For Bastille Day: How the French Influenced American Show Biz and Leisure


Happy Bastille Day!

Middle Age finds me increasingly in the grip of Francophilia. There’s more than one cause at the root of it. When I launched my theatre company Mountebanks and its program the American Vaudeville Theatre back in the mid ’90s my whole bag was Americana. I had been super inspired by an exhibition commemorating the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair at the Smithsonian. To me, American flags and bunting were the default decoration and P.T. Barnum, and Dan Rice were models to imitate visually, in stovepipe toppers and swallowtail coats. As I wrote here, I loved the semiotics of the 19th century circus, all calliopes and candy butchers. I liked my circus to open with a showgirl on horse back carrying the Stars and Stripes, as I saw at the Cole Brothers show.  I always want something earthy and populist, not slick, self-conscious and “artistic”, like a certain self-conscious operation out of Montreal.

When “French” is used (unfairly, I grant you) as an epithet in America, 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.

Which is one reason I’ve changed. As the years rolled on I became increasingly uncomfortable identifying myself so closely with the iconography of American patriotism. My idea had always been to define it in my own way, to celebrate positive historical resonances. But the unreflective and even violent jingoism of a sizable faction in the country gradually made that untenable over the decades. The flag says what it says; it’s a mountain a single crank like me can’t move. That being the case, I don’t want to be confused with people who have a knee-jerk antipathy to immigrants, or who go mad with fury over athletes of conscience taking a knee as a political protest. This is my country and I love much about it, but my vision of it has always been about inclusion. The minute these symbols become about excluding anybody, I’m out of there. Some may argue that they have always been about exclusion, but this is about my evolution, not your innate condition of enlightenment.

At the same time, the more I researched my favorite subjects (the subjects I write about on this blog), the more I learned about their historical origins….so many of which began in France. So let us celebrate that great nation today! And yes I’m fully aware that the French don’t take a back seat to Americans when it comes to jingoism. But damn it feels good to celebrate the excellence of another country when millions of your countrymen think they can be “great again” by being as small as possible.

In the late 19th century, Paris was the cultural capital of the world. Paris set all the fashions, including those in popular culture and leisure activities. From France we get terms, concepts, institutions, and inventions like vaudeville, burlesque, revue, melodrama, farce, cabaret (as opposed to night club), café (as opposed to coffeehouse), salon (which became corrupted into saloon), boutique, the can-can, the Follies (derived from Folies). Ballet influenced burlesque and musical theatre. Theatre (as opposed to playhouse) is a French usage; we also now refer to hotels rather than inns; restaurants rather than taverns or pubs (public houses). The menu is a French innovation. Philadelphia 1876 notwithstanding, 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 of course the wax museum was the invention of Madame Tussaud. 

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. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was the premiere modern magician. 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”? Read about dozens more French (and Faux French) performers in their designated Travalanche section here. 

French music hall artists also contributed mightily to cinema: magician Georges Méliès, weaver of fictive fantasies; Max Linder, the first international comedy star. French farce heavily influenced the American comedy film (go here for my article about that); and the Grand Guignol heavily influenced the American horror film. The first projected cinema in New York at Koster and Bial’s in 1896 was a presentation of its inventors, the Lumière brothers. Prior to the First World War, the major French studios all had outposts in America: Méliès, but also Gaumont, Pathé Frères, and Eclair. By way of Gaumont, America got one of its first female movie moguls, Alice Guy-Blaché.

Also the French culture of Bohemianism, after a long period of influence on American arts and letters, eventually broke through to American pop culture in the post World War Two era, especially in popular music (folk, rock, and punk). An entire post devoted to that phenomenon is in the works.

Some of these factoids found their way into my first two books No Applause and Chain of Fools. One digression I could never make fit into either of those two books, but has always been a source of delight to me, is how French terminology dominates our thinking about sex and sexuality through words like lingerie, brassière, boudoir, tête-à-tête, rendezvous, ménage à troi, and even toilet and bidet. France gave us the Marquis de Sade and his proclivities. French kisses. French ticklers. French postcards. Voulez vous coucher avec moi? Mwah, mwah, mwah!  The French have been obsessed with the body at least since the time of Rabelais, and we have been obsessed with their obsessions.

And who did we give them in return? Jerry Lewis! I guess we got the better end of that deal! At any rate, we’ve written nearly 100 articles about French culture and performers and their influence on Travalanche. Find them here. Happy Bastille Day!

To find out more about the history of show business (including French influence thereupon)consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at a librairie or bibliotheque near you. 

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