150 Years Ago: The Birth of the Folies Bergère

It was 150 years ago today that the Folies Trévise (built 1869), changed its name to the now immortal Folies Bergère. Both handles refer to nearby streets; “folies” of course to the wacky, crazy nuttiness to be gotten from within its portals.

Two days ago, my wife and I were re-watching one of our favorite movies The Great Ziegfeld on television and had to laugh at its implication that the titular American impresario originated both the concept of girl-tastic stage revues and the notion of calling them “Follies”. Because we knew, as most reasonably well educated people had better know, that both of these things came from this Parisian institution 2/3 of the way through the 19th century when Ziegfeld was still a toddler. All Ziegfeld did was take a trip to Europe, tuck away some good ideas, and transplant the concept to Broadway. He launched his version in 1907, over three decades after the original wellspring began to gush in the French capital.

Initially the fare at the Parisian venue consisted of comic opera, concert singers, and acrobats performing in cabaret style floor shows. Édouard Manet’s famous 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is instructive, especially when you look in the mirror behind the barmaid; one sees the audience seated in cafe tables not unlike the ones at the Moulin Rouge. Four years after this painting Édouard Marchand was put in charge of the productions, and under his supervision the modern music hall revue form began to take shape. Marchand had already been presenting pretty girls in dance choruses for years by that point; such spectacle had become popular across the continent, as well as Britain and America. Marchand brought a new degree of lavishness and aesthetic design to the shows, and booked the finest talent both for the choruses and for specialty numbers. From 1918 to 1966 Paul Derval carried on and expanded upon the tradition.

Some of the major stars who performed at the Folies Bergère included Loïe Fuller, Yvette GuilbertPolaire, Gaby Deslys, La Sylphe, Foottit and Chocolat, Olympe Bradna, Naro and Zita Lockford, PaulusMistinguett, the Barrison Sisters, Kara the Gentleman Juggler, Cinquévalli, Grock, Kri-Kri (Raymond Dandy), and Carl Baggesen. From British Music Hall came Little Tich and the Fred Karno Troupe featuring a young Charlie Chaplin. W.C. Fields juggled there early in his career. Sideshow style acts included the tattooed Captain Costentenus, snake charmer Nala Damajanti, American Wild West performer Ira Paine, as well as any number of Australian kangaroo boxers, wrestlers, and strong men. African Zulus performed native dances. During the Jazz Age and later of course Josephine Baker was the club’s top star, along with the likes of the Dolly Sisters, and the Dodge Sisters, and major French performers like Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Yves Montand.

In addition to Ziegfeld Follies, America had a short-lived Times Square Folies Bergère produced by Jesse Lasky and Henry B. Harris in 1911, where stars like Olga Petrova, Mae West, and Laddie Cliff performed. As we wrote here, Follies inspired Broadway revues like George White’s Scandals and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, were a rage for several decades.

In 1935 Maurice Chevalier starred in the Hollywood film Folies Bergère de Paris with a young Ann Sothern, Merle Oberon, Eric Blore, Robert Greig, et al. A French language version was also released. It was Chevalier’s last American movie until his return to Hollywood in the mid ’50s. Peggy Fears played a performer at the Folies Bergère in the 1935 film Lottery Lover with Lew Ayres, Sterling Holloway, and Reginald Denny.

The Folies Bergère is still a going concern, although nowadays it appears to be more of a concert venue. Our friend Gay Marshall has sung there! Visit their official website here.

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please read my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous