Monday, January 14, 2013

Those Crazy Bohemians (Le Chat Noir)

It's been awhile, but I am back to my "Crazy Bohemians" theme. Although I love to blog, writing novels and painting take up most of my time. It's amazing how quickly time passes before I realize that I've let my blog go!

Here are a couple of questions for you: Do you know where stand-up comedy got its start? How about the very first flickering in the brain about making movies? No? Well, I can tell you where. So could any of those crazy bohemians of nineteenth century Paris!

The answer would be Le Chat Noir. What does a "black cat" have to do with comedy and movies? Nothing - and yet everything. You see, Le Chat Noir is French for The Black Cat. Le Chat Noir was a cabaret in Montmartre that fanned the flames of creativity that had been lit earlier, taking plays, music, painting, and acting to new heights that, until then, people hadn't even dreamt about.

Emile Goudeau, a journalist in Paris, had a group of writers and artists that met at his home on the Left Bank. They were called Les Hydropathes ("those who are afraid of water"). Young men, they did indeed prefer cheap wine and beer-in great quantities-to plain old H2O. They were, however, outgrowing Goudeau's home. Rodolphe Salis, an artist who came from money, had acquired a two room building which he had turned into a cabaret. He knew Goudeau and persuaded him to move Les Hydropathes to his cabaret in Montmartre. Salis himself had been entertaining artists in his home prior to opening the cabaret.

On November 18, 1881. a torch lit procession crossed the River Seine from the Left Bank and made it's way to Le Chat Noir. A man dressed in full Swiss Guard regalia headed up the parade, carrying a halberd (battle ax and pike). Behind him marched a large group of very drunk, very loud young men; carrying wine and singing. This signaled the grand opening of Le Chat Noir.

When patrons avoided the darker room in the back, Salis casually made sure he mentioned within earshot of several artists that the back room was reserved for the truly cutting edge creative types. All of a sudden he had no problem trying to get people to gather in there! Le Chat Noir was an open stage most nights. Musicians, singers, poets, and writers would just get on their feet and present their current work. They were never paid. They were, however, critiqued by their peers, always loudly and sometimes harshly. However, they were also encouraged and nurtured, with many becoming great talents. Artists also brought their paintings for critique. Loud arguments about painting often followed.

The place was decorated with a hodge-podge of things, mostly giving it a Louis XIII feel. Salis himself was gifted in promotion. He started a newspaper Le Chat Noir and sold advertising in it. Writers also wrote stories for it. Some were very avant garde.
 Le Chat Noir Journal

He did everything he could to publicize his cabaret. Many accused him of making money off the artists who only received wine and absinthe as payment. One time he met patrons at the door only to announce his death! He then led a funeral procession through the streets, ending up back at Le Chat Noir.

Salis hired Steinlen to design posters and a sign for the cabaret. Salis had seen a black alley cat hanging around during the renovation and felt the raggedy feline made a good symbol for the wild nightlife that would be found at the place. One of the resulting posters by Steinlen remains one of the most well know images to come out of that era in Paris (of which Montmartre was, and is, part of). Some even said that when the cat's tail was shown in an upright position  on the Journal or in ads it symbolized a male in the "aroused position".
Théophile Steinlen's 1896 advertisement for a tour to other cities ("coming soon") of the Le Chat Noir's troupe of cabaret entertainers

Because of the open stage, and the dialog between a performer and the audience, stand-up comedy was born. Much of the comedy, and almost all of the songs, was politically radical and/or raunchy. Everyone who was anyone in the arts community was seen at this lively cabaret.

Soon the bourgeoisie and many gentry started coming to Le Chat Noir on a lark. Salis and cabaret singer Aristide Bruand became known for being loudly rude to their upper-class guests, banishing them into a dark corner if they came late. If they left during a performance? They were called out and loudly insulted! The songs didn't change, and many found themselves the subject of amusement or derision. Still, they came - because Le Chat Noir was the place to be seen. Salis moved the cabaret twice more while it was operating, to accommodate the growing throngs.

Shadow plays were created by using zinc to cut out characters and then shining light on them to reflect shadows on a white screen.  These shadow plays were insanely popular with all classes and soon scripts were written and music accompanied the plays. This, then, was the rough beginning of cinema.

In 1897, shortly after Salis' death, Le Chat Noir closed. When Picasso and others looked for it when they arrived for the Exposition in 1900, they were greatly disappointed to find out that it had ceased to exist. They had missed out on perhaps the most popular artist's cabaret to ever exist.

Ad for Le Chat Noir

Thank you for joining me today to learn more about those crazy bohemains. I promise I'll be back with more soon!


  1. I love the new look, and this piece is so fun! Go Caddy!

  2. Thanks Victoria. The one problem with this black background is people don't see the hyperlinks. I may have to experiment with different background color or see it there is a way to make hyperlinks white or something. :)