My Night With Josephine

An early caricature by Al Hirschfeld of Josephine – possibly from her unsuccessful appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

Yesterday two things brought back the memory of  my night with the great Music Hall star Josephine Baker.  First, June 3rd was her birthday: she was born 110 years ago in St Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a laundress and a vaudeville drummer.  Second, I received a call from my old friend Shelia who reminded of that evening in April of 1972 when we went to the Royal York Hotel to see La Baker on stage.

It was during her career renaissance in the last years of her life that Josephine appeared at the Imperial Room – the premiere showroom in Toronto at the time.  Sheila was an acquaintance of Louis Jannetta, the renowned maitre d’ of the Room and knowing I was an adoring fan she had arranged a ring-side table.  After the first show, Shelia – who was never the shy one and had a flamboyant charm that disarmed men and women alike – cornered Mr Jannetta and said:  We’d kill to met that woman! He laughed and assured her that murder, the ensuing mess of a trial, and possible incarceration wouldn’t be necessary; he would be more than happy to take us backstage after the second show.  Her second show was a spectacular as the first – being Josephine it meant a costume change to something even more elaborate than her first ensemble.

Afterwards Mr Jannetta escorted us backstage and introduced me as her #1 fan in the city of Toronto.   She greeted us with hugs and so much charm – I dare say not too many people had come back during the run.  Sheila, being Sheila,  grandly, and to my surprise I should add, asked if she’d like to join us in a glass of champagne and an omelette at Gason’s a great restaurant she knew of in the old Markham Village.  Josephine laughing thanked us and said that after a show she enjoyed a cup of tea more than a glass of bubbly and that late nights were out of the question these days.  She then turned to me and I remember it to this day said: Could you help an old lady on with her slippers, good sir? And there I was helping one of the legends of French Music Hall slip into comfortable shoes. I had loved her before then but loved her even more afterwards.  She thanked me, gave me a kiss on either cheek and promised to send me an autographed photo.

This Hirschfeld lithograph has always found a place in our homes.  It was done in 1964 when she made her first New York appearance in 28 years.

Three years later I was doing a good deal of commuting between Toronto and Paris and had tickets to see her in a revue at the Bobino in the second week of its run.  Celebrating her 50 years on the French stage it was “un grand retour” to Paris, the city of her first success.  It became the hottest ticket in Europe and the media was filled with stories of her life and previous successes, and failures.  The show opened on April 8, 1975 to rave reviews and was sold out for months.  Four days later she was found in a coma lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing accounts of her performance.  She died later that day.

Happy Birthday dearest Josephine. Thank you for making a young star struck man very happy and for giving an old man such a wonderful memory.


On this day in 1855: Major Henry C. Wayne departs New York aboard the USS Supply to procure camels to establish the U.S. Camel Corps.

Mercoledi Musicale

With the passing of so many high-profile entertainers in the past few months it is easy to overlook the deaths of performers who’s careers had faded from sight or who were popular with earlier generations. One of those was Léo Marjane, a star of the French Music Halls in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1937 her first record, La Chapelle au clair de Lune (In the Chapel In the Moonlight), was a runaway success and she went on to make over 200 records of French and, an unusually for the time, American songs.  However nothing was ever to match the success she had with a simple slow-fox trot penned by Charles Trenet in 1941.  Seule ce soir (Alone Tonight) echoed the longing, uncertainty, and loneliness of someone separated from a loved one during the War.  It was one of the best loved songs of the time and Marjane one of the best loved performers in France.

Seule ce soir (Alone Tonight)

leo_marjaneI just closed my window,
The mist that falls is frozen,
It penetrates into my room,
Our room, where the past dies.

I am alone tonight with my dreams,
I am alone tonight without your love.
The day falls, my joy is finished,
Everything is breaking in my heavy heart.
I am alone tonight with my pain
I have lost hope for your return,
And yet I love you, still and forever
Don’t leave me alone without your love.

In the chimney, the wind moans,
The roses shed their leaves soundlessly,
The clock, marking the quarter hours,
Lulls boredom with its thin sound.


Everything remains as if you love her,
In this corner, disdained by you,
But though your perfume lingers,
Your last bouquet has faded.


After the War her career went into a rapid decline: she had sung in cabarets and music halls frequented by German Officers and sang on Radio Paris, the voice of Nazi propaganda. Charges were laid against her as a collaborator and though she was acquitted the damage had been done. After a period of exile she returned to France but despite critical success her records failed to sell. She toured extensively in the United States, Canada and South American and appeared in two films during the first early 1950s. However in 1957 she retired from show business to a small town outside Paris where she and her husband bred horses. She gave very few interviews and was quoted as say: When it’s over, it’s over.

She died on Christmas Day at the age of 104. And perhaps this recording she made in 1941 is a fitting tribute to all those entertainers who have left us this year – the well-known and the not-so-well-known alike.

On this day in 1795: Construction of Yonge Street, formerly recognized as the longest street in the world, begins in York, Upper Canada (present-day Toronto).

Le Caf’Conc

My friend Jim is a bad, no make that very bad man! I don’t mean morally – that isn’t really up to me to judge – I mean he does bad things. Things like sending me links to sites where I spend far too much time browsing – one page leading to the other and then another.  And hHenri-Gabriel_Ibelse did exactly that yesterday by announcing that the French Print collection at the Van Gogh Museum was now available online in high quality images.  Covering the fifteen years (1860-1905) that were the height of the form it includes many iconic works but also some little known treasures.  While wasting the day educating myself by wandering through the works of the Pauls – Signac and Gauguin, Henry Somm, Pierre Bonnard and Alfred Natanson I came across a series of twenty-two drawings under the title Le Café Concert created by Henri-Gabriel Ibels (right in a self-portrait) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Of course the later was a familiar name but Ibels was an unknown.   He was a member of Les Nebis, a group of avant-garde artists that dominated the French art scene in the 1890s.

A Café Concert or Caf’Conc was a drinking establishment where light entertainment was offered in the form of popular ballads, operatic excerpts, humorous and often bawdy songs.  They reached their zenith in the late 1800s when there were some one hundred and fifty in Paris alone.  And of course what was popular in Paris spread quickly to the Provinces.  Some were spartan – a café with a bar, a piano or small pump organ and a few local singers.  Others were more elaborate with elegant decor, boxes for the privileged,  a full orchestra and star singers.  During the Deuxiéme Empire Caf’Cons were strictly regulated, the politically-connected owners of the musical theatres wanted no competition.  The singers had to wear street clothes, there could be no sets, dialogue or dancing.  No more than forty songs could be performed in one evening and the managers had to submit the musical programme each day to the police for approval.  If there was any hint of subversion in the lyrics the programme was cancelled and their license could be revoked.

Café-Concert (The Spectators), c. 1876–77

Edgar Degas – Art Institute of Chicago

But the police went to far in 1867 when they arrested a popular actress from the Comedie-Française for reciting classical verse at the Café Eldorado, and for wearing a long black dress rather than street clothing.  With the ensuing uproar the law was relaxed and café  performers were allowed to wear costumes, recite dialogue, and have scenery on the stage.  In 1894 Le Divan Japonais (the Japanese Divan) presented a little pantomime,  Le Coucher de la Mariée (The Bride Going to Bed) and for the first time a “naked” woman (wearing a somewhat transparent blouse) was presented on stage.  As scandalized as the good middle-class burgers of Paris claimed they were it was to spell the demise of the Caf’Conc and open the way for a new entertainment:  the music hall.

Many of the performers who were to star at the Folies Bergère and the other grand Edwardian music halls learned their craft at les Ambassadeurs, EldoradoAlcazar d’été, La Scala and the other exotically named caf’concs (my own favourite is that little trend setter  Le Divan Japonais) that dotted Baron Haussmann’s newly opened boulevards.

Ibel and Lautrec’s prints capture many of the stars of the period including a wonderful Lautrec – unknown to me at least –  of Can-Can dancer Jane Avril.  Many of them are names that I recognize from various histories of the music hall I’ve read while others appear to have been popular at the time and then faded into the footnotes of French theatrical history.

cafe concert
A right click on the cover will take you to the Van Gogh Museum website and the entire 22 drawings.

Of course no compendium of the caf’conc vedettes would be complete without a portrait of one of the greatest of its performers Yvette Guilbert.  She was frequently billed as a diseuse (a story teller) and her numbers were rowdy, funny and often just plain bawdy – their content belied by the innocent manner in which she presented them.  Her fame went beyond the Boulevards and she was a great favourite in London and New York.  She was to come out of retirement in 1934 to make several recordings – which became best sellers – for His Master’s Voice  including one of her signature songs:  Le Fiacre (the Hired Carriage).

Written in 1888 by Léon Xanrof it was one of many songs by the prolific composer-performer that Guilbert included in her repertoire.  By the standards of the day,  as with most of Xanrof’s lyrics, it could be considered rather risque.

A yellow and white fiacre with the curtains drawn goes clip-clop down the Boulevard; from the interior can be head the sounds of very loud kissing.  A very feminine voice complains that “Léon” will have to take off his glasses as they are messing her hair.  An old gentleman passing by recognizes the voice:  it’s his wife!  With another man!  He runs after the carriage but slips and is run over.  The woman sticks her head out to examine the situation and then reassures her Léon that it’s only her husband, he’s dead, everything is alright, and they can raise the blinds now and kiss in public.  Oh and Léon don’t forget to tip the coachman generously!

Not everyone was entranced by Guilbert – a few critics sounded the demise of the French song tradition heralded by  her “disgusting” songs.  And at least one mourned the loss of a tradition that went back to the Troubadours – he was unaware than Mme Guilbert had become a well-respected authority on French medieval folk lore and music.

On this day in 1884: The Siege of Khartoum, Sudan begins, ending on January 26, 1885.

The Formal Dinner – Folies Bergère 1930s

Since many of my friends are in a celebratory mood, I thought I’d add to the celebration with a formal dinner. But not just any old formal dinner, but a dinner created by designer Freddy Wittop for the Folies Bergère in the 1930s.

Wittop was Dutch born and worked in all the grand music halls of Paris between the two great wars; like many of the designers of the period, he moved to the USA with the outbreak of WWII. After a stint in the U.S. army he led a Spanish dance troupe that toured North America but returned to his first career as a designer in the 1960s. His iconic red dress and spray of feathers first worn by Carol Channing when Dolly was welcomed back where she belonged won him a Tony.

Anyone who designed for the Folies found that the restrictions of the stage on Rue Richer – it is only 36 feet deep – meant novel solutions had to be found to produce grand spectacle. Like Marco Montedoro in his Restaurant italian that I featured in a posting last year, Wittop used only a small portion of the stage to present his Grande menu.

The chairs, candelabra and most of the table are a painted backdrop with perhaps a 12 foot wide platform as the front of the table. Fortunately the Folies also had a promenade around the orchestra pit so the action could be moved out – to the delight of the gentlemen in the audience.

The menu started with a serving of crayfish – apparently to serve something as a Buisson is to serve it in a pile. Being chorus girls, not the nudes, they would have kept their shells on.

The appetizer was followed by a parade of main courses featuring, amongst other dishes, salmon and pheasant. Perhaps this would have given a few of the danseuses nués a chance to shine.

At most French meals the salad is served after the main course and this one was no exception as the chorus girls took to the stage as lettuce and some rather saucy tomatoes. Most of the chorus girls were troupes of English dancers – the Tiller Girls and Bluebell Girls being the two most famous. There is still a troupe of Bluebells at the Lido de Paris.

Dessert would have started with the stately showgirls parading in feathered finery as Meringues. Very few of the girls were French though most of them learned to shout out “Oh La La” like female versions of Pepe Le Peu. Then the chorus girls – they sometimes had only minutes to make complicated costume changes – took over once again but this time as luscious Crêpes Suzettes.

And of course no meal would be complete without a bowl of fruit. One is tempted to say that there are apples and pairs on these plates!

The glorious frivolity of it all – and the incredible imagination.
22gennaio – San Vincenzo e Sant’Anastasio

Restaurant Italien – 1927

Non Solo Erté coverLast month on my trip to Milan I just couldn’t walk by Libreria Rizzoli, the big bookstore in the Galleria, without stopping in just to browse. And I just happened to come across Non Solo Erté – Not Only Erté, Costume Design for the Paris Music Hall 1918-1940. It was in an embossed slip case, it was large, it was heavy and it was expensive. And it was chocked full of designs for the great French Music Halls – the Folies Bergère, Bal Tabarin, Ba-ta-clan, Casino de Paris, Moulin Rouge. The designer most people know from that period was, as the title suggests, Erté but there were so many other talented artists creating costumes and scenery for les grands Music Halls. Many of them came to North American at the onset of WWII to work in New York, Hollywood and even at the Ringling Brothers Circus. Some of the names I was familiar with but others were new to me.

Lido de Paris Programme 1962I may not have mentioned it but I’ve been in love with the tits-and-tassels Parisian Music Hall revues for as long as I can remember. When I was 14 I wrote to the Lido de Paris asking if they could send me a programme book. I received one with a note from Pierre Louis-Guérin, then the Lido Director, saying he looked forward to the day when I could be there to see one of his shows. I still have that programme and managed to catch three productions in Paris over the years as well as several when they were at the old Stardust in Las Vegas.

But to be honest I wish I had been around in that period between the two Great Wars when Josephine Baker, Mistinquett, Maurice Chevalier and the Dolly Sisters starred in fantastic spectacles whose sole purpose was to astound and entertain. The music was jazz-hot, the dancers were beautiful English roses and the Showgirls elegant and stately. The tableaux were as frivolous as the time itself and subjects could range from The Loves of Casanova, Great Queens of History, Milady’s Garden, the Jewel Box of Cleopatra or even something as everyday as The Newspaper. Designers jostled with each other to be more creative and innovative. And in a place like the Folies Bergère where the stage is only 36 feet deep it was a challenge.

I found this particularly series of designs by Marco Montedoro particularly delightful and silly. Montedoro was an Italin artist who fled to American during World War II and eventually became head designer at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. This tableau, for Un Vent de Folie the Folies Bergère show for 1927 starring Josephine Baker, was called Restaurant Italien and his imagination went wild clothing the showgirls and the ponies (dancers) as Bread Sticks, Antipasti and Pasta and the chorus boys as after dinner coffee and bonbons.

Stage Set
The set represented a table at an Italian Restaurant; the waiter with the serving dish was a painted backdrop and the table would have been a two level platform – an ingenious use of the small stage depth. The whole set would have taken up about 12 feet of space – meanwhile a larger scene was probably being set up behind it.

No doubt an Italian tenor, from Roumania, would have been on the forestage – the Folies Bergère has a runway around the orchestra pit – warbling something appropriately Italian as the cast paraded, dance-stepped and glided across the table as:

Le Grisinnis – Breadsticks


Le celeri


Les Radis


Le Salade

Les Spaghetti - Costume DesignLes Spaghetti
Spumone - Costume Design

Le Spumoni

cafe expresso -costume designLe Fiasco - costume designLe Cappacchino and La Fiasco – something like a wrapped candy????

It was definately a glorious, silly time! I wish I had been there.

27 marzo – San Ruperto

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