The Folies-Bergère is a music hall with a long-standing tradition. Opened in 1869, it staged operettas, comic operas, popular songs and gymnastics, catering to popular taste. Now it is a well-liked as well as prestigious concert venue.
Built in 1869 by the architect Plumeret as an opera house, the Folies Bergère soon became famous for its risqué shows, based on exoticism and featuring extravagantly – and scantily – clad women. At the same time, however, it promoted many notable dancers, such as Loie Fuller, Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, Joséphine Baker and Fernandel.
The Folies Bergère was built as an opera house by the architect Plumeret. It was patterned after the Alhambra music hall in London. It opened on 2 May 1869 as the Folies Trévise, with fare including operettas, comic opera, popular songs, and gymnastics. It became the Folies Bergère on 13 September 1872, named after a nearby street, the rue Bergère (‘bergère’ means ‘shepherdess’).
In 1886, Édouard Marchand conceived a new genre of entertainment for the Folies Bergère: the music-hall review. Women would be the heart of Marchand’s concept for the Folies. In the early 1890s, the American dancer Loie Fuller starred at the Folies Bergère. In 1902, illness forced Marchand to leave after 16 years.
In 1918, Paul Derval made his mark on the review. Shows featured elaborate costumes; the women’s were frequently revealing, practically leaving them naked, and shows often contained a good deal of nudity. Shows also played up the exoticism of persons and objects from other cultures, obliging the Parisian fascination with the négritude of the 1920s. Derval’s small nude women would become the hallmark of the Folies. During his 48 years at the Folies, he launched the careers of many French stars including Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, Joséphine Baker, Fernandel and many others.
The funeral of Paul Derval was held on 20 May 1966. He was 86 and had reigned supreme over the most celebrated music hall in the world. His wife Antonia, supported by Michel Gyarmathy, succeeded him. In August 1974, the Folies Antonia Derval passed on the direction of the business to Hélène Martini, the empress of the night (25 years earlier she had been a showgirl in the revues). This new mistress of the house reunited the proper qualities to maintain the continued existence of the last music hall which remained true to tradition.
Since 2006, the Folies Bergère has presented some musical productions with stage entertainment like “Cabaret” (2006-2008) or “Zorro the Musical” (2009-2010).
Josephine Baker was a dancer, singer and actress. Nicknamed the ‘Bronze Venus’, ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Créole Goddess’, she is known not only for her daring dance and costumes, but also for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and her involvement with the French Resistance. Oh, and for a time she performed on stage with a cheetah.
Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906-April 12, 1975) was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. When Baker was eight she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning Baker’s hands when she put too much soap in the laundry. She later went to work for another woman.
Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along with Adelaide Hall and The Chocolate Dandies. She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position in which the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she was unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly, but with additional complexity.
In October 1925 she opened in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the “Danse sauvage”, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. In later shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar.
After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. In addition to being a musical star, Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film “Siren of the Tropics” (1927), “Zouzou” (1934) and “Princesse Tam Tam” (1935). She also starred in “Fausse Alerte” (“The French Way”) in 1940.
At this time she also scored her most successful song, ‘J’ai deux amours’ (1931), and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino – a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count – Baker’s stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed.
In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach’s 1875 opera “La creole” at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris, which premiered in December of that year for a six month run. In preparation for her performances she went through months of training with a vocal coach.
Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. After a short period performing in the USA, Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, who was Jewish, and became a French citizen. Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Baker’s agent’s brother approached her about working for the French government as an ‘honourable correspondent’, if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. Baker immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race, not only because she was black but also because her husband was Jewish. Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in-the-know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gathered information. She helped in the war effort in other ways, such as by sending Christmas presents to French soldiers. When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France, where she had Belgian refugees living with her and others who were eager to help the Free French effort led from England by Charles de Gaulle.
She helped mount a production in Marseille to give herself and her like-minded friends a reason for being there. She helped quite a lot of people who were in danger from the Nazis get visas and passports to leave France. Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa; the stated reason was Baker’s health (since she really was recovering from another case of pneumonia), but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain and pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search) and made friends with the Pasha of Marrakesh, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several) and emergency hysterectomy she had to go through in 1942. After her recovery, she started touring to entertain Allied soldiers in North Africa. She even persuaded Egypt’s King Farouk to make a public appearance at one of her concerts, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward. Later, she would perform at Buchenwald for the liberated inmates who were too frail to be moved.
After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre (she was the first American-born woman to be rewarded this honour), the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
In January 1966, she was invited by Fidel Castro to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana. Her spectacular show in April of that year led to record breaking attendance. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje. In 1973, Baker opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. In 1974, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium.
Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. She protested in her own way against racism, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, whom she called the ‘Rainbow Tribe.’ In addition, she refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States.
In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged that she’d been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after the incident. Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco). (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker’s sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein’s FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother’s FBI file and using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.)
Baker worked with the NAACP. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d’honneur, she was the only woman to speak at the rally. After King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in Holland to ask if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were ‘too young to lose their mother’.
Baker had 12 children through adoption. She bore only one child herself, stillborn in 1941, an incident which precipitated an emergency hysterectomy. She raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Akio, Japanese-born Jeannot (or Janot), Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari, French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château de Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband Jo Bouillon (a French conductor).
Baker was bisexual. Her son Jean-Claude Baker and the co-author Chris Chase state in “Josephine: The Hungry Heart” that she was involved in numerous lesbian affairs, both while she was single and married (she was married 4 times), and mention six of her female lovers by name. Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all African-American women whom she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career. She was also reportedly involved intimately with French writer Colette. Not mentioned, but confirmed since, was her affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Jean-Claude Baker, who interviewed over 2,000 people while writing his book, states that affairs with women were not uncommon for his mother throughout her lifetime.
On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, ‘Joséphine à Bobino 1975’, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975. Her funeral was held at L’Église de la Madeleine. The first American woman to receive full French military honours at her funeral, Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo.
‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (1882) is a painting by Édouard Manet and his last major work. It shows a scene at Folies Bergère: a barmaid, a customer, green-clad feet of a trapeze artist, bottles of alcohol, and thus offers a glimpse into the Belle Époque demimonde.