PARIS — At the height of the Belle Epoque, royalty and artists gossiped next to carousel horses in the gilded turquoise lobby of the Folies Bergere while lines of chorus girls flashed their frilly underwear on stage.
In the 1920s, Josephine Baker, the bombshell from St. Louis, brought the house down by wearing little more than a belt of dangling bananas during a Charleston number.
When the Folies Bergere took its performance to Rome, the Vatican was outraged. But in Paris, the extravaganza gave birth to royal romances as kings and princes courted its sex goddesses.
Now the faded red-and-gold Art Deco theater, which is lassed as an historical monument, has fallen silent and it's uncertain when--or if--it will reopen.
The music hall has been plagued by severe financial problems for several years, but the fiscal crunch became most apparent last spring when a report ordered by an employees' association showed that the theater had a deficit of almost $1.2 million.
In August, management announced it would hold the last 100 performances, closing on Jan. 2. But by year's end, attendance was so bad that the ostrich plumes were stored away even before New Year's Eve, traditionally a big money-maker. The last curtain calls came on Dec. 20 and pink slips were handed to 130 dancers, mannequins and other support staff, leaving only 20 employees on the books.
"I'm pleased it's closed because it wasn't any good any more," said Allison Dupuis, the club's former dance captain. She says the sequins started to dull by the time of the last revue, "Folies en Folie" (Crazy Follies), in 1987.
"They weren't able to save enough money from the previous show, so when they put together the new revue they had to scrimp and save," she said. Old decor was patched up and repainted, costumes were cleaned and redistributed and shoes were reused.
By the time "Folies en Folie" ended, cracks in the sets were visible and stringy feathers flew across the stage during pulsating dance numbers. But probably more than the presentation, the club suffered from an image of dishing out stale entertainment for dowdy middle-aged couples from the provinces.
"The Folies Bergere was born at the end of a century," said Georges Terrey, the club's manager. "Today we're at the end of another century. If we want to last another 120 years, it's absolutely necessary that we adapt, otherwise we're going to become a museum."
The theater initially said it would reopen in September, but now Terrey refuses to be tied down to a date. His biggest problem is finding the $4 million needed to stage a new revue. Until now, the Folies Bergere financed its shows out of its profits. But being in the red means the theater will need sponsorship to reopen.
While Terrey minimizes the importance of this closure, pointing out that the music hall has shut before to prepare new shows, this may very well be the darkest hour in the theater's legendary history.
It opened in 1869 on a site previously occupied by a hermit monk with a weakness for wine. During its heyday, it hired ballerinas from the Paris Ballet and even got Russian ballet star Anna Pavlova to dance on its stage.
The music hall launched many careers, including those of Charlie Chaplin, who performed in a mime act by sitting in the balcony and throwing bottles at the dancers, and W.C. Fields, who amused audiences with his juggling act.
Folies programs also boasted other celebrities--Yvette Guilbert, who was immortalized in Toulous-Lautrec's posters, and Mistinguett, the lanky singer with the big eyes who was said to be "rather ugly" but mesmerizing on stage. She fell in love with a timid young singer, Maurice Chevalier, who got a stinging review for his first performance there. But Chevalier survived, and went on to become famous as part of a double act with Mistinguett.
The couple dominated the shows at the Folies Bergere until the 1920s, when Josephine Baker came on the scene. She was considered to be such an asset that her legs were insured for about $100,000 (500,000 francs).
Baker was the last great artist to head a Folies program. "Ever since, it's been the music hall herself which has been the star," said Terrey.
But the size of the audiences in the past two decades says otherwise. During that time, the music hall saw attendance dwindle by 20%, with half of that decline taking place since 1986.
Dupuis says the managers lack business savvy and are arrogant. They didn't advertise in big cities because they were sitting on their laurels, saying the Folies Bergere was so well-known and had a good reputation that they didn't have to do the right publicity.
"The Folies Bergere is French," Terrey retorted. "There were French dancers on stage and French people in the audience. That was part of the charm for tourists who did come."