They All Want To See The FOLIES
WHEN United States Ambassador-at-Large Philip Jessup got to Paris for last winter’s United Nations session at the Palais de Chaillot he anxiously enquired of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt where he could find his colleagues of the American delegation. “In the first five rows of the Folies Bergère,” she’s reputed to have answered.
Any number of people since the show started eighty-two years ago, in 1869, have similarly sought friends, colleagues, grandfathers, husbands (royal and otherwise) and beaux, in t hose very same seats. And, almost without fail, found them right there.
What’s the siren song of this grandmother of music halls? Well, mainly it’s the living evidence of word-of-mouth advertisement. You can do a lot of that in eighty years and, good or bad the word, it’s assured the fact that to a majority of visitors Folies Bergère is synonymous will) Paris. Officials of the Commissariat du Tourisme Français say, quite seriously, that without fail the first questions a foreign tourist asks are how to get, tickets to the Folies Bergère and where is it; the
The Opera House still packs them in and the Louvre remains a must, but it’s the Folies Rer gere, glamorous grandmother of music halls, that stirs the Paris rubberneck's keenest artistic interest
foreign journalist, how to get an interview with President Vincent Auriol, and how to get a pass to the Folies.
Paul Derval, owner-manager of the show since 1.918, says it’s because the Folies has never failed the customer. “It’s always been, and still remains, the largest spectacle at the lowest price in Paris.” Admitting him prejudiced there’s still trut h to this as proved by the fact that a new Folies show never fails to run three years or more. Also he pours in with lavish hand the initial expenses, where shows less certain of success would have to hold the purse strings. The new Folies production, Une Vraie Folie, which opened in early February, cost almost one hundred and fifty million francs (about $450,000) to produce, and uses 125 artists (eighteen of them nude all of the time), 41 sets (weighing 21 tons), 1,211 costumes, about 700 pairs of shoes, and des plumes en quantité formidable. Plumes, ostrich and otherwise, have always been to the Folies Bergère what salt is to soup.
If past performance is any criterion this latest
show is here to stay for a while. The last one, Féerie et Folie, ran 1,346 times to more than three million customers; the one before that, C'est de la Folie, for 1,344 times to nearly three million. (Note that the name of every show has thirteen letters. II doesn’t mean anything, shrugs M’sieur Derval. It is merely a superstition. But there’s never been a Folies show that’s been a failure.) In return the show grosses an annual income of four hundred and fifty million francs.
From the artists’ point of view it’s a good show because their names get promptly before an international public. The success of some past artists is a spur to the current ones. Maurice Chevalier sang here (he even wrote a song about it that starts “When you’re sixteen you go there trembling, Oh, my Folies . . .”). Josephine Baker was the featured star for years. The happy fat Peters sisters, stars of the last show, now have a theatre of their own on the Rue de la Gaîté, and artists well known throughout Europe, if not as well in America, such as Yvette Gilbert, Yvonne Printemps, Little Tich,
Jeanne Aubert and Harry Bauer, first appeared here.
Polish blonde Veronica Bell, the current starred singer, recently made a European concert tour and found packed halls for her operatic programs everywhere; the fact that newsmen had rememl>ered her from the Folies Bergère had got her a good advance press. Babe Wallace, Negro singer of Blackbirds fame, who’s appeared opposite Lena Horne in Stormy Weather and played in Anna Lucasta at His Majesty’s in London, now making his first appearance at the Folies, quite coldly took on the job for that publicity value.
The appeal of the Folies, from the point of view of the man who pays his 1,800 francs (about $5.40) to sit in the first five rows, 250 francs for the lesser seats, or 150 francs for standing room, is impossible to explain. You can’t poll the over-all opinion of a king, a GI, a minister of finance and the art student who got his hundred francs in the last cheque from home, plus the numerous members of the female sex who
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crowd the place. The opinions are as varied as the spectacles and spectators. (In the tourist season eighty percent are foreigners.) Whether you go out in a high moral dudgeon, or line up at the stage door on the drizzly dark Rue Saulnier, you’ve still been there, and you’ll still talk about it, which is all Paul Derval cares about.
Take the first time I went. It was after a late dinner at the Finnish Embassy in Paris and we came in to the strains of Ave Maria. “Now look,” I said sharply to my hosts, “surely this isn’t the Folies! Where are we?”
I went back out and looked at the dull dreary façade of the old theatre, facing narrow traffic - packed Rue Richer. It said “Folies Bergère” all right. In the two-story foyer with its incredible brass chandeliers and peculiarly pre-First World War décor, spaced with bars and salesgirls with long bare legs selling flexible rubber dolls, they handed me (for one hundred francs) a Folies Bergère program. But still the strains of Ave Maria went on. But, sure enough, I was in the right place.
On the stage, in a rather high-toned dungeon, Mary Stuart was wringing her hands while an equerry stood by holding the death sentence he’d brought from Elizabeth of England. In a flash of a second the scene changed and she was mounting a high staircase to an attentive axeman waiting at the top. As the axe dropped the strains of Ave Maria swelled, spotlights threw stained glass windows all over the theatre, and the curtain fell. It rose in a moment on a solemn procession descending the high stairs, headed by the grotesquely masked soul of the beheaded Queen, singing Ave Maria with barely a death murmur. The completely darkened theatre for an illusionary spot-lighted moment had the aspect of a cathedral, while the endless solemn parade went on.
Well? I ask you.
However, other items on the program included, briefly, a young man dressed in a maple leaf (no doubt a gesture to us Canadians) who was vigorously chased up and down an ingenious set of stairs by a bevy of more or leas clad young women. The curtain fell when the completely naked one caught him. There was also the apple episode in Paradise: Adam was rather ineffectual, the Devil very vigorous and Eve hungry—she couldn’t leave that apple alone. Then there were dancing girls in Scottish tartans (Campbell, the man behind me remarked) who did a very brisk job to bagpipes. In another scene the significance of which was lost to me—my French isn’t very good—every other girl had a bare breast. Something mathematical to it, I suppose. Couple of times the star of the show, toothpickthin Yvonne Menard (she has money in the show), was let down in a swing from the ceiling. Once, thus arriving, she summoned from the audience two young GIs. They were encouraged to propose to two of the girls in the chorus. Their knees cracked quite audibly as they knelt, but from where I sat it looked as though they got an apple as a prize. The whole show went through with marvelous snap precision, fantastically elaborate scenes changing in the time it took to put the curtain down and up again. This speed is a Folies tradition. The effects were built as much around the costumes and the brilliant brief spectacles as around the human body.
The stage at the Folies is one of the smallest anywhere in the world (about eighteen feet in depth, one hundred and twenty feet across) but
a gifted thick-spectacled man called Michel Gyarmathy, sole creator of the twenty - eight spectacles, forty-one scenes of the new Folies, thought of a way to utilize the height of the stage about eighteen years ago. In a most ingenious way he built sets of stairs and platforms which, with cleverly applied lights, create an illusion of immense space. He can mystify with distances in his tableaux that would be difficult to duplicate with less imaginative production in much larger space. (Gyarmathy, Folies personnel say, “lives here.” For the last six weeks of rehearsal for the new show he never once left the maze of the old theatre. He quite literally worked, ate and slept backstage.)
The illusion of space is one of the highlights of the new review which was heralded by a tumult of praise in Paris papers when it emerged after six months of rehearsal. The results of this toil include a visit by Marie Antoinette to the porcelain manufacturing plant at Sèvres, a hunting scene, a surrealist ballet in the ruins of a bombed village, sea fairies dancing at the bottom of the ocean, star Yvonne Menard dressed in twenty red bird-of-paradise plumes having a session in an opium den, a reunion at the Longchamps race track, and the descent in a golden cage—from the ceiling above the audience—of Veronica Bell, singing like a bird. Thrown into this melange are Negro singers and dancers, Schiaparelli’s Swedish model Sive Norden, American Eileen O’Dare doing acrobatic dances, and comedian André Randal who goes through a swift pace of four-language wisecracks, some with social significance.
He presents, for example, a preview of the future. His assistant (who’s his wife, Gladys, a good-looking dark Englishwoman) says briskly, “Well, folks, here it is. We’ve at last succeeded in creating the United States of Europe—and what a job it has been. You must realize none of these people knew each other very well, that each had about one another a most fantastic set of ideas . . .”
Then André bounces on the stage. He acts French as the French look to the English. Interviewed by his stooge he admits the French eat only snails and frogs, drink absinthe and red wine, dance the cancan, and have a twentyfour-hour hobby of making love. The Englishman, as seen by the French, André presents as a rather embarrassed nasal character in a tweed cap, who says he only eats roast beef and potatoes, drinks whisky and gin when he can get it, shuffles a dreary jig, and is shocked by the very word “love.” The Italian, as seen by the French and English, eats spaghetti and macaroni, drinks Chianti, sings arias instead of dancing, and assassinates anybody and everybody for love. With a change of costume André takes on ponderous weight as a German, as Germans appear to others. He eats sauerkraut and sausages, drinks beer, and spends the rest of his time methodically raising a family.
The American, the end product of all this, but in a new-world cocoon, is the Real New European. He strolls on the stage chewing gum and demanding Coca-Cola. He speaks four languages but begins and ends each sentence with, “That’s fine, everything’s just fine.” André, with his fluent face, hornrimmed glasses, Babelic ability to speak languages (English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French) and a gift of completely changing character with the change of cap and tongue, brings the house down.
The whole show takes three hours and Gyarmathy assured me it is con-
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secrated to “love, every aspect of love —toujours Vamour.” During intermissions in the market place of a foyer the visitors can have a show within a show either by slipping ten francs into a peep show of shadow pictures or visiting the small red-beamed cellar theatre where tired, rather elderly houris give languorous Turkish dances.
Behind all this, taking personal interest in every aspect from hiring and firing to costumes which are made under his wife’s supervision in the ateliers above the theatre, is Paul Derval. He looks like a bank manager, dresses in sober dark, with the thin red Legion of Honor ribbon in his buttonhole and, grave and businesslike in his mahogany paneled office, completely fouls your gay preconception of a Folies producer feting new nude stars at champagne feasts. He once said that if he wasn’t the owner of the Folies he’d like to be the director of a zoo.
His first choice has done well by him. At the moment he is contemplating the purchase of a private airplane. Besides the Vraie Folie in Paris, he has a new revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, another revue leaving immediately for Australia, a touring company playing the principal cities of Great Britain, and he is seriously contemplating a production in New York.
Derval comes from a theatrical family, so naturally his father forbade him the stage. “You’ll starve,” said Father, “you must get a profession.” While still at school he made a bet with his friends that be could appear on the stage of the Folies Bergère. He did — walking in behind an electrician as a helper. By the time he was seventeen he left school and got a job as a premier comedian with a touring company. After the F'irst World War he worked as a manager for Beretta and Co., a Paris oufit which owned five theatres and music balls, and when that folded up, found himself able to buy the Folies Bergère outright. In the first year be claims to have been the director, the scene changer, the chief mechanic, electrician, director of publicity, and often, a bit actor.
He closed the theatre when the Germans got into Paris and retired with his wife to Biarritz. (He had been wounded in War One and had not been accepted for military service in the Second.) However, news reached him in his retreat that the Germans were about to bave a show in his theatre. He stormed back, went through military red tape to top officials and said firmly, “That’s my theatre.” “We’ll give it back to you if you’ll put on a show,” the Germans said. Derval pondered the problem for some time, consulted his artists, found them hungry, and decided to open the show. It remained open throughout the occupation. That’s all he’ll tell you about the war years, but a woman who now runs a hotel on the Côte d’Azur not far from Nice, recalling her wartime experiences in the underground, said that there always was one safe place, if you were hunted, in Paris. That was in the company of the Folies Bergère. The Germans, avid for entertainment, left the troupe strictly alone.
To get an appointment with Derval I needed diplomatic introductions as well as references from the French tourist office, which is a department of the government. The stage entrance off the narrow bistro-pearled Rue Saulnier leads through a courtyard filled to the last inch with sets—carousels, headless golden horses, oriental courts, medieval armor, bicycles of every era, gilt steps, crowns, mannequins, and papier-mâché masks and arms and legs. From this tangle I climbed businesslike stairs to a
sign saying Direction. A beautiful stenographer with the world’s longest natural eyelashes, behind a reception desk dominated by a cat, turned me over to Madame Marise Cournil, Derval’s “right hand.” She promised to consult le patron. While I waited a man selling raffia slippers turned up: a small boy brought in a huge hatbox; a girl dressed in a lace handkerchief hurried through; a Negro with a trombone asked for an audience. Ultimately I passed the leather studded door to the small office discreetly decorated with framed photographs of former shows and now-famous artists. Derval stood up to his solid six feet four, a perfect picture of his own description of himself “the typical bourgeois.”
He’s happily married and his wife is both his associate and collaborator. They have a small handsome house backing to a garden in a quiet district of Paris, filled with collector’s pieces of antiques, many of them set in a Louis XV salon, in which his great Dane looks like a bull in that old china shop. He adores the French cuisine, “the best in the world,” drinks only Coca-Cola, owns a yacht and drives a huge black Buick (his wife has a Cadillac). “Why should one have little cars for Paris? The big ones are so much better.” He goes to Mass every Sunday.
But the Folies is his life. The show prides itself on never closing except for the last two weeks of the rehearsal of a new show, every three years, and while the Folies is open Derval is not far away.
It's like a royal tour to walk the maze of stairs and steps of the backstage of the Folies with Paul Derval. He explains with painstaking enthusiasm the workings of trap doors on the stage where artists drop down for split-second costume changes, the manipulation of the electric-lights board (seventy-two switches worked by one man because there’s no space for more) and the intricacies of a dance a couple is practicing in one corner. There are three hundred and forty people working at the Folies, workmen and front office help included. Derval knows them all.
The chorus is under the direction of a slack-clad red-haired English choreographer, Hazel Gee, who also works for
the London P’olies. She said, “There are a lot of people here who’ve worked for Mr. Derval for years. There’s astonishingly little change in the staff. Sometimes a chorus girl finds a millionaire and gets married —that happened to Lisiane, one of the most beautiful of the naked girls, just, a couple of months ago. At least we all decided he must be a millionaire. But there are also a lot of others married to artists or ordinary businessmen. And there’s one girl who has an old mother, a sick husband and two children to support. The Folies’ chorus isn’t the exotic flower of the popular Press. It’s hard work.”
The girls, French, English, German, Dutch, American and Polish, as well as hopefuls from Martinique, Guadaloupe and Brazil, make about twentyfive dollars a week, live in rooms or small flats, and are seldom known to accept an offhand invitation from a customer. Some earn extra money with after-the-show appearances in night clubs (Lido, Nouvelle Eve, Bal Tabarin, Venus, or the lesser boites (te nuit). Then there are a few girls of independent means who appear for fun or theatrical experience Their hobbies, the girls insist, are theatre and reading. And washing stockings.
For the foreign actress there is the endless and everlasting business of work permits and keeping the various licenses demanded by the French government up to date. A star, such as Veronica Bell, gets about one thousand dollars a month (Yvonne Menard, as shareholder, would probably get more), and since working hours are from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. she doesn’t get up until two p.m., her husband brings her breakfast to bed, then they take in a matinee, and she goes back to work. The stars don’t see much of one another. They are mostly married, or have personal lives that do not touch the theatre. Perhaps for this reason there is actually less backbiting than customarily in a longstand show.
However, there is a rendezvous for the Folies cast. It’s right by the artists’ entrance, on Rue Saulnier, a petit bistro called in crisp Americanese. Artists’ Bar. Here the vedettes and the artists, the show girls, modèles, danseuses and figurantes exchange gossip over their coup de rouge (literally, “drink of red” wine' or pop. A good example of the haphazard atmosphere is the time Babe Wallace, the very dark, handsome Negro featured singer, paused at the bar for a cup of coffee. He’s been trying to perfect his French and gladly entered into a conversation with the man next to him. After a while this stranger said, “Are you colored?” Babe grinned. “How did you guess?” he said. “By your accent,” said the other promptly. “Garçon. deux coups de rouge, s’il vous ¡dait.”
Sometimes the conversation heard in the foyer of the Folies is the most edifying part of the show. Here you see and overhear all the world, the best and the worst of it. There are Americans, almost out of musical comedy as well as the ordinary nice guys. There are royal highnesses blatantly incognito and SHAPE officials trying to look as though they were there just for the joke of it. And there are the French themselves in tight black, out for the evening. There was the other day in a party of half a dozen Britons the type of straight-backed, war-restrictionsconscious Englishwoman, whom her grandchildren adore.
“Really, Derek,” she was saying to the casual blond horsefaced young man by her, “I can’t quite see the point of all the nudity. Except,” she flashed a sudden illuminated smile at him, “it really must save immeasurably in cost of costumes.” ix