German erotica museum a hit An eyeful: Unorthodox world traveler and entrepreneur puts her titillating collection on display.

March 13, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN - When East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989, Beate Uhse knew they were yearning for more than just Western consumer goods and freedom from a snooping communist regime.

They also wanted sex.

So she gave it to them, figuratively speaking, dispatching a fleet of trucks eastward with 600,000 mail-order catalogs from the headquarters of her mega-business in erotic merchandise.

East Germans snapped them up, and by 1991 they were placing $1.5 million in annual orders, nearly equaling the mail-order volume of four times as many West Germans.

Having satisfied that demand, Ms. Uhse has again set out to test the market possibilities of the German libido, this time with a museum of eroticism reputed to be the world's largest.

Since its packed opening day in January on one of Berlin's busiest corners, the Erotik-Museum has drawn more than 50,000 customers at up to $7 apiece.

"At a time when all borders have been overcome, your imagination need not be limited by bounderies![sic]," the museum's full-color brochure says in German, English and French. " Discover with us a variety of erotic fantasy."

There is plenty to discover three floors filled with displays of erotic art and artifacts from around the world, although most of it depicts either couples locked in various positions of sexual embrace, or oversized phalluses carved from one material or another, whether for use as a Shinto votive offering or in Balinese rituals.

The sheer number of such items soon becomes repetitive, and from that point one is drawn more to curiosities such as the 18th-century Japanese condom made from a fish bladder, or the display case of representative folk potions for virility, such as pickled, boiled geckos.

One of the more amusing exhibits is a video room showing some of the world's oldest skin flicks, from as early as 1908. Judging from the humor on display, bawdy jokes have changed little over the years. Viewers with a sudden appetite for the modern version can spend a few extra bucks on the first floor for private viewing of the more hard-core offerings made today.

Ms. Uhse collected this stuff herself during decades of world traveling. "After a while it got to be too much to keep around your office, and you would start throwing it into bags," she said.

About 10 years ago she started thinking maybe it could all be displayed in a museum, especially once she heard about a similar, smaller exhibit in Amsterdam. From then on she started buying up private collections of erotica, and if it hadn't been for the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all those new markets demanding her immediate attention she probably would have opened the museum a few years earlier.

It has been a long journey for both her and her country to reach this level of permissiveness in erotic merchandise, although she gave notice early that her life would hardly be orthodox.

In an age of few female fliers, she spent World War II as a test pilot for the German Luftwaffe. At war's end she piloted a plane to Flensburg, the north German city on the Danish border. Her husband was dead, shot down in his own aircraft. Her parents had been killed by the advancing Soviet army. And with a postwar ban on flying coming into effect for all Germans, it was time to pick a new career.

She began to see possibilities as her female friends began asking for some important advice. As German soldiers returned home to their wives, women came to her, "and they asked me, Bea, what can we do so that we won't have a baby?"

There was little written down about birth control available at the time, so, drawing on her mother's old lessons on the rhthym method of birth control, she printed up a two-page pamphlet called Letter X in 1947, and in the first year she sold 30,000 copies.

A few years later she printed a small catalog titled, "Is Everything All Right With Your Marriage." It offered seven items, including condoms.

As innocent as that sounded, it was a bold move. An outdated law drawn up during the days of the Kaiser made sexual acts illegal for everyone but married couples, "so if I sold condoms to people who weren't married I was helping people do illegal acts," she said.

So began the first of hundreds of brushes with the law in her career, although she said she has only once paid a fine.

Over the years her mail-order business grew, and in 1962 she opened her first store in Flensburg, bowing to the conservative nature of the town by calling it the Sex Institute for Marital Hygiene. But, like just about everything else in Western culture having to do with sex, her business underwent a revolution in the late '60s and the '70s.

Business is booming

Nowadays you'll find a Beate Uhse shop in virtually every large city in Germany, including four in the east, while her retail and mail order business, Beate Uhse International, has expanded into Switzerland, Austria, Norway, South Africa and the Czech Republic, generating annual sales of $80 million with an inventory of about 7,000 items.

Her business has become so famous that she felt its success story merited a corner display in her new museum. The most amusing part of it is a framed citation for nude bathing she and a friend, Udo Lay, received from police in Fort Myers, Fla., during a beach idyll at a spot called Lover's Key. She was 66 at the time, and remains active, and in remarkably good health.

A photo depicts her executing a 360-degree turn on water skis last summer, at age 75, and this week she was headed to the Bahamas for two weeks of scuba diving.

And, of course, she'll still be scouting for items that might be appropriate in the new museum.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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