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The history of nightlife: Paris


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by Clark Historical Society

For hundreds of years, a place where people get together, drink, and socialize has been a staple in almost every community. From the classic 1800’s saloon, to the nightclubs in Paris in the early 1900’s, and then with the introduction of discos, bars, and clubs in the later part of that century, these places have remained a constant throughout time.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, image courtesy of artandarchitecture.org.uk

The whole concept of a simple dwelling that combines drinking, dancing, flirting, and fun is almost like an escape from the world, a place to forget one’s problems, let loose, and have a good time. For Parisians, bars and clubs have become the thing to do on the weekends.

In the 1890’s cabaret became a dominant form of entertainment and would be incorporated into the variety of shows offered in the Folies Bergere. Originally, cabarets were places where liquor would be served. However, in the 1880’s the cabaret changed to a venue where people could sit, drink (sometimes eat), and watch performances. In a cabaret performance, women were dressed in opulent and revealing clothing and would sing, dance, and act.

Parisian nightlife in the late 19th century focused on music and dance halls. In 1869, the Folies Bergere was established and put on shows featuring mostly women performing a variety of talents from ballet to magic. It began to reach its height in popularity around the 1890’s. This increase in popularity was from the incorporation of a new type of performance called the cabaret.

Within the realm of cabaret performances, the Folie Bergere was known to be more costly, thus having mostly middle to upper class clientele.

The Montmartre district, photo courtesy of arnaudfrichphoto.com

The cabaret trend actually began with the opening of La Chat Noir, which opened in 1881, located in the Monmartre district of Paris. The Monmartre district attracted many artists with its bohemian atmosphere and became a pocket of Parisian nightlife. The beginning of cabaret epitomized the artistic and suggestive forms of popular entertainment for which Monmartre would be known. The cabaret offered a sense of comfort, because customers did not have to stick with the strict, late Victorian social rules that were common at other venues. La Chat Noir attracted artists such as Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Henri Rivière, whose famous shadow plays were featured at La Chat Noir.

Another famous entertainment and dance hall was the Moulin Rouge that opened on the 6th of October in 1889. It was built in the red-light district of Pigalle and featured a large, red imitation windmill from which the place was named. The Moulin Rouge was a famous mixture of the sketchy Parisian lifestyle with a mostly bourgeois clientele. Moulin Rouge operettas were well known as well as the most famous cabaret performance: the Can-Can. The Can-Can was a dance involving an indecent display of women lifting up their legs and skirts.

Louise Weber, photo courtesy of lisaconfetti.wordpress.com

The most famous of these dancers was Louise Weber, or La Goulue (the glutton), so named because she was known for taking people’s drinks as she danced around their tables. She performed with her dance partner Jacques Renaudin, also known as Valentin le désossé (the boneless), but he was never as big a sensation as La Goulue. The patrons loved her for her charming yet audacious behavior in her dance routines that included raising her legs so high to kick hats off of men’s heads.

 The cabaret establishments were opened all over Paris by 1900, and more star entertainers, like Louise Weber, drew in crowds. Monmartre, in particular, would develop into a center for entertainment. In the early 20th century, Monmartre was the location for over forty venues composed of cabaret, dance and music halls, theater, and even circuses. Because it had grown so large, the district’s label as a “bohemian” district became part of mainstream bourgeois culture.

The nightlife of Paris was disrupted by WWI, but did its very best to pick up where it had left off afterwards. Still, one cannot understand the culture of 1920s Paris without understanding the effects of the First World War. The French people, as one of them said, “wanted to forget the war,” and catch up on the four years that they had lost.

Parisians went out night after night, packing theaters and streaming to the neighborhood of Montmartre to hear jazz. American popular culture, jazz in particular, was all the rage in France, where people associated America with newness. Black musicians came across the Atlantic from the United States, many from Harlem, which was already a “jazz capital.” They went to France and found their talents in high demand. Soon, black-owned nightclubs were springing up in Paris, especially in Montmartre. Among the many African Americans who found a far more receptive audience in France was Josephine Baker.

She had performed as a dancer in the US, but had difficulty finding work because some thought she was “too dark.” When she and her dance partner performed a show in Paris, the reception was completely different. French audiences could not get enough of her. Her bold moves and even bolder costumes made her an overnight sensation, and she thrived in the more racially integrated French society. Through the middle of the 1920s and into the 1930s, she was a star of Parisian nightlife, performing for delighted audiences.

Paris of the 1930s was overshadowed by the crash of ‘29. The Great Depression put a strain on nightclub owners and musicians alike, especially after 1933 when the nightclub scene became tightly regulated by law. The French government began enforcing one law stating that only 10% of their musicians could be foreigners.

The law was supported by French performers who were having trouble competing with their African American counterparts. In any case, jazz was still all the rage and most jazz musicians were American. Restaurants and cabarets that lost their American musicians found themselves losing business too. The drought of American jazz left room for other styles of music and dance to make their way into Paris’s nightclubs.

Music from the Caribbean became popular, to the chagrin of French jazz musicians who had hoped to fill the void. When the 10% law was lifted, African American musicians found work again, and ended up joining forces with the Cubans and Martinicans who had made themselves fixtures of the Paris music scene. Musicians from the Antilles promoted a Creole folk dance called the beguine, and its popularity was ensured by Josephine Baker, who added it to her revue.

The dance became a staple in the new dance halls and cabarets that were popping up in the Montparnasse neighborhood. While 1930s Montmartre was changing constantly, with clubs opening and closing left and right, Montparnasse enjoyed a little more stability. It had a bohemian atmosphere, catering more to artistic Parisians and less to tourists. The police kept it relatively clear of riff-raff, in contrast with the often seedy Montmartre. For all their liveliness, a second world war and a foreign occupation effectively shut these neighborhoods down, and it took some time for them to fully recover.

Before 1953, and even some years thereafter, most bars and nightclubs around the globe used jukeboxes or live bands, but then in a Paris club named ‘Whisky-a-Gogo,’ Régine Zylberberg laid down a dance-floor, suspended colored lights, and for the first time ever replaced the jukebox with two turntables so there would be no breaks between the music.

This intiated the standard elements of the nightclub in its modern form. However, the first rock and roll generation preferred rough and tumble bars and taverns to nightclubs, and the nightclub did not attain mainstream popularity until the 1970s disco era.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, live musical performances had given way to the disc jockey, which mixed the latest recorded pop hits in an environment marked by polyester suits and cheesy lighting. The discotheque (or disco) was the beginning of the modern paradigm for the nightclub, where the goal is no longer to entertain, but to provide what can essentially be described as a large commercial party. By the 1980s, the big discos were beginning to lose their appeal and nightclubs began experimenting again with live acts, especially in relation to the burgeoning punk and metal movements. Cutting to the 1990s and present times, the nightclub became the premier arena for electronic music which became extremely popular in Europe, Paris included.

An evening in modern Paris is more like an adventure than an outing. Particularly around the Champs-Elysées, there are many bars, and clubs which are unfortunately often overcrowded and overpriced. The most breathtaking view of Paris in the summer can be seen in the district of Sacré Coeur.

Those who would prefer something a little quieter should resort to Marais. Paris and The Paris nightclub Association plan parties and fun. In Paris – the most visited city in Europe, there is something for everyone – whether you prefer an easy-going party or contemplative classical music.

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The history of nightlife: Paris