November 30, 1886. Under new management, the Folies-Bergere music hall at 32 Rue Richer in the foothills of Montmartre premiered its first flamboyant revue-style production. Titled Place aux Jeunes, it featured chorus girls in outrageous costumes that transformed the venue into a successful hotspot.
The Folies-Bergere often shocked its nineteenth-century audiences but always delighted them with a wide range of leading-edge performers from avant-garde dancers to comedians, trapeze artists and even the highest paid female singer of the day. It included a long list of world-renowned performers and spawned careers of many more. Performances as well as the robust social scene inspired many famous painters and illustrators. Among them were Edouard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Cheret.
Montmartre was the center of Parisian nightlife, teaming with irreverent clubs. Artists, writers, intellectuals and students all flocked to the area for its nightlife. Theme clubs like The Cabarets of Heaven and Hell were drawing huge crowds. The popularity of Folies-Bergere peeked between the 1890s and 1920s, but it remains a popular nightspot to this day.
May 2, 1869: The venue opened as Folies Trevise after the street by its stage door. Duc de Trevise after whom the street was named was not happy about having his name associated with a theatre, so it was changed. Folies Richer was up next but also rejected because it was a surname. Bergere was a nearby street. It means “shepherdess” and was not a surname, so it stuck.
In these early days, the theater was popular, but hardly a raging success. Entertainment included concerts conducted by famed composers including Charles-François Gounod and Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, comic opera, operettas, contemporary music, cabaret, acrobatic and gymnastics acts.
1871: Folies-Bergère became a political meeting place. Leon Sari took ownership following the Franco-Prussian war. His remodel included installation of a promenade and indoor garden with a central fountain.
1882: Édouard Manet painted A Bar At the Folies-Bergère. The bargirl was a real person known as Suzon. She worked at there in the early 1880s. Manet posed her in his studio for this painting, which depicts a typical night at the club. Note the audience reflected in the mirror.
They seem to be watching the trapeze artist whose green slippers appear in the upper left corner. (We like to think Zazel , the first human cannonball, inspired those green slippers.)
1886: Édouard Marchand introduced his music hall revue concept. With its elaborate and typically scanty costumes, the club flourished.
The list of entertainers who worked that stage is long. Following are just a few highlights.
Loie Fuller (January 15, 1862 – January 1, 1928) was an ingenious performing artist. According to DanceHeritage.org: Her extraordinary dances combined billowing silk fabrics with multi-colored lighting and visionary staging techniques of her own design. Her performances inspired many artists including Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Cheret.
Yvette Guilbert- (January 20, 1865 – February 3, 1944) was a famed singer with an innovative style. She typically wore bright yellow with long black gloves. She stood almost perfectly still as she sang, with the exception of wild gestures with her long arms.
While some critics had a field day with her awkward style, she became a favorite of artists including Toulouse-Lautrec. The monologues of her patter style were often raunchy.
Mistinguett-(April 3,1875 – January 5, 1956) She was also a favorite performer with legs insured for 500,000 francs. At one time she was the world’s highest paid female entertainer. She and Maurice Chevalier had a double act at Folies-Bergère as well as a long-time affair.
A famed performer of later years, Josephine Baker appeared in “La Revue Negre” in her skimpy skirt made of bananas.
Just a few among the many other great names: Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, Frank Sinatra and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson were among a who’s who of show business personalities who all made appearances.
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