For a good time, Victorian Era revelers entered the gaping, toothy mouth of the monstrous Leviathan. Once inside, they descended into the depths of the Cabaret of Hell, the Cabaret of Heaven, and a few from somewhere in between. All offered inventive cocktails, outlandish entertainment and ambience out of this world.
Literature professor Antonin Alexander opened The Cabaret of Hell (Cabaret de L’Enfer) and The Cabaret of Heaven (Cabaret du Ciel) at 34 Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmartre District of Paris. Yes, Heaven and Hell occupied the same address in 1892. A former literature professor, Alexander created a light-hearted experience for guests with humorous speeches delivered by characters like Mephistopheles and St. Peter.
Three years later he moved the Cabaret of Hell and Heaven down the street to number 53. The illusionist known as M. Dorville saw an opportunity in the gaping maw left behind at number 34 and quickly opened the Cabaret of Nothingness (Cabaret du Neant). His club also offered wild décor, plenty of booze and outrageous entertainment from “the other side.” But according to contemporary journalist Jules Claretie, Dorville’s place was sinister and mean spirited compared to Alexander’s Cabaret of Hell.
Belle Époque (1871 to 1914) was a time of profound optimism with extraordinary developments in the arts and technology. It was also a great time to go out on the town. According to the MetMuseum.org, Montmartre was the center of Parisian nightlife, teaming with irreverent clubs. Artists, writers, intellectuals and students all flocked to the area for its nightlife.
By the 1890s, the area was less about the real Bohemian culture and more about catering to mainstream tourists. Locals like Toulouse –Lautrec and his avant-garde friends picked up their brushes and pens and sought hip haunts elsewhere.
Hip or not, people of the Victorian Era still had a huge appetite for supernatural thrills, particularly on Halloween. For revelers seeking a wild night out in the 1890s and beyond, the Cabaret of Hell and Heaven continued to open their gaping maws with the promise of a good time.
Even without YouTube and Instagram, you can open the door of the Cabaret of Hell and Heaven of the 1890s. Published in 1899, Bohemian Paris of To-Day is the memoir covering four years of American art student W.C. Morrow’s life in the Latin Quarter of Paris. With Edouard Cucuel’s illustrations, this is a vibrant and often hilarious first-hand account of the people, restaurants, cabarets, nightlife and social scene of Belle Époque Paris.
In the section titled A Night On Montmartre, Morrow takes his flat mate Bishop and his visiting friend, Mr. Thompkins, out on the town and into the jaws of the Cabaret Of Hell.
“We mounted a Montmartre ‘bus and were pulled up the hill to the Boul’ Clichy, the main artery of that strange Bohemian mountain with its eccentric, fantastic, and morbid attractions. Before us, in the Place Blanche, stood the great Moulin Rouge…a great crowd of lively, chatting, laughing people were pushing their way toward the entrance of this famous dance- hall of Paris.”
First stop, the visitor sees the Moulin Rouge, but they decide to first take their guest to Heaven.
The trio arrives at the gilded gates of Le Cabaret du Ciel. The cabaret was bathed in cold blue light from above. Gold-lined clouds, angels in white robes flitting around and sacred palms all suggested a Heavenly beginning to a night on the town. Winged waiters wore gauzy wings and haloes.
“A very long table covered with white extended the whole length of the chilly room, and seated at it, drinking, were scores of candidates for angelship,–mortals like ourselves… “Brothers, your orders!…Two sparkling draughts of heaven’s own brew and one star-dazzler!” yelled our angel. “Thy will be done,” came the response from a hidden bar.”
After a short procession that included Dante, guests were invited to the angel room for a small fee. This room was filled with a bevy of gyrating angels. The head angel requested that those guests who wished to become angels step forward.
“A number responded, among them some of the naughty dancing-girls of the Moulin Rouge. They were conducted through a concealed door, and presently we beheld them soaring in the empyrean just as happy and serene as though they were used to being angels..”
As they exited Heaven, Father Time promised to spare them as long as they dropped tips into his hourglass.
On their way to the Place Pigalle, they saw a ghastly green light coming from flickering lanterns. The light:
“…caught the faces of the passers-by with sickly rays that took out all the life and transformed them into the semblance of corpses. Across the top of the closed black entrance were large white letters, reading simply:”Cafe du Néant”
This competing club opened when the Cabaret of Hell moved. Its entrance was draped with black cloths, trimmed in white as was the custom for houses of the dead. Revelers were met by a pallbearer whose top hat reflected the ghoulish green light. He parted the heavy black curtain, admitting guests into a “black hole.”
“Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle-pictures, and guillotines in action.”
“A picture began to glow. Then as suddenly it faded away, and where fighting men had been there were skeletons writhing and struggling in a deadly embrace.
Guests were invited to sit in the coffin and experience the process of death where their flesh would disappear and only a skeleton remained. The author’s friend, Bishop, volunteered, much to the horror of their out-of-town guest, Mr. Thompkins. He was much relieved when they finally spilled out onto the lively streets of Montmartre.
“Now,” quietly remarked Bishop, “having passed through death, we will explore hell.”
Our trio walks through the glorious entrance that was demolished in the 1950s to expand a Monoprix Supermarket.
“We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. Curiously enough, it adjoined heaven, whose cool blue lights contrasted strikingly with the fierce ruddiness of hell. Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. A placard announced that should the temperature of this inferno make one thirsty, innumerable bocks might be had at sixty-five centimes each. A little red imp guarded the throat of the monster into whose mouth we had walked…”
“Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns. Red imps were everywhere, darting about noiselessly, some carrying beverages for the thirsty lost souls, others stirring the fires or turning somersaults. Everything was in a high state of motion. Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors…One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: “Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!” Presently Satan himself strode into the cavern, gorgeous in his imperial robe of red, decked with blazing jewels…”
Satan proceeded to terrorize poor Mister Thompkins who cowered into the walls of hell. After many drinks and listening to bad poetry, the trio finally exited the last Cabaret of Hell.
“Mr. Thompkins..could not understand that such a resort, where one is bullied and insulted, could secure patronage. “But this is Paris, Mr. Thompkins,” explained Bishop, somewhat vaguely; “and this particular part of Paris is Montmartre.””
Morrow’s description of the Moulin Rouge is definitely worth a read. The breezy memoir offers a lively first-hand snap shot of life in Paris in the late 1890s.
Happy Haunting to youthful Trick or Treaters of all ages.
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On Halloween Night, the Hotel Edison in downtown los Angeles simulates a sliver of the Clubs of Hell from Bell Époque Montmartre.