Wednesday, May 1, 1991

The Music-Halls of Paris

Written for European Travel & Life in 1989, published in 1991

At the mere mention of Paris, a cliché invades your starving imagination. Not the cliché about the food; the one about le music-hall. Closely related to the other Parisian cliché about the women, the image is half Toulouse-Lautrec can-can, half a more modern vision of nearly naked girls with fascination in their walk and feathers on their heads. Partly to shatter these vague ideas, partly because my French friends insisted, I recently visited four survivors: the Folies Bergere, the oldest; the Lido, the most touristic; the Crazy Horse, the most devoutly erotic; and L’Alcazar—the youngest, most creative, most deeply Parisian.

The music-halls go back more than a century. Originally they were dance halls for the public. Professional performers came on toward ten in the evening. Toulouse-Lautrec was famous one day after his first poster for the Moulin Rouge; such stars as Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Josephine Baker made their names (and perhaps did their finest work) in the music-halls. Conventional wisdom holds that there was a golden age until WWII, when too much money (meaning American visitors) over-commercialized the music-halls, though what were they ever if not commercial? In the days when Paris was considered the hedonist’s capital of Europe, the music-halls were an early stop on any male’s visit. Today, too easily dismissed as fodder for tourists, one or two might still be considered necessary to an education. Meanwhile, Frenchmen who have never read her work know that the first bared breasts on a music-hall stage (the Folies Bergere, 1909) belonged to Colette.

The Folies Bergere, at age 103 arguably the oldest music-hall, has since 1927 illuminated a majestic art-deco theater whose lobby alone boasts mosaic-inlaid columns, gilded horses, and a Bal Musette accordion trio. The show thrives on the theater’s atmosphere; the lavish and lovely costumes, the insouciant mood are all from an indefinite Belle Époque—like the recreated can-can of girls in yellow and black who shake their bloomers (with the Tour Eiffel twinkling behind) to the thumping tunes of Bizet and Offenbach.

A family show, it had some daring moments and, surprisingly, as much male as female nudity, even a naked balletic pas de deux. Always famous for grand tableaus, especially for excessive decors that appear and vanish in seconds, this particular Folies en Folie ("Folies in Heat") included such stirring sights as a winter fête in the Tyrol, Venice at carnival time, four naked women in silver cowboy boots playing violins, a Viennese soirée at which Strauss creates the Blue Danube waltzes, a tribute to Josephine Baker and the Charleston, a fine abduction in a ship’s boiler room, a roller-skating duo, and a sumptuous Ancient Rome with everybody wigwagging in togas. It was rather like eating an entire dessert trolley. The Folies weren’t afraid to be a little silly, and this gave the kitsch a feeling of genuine music-hall, from a time when audiences were less jaded and in person was the only way to see something. Sadly, the talk is that the Folies may go under, though it was enthusiastically full the night I went.

The grandiose Lido, like the Moulin Rouge (now under similar management), takes the big-bang approach, so endlessly mimicked by Vegas and all the loud tourist nightclubs of the world that only its extravagance remains interesting. Electronic candles ascend and descend, an orchestra harrumphs along with a conductor; women in My Fair Lady furs, their breasts and buttocks barely showing, stroll beneath fountainous headdresses. Male dancers with toothpaste grins leap among them. Here the audience seems half foreigners, half French families from the provinces.

I sat at a table of three French boys in tuxes celebrating their school vacation. They enjoyed the inevitable salute to Broadway, the inevitable Polynesian panoramas complete with waterfall and erupting volcano, and especially the inevitable Chevalier tribute of thanking heaven for little girls who thankfully disrobe—though you can see more nudity on any French beach. Evening-dress couples descend stroboscopic staircases. An Ancient Egypt tableau features a delectable human sacrifice, a flaming inferno with a cobra, laser lights, and two camels; a pharaoh sings a torch song to a live mummy. In-between are bouncing rubberized acrobats, a genius who juggles ping-pong balls with his tongue to cha-chas, nude ice skaters, more acrobats, then some more acrobats. Each group tableau seems a finale, and the style is entirely derivative: everything but French. Like Liberace’s trousers, it is stupidity on an expensive, highly professional level.

The Crazy Horse Saloon isn’t really a music-hall. Cabaret-size, it calls itself erotic theater and boasts "the most beautiful femmes fatales in the world." Its origins lie in striptease and burlesque, but its high style is very much its own, continually under the guidance of its founder, Alain Bemardin. Since it opened in 1951, the Crazy Horse has become an institution in Paris nightlife and its lighting effects copied worldwide; faithful followers have included Dalí, Balanchine, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse. (Woody Allen built a scene in What’s New, Pussycat? around the Crazy Horse.) Inside, the theater was surprisingly small, the stage downright tiny. It was easy to pick out the French: veterans, they were at the bar, paying less for an equal view.

How to describe such a spectacle? For nearly two hours one’s senses are blasted by variations on a single theme: eighteen naked young women with perfect bodies more individual than their faces, very close yet not close enough. This you cannot see on any beach.

After a disappointing gym-class opening the solo acts began: Bernardin christens his girls with names like Zaza Vesuvio, Charly Commando, Polly Underground, Tiny Semaphore. A brunette with foaming hair did an incandescent striptease lying against a tilted platform while op-art circles of black and silver swirled across her. (Already the newlywed American bride seated next to us looked nervous.) The Three Graces, wearing only pearls, rotated to classical music. Lina Peccadillo in space helmet and space boots flew to Venus, amid interstellar smoke. A couple of expert magicians came on for comic turns. Vanity Obelisk sang I’m a good girl and recalled affairs with "a cute ayatollah, an emir or two". The fantasy of the girl in a cage became a fantastic rhythmic ballet of a naked beauty throwing herself from bar to bar. In group numbers the girls wore multi-colored or matching wigs, which made their faces fade into mere prettiness so one could concentrate on what Kenneth Tynan called their "incredibly healthy" bodies.

I spoke with Alain Bemardin, an elegant man in his late sixties whose work evidently keeps him several decades younger (he recently married a Crazy Horse star named Lova Moor).

"In 1962 we did a Nazi parody. The music was a German military march; Bertha von Paraboum wore a G-string in the shape of a swastika. The Americans were shocked, the Germans were shocked, the French were shocked. The publicity was enormous."

I asked what it took to be a Crazy Horse girl.

"First, she must have marvelous breasts. Then, she must have trained already as a dancer; this is why we have many English girls, because they’re better dancers than the French. She must be tall, say 5’6 "or 5’7" at least. And she must be a ‘good girl’. I don’t find them, they find me. From all over Europe. We have also girls from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia; from Poland, Hungary, Romania. Since we have a corps of twenty-four girls, and they average about five years with us, we take about five new girls a year. Afterward they might become singers, or dancers on TV. Others get married. But everyone knows there’s no question of meeting the girls. The girls know and the clients know."

The net effect is a stunning, sublime eroticism; the tone is never leering, more a kind of holy lasciviousness. One marvels at the imaginative lighting and is disappointed by the acts which too easily fall short. But one goes for the superb girls, after all.

L’Alcazar, which calls itself proudly "Le Plus Parisien des Spectacles," is the music-hall least known to foreigners. Less than ten per cent of its clients are tourists and indeed, someone who doesn’t speak French will miss some good jokes. Here I found at last the creativity, wit, surprise, and joie de vivre that were the reasons the original music halls flourished.

The immediate difference, in the opening, was the sense of many characters: a grande dame, a vedette, a singing curé, a floating transvestite, a flamenco dancer. The intimacy of the place was one of the more cunning aspects of the show; the moment a young emcee came on, the waiters began to shout and scoff. Obligingly he introduced them as "our real stars" and insisted they come up onstage to do a disgruntled cancan, balancing their trays.

To the emphatic "The minute you walked in the joint. . ." there was a retelling of the famous murderer Landru, who burned beautiful widows in his oven. In L’Alcazar’s witty version, five widows stride on in black and do a competitive strip while Landru, looking suspiciously like Toulouse-Lautrec, covetously collects their black silk undergarments. ("Look!" calls out one waiter. "She lost her trousers!") The proud widows walk naked across the front tables then hop willingly into Landru’s oven. He closes it on all five but instead of turning up the flames—hops in after them.

A Cotton Club scene (the emcee announced that Coppola had been there the night before, directing) was a brilliantly detailed period piece. And for the first time in my music-hall week, the inevitable can-can recreation that followed was wonderful: the frou-frou girls protesting, waving their legs, squealing. ("Pigs!" screamed a waiter. "Please," implored the emcee.)

And now an homage to the tango. Before you: Buenos Aires, suggested by a street scene of men inventing a few steps for each other as women joined them, to the strains of accordion and violin. (The musical arrangements here were in a class of their own.)

An enormous man named Badabou came on dressed as Ines de la Fressange, the Chanel model. Unspeakably done up in wig, slinky dress, and plumed gloves, he mussed the hair of several men in the audience. ("Old friends?" suggested a waiter.) After a salute to Edith Piaf (an impersonation that stayed on the side of tribute) the emcee improvised a routine with—or against—a famous French radio personality in the audience. A dignified black singer in tails, tap-dancing brilliantly, explained "what they mean when they say gay. . . Paree." Blindfolded, the emcee did a mock ESP act with someone in the audience, ignoring her denials and protests.

To Sayonara, a samurai opera buffa: Badabou in a blue kimono and her warrior paramour crashed around the stage in a romantic, martial-arts pas de deux, using poles, daggers, and swords to demonstrate their love while silly geishas twirled umbrellas.

For Alice in Playback-land a schoolgirl listening to her radio summons up an Elvis impersonator, followed chronologically by an Alice Cooper and gang; a Boy George; Whitney Houston and soul singers; then Badabou as Madonna, followed by—James Brown!—while mini-skirted girls frug away with men in inflatable suits that suddenly inflate out of control. Prince struts on, accompanied by chicks in yellow leather and black stockings, then Michael Jackson. The schoolgirl remains bewildered.

Like many Alcazar acts, Alice works as tribute and very funny parody simultaneously. Afterward I spoke with the director and choreographer, Dominique Conte, about L’Alcazar’s special atmosphere. "What’s important is that the performers are involved with the spectators. This is very Parisian; the intimacy is what makes the real camembert."

She’d worked at the Folies for five years—"a good school." L’Alcazar had begun in 1968, "the year of France’s second revolution. Many numbers were derisive, like a nude girl singing in a bath with pictures of politicians. Now people don’t go to cabarets so much, it’s less a reflex, people think they’re dirty. We often do matinees for groups of elderly at low prices. They love to see the old days evoked, as in the Piaf songs. I try for fifty percent comedy; I want people at least to smile. One must always turn things upside down, otherwise it’s boring. You have to modernize traditions and hold on to them at the same time. The artists here stay sometimes a year, sometimes four years. The problem now is that young people would rather work at videos, or ads. The danseuse myth is finished. Here it takes a special esprit and fourteen hours’ work a day. I like tenacious people; I’m lucky to have some who wanted to do this all their lives."

Last year an effort to do L’Alcazar in New York failed; the promoters wanted to reproduce the idea and the costumes, not bring over the show and the incomparable performers. "They couldn’t keep their hands off it. In the end it wasn’t French. I wanted to export the real camembert, but it wasn’t to be." To this visitor, it was gratifying to find in the music-halls something still too Parisian to export.

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