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Archive for the ‘entertainment’ Category

The origin of cancan, the wild whirl of petticoats and kicking legs, can be traced back to the 1830’s. The dance was born in the public balls and guinguettes where the working class men and women discharged their energy in a rough display of seduction on the dancing floor. The cancan was later choreographed for the stage and became the chorus dance we now associate with the Belle Epoque Paris. To the 19th century public, the dance was scandalous to the extreme, hence the word cancan (scandal). Mark Twain, visiting Paris in the 1860’s, left us the following account:

 One night we went to the celebrated Jardin Mabille, but only stayed a little while. We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life, however, and therefore the next night we went to a similar place of entertainment in a great garden in the suburb of Asnières. We went to the railroad depot toward evening, and Ferguson got tickets for a second-class carriage. Such a perfect jam of people I have not often seen – but there was no noise, no disorder, no rowdyism. Some of the women and young girls that entered the train we knew to be of the demimonde, but others we were not at all sure about.

The girls in our carriage behaved themselves modestly and becomingly all the way out, except that they smoked. When we arrived at the garden in Asnières, we paid a franc or two of admission an entered the place which had flower beds in it, and grass plots, and long, curving rows of ornamental shrubbery, with here and there a secluded bower convenient for eating ice cream in. We moved along the sinuous gravel walks, with the great concourse of girls and young men, and suddenly a domed and filigreed white temple, starred over and over and over again with brilliant gas jets, burst upon us like a fallen sun. Nearby was a large, handsome house with its ample front illuminated in the same way, and above its roof floated the Star-Spangled Banner of America.

“Well,” I said. “How is this?” It nearly took my breath away.

Ferguson said an American–a New Yorker–kept the place, and was carrying on quite a stirring opposition to the Jardin Mabille.

Crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages were frisking about the garden or sitting in the open air in front of the flagstaff and the temple, drinking wine or coffee or smoking. The dancing had not begun yet. Ferguson said there was to be an exhibition. The famous Blondin was going to perform on a tightrope in another part of the garden. We went thither. Here the light was dim, and the masses of people were pretty closely packed together. […]

The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up and then–I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned “cancan”. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman, tripped back again grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis-à-vis that must have infallibly removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.

That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that straightlaced description which is shocked at trifles.

 I moved aside and took a general view of the cancan. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O’Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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The working people in Paris are extremely frugal in their mode of living; bread being full seven-eighths of their food, what they eat with it varies according to the season; if in summer, mostly such fruit as happens to be ripe, and perhaps once in the day they take a bit of soft white-looking cheese with their bread. In winter they often add instead a little morsel of pork or bacon, but more frequently stewed pears or roasted apples. On Sundays they always put the pot-au-feu, as they call it, which means that they make soup, or literally translated, that they put the pot on the fire. Many of the wives of the working people contrive to muster some soup for their husbands when they get home at night, and almost all manage to have a little wine in the course of the day.

On the Sunday in the summer time they contrive to have a degree of pleasure, and go to one of the houses round Paris called guinguettes, something in the nature of the tea-gardens about London, but in Paris and most parts of France the husband takes his wife and even his children with him if they are old enough; indeed, you generally see the whole train together. At these houses they mostly take beer which is not very strong, but they make it less so by mixing it with water, as they do almost every beverage; sometimes they have wine, lemonade, or currant juice, which is called groseille, and that from the black currant cassis; there they will sit looking at the dances, in which they sometimes join, and return home about ten o’clock. This is pretty much the routine of a regularly conducted working-man in Paris, and it must be admitted that they form by far the greater number, particularly those who are married.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

Parisian family going to the “guinguette” (circa 1790)

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(From Paris Partout! A guide for the English and American Traveller in 1869 or How to see PARIS for 5 guineas)

 Paris, the City of Light, is a veritable charivari of pleasures after nightfall; the visitor must only beware of not regretting the effects of a too-eager readiness to yield to the siren calls of its temptations and intoxications.

Theatres,  cafés chantants and dancing halls

The Grand Opéra, rue Pelletier. Properly the French Opera, run up in a hurry in 1821(to replace a building in the rue de Richelieu, at the door of which the Duc de Berri was stabbed and which was pulled down in consequence). In front of the portico three dastardly Italians tried to assassinate the Emperor and the Empress in 1858, and now this building is being replaced too, by a splendid edifice designed by M. Garnier, due to open in 1871. The government provides 900,000 francs of annual subsidy. Peformances on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and often Sunday.

 The Opéra Comique, Place des Italiens. In this handsome hall are presented lighter works, by modern composers such as Aber, Halévy etc.

The Théâtre Italien, Place Boildieu. Here a select audience listens to Italian Opera, in a season which lasts from November to April (after which the singers generally repair to London).

The Théâtre Français, rue Richelieu. The seat of the French regular drama – classic works and modern alike, with a government subsidy of 240,000 francs. Molière was once its manager; in later years it has been the scene of triumphs of Talma and Rachel. The manager is allowed to withdraw an actor from any other theatre to the Comédie-Française (as it is also known) on one year notice.

The Odéon, near the Luxembourg. A minor Théâtre Français, but not an inferior one. Here Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage de Figaro was first produced in 1784; nine years later, the entire troop of actors was arrested by order of the Revolutionary tribunal. It has several times been burnt down.

 Théâtre des Variétés, Boulevard Montmartre. A neat and much frequented house, in which the amusing musical vaudevilles of M. Offenbach can be seen.

The infamous Boulevard du Temple, or ‘Boulevard du Crime’, on which the smaller theatres played the most lurid and distasteful melodrama, has now been destroyed to make way for the regime’s march of progress.

The Théâtre Gymnase-Dramatique, Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, is respectable. The plays are moral and the performers are all married.

Note Ladies do not patronize the pit, or parterre, of any theatre; gentlemen admitted here should in the interval ensure their places by tying a handkerchief around the banquette. Be also warned that at the Grand Opéra, the claque sit here. This disagreeable cohort, paid by the management in this and other theatres to respond favourably to the entertainment in question, should on no account be shushed or silenced in their mercenary activities. An attempt to abolish the claques in 1853 proved totally unsuccessful after a fortnight.

Tickets for all Parisian theatrical performances may be booked from a central office on the Boulevard des Italiens; avoid the profiteers who swarm outside the more popular theatres – their offers are always excessive in price, and frequently entirely bogus!

Cafés chantants.  Spectators sit and listen to music, sometimes of a coarse nature, executed by performers often outrageously overdressed. No charge is made for admission, but one will be expected to take refreshment, usually of an inferior quality. The company is not aristocratic, but the visitor need not fear annoyance or impropriety. The most celebrated of these institutions is L’Alcazar, rue du Fauburg Poissonière. Here the fabulous Theresa, whose salary exceeds 20,000 fr. per annum, sings, twice a week in the winter season, ditties of a satirical and even saucy turn.

Bals publics. It is difficult to imagine scenes more curious or fantastic than those presented by these public dancing halls. At the most refined level, bals masqués are presented during the winter in the Grand Opéra – the pit being boarded over and joined to the stage. Gentlemen may be admitted (10 fr.) in plain evening clothes, but ladies should be masked or in costume. The gorgeous and glittering revelry of the polka, waltz, and mazurka reaches its climax at 1 a.m. Strict etiquette is by no means the predominating characteristic of the fair who resort to this pleasantest of pandemonia. It will be conceived that if a visitor should take the ladies of his family to witness this display, he must take them to a box as a mere spectators, for to mingle with any of these too vivacious groups, could be worse than indiscretion.

Elsewhere public dancing halls abound. Some of the smaller establishments in the suburbs are little more than dens of all the vices: official efforts to curb their activities and proliferation have not been altogether effective.

In the centre of the city, more commodious establishments may be found, among them the Salle Valentino, rue S. Honoré. The architecture is a medley of the Moorish and Greek; the columns are gaily painted, and the recess is backed by mirrors which greatly enhances the brilliancy of the scene. There are a billiard table, a shooting gallery, a dynamometer for amateurs of muscular strength, and tables where trifles may be raffled for. The visitor must expect to see every variety of embrace not excepting the ursine hug. Admission 2-3 fr.

Jardin Mabille, Avenue Montaigne. A large circular space, with a pavilion for the orchestra in the centre, is reserved for the dancers, and lighted by a profusion of gas-lights suspended from artificial palm trees. A snug corner is laid out for refreshment; here the votary of Terpsichore may treat his partner to a refreshing lemonade. An immense covered saloon affords the visitor a secure asylum from bad weather. The company of this elegant garden comes under the description of ‘the gayest of the gay’, but licence is not carried beyond propriety. Admission 2 fr.

 Would that the same could be said of the Salon de Wauxhall,  rue de la Douane, which partakes of the character of the manufacturing arrondissement surrounding it, and is not much more respectably attended than the Holborn Casino! The police make forays on its bacchic excesses, and arrests are made.

A novel and hilarious diversion is provided by an American importation. In the Roller Skating Club, rue Jean Goujon, skating on shoes soled with rubberized wheels is demonstrated daily by ‘Professor’ Fuller, a master of the Art who claims to have been ‘decorated by every Sovereign in the world with ice in his dominions’. The first of such institutions in Europe.

Next: Sightseeing

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