It was high atop a deserted fairground when American pulp writer Holly Martins alias Joseph Cotton finally encountered his old school friend Harry Lime alias Orson Welles in the 1949 film “The Third Man”. The great Ferris-wheel showdown is one of the most famous sequences in the Vienna set film noir by “Gone with the Wind” producer David O. Selznick. British screenwriter Graham Greene personally visited Vienna while writing the script and like many others before him, fell victim to the inspiring power of its famous lunapark – “the Prater”. Novelist and “Bambi” creator Felix Salten, writers Adalbert Stifter and Peter Altenberg and composer Robert Stolz are just a few names who have chosen to depict the Prater in their work, describing the lush beauty of its old trees and meadows, telling of amorous adventures between maids and soldiers, and singing of the noble and the common man who strolled along the grand avenues. But what exactly is it about the Prater that has inspired and fascinated so many artists throughout centuries?
The Viennese Prater is one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe. In the 12th century emperor Frederick I bestowed the area alongside the Danube river to the noble family “de Prato”. In the 15th century the area was documented as a natural park for the first time. In the 16th century the famous main avenue stretching over four and a half kilometers was built and Emperor Rudolf II fenced in the entire area and declared it his personal imperial hunting ground, only accessible for the aristocracy and the imperial hunters.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century Vienna offered few recreational places, and the general publics favorite past time was to take long walks along what is now known as the Praterstrasse, back then a street with the houses of the imperial hunters. A tree lined place at the end of that street turned out to be particularly popular. In 1603 a wine tavern’s waiter had the idea to open a modest little inn on that spot. Serving beer, wine, sausages and cheese in the beginning, the inn’s popularity grew fast and within five years the wooden house turned into a spacious stone building with a bowling alley and a puppet theatre. The Prater saw its first building block to the world famous amusement park it was about to become. At the end of the 17th century the prospering inn was sold and the new owners built more taverns in the surrounding area, adding swings and more puppet theatres, catering to Vienna’s wealthier families and serving more refined meals. The puppet theatre’s main character Hanswurst, which is the German word for tomfool, gave the location its final name – Wurstelprater.
In the 18th century the location turned into a very elegant amusement park for the upper class. The restaurant’s menus spotted asparagus, lobster, ham, chicken, game and delicate pastries. The owners of the popular Prater restaurant Schweizerhaus, claim for instance that potato chips were invented on their site.
However, the bigger part of the Prater was still inaccessible to the public. In 1766 humanist and emperor Joseph II said, “If I just wanted to surround myself with the likes of me, I would only be allowed to take a walk in the imperial crypt” and opened the hunting grounds to the general public. Coffee houses and restaurants took residence alongside the main avenue and the Prater soon turned into a place of merriment and amusement for the citizens of Vienna who flocked to attractions like shooting galleries, merry go rounds, panoramas, varietes and the famous Circus de Bach with its ballet and pantomime show. The Prater rapidly turned into a cultural meeting place, a guarantor for novelties, be it the very first balloons and airships or artistic firework shows, between 1782 and 1873 the number of attractions in the Prater quadrupled, adding theatres, waxworks, a vivarium showing exotic plants and fauna and a planetarium.
The Prater’s meadows also served as strategic location to Napoleon’s armies in 1809 as well as a political one – to the Viennese congress in 1814 with its glamorous festivities. It staged international fashion shows as well as concerts by Johann Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven. And in 1873 Vienna’s first and only world exhibition with 53.000 exhibitors showcased on 2,3 million square meters of Prater land. The Fin de siècle introduced the first movie theatre and the world’s first theme park to the Prater – a detailed, fully accessible copy of the city of Venice, with palaces, bridges, and a canal with gondolas stretching over one kilometer, in whose midst one of the landmarks of Vienna, the great Ferris-wheel overlooking the city, the Riesenrad, appeared in 1897.
Over the following decades numerous rides and attractions were added until on April 8th 1945 a fire destroyed all the splendor and glory of past centuries. The Ferris-wheel, the movie theatre, the rides and carousels fell victim to the fire with just five attractions surviving. A few days after the end of the second world war a company was formed with the sole task of rebuilding the Wurstelprater as a recreation area for the public, finalizing reconstruction in 1953.
So what is it about the Prater, that inspires artists time and again? Is it the vibrant history, the many up’s and down’s in its existence that makes the novelist create a masterwork, or is simple joy and curiosity the origin of inspiration? Perhaps it is a little bit of both. Be it the imperial soldier or the simple maid, the brilliant writer or the ingenious composer, the puissant emperor or the common man, they all come to marvel on the Prater’s colorful attractions and to stroll in its lush gardens, to sojourn under splendid trees, looking at the world with the eyes of a child, if only for an afternoon.