‘Twas only yesterday I remarked to a friend about my antipathy toward a major circus organization on account of its being being too “foreign” and “French”. As today is Bastille Day, I can’t think of a better time to atone for the remark.
And first let me clarify. My jingoism doesn’t extend (much) beyond the circus tent. When I think “circus”, I think American circus: P.T. Barnum, Dan Rice (the presumptive model of Uncle Sam), calliopes and candy butchers. I like my circus to open with a showgirl on horse back carrying the Stars and Stripes. I want something earthy and Populist, not slick, self-conscious and “artistic”. When “French” is used (unfairly, I grant you) as an epithet, it’s generally in reference to a suspicion of elitism, a quality of (to use the inevitable French word) hauteur. When John Kerry was running for President, a pundit put him down for looking “vaguely French” (granted, I read that in the New York Post). But this prejudice is just as stupid and unfair as the idea that all Americans are boorish, violent unintellectual boobs. Of course, that’s not true. Only most of them are.
At any rate, the reality is, most of what I hold dear, the day-in, day-out subject matter of this blog, can be laid at the feet of the French. So let us celebrate that great nation today! From France we get vaudeville, burlesque, revue, cabaret, salon (which became corrupted into saloon), the can-can, the Follies (derived from Folies). In the late 19th century, Paris was the cultural capital of the world. Paris set all the fashions. It was the Paris World’s Fair in 1889 that inspired the great American fairs in Chicago and St. Louis in its wake. Typical of the rampant Francophilia was New York’s premiere wax museum, which, in the fashion of the day was named the Eden Musée. Sounded better that way.
And think of all the great French music hall and theatre artists, many of whom were also to tread American stages: Jules Leotard, the famed “Man on the Flying Trapeze”; Polaire, Sarah Bernhardt, Anna Held, Yvette Guilbert, Colette, Irene Bordoni, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Robert Clary. To be French was considered so glamorous and desirable that Fifi D’Orsay, a.k.a. Mademoiselle Fifi, a native Canadian, pretended to be from Paris. And yet who could be earthier than Le Petomane, the celebrated “Fart-o-maniac”? French music hall artists also contributed mightily to cinema: magician George Melies, weaver of fictive fantasies; Max Linder, the first international comedy star; and later the great Jacques Tati.
And who did we give them in return? Jerry Lewis! I guess we got the better end of that deal!
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.