Measured and Laboured
The Life and Works of Alex van Warmerdam
1 – A Unique Breeding Ground for Talent
A Youth Spent amongst Theatre, Music and Sets
Oldest children are often burdened by their position within the family. They must struggle to gain every inch of their own space, fight for every decibel of music that sounds from their room, every hour on their night out from their parents, who are also novices, new to the stages a firstborn goes through. The tough, unremitting battle or the very lack of it – the child refuses, or doesn’t dare, and tries to adjust itself, without consideration of the harm to its character – just as often leads to discomfort and uneasiness on both sides of the front. Silently passing the blame, alienation, glowing embers that have never been stamped out during a hefty row or a good talk.
Alex van Warmerdam is a self-conscious oldest child. Ever since his birth, it is almost as if he has always been there. He’s neither rebellious nor quiet and shy – at least no more or less than other children. What is unusual is his tenacity. Perhaps that’s what his mother finds difficult about him. Little Alex doesn’t give extra cause for a strict upbringing, yet she has her hands full. The Haarlem-born Thea van Warmerdam-de Vos married when she was 21, and Alex is born a year later, on 14 August 1952. Having become a mother early in life, she is insecure about her role, and Alex takes little trouble to put her at ease. As a toddler he regularly runs away from home, leaving behind his deeply troubled mother. On one occasion he was brought home by a bus driver, who had found little Alex -two or three years old- at a bus stop far from his parental home.
Thea usually has to face these trials on her own. Her husband Peter van Warmerdam, born and raised in Spaarndam, is seldom at home. This was a necessity, not a choice. As a boy Peter is good at drawing, but for many years he didn’t know what he wanted to be. As late as 1945 – at 24 years old – he finds his vocation. An acquaintance points out an advertisement to him, for a stagehand at the city theatre of Haarlem. A large number of applicants are lined up in front of the theatre, but it is Peter who lands the job. This leads to a life of minimum earnings and maximum passion. Every evening there is something to do in the theatre, where at least five times a week, Peter has to be on the scene. In the daytime, he helps building up and taking down shows and doing all sorts of work, like painting billboards. Once every four years he has a day off at Christmas. Despite the long hours, the stagehand’s pay is low. So low that Peter soon sacrifices his spare time by constructing sets against payment for the many amateur companies in Haarlem and its surroundings. In order to transport the large pieces of scenery he purchases a car – in the early fifties still an unusual possession. He picks an old but aristocratic second-hand Mercedes-Benz 170, a pre-war model, with large round headlights on elegantly arched wings. Peter constructs the wooden roof rack in aid of transporting the sets himself. He drives through Haarlem and the surrounding area like that. With intervals, however: when the petrol is almost finished and Peter is broke, he leaves the Mercedes and takes the bicycle until he has enough cash to fill up the car again.
As a favourable circumstance of his minimal salary the stagehand and his family, together with another family, are offered a low-rent accommodation in the administrator’s residence of the Haarlem Concert Hall, which is part of the same organizational unit as the city theatre. Theatre and the musical stage are still a private enterprise, and programming is a colourful mixture of art and commercial entertainment. In the basement of the Van Warmerdam house, the North Holland Philharmonic Orchestra rehearses; outside in the garden the acrobats and tight-rope walkers rehearse when circus acts are in town.
Peter also decorates his own home, because of a liking for it, and due to a permanent lack of money. He makes painted wooden planks appear like a marble mantelpiece. And when Alex and his brothers – Marc is born in 1954, Vincent in1956 – are not in school, he often takes them on his tours past the amateur theatre companies. There they wait in the car until he is done. At a young age they lie beneath the stage of the theatre in order to keep the fountain going during an operetta. They had a musical upbringing thanks to their mother. Thea is a great singer; for years, she has been active in an operetta company.
Unintentionally and without any ulterior motive of an educational nature, Peter and Thea create a unique environment, which would have left no child indifferent. Alex and his brothers – in 1961 followed by twins, Anne-Marie and Liesbeth – grow up with theatre, music and the applied art of Peter’s sets and decorations. As if that isn’t enough, they also become altar boys in church. That too is theatre: for them, the fun ends as soon as the Latin Mass is dispensed with. In retrospect, Alex van Warmerdam drew on his whole environment to develop as an artist. Even now, this is occasionally still evident in his mother’s words, who is 80 years old by now. When she tells of her great-uncle for instance, a singer and sculptor who sang with the German opera for a short period: ‘He had weak nerves and died reasonably young.’
For five years the Van Warmerdams live in the concert hall, followed by a few years in the Hannie Schaftstraat in East Haarlem. Alex is drawing all the time, just like his father did. In 1960, he and Marc take part in a pavement drawing competition, which a local newspaper gives a detailed account of. In the first round, Marc beats his older brother by taking second place. Both proceed to the final. Now Alex wins, and Marc sadly loses out to his brother.
A year later stagehand Peter van Warmerdam becomes stage manager of the Casino Theatre in Den Bosch. He and his family move to the newly surrendered new housing estate West 2 in Deuteren, a settlement on the edge of the city. There they will also live for five years. Just like in many modern suburbs, it takes a considerable time before there is a bus connection to Den Bosch. Thea feels quite isolated. Alex also can’t really settle in Brabant; moreover he is in constant conflict with his teachers. He refuses to unquestionably accept their authority. His incessant questioning – ‘Who says this book is right?’ – does not make him popular.
In Den Bosch too, the Van Warmerdam brothers continue to enrich their lives mostly outside of the classroom. During the celebration of their parents’ copper wedding anniversary, they perform their first real play in the living room in West 2, with a large family crowd as their audience. It’s an existing play, named De Volgende Zaak (The Next Case), with the roles of a villain, a forester and a judge. Alex plays the villain, the most rewarding part. Marc is the judge, and their youngest brother Vincent is the forester, who has very few lines. The performance is a great success and is captured on black-and-white photos. In Den Bosch they also see their first real movies – the medium that later on in life will make Alex famous. Lawrence of Arabia makes a deep impression. A scene in the movie shows a boy sinking in quicksand. Marc cannot sleep for weeks after seeing the horrible scene.
Even though their time in Den Bosch definitely has its pleasant sides, it is all in all a liberation when the Van Warmerdam family can return to their familiar place of origin. In 1966, Peter becomes stage manager of the Velsen City Theatre in IJmuiden. The family finds accommodation above the playhouse, with a spacious terrace that provides a beautiful wide view of the surroundings. A cantilever window above the kitchen sink gives entry to the projection room. If you open a hatch next to the projector during the show, the crowded theatre’s heavy warm air, smelling of sweat and wet coats drifts into the projection room. The boys only need to run down some stairs and past some doors to see all that happens on the stage and the big screen, something they take full advantage of. Furthermore, the School for Graphic Design, followed by the Rietveld Academy finally offer Alex the teaching environment that suits him.
Soon IJmuiden has more to offer. In the late sixties the harbour town is alive with the rise of pop music and the social change of that period. In 1969, Peter van Warmerdam starts working groups for cabaret, traditional and experimental theatre on the stage of his city theatre, behind the safety curtain. These are to raise the level of amateur theatre in the IJmond region. Het Witte Tejater (The White Theatre), as it is named, will be a lively mixture of discussions, workshops, rehearsals and performances, with amateurs and professional actors participating on equal footing.
Including the Van Warmerdam brothers. Het Witte Tejater becomes known far beyond the borders of IJmuiden. Theatrical producers and critics from all over the country visit IJmuiden to see for themselves, amongst them a group of students from the Amsterdam School for Drama. One of them is Olga Zuiderhoek. She performs in one of the plays, and afterwards forgets her waist belt in the dressing room. It is sent to her. Alex spotted it and remembered whose it was. Her acting impressed him. Many artists become interested in the pioneers of IJmuiden, amongst them also the members of the Hauser Kamer Orkest, a band named after brothers Dick and Rob Hauser, bass guitarist and saxophone player respectively. The other members are the pianist Gerard Atema, drummer Eddie Wahr, singer Chris Bolczek and guitarist Thijs van der Poll. The last three are from IJmuiden. Together with Alex and his brothers, the young musicians start mixing pop music with theatre in a way not shown anywhere else.