Rodolphe Salis, the grandiose owner of Le Chat Noir, declared
“The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world.”
The thing is Salis wasn’t entirely wrong.
Rodolphe Salis spear-headed his cabaret in style. Without Salis Le Chat Noir just isn’t the same. One of the most important artists of the cabaret, Henri Rivière, described him. “Redhaired, longwinded, amusing and aggressive”.
Salis acted like an ancient chorus. An intermediary between the performing and the observing patrons. Salis would heckle the audience and talk up his performers. He created the tradition of the cabaret conférencier, the witty master of ceremonies. You’ve probably seen this style of hosting at an artistic burlesque or comedy show.
His eccentric costumes attracted admirers. Sometimes his dress tied in with a nightly theme that spoofed some institution. (Like the military.) Then he’d confront his audiences as if they were fools, while looking like one himself. Later this was later copied and perfected by Aristide Bruant. (I’ll discuss him more in a later post.)
Salis called himself the “King of Montmartre”. He even staged his own funeral in an early piece of performance art. A notice in the entrance of the cabaret announced his death solemnly. Inside all the décor was black. Candles burned during his “eulogy” given by an actual priest. Some of his compatriots even dressed up as mourning nuns. Including the artist Paul Signac.
These common public experiments at Le Chat Noir dazed and amused its patrons and curious onlookers.
Salis was a spectacle in his own right. He was the rascally black cat incarnate. His carnivalesque claims have a kernel of truth in them. He might as well as been the King of Montmartre.
It’s no wonder these antics helped garner attention to the cafés and cabarets of Montmartre. He attracted people from around the world. Even the highest echelons of European society became curious.
Salis and his ragtag band of artists and entertainers grew in number. They began to profit off of their enterprise. Too many people were packed into the musty old post office. They found they have to move to a bigger shop.
In June 1885 the cabaret moved.
Salis, always the eccentric, used this occasion to advertise his beloved establishment. He started a grand procession. He mocked bourgeoisie sensibilities by turning a formal tradition into a rowdy one. They dressed in medieval costume. In some of the patrons’ hands were standards topped with a glaring black cat.
Participants dawdled around. The loudly wound their way through the streets of Montmartre, disturbing residents in their wake. The “parade” shocked the flâneurs of Paris on the street and those looking down from apartment windows.
..The new location was only a few blocks away.
After the rambunctious motley crowd finally arrived at the façade of the new Chat Noir, Rodolphe Salis gave a speech. He hopped onto a barrel and devoted an opening speech to his club. (And those inquisitive people that found themselves joining the parade.)
He waved a sword around. After finishing, Salis broke his sword over his knee. A loud rowdy crowd followed him into the new Chat Noir screaming in delight. Neighbors were probably not too impressed with the new tenants.
Salis intended for the new Le Chat Noir to affect all senses. The sign at the front entrance ordered possible patrons to be modern, “Passerby…stop! This edifice has been consecrated to the Muses and to joy under the auspices of the Chat Noir. Passerby, be modern!”
The streetlamp on the street lit up the entrance. The sign of the black cat prowling on a crescent moon, designed by Adolphe Willette, greeted visitors.
At the doorway one or two greeters stood. They held halberds and dressed in the uniform of the old monarchy.
When visitors walked through the doorway Salis announced their names – if he knew them. If he did not, he’d make up a name to amuse the other well-established patrons. Occasionally he welcomed his guests with stiff formal bows and mock salutations of ‘Your Excellence’, or ‘Your esteemed Electoral Highnesses’.
Inside, servers waited on guests to bring them drinks, dressed in mock-up versions of the
French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts).
In addition to having humorous acts, the surrounding atmosphere itself satirized and spoofed tradition, an irresistible spectacle to the traveller to Montmartre. The Chat Noir cabaret décor and style reflected its tendency to take well-known and respected styles of institutions and hilariously flip them over for comedic effect.
Massive wooden furniture, illuminated stained glass windows, ancient coats of armour, and other medieval bric-a- brac decorated the cabaret.
The “temple of modernity” ironically adorned itself in medieval relics of a time past when Louis XIII ruled. Green wallpaper and drapery covered the walls – carrying sexual connotations a la medieval tradition. Le Chat Noir adorned itself with arcane and sacred attire. “Be modern!” the sign commanded at the entrance. But the interior was bafflingly anything but.
Despite the “rich” décor, Salis made sure the cabaret had a casual environment. He expected patrons to be able to dish it out and take it. Patrons of Le Chat Noir were a rowdy and boisterous bunch, and possibly intimidating to the newcomer. But, the bourgeoisie felt safe enough within the parameters of the cabaret. Its humour was thrilling but ultimately harmless. Like a virgin at a Rocky Horror show.
Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Émile Zola, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Aristide Bruant, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie are just a few of the names of the famous icons that visited and took part in the spectacle at the cabaret.
Le Chat Noir updated the bohemian cafe to include experimental art, parody, and bawdy humour. It was a daring playground for these emerging modernists.
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Appignanesi, Lisa. The Cabaret. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.
Fields, Armond. Le Chat Noir. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1993.
Gluck, Mary. Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Houchin, John. “The Origins of the “Cabaret Artistique”.” The Drama Review: TDR Vol. 28, No.1 (Spring, 1984), 5-14.
Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, eds. The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905. New Jersey: Rutgers, 1996.