Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

A Frog Swallower

‘Ranita’ by Gil d’Azil, published by Cicada (Paris, 1927) and illustrated by André Marcy.

“Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”. The Frenchman Mac Norton took this advice from Mark Twain quite literally. About a hundred years ago he started his magician career by eating live frogs on stage. No wonder that our cute frog on the sheet music cover seems a bit worried.

Mac Norton ‘Das menschliche Aquarium’ – 1912

For his ‘human aquarium’ performance Mac Norton, artist name of Claude Delair, took from a fishbowl five frogs and six goldfish, and swallowed them alive one by one. Then he made a point of nonchalantly lighting a cigarette. After a relaxing moment of small talk with his audience he started to disgorge all the small animals, still alive. It is said that he could keep fish, frogs or other aquatic animals moving around in his stomach for more than two hours.

All Mac Norton’s shows centered around his stunning ability to hold large quantities of water in his stomach and to disgorge it afterwards. Sometimes he would emphasise the enormous amount of water by ordering a parade of waiters to bring him 50 glasses of it. He would then demonstrate La Fontaine: he expelled the water he had just swallowed into a delicate jet in which he washed his hands. Or he performed La douche. The water then gushed from his mouth with force, but still seemingly without effort.

In Berlin, Mac Norton did his trick with beer. Houdini who watched the show behind the scenes was not that impressed. “The filled glasses were displayed on shelves at the back of the stage, and had handles so that he could bring forward two or three in each hand. When he had finished these he would return for others and, while gathering another handful, would bring up the beer and eject it into a receptacle arranged between the shelves, just below the line of vision of the audience…”.  So at least some of it was a trick.

‘l’Amour Magicien’ (Mister Magician) by Charles O’Flynn; James Cavanaugh & Frank Weldon, French lyrics by Jan Marotte & Jean Cis. Published by Salabert (Paris, 1934) and illustrated by Ch. Roussel.

Houdini goes further. “I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.”

‘La Grenouille au Nénuphar’ by Clapson & Teredral, published by Clapson (Paris, 1919) and illustrated by Lt. Fetaz.

Mac Norton himself believed that he had an extra stomach like a cow. But more likely he suffered from rumination syndrome. This is the effortless regurgitation of undigested food from the stomach back up into the mouth. There is no retching, pain or other inconveniences as in the case of vomiting.
Thanks to the treasure trove that is Gallica, I found out that Mac Norton became the subject of medical examinations in 1912.

Drawings of Mac Norton’s stomach. Fig 1: after ingestion of 125 g milk of bismuth. Fig 2: after ingestion of 400 g milk of bismuth. Fig 3: after ingestion of 3,5 litre liquid. From ‘Archives d’Electricité Médicale experimentales et cliniques’ – 1912

With radiography a doctor revealed the structure of the performer’s stomach. One would expect that he would have taken images of Mac Norton’s insides after swallowing the frogs. But no, he just made him drink some fluid and concluded that his stomach was ‘very muscular‘ and that was about it. How absolutely deceiving!

To illustrate once more that songs were made about anything, we insert a Dutch sheet music cover of a song about Röntgen’s discovery: X-stralen (X-rays). On the cover we see the first ever photograph of a human body part using X-rays. It is the hand of Röntgen’s wife on a photographic plate.

‘De X-stralen’ (The X-Rays) by Tommy & Bassy, published in 1896.
Mac Norton’s international career took him all over Europe and in various parts of South America. The protest actions of the American Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty made North America a no go for the frog eater. Claude Delair (1876-1953) continued his Mac Norton tricks until he was well into his seventies.
Claude Delair, aka Mac Norton, in the Forties.

I found a similar regurgitation act from 1931 by Hadji Ali in a Spanish-language version of Laurel and Hardy’s Chickens Come Home. Enjoy and have a drink!


Further reading on magicians and illusionists:  ‘Miracle-Mongers and their Methods’ by Harry Houdini.

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)