capital Warsaw where the great majority of this cultural explosion was based.

Adolf Dymsza (for this was the stage name the young Bagiński assumed) took full advantage of this state of affairs.  Dymsza after returning to Warsaw from the East was prepared to try his hand at a number of different ventures.  As he himself stated:

‘How did I survive? I taught figure-skating on a bike, I managed a football team and I gave dancing lessons.’

This period of instability ended in 1925 when Dymsza got the chance to perform as part of the Quid Pro Quo cabaret.  Quid Pro Quo was an avant-garde comedy cabaret in the heart of Warsaw.  The cabaret showcased a mixture of surreal characters and ironic social commentary and a host of Poland’s most pre-eminent inter-war entertainers plied their trade there.

Here Dymsza perfected the character he would come to be known for, the Warsaw ‘Cwaniak z złotym sercem‘ or ‘Rogue with a good heart’ – otherwise known as ‘Dodek’ which became Dymsza’s nickname.  Dymsza’s rogue poked fun at existing social structures with a smile on his face and a seemingly respectful veneer.  He was helped at Quid Pro Quo by excellent lines written for him by the Jewish poet Julian Tuwim who saw in Dymsza a patina to criticise the mores of Polish society.

In the space of several years Dymsza became the darling of the Warsaw entertainment scene and Quid Pro Quo gained great renown for their repertoire.  By the end of the 1920s Dymsza had become part of a select few elite Polish entertainers.  But despite being part of an elite his political leanings were always progressive – many of the Quid Pro Quo team were Jewish, a minority which experienced considerable discrimination from nationalists in inter-war Poland, and he was a member of the Polish Socialist Party.

Quid Pro Quo, until it disbanded in 1931, was frequented by Polish state figures such as Józef Piłsudski himself who had brought about a left-wing coup d’etat in 1926.  In addition Progressive intellectuals like Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński wrote glowing reviews of Dymsza’s performances throughout the inter-war period.

So Dymsza had become a staple of the Polish cultural scene.  His career was on a strict upward curve – something that was cemented by his move into the motion picture industry.  He had already appeared in silent movies in the 1920s but Dymsza made the switch to talkies seamlessly.  1935 was his breakthrough year – indeed some cultural critics went so far as referring to it as ‘The year of Dymsza.’  His most celebrated role was in the film ‘Antek Policjmajster‘ ‘Antek the Police Commissioner’ which is generally regarded as the finest Polish comedy of the inter-war period.

In the film – which is set in Tsarist times – Dymsza plays Antek Król a petty criminal who while running from the Police, happens upon the local Tsarist police commissioner on a train.  In a bid to escape he puts on the commissioner’s uniform and goes on to impersonate the official in the latter’s palatial residence in the centre of Warsaw.  Antek causes great mischief as everyone falls for his ruse until he is eventually discovered.  Critics were enthralled by Dymsza’s performance – Stefani Zahorska a renowned art historian and cultural commentator said the following:

Dymsza works miracles in the film.  His grotesqueness is of the absolute highest calibre, he takes things to another dimension – a dimension of pure absurdity, a place where things take on new meaning precisely because they are completely meaningless.’

Antek Policjmajster

Dymsza as Antek Król, about to launch into another bout of mischief

Dymsza although making it as a film star, and appearing in a host of hit productions before the second world war, was never really given the roles he deserved.  His characters were almost always Warsaw rogues who came from humble backgrounds to wreak havoc in more lugubrious surroundings.  The film historian Małgorzata Hendrykowska underlines what the secret of his screen success was:

‘His great comic talent, individual style, the general sympathy that he generated when on screen meant that audiences swallowed the most banal of stories, and accepted the same tales and ideas which were used over and over again.’

The end of Dymsza’s hegemony as an entertainer came as bombs rained down on Warsaw in September 1939, bringing war and Nazi occupation to the city.  But what about Dymsza, sport and football?

Dymsza the sportsman in all but name

Although Dymsza never made it in the world of sport, it seems likely he could have flourished in this area. First of all his brand of comedy had a very physical, almost athletic element to it as numerous commentators at the time noticed. On the screen he was lithe and what’s more constantly in motion, in fact there’s a certain giddiness to watching Dymsza in action.  The renowned poet Antoni Słonimski put it thus:

In certain routines Dymsza possessed an almost acrobatic dexterity.  In one famous scene with the actress Zula Pogorzelska they both slid on the floor as if it was ice. There were lots of those kind of numbers.

Sports and physical activity always intrigued Dymsza.  He loved dancing for example and in his early twenties once won a competition by dancing continually for over eight hours!

Dymsza was also a keen skater and player of tennis and also took to collecting cars and motorcycles.  These vehicles were however not just a status symbol to Dymsza – he also loved to race them.  In 1938 the actor related to the sports paper Przegląd sportowy that he had once taken part in a frantic cross-country race to reach the southern Polish spa town of Krynica.

These pursuits reveal the essential modernity of Dymsza as sport was very much at the heart of the modern age.  Sport also plays an important role in his films.  In the film ‘Sto metrów miłości‘ ‘Hundred metres of love’ Dodek played a 100 metres runner who had to win a race in order to gain the affections of a beautiful woman.  In addition in the film ‘Sportowiec mimo woli‘ ‘Unwilling sportsman’ Dymsza plays a hairdresser who is mistaken for a famous hockey player.  Scenes in the film show Dodek entertaining the crowd with his theatrical behavior on the ice.

Sportowiec mimo woli

Poster for ‘Unwilling sportsman’ featuring a likeness of Dodek

Dodek Dymsza and football

Despite all this, football was Dymsza’s first sporting love.  He started off with kickabouts as a child while the city was still under Russian rule and then moved on to playing more organised games.  Sometimes Dymsza’s teams played games against Russian sides, something which added a bit of extra spice to the occasion.

As Dymsza grew up he attempted to make it in the world of football.  His chosen club was Polonia Warsaw, the capital’s premier footballing institution in the inter-war period and one that he would always be associated with.  Polonia had been formed in 1911 by Warsaw secondary schools pupils.  The club was an important symbol of Polish nationhood as Poland emerged from the era of the partitions.  Polonia for example played friendly matches against sides from other parts of partitioned Poland, something that was considered a political act.

In newly independent Poland Polonia became the club of Warsaw’s thriving intelligentsia and elites.  A sign of their importance is illustrated by the fact that General Kazmierz Sosnkowski, one of Józef Piłsudski’s trusted men, was president of Polonia between 1928-39.  Sosnkowski’s presence at Polonia meant they often gained players called up to serve in the army.

We don’t know exactly why Dymsza chose Polonia as his club but chose them he did.  Initially he tried to play for Polonia’s first team but when he was unsuccessful he continued to turn out regularly for their reserves.  His favourite position was inside-left and he was apparently a very decent player.  The Polish actor Andrzej Łapicki recalled:

‘He was a good player and kept it up until quite an advanced age.  He was a nimble dribbler and often fired off quick shots at the goal.’

In the mid-1920s Polonia was visited by the shining lights of the Polish cultural and artistic scene.  The Quid Pro Quo (QPQ) theatre, of which Dymsza was a member, were some of the most ardent Polonia fans.  One of QPQ’s directors, Seweryn Majde, was even the club’s president.  Dymsza remembers how important football was in the Majde household:

‘Majde had two sons: one was a fan of the ‘Polonia’ sports club, the other was in love with ‘Cracovia.’ There were quite some scuffles in his house I can tell you! Majde was the president of ‘Polonia’ and everytime they won a match the whole team used to come to watch a show at the theatre.’

Majde even piloted a scheme whereby QPQ tickets would contain an advertisement for Polonia matches.  Dymsza himself was a huge fan of Polonia, indeed historian Robert Gawkowski called him the ‘unofficial king of the Polonia fans.’ Dymsza would sit in the lower rows of the club’s VIP box and when his team played well he would shout out ‘Allez!’ and tell jokes to fans in other parts of the stand.  Dymsza was certainly a gregarious fan as his biographer Roman Dziewoński notes:

‘There were dozens of anecdotes doing the rounds about him and hundreds of jokes also spread around the city. He wasn’t a snob, when he went to football matches, he often sat among the normal fans. He was happy to sign autographs – he was considered a very open person.’ 

Even when Dymsza was a great star he never gave up the sport he loved.  He did so via an actor’s team that he organised and led. His Polonia links meant he was given the freedom of their stadium – a fact that he took full advantage of.  Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s Dymsza’s side trained twice a week on Polonia’s pitch and played a match at least once a month.  Twice Dymsza organised matches between his actor’s team and a press side, once in 1938 and another in 1947.  On both occasions Dymsza’s side lost – results which angered Dodek considerably – he hated losing.  Dymsza was a star on and off the pitch as one commentator noted:

Man of the match was however Dymsza, who as an inside-left was applauded no less than when he appears on stage.’

Dymsza

Dymsza (fourth from the right) with his team of actors

The second world war and the end of Dymsza’s golden age

In September 1939 this world came to an abrupt end.  Nazi forces invaded Poland from the West and, after a fierce fight, Warsaw fell to invading troops.  Dymsza like every entertainer was faced with stark choices during the war.  The Polish underground ordered entertainers not to appear in theatres which were officially recognised by occupying authorities.  At the same time people like Dymsza had to make a living somehow.  In the end he took a rather unpatriotic choice and decided to appear in these theatres – something which would have negative consequences for him in the post-war world.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Poland and Warsaw itself was changed beyond recognition.  Gone were the vast majority of the country’s Jewish population and Warsaw lay in ruins after the tragic failed uprising launched in August 1944.  Most important however was the change in political authorities in Poland – as there was to be no re-establishment of the pre-war status quo.  Instead Communist political control was imposed on Poland via the forces of the red army.

In one fell swoop the old elites were completely disenfranchised.  Piłsudski (who had died in 1935) was considered anathema by new Communist authorities who chose different heros to laud.  The footballing world experienced a similar purge.  Polonia were looked on with suspicious eyes due to their links to the old political structures.

Despite this Polonia were initially given the ‘protection’ of the Communist ‘Citizen’s militia’ – only for the club’s board to cast off this protection in autumn 1945.  Polonia paid for this insolence by being given a weaker sponsor and as a result fell from the Polish top flight in 1952.  The club would not return to this level until 1993.

Dymsza’s post-war fate was also relatively ignominious.  Communist authorities looked with disdain on his appearances in Nazi recognised theatres during the war.  This meant Dymsza was initially banned from appearing in Warsaw theatres until 1951. Although he continued to perform on the stage for many years and starred in nine more films, his cultural impact was far less than before the war.

Dymsza just did not fit the new post-war reality as the Polish journalist and commentator Krzysztof Toeplitz explained:

‘The character of Dodek Dymsza was a consequence of the class to which he belonged.  It was the product of an individualistic, liberal world which underlined personal striving as the only remedy for the vicissitudes of fate.  The post-war era along with the Warsaw uprising destroyed that pre-war reality.  Not many real Varsovians remained.  The new population of the city brought with them their own – typically rural – traditions and Varsovian slang is now very different to the one that Dymsza spoke.’

Epilogue

Dymsza’s stardom represented a specific place and time.  It was linked to the political, ethnic and class realities of inter-war Poland. He rose from humble beginnings to the beating heart of Poland’s elite via a mixture of bravado, wit and improvisation.  This article shows that sport and football played an important role in Dymsza’s world and that of inter-war Warsaw. Football, like the stage, was a public spectacle, a place to see and be seen and thus it attracted an array of entertainers and politicians.

The post-war reality was very different.  Warsaw’s ethnic mix had disappeared and its new authorities had different views on how the city, nation and, by extension, sport should be organised.  Dymsza and his beloved Polonia were not a part of this vision and so faded into the background.

Dymsza’s case illustrates that football is always inherently linked to the power structures of a given time.  Today’s Warsaw is very different to the one in which Dymsza thrived but sometimes it’s important to remember how it once was.

To write this piece I received the assistance of Michał Oleszczyk

I also drew on: Roman Dziewoński’s, Dodek Dymsza, Robert Gawkowski’s Futbol dawnej Warszawy, Shiela Skaff’s The Law of the Looking Glass and Kazimierz Rudzki’s (ed.) Dymek z papierosa

and articles in Film, Przekrój, Rzeczpospolita and Gazeta Wyborcza

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