A Virtual Show of the Folies Bergère

We’ve been following Cabot Yerxa’s journey to Europe in previous newsletters, “listening” to his impressions of the people he meets and places he visits. We thought we’d try something different this week, though it still relates to his trip in 1925, the main purpose of which was to study art at the Académie Julian in Paris.
Sheltering in place means we not only are prevented from leisure travel, but also from attending live performances. So let’s see a show through Cabot’s eyes. Following are edited excerpts from his distillation of “the most famous show in all of France”: the Folies Bergère.

I bought a “promenoir” ticket, which lets you walk around in the theater, but you have no seat. Show lasted [from] two to six [o’clock] with one intermission. It takes the form of vaudeville. Short acts with a wonderfully costumed bunch of girls coming in every once in a while, with a set spectacle of some kind. 50 chorus girls all matched to an inch for height and five pounds in weight, graceful, pretty and well trained. Taken with the costumes and stage effects, this is the most spectacular thing I ever saw on stage.

 Among the unusual acts: seven girls wheel in seven wheelbarrows of wood. #7 sings and they throw the wood on the stage, then pick up the wood and stand the pieces on end. Eight pieces are seen to make a wooden man. Six wooden men lean against a back curtain by a clever arrangement. Then a policeman comes in with dialogue, and it turns laterin to a dance of wooden men. The wooden men are take-offs on prominent Paris men in politics.

One curtain clear across the stage is bare trees in a swamp. Owls in trees blink eyes of lights. Curtain goes up and there is a big swamp at night. Woman in gorgeous dress of silver sings, and daylight comes gradually into the swamp. 50 chorus girls dressed as frogs come through the trees and close to the water’s edge in lock step, and this is all reflected in the water. The 50 get out on the stage and for 15 minutes go through locked drill as though blocks. Very effective and pleasing act and fine stage. For instance, the 50 stand in a row. #1 lies back on #2, #2 on #3, and so on till 50 are down flat on the stage. Then up same way. 50 girls is a lot, and this falling block idea takes some time but was very pretty.

Ship covered in ice and snow on its way to the North Pole, mostly a song act. Setting splendid.

Seven dresses of seven periods of France, very beautiful and charming. Hoop skirts, puff sleeves, etc.

Scenes at North Pole, 50 chorus girls dressed in white dance with the northern lights played over them and on icebergs. Then sun, moon and stars are shown. Sun and moon were two women covered with rhinestones, and headdresses same thing. Searchlights played on these on dark stage. Brilliant beyond any comparison. A row of star girls clear across the stage is lit up. As they go up in the sky, electric stars of great beauty and color follow them. Through this, you see in a haze of light the mass spectacle of sun and moon.

A flight of stairs in a place of dreams. Down the stairs one at a time came the beautiful birds of the world. Of course they are girls, and of course the bird is to merely hinted by the costumes, which are more lovely than I ever saw in the U.S. Most girls were naked to the waist, but wore gorgeous head decorations and colored silk trains for tails. There were three peacocks with trains 15 feet long. They started up the stairs and stopped, posing, and electric lights were lit under their tails and all the colors flashed like real birds.

Intermission —Restaurant and café, tables and chairs, fountain of water, statuary, bars, salesroom for perfumery, candy, cigars and other knickknacks. Above this great place is a balcony all around. Up there was kind of a sideshow of dancers and music. All the audience leaves their seats and walk around, smoke, eat or drink something.

Stage opens with all 50 girls back and in a big scene based on gathering grapes for wine. At the end, two glasses of champagne each higher than a girl and each supported by two girls beautifully posed rise up through the floor. Very lovely.

Nine nude girls (or with costumes cut out of paper) do very pleasing pantomime dance as a background for songs. Several ordinary acts follow. Then comes the sideshow part of a country fair, which has many laughs. A drunk man on roller skates is a scream. Throwing baseballs at dummies, compressed air that blows men’s hats off and balloons girls’ dresses, and the sledgehammer machine, etc.

The 50 chorus girls back again in a big act based on flowers of summer and much solo singing, but very pretty act.

Life-size autos painted on the curtain, policeman on corner. Heads stick out of first row of autos to make them look more real, and they argue with police and each other.

Life-size horse hitched to a wagon fixed up to live in. Artist going to the country for vacation talks to horse. Horse is two men. Opens its eye, shuts eyes, moves ears, mouth and tail. Very funny effect. Later, driver lets down the side of house and there are seven human heads on small figures against a black velvet curtains. The heads sing and dialogue, moving arms and legs of figures with hands in a natural and pleasing way.

The show closes with two great flights of steps in a palace down which come many girls in many costumes to dance or sing, and from the door in the center come the most beautiful girls in most wonderful costumes until all are on stage. THE END

For the moment, our applause is reserved for healthcare and other essential workers. Until stages light up again, look for the kind of wonderment that Cabot experienced in the natural beauty mimicked at the Folies Bergère: the light of the sun, the glow of moon, the twinkling of the stars, and the colors of birds that soar in the sky above us.