Centenary of musician Jiří Šlitr, co-founder of ground-breaking Semafor theatre

Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr

February 15 marks the centenary of the birth of the multi-talented Jiří Šlitr. With stage partner Jiri Suchý, Šlitr was a driving force in Prague’s ground-breaking Semafor theatre in the 1960s – but tragically died while still in his 40s.

Jiří Šlitr | Photo: APF Czech Radio

Jiří Šlitr is best known for his work as a musician but, a man of many talents, was also a trained lawyer and skilled artist.

Born on February 15, 1924, Šlitr started out with a group from his hometown of Rychnov that were eventually named the Czechoslovak Dixieland Jazz Band. After that he was a touring pianist with the theatre company of popular actor Miroslav Horníček.

It was Horníček who in 1957 introduced him to somebody with whom Šlitr would forever be associated, Jiri Suchý.

Suchý, who is today 92, remembers the day Horníček brought them together.

Jiří Šlitr and Jiří Suchý | Photo: Czech Television

“He brought Jiří Šlitr to Reduta, where I was performing. So Šlitr paid admission and I was the one hired to provide the entertainment. Dr. Šlitr sat there and clapped, but he on the reserved side.”

Indeed Suchý says it was not until the autumn of 1968, when the pair had a three-week engagement in then West Germany, that they actually started to turn from stage partners into actual friends.

“We spent a few hours together every day – and we started talking to one another. That changed our relationship a bit, which previously had been primarily a working one.”

In the late 1950s the pair, who had an idiosyncratic sense of humour and great comic timing, founded the Semafor theatre.

Photo: Semafor atd. / Czech television

Semafor, now considered genuinely legendary, helped define the following decade in Czechoslovakia perhaps more than any other institution or endeavour across the arts.

Šlitr composed songs and incidental music for the theatre, as well as full musicals, such as A Walk Worthwhile.

He and Suchý also contributed as actors and writers to popular movies, such as the 1964 classic If A Thousand Clarinets. In fact the latter was originally an anti-war stage play for which Šlitr composed the music.

However, Šlitr did not get to enjoy fame for that many years. He died in a studio apartment on Prague’s Wenclesas Square on St. Stephen’s Day in 1969, evidently of gas poisoning from a faulty heater. He was just 45 years old.

Author: Ian Willoughby | Source: Český rozhlas
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