Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

A devil’s game: Diabolo

‘Ah! Le joli jeu!’ by Christiné, published by P. H. Christiné (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

‘Ah! Le joli jeu!’ illustrated by Clérice is one of several sheet music about the diabolo. Curiously, apart from one, all are dated 1907. We learned that in that year Gustave Phillipart started the diabolo craze. He was a Belgian civil engineer who lived in Paris. During seven years he had researched how to perfect the old toy. After building about 150 prototypes he finally patented the toy in 1906 giving the diabolo its present-day look. Through an astute marketing campaign the game came into vogue in Paris, shortly to appear all over France the next year.

Partition Musicale, illustration de Pousthomis
Left: ‘La Diabolette’ by Charles Borel-Clerc published by E. Joullot (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Pousthomis. Right: ‘Diabolo-Danse’ by Antonin Louis published by Henry Wykes (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Georges Dola.

To draw attention to the diabolo Philippart and a few friends played diabolo in the Bois de Boulogne every morning. They attracted a cloud of elegant walkers. These onlookers, fascinated with the flying spindle, rushed to a shop to buy one. Word got round and soon the diabolo mania was born. Journalists wrote long articles about the new graceful game. Maybe the new divertissement became quickly popular because it attracted both men and women, young and old alike.

In a French professional magazine, Publicité Moderne, Philippart explains that he also used the many theatres in the capital to promote his diabolo. One such theatre even presented a diabolo ballet. Composers and song writers, always on the lookout for a novelty, followed suit in contributing to its success.

Left: ‘Le Vrai Diabolo’ adapted by Paans and Léo Lelièvre & Briollet published by Aux Succès du XXe siècle (Paris, 1906). Right: ‘Le Vrai Diabolo’ adapted by Paans, published by Hachette (Paris, 1907).

The first diabolo song already appeared in 1906 and probably had to be published fast to keep pace with the booming fad. A little British music-hall ditty, By the Side of the Zuyder Zee, was hastily adapted in France as Le Vrai Diabolo. The trifling French text of the song promotes the game with the obligatory harmless sauciness.

Il est un petit jeu ravissant,
Qui partout fait fureur à présent…
C’est un p’tit jeu bien rigolo
L’Diabolo! L’Diabolo!
Si la jeun’ fill’ le jett’ sur l’dos
Des badauds.
C’est qu’elle rêve en lançant bien haut
L’Diabolo, L’Diabolo!
Qu’elle pourra plus tard avec son p’tit mari
Jouer le diable au lit!

The gist of the verses above is that diabolo is an enjoyable little game that is all the rage, and that if a girl misses her throw of the spinning top, it is because she’s already dreaming of diabolical bed games with her husband-to-be.

‘Le Diabolo’ Gustave Dreyfus & Georges Millandy. Published by Ricordi (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Georges Dola.
Gustave Dreyfus, the conductor of the Parisian dance hall Bal Bullier, composed ‘Le Diabolo’ a new dance with accessories: two sticks connected by a ribbon, thus providing an elegant instrument to diabolically! entangle one’s dance partner as seen on this postcard.

Diabolo tournaments and parties were organised everywhere in France. Parks and beaches offered the best venue.

During the carnival of 1908 the diabolo could not be missed in the parades

Unfortunately Philippart also got bad publicity. A baby in a pram was killed on the Champs Elysées when a top fell on its head. Philippart argued that the spindle had no shock absorber and thus clearly was a counterfeit. Anyway, as a result of the dreadful accident playing of the game was from then on regulated by police ordinance.

To launch his product in England Philippart had contacted the publisher and sportsman C. B. Fry. This famous cricketer created a new sport around the diabolo skills. It could be played like tennis but without a net: it was replaced by a rectangular court. The diabolo is slung from the service court and the player receiving the diabolo allows it to bounce once, then catches it on the cord and returns it… if possible. This playful tennis version did not catch on though.

‘The devil on two sticks’ published by The Illustrated London News, June 23 June 1906, illustrated by Russell Flint.

In 1910, miss Renée Furie introduced a new circus act in Paris: the human diabolo. It was a variation on the human cannonball. The daredevil crept into the giant diabolo which was then catapulted into a net. Quel frisson! After which the charming lady elegantly climbed out of the contraption. Ouf!

The diabolo craze never lasted that long and only revived moderately during the fifties. Nowadays its popularity has sadly dwindled to that of a traffic light entertainment.

A short from 1907, Diabolo Nightmare, attributed to Walter R. Booth, pictures the bizarre story of a maniac office worker addicted to the game. Crazy…

Le Voyage à Robinson

Le Voyage à Robinson‘ by Lucien Collin, lyrics by Gaston Villemer and Lucien Delormel. Published by C. Joubert Editeur, Paris (s.d.) and illustrated by Adrien Barrère.

For Le voyage à Robinson the illustrator of the sheet music imagined a girl with puckered lips waiting to be kissed by an artistic young man. The gifted caricaturist Adrien Barrère must have been inspired by the flirtatious liaison described by the lyricists Villemer and Delormel.  Their song —first performed in 1884— became a belle-époque classic. It tells the story of an innocent girl taken advantage of during an outing to a village resort called Robinson. Oh no, and the trip started so well though!

Te rappelles-tu le jour de ma fête
Où tu m’emmenas rire à Robinson ?
Nous avions alors de l’amour en tête
Car nos cœurs chantaient la même chanson.

[ Do you remember when on my birthday
you gaily took me for a ride to Robinson?
Both our heads were then filled with love
As our hearts were humming the same song. ]

A few rhymes later the story unbridles a little:

Dans l’arbre fameux je grimpais bien vite
Le vent souleva ma jupe un peu trop
Et toi, curieux, montant à ma suite
En voyant cela, tu crias “Plus haut !”

[ Into the famous tree I quickly climbed
The wind lifted my skirt a bit
And curious you, following behind,
Seeing that cried “Higher up!” ]

Let us hear Annie Girardot sing about the Voyage à Robinson, and how it ends in woeful memories.

In the 19th and early 20th century guinguettes were a popular destination for Parisian day trippers. A guinguette was an establishment for ample drinking, simple eating and lively dancing. Traditionally it was located next to a river or to a lake in the Parisian suburbs.

The Robinson guinguettes were situated not along the water but in a forest near Paris. For over a century they attracted a crowd of Parisians who came to relax in the forest on Sunday. It all started with an innkeeper who in 1848 built a suite of interconnected tree houses in a majestic chestnut tree. He named his guinguette Au Grand Robinson. He had confused Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe who lived in a cave and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ who lived in a tree house as described by Johann Wyss in his book from 1813.

Entrance of the ‘Vrai arbre Robinson’ with a statue of Robinson Crusoe.

The romantic tree houses high up in the gnarled branches of giant chestnuts were decorated as dining rooms with wooden furniture.  They were surrounded by a rustic railing and covered with a thatched roof. Some of them could accommodate up to ten patrons. The waiter hoisted the dishes and drinks up in large baskets using a rope and pulley system.

Le voyage à Robinson‘ by Lucien Collin, Gaston Villemer and Lucien Delormel, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, [1885]) and illustrated by Gustave Donjean.
The tree houses were in high demand. Young couples in search of privacy needed a lot of money and luck to reserve one of these intimate spots. Love is in the air. To protect one’s self even more from prying eyes, one could draw the curtains that surrounded the hut…  Why do I keep thinking about the Mile High Club?

Parisians relax en masse. Left the Vrai Arbre and right the Grand Arbre.

Soon copycats seeing the success of Au Grand Robinson were on the lookout for big trees in the surrounding area. As soon as they found one they started to build tree houses in it. At the beginning of the 20th century there were up to 30 establishments that had thus created their small hamlet of restaurants and taverns. Each claimed to have the most beautiful or the biggest tree. Hence, for authenticity’s sake Au Grand Robinson was renamed Le Vrai Arbre Robinson (The Real Robinson Tree).

Apart from its tree houses the Robinson guinguettes were known for donkey rides…

ezeltjes robinson
Left: ‘Taking turns’. Upper right: ‘A real tumble’. Lower right: ‘The fall of the horse rider’.

…swings,

Swings at Robinson, 1921 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

… frolicsome bigophone parades,

Bigophone band at Le Vrai Arbre Robinson, 1921 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

…and wedding parties.

La Mariée de Robinson’ by Emile Spencer & Léo Lelièvre published by A Repos (Paris, s.d.).

By the 1950s people had gotten tired of the Robinson guinguettes which started to close down one after the other. In 1966 the French rock singer Johnny Halliday together with a friend bought the original guinguette Le Vrai Arbre Robinson. Johnny (no need for his last name in France!) and his copain transformed the guinguette into a ranch and baptized it Robinson Village. The spirit of Robinson Crusoe was abandoned in favour of that of the American Wild West.

Johnny Hallyday performing at Robinson Village in 1966.

The small theme park boasted a mitraillette saloon, an Indian village, a Western Show, a disco and a Jerkium (where one could dance the Jerk).

Unfortunately the hope of the entrepreneurs to revive the spirit of the guinguette was smothered: Robinson Village had to close soon after it had opened.

Travelling back in time to 1966, Johnny sings his version of Black is blackGo Johnny go!


Further reading: “Mémoire de guingettes” by Francis Bauby, Sophie Orivel and Martin Pénet (Omnibus, 2003)

Bumper Cars: You’re Driving Me Crazy!

You’re Driving Me Crazy (What Did I Do?)‘ by Walter Donaldson, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1930) and illustrated by Florent Margaritis.

The cover for the Parisian Francis-Day sheet music doesn’t sparkle with happiness and joy. It rather illustrates the miserable yearning in the song’s lyrics.

You left me sad and lonely
Why did you leave me lonely?
For here’s a heart that’s only
For nobody but you!

Walter Donaldson probably didn’t have exquisite poetry in mind when he wrote these verses. But happily he transformed the persistent melody in his brain into the song You’re Driving Me Crazy that became an instant hit in 1930. Later, any jazz singer or crooner —from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra— had to have that song in their repertoire.

I’m burning like a flame, dear
Oh, I’ll never be the same, dear
I’ll always place the blame, dear
On nobody but you.

Not familiar with the tune? As a reminder, here is the delicious, sexy version by Betty Boop in the cartoon Silly Scandals:

Another copy of the sheet music in our collection, is most likely the original American one. Frederick Manning designed a large passionate hart, blazing in a fire of love. Somewhat pompous in my opinion.

‘You’re Driving Me Crazy (What Did I Do?)’ by Walter Donaldson, published by Walter Donaldson (New York, 1930) and illustrated by Frederick Manning.

Yes, you,
You’re driving me crazy!
What did I do? What did I do?
My tears for you
Make everything hazy,
Clouding the skies of blue.

For the Francis-Day cover at the top, illustrator Florent Margaritis chose another approach. He took the title and lyrics quite literally and drew a couple: she regretful but displaying resolve, he apparently thinking What did I do?  They share their romantic agony on a cloudy bumper ride in a weird electric car of the type that I’ve never seen before. My perfect excuse to start digging into the history of the bumper cars or dodgems.

The New Yorker, James Adair, was the first to receive a patent for an electrically propelled vehicle in 1890. His patent drawing shows a tricycle connected to the ceiling by a trolley pole. This idea, which was never built, became the basic concept to build the first bumper cars thirty years later: a conductive (metal) floor and ceiling, each with a separate power polarity. Contacts under the vehicle touch the floor while a pole-mounted contact touches the ceiling, forming a complete circuit. I remember my childhood fairs, looking fascinated and thrilled at the sparks produced by the car’s poles grating the ceiling’s wire mesh. Electricity was literally in the air.

Drawing for the patent filed by James Adair for an electrically propelled vehicle, 1890.

The first patent for an electrically powered bumper car was issued in 1921 to father and son Stoehrer from Massachusetts. They had invented a novel amusement car that “in the hands of an unskilled operator will follow a promiscuous, irregular path to not only produce various sensations but to collide with other cars as well as with portions of the platform provided for that purpose. It requires the utmost skill of the driver to cause the car or vehicle to dodge other vehicles.” Hence the name of the company that the brothers created: Dodgem. Dodgem is also the generic name for what they call in the US a bumper car, in France auto-tamponneuse and in Belgium auto-scooter.

Similar to the bumper car illustrated by Margaritis on our cover, the first Dodgem cars were round and seated two people. Between and in front of them a horizontal steering wheel was mounted on a vertical post.

Dodgem cars, source: Lusse Auto Scooters website.

These cars equipped with large bumpers indeed drove crazy because they were rear-steered. According to a test in 1921 by Scientific American these first bumper cars were highly unmanageable and only allowed erratic steering.

Bumper cars in the Bumper Car Pavilion – Glen Echo Park, Maryland – 1924

Lusse Brothers from Philadelphia spent nine years solving the unsteady steering problems that plagued Dodgem cars. By the 1930s, new front-wheel drive bumper cars were introduced: the Lusse Auto Skooter. They could easily reverse backward and the drivers could now target who they wanted to collide with.

The Skooter Bumper Car Pavilion in Glen Echo Park, Maryland

In France electrically powered bumper cars were not produced before the 1930s. But I found two pictures from primitive precursors. Both show auto-tamponeuses that look like a wicked or wooden seat attached to a thick board on wheels. In front there is a crude steering wheel. I imagine that the fair attraction’s track was slanted so that the cars glided or rolled down from their own. The first photograph was taken around 1900 at the Neuilly Fair near Paris. The second one shows us Battling Siki, a French-Senegalese boxer sitting in a bumper car at a Parisian Lunapark in 1922.

La Fete a Neuilly, ca. 1900.
Training of boxer Battling Siki, sitting (left) in a bumper car at the luna park, Avenue de la Grande Armée 1922 – Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

Another forerunner of the bumper cars was one of the most popular attractions at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. I confess that I haven’t the faintest idea how this entertainment device works…

Dodge’em cars at the British Empire Exhibition – 1924

What a coincidence. The fun fair is in town. Really, they are. I went to the autoscooter stand, to check some of the above facts. And guess what, they are still playing our tune ❤️

Yes, you!
You’re driving me crazy!
What did I do to you?