- 17, May 2019
- Parisian theatre
- Anna Livesey
The history of cabaret belongs with the history of the city it was born in: Paris, of course! Blossoming just as the French capital exploded into its Belle Époque heyday – a period of prosperity when culture boomed and extravagance flourished – cabaret was to capitalise on the optimism of the time. Parisians of all kinds flocked to the cabaret houses of Montmartre, forming a congregation of regulars that enriched the city’s culture and embodied the spirit of their era. Since then the art form has spread and evolved all around the world, but Paris still holds its crown as the capital of cabaret. Discover the legendary cabaret houses and cancan dancers that went on to inspire 150 years of spectacular entertainment...
Humble beginnings in bohemian Montmartre
Our story begins long before ‘cabaret’ became a byword for glitz and glamour. The term probably has its origins in the old French word cambret, meaning, quite simply, a small room. This doesn’t come close to conjuring the spectacular proportions and visual extravagance of the modern day cabaret and, sure enough, Paris’ first contributions to the phenomenon were a modest affair. In those days cabaret houses meant no more than bars that sold food with their drinks and charged by the plate, not the pint.
That all changed with the arrival of Le Chat Noir, an iconic establishment that set up shop in 1881 in the bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre. When founder Rodolphe Salis decided to marry good grub and cheap booze with dinnertime entertainment and political satire, he knew he had hit on a winning combination. Salis assumed the role of host on his premises, welcoming each variety act to the stage and providing a dose of biting political comedy in-between. He was Paris’ first Master of Ceremonies, inventing a part that remains integral to cabaret today. The Chat Noir proved a roaring success, its popularity such that it cut across the city’s social divides. Each night, under a single smoke-stained ceiling, the wealthy of Paris rubbed shoulders with students, painters, writers, and prostitutes.
The iconic red windmill of the Moulin Rouge
'La baraque de la Goulue', painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
An injection of glamour: the birth of the Moulin Rouge
Cabaret really got in swing in 1889, with the birth of history’s most notorious cabaret house. The instant the Moulin Rouge’s pillarbox red windmill appeared at the foot of the Montmartre hill, it was guaranteed to upstage the dingy venues surrounding it. This distinctive exterior was matched by a still more ostentatious interior, whose plush sofas, velvet curtains, and glittering chandeliers offered a luxury Paris had never seen before. The garden even boasted a giant bejewelled elephant statue that towered over drinkers sipping champagne outside. All this was part of an elaborate bid by the Moulin Rouge’s shrewd owners to entice the city’s richest into an emerging artists’ district. It was yet another triumph for cabaret and the venue quickly became a melting pot for Parisians of every walk of life.
The Moulin Rouge’s variety show was as eclectic as its audience, a raucous mish-mash of singing, dancing, and clowning. Its signature performance: one furiously quick, high-kicking dance routine, eventually christened the cancan. Cancan dancers like La Goulue, Jane Avrile, and Nini Pattes en l’air are still remembered today, immortalised in the evocative paintings of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Along with the rest of the Moulin Rouge’s motley community, the dancers became a defining image of Paris during the Belle Époque.
Poster for Cabaret, a musical set in the cabarets of Berlin
An American speakeasy
The Kabarett and the Speakeasy: cabaret spreads around the world
The Moulin Rouge’s success led to the opening of a new cabaret houses in Paris and across the world. Post World War One Germany proved particularly fertile soil for the format, with ‘kabarett’ developing as a distinctive branch of cabaret. Profiting from the new liberalism of the Weimar Republic, German cabaret houses added dark political satire and gallows humour to the standard nightly serving of variety entertainment. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American cabarets were feeding off the unstoppable boom of jazz music. During the liquor-flowing Prohibition era, the intimate nature of the speakeasy became a breeding ground for cabaret, with the two styles of bar becoming virtually synonymous.
American cabarets soon flaunted a more daring element: an emerging burlesque genre mixed striptease in with the usual entertainment and became increasingly popular throughout the early twenieth century. Although burlesque gradually fell out of fashion from the middle of the century onwards, vintage icon Dita Von Teese and others contributed to a major revival of the form in the 1990s.
Le Lido Cabaret
Performer at the Crazy Horse Cabaret
Back in Paris: Cabaret gets a Twentieth Century update
Back in Paris, cabaret was evolving to the tune of these influences from around the world. In 1946, Italian brothers Joseph and Louis Clérico opened a bigger, brasher, more showbiz cabaret on the Avenue de Champs-Élyseés. Still Paris’ largest cabaret venue today, Le Lido was the first attempt to lift cabaret out of intimate smoky bars and put it onto the big stage, with all the dazzling lights and special effects that accompany that. The Crazy Horse Cabaret followed suit in 1951, opening in a venue just around the corner from the Champs-Élyseés. Fascinated by the show girls and burlesque performers he observed during a trip to the USA, Alain Bernard decided to bring a sexier, Vegas-inspired cabaret to Paris. More risqué than any other Parisian cabaret house, the Crazy Horse succeeded into carrying the genre into a new era. Ever true to its burlesque roots, the venue made Dita Von Teese the first in a star-studded list of celebrity guests invited to perform on its stages.
Cabaret’s legacy lives on in the City of Lights, with ever more and more extravagant homages to the form appearing on Paris’ stages every year. Traditional venues like the Paradis Latin join smaller burlesque revues such as those regularly held at the Trois Mailletz jazz bar, or in all new show, Cabaret Burlesque at the Nouvelle Seine. Which means you need never be at a loss as to where to find an evening of spectacular Parisian cabaret entertainment. Browse shows and get tickets with the Theatre in Paris box office.