Monday 8 March 2021

Week 10: Send Away the Tigers

100 years ago this week: Week 10

Life was difficult in Paris in 1921 if you had German heritage – even if you were a tiger. With wounds still open from the terrible conflict and tense discussions ongoing on reparations, the French government made a surprising decision that impacted one of the city’s most popular circuses.

Roll up, roll up for the full story.

A sad mishap has afflicted the royal tigers that were drawing vast crowds of Parisians to the Nouveau-Cirque. The Petit Bleu informs us that they have been...expelled!

Had they eaten their tamer? Was there disrespectful gesture made towards one of the Republic's high-ranking officials? Maybe they were involved in communist propaganda? Or perhaps they were speculating on exchange rates and lowering our poor Franc?

Not at all, not at all! The tigers were behaving like very well brought-up people, but - in the eyes of the government - they had a critical flaw! They were born to a father from Hamburg and a Danish mother. They were 'Boches'! They have been expelled because they are unwelcome.

We are ridiculous!

Paris Midi, March 12, 1921

In March 1921, French newspaper front pages were still dominated by the ongoing repercussions of WW1. Earlier in the year the allies had agreed on the exact reparations they would demand from the German state, but making it pay was another matter. Discussions were continuing in London, but Franco-German relations were anything but peaceful. Any excuse was good enough to drum up some anti-Teutonic sentiment it seemed, including checking the birth certificates of animals and expulsing those with the wrong heritage.

A strange tale (tail?) indeed, but one that gives me the excuse to investigate le Nouveau-Cirque, which was already far from ‘new’ in 1921. 

What was le Nouveau-Cirque?

Let me begin by pointing out that everything you could possibily ever want to know about this circus - and surely many others - can be found in this fantastic resource. I will just provide a short resumé here.

What became Le Nouveau Cirque was initially the "Panorama of Reischoffen", a short-lived spectacle celebrating an obscure and meaningless French victory in the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This rotunda was stitched onto the back of the ornate, neo-classical Salle Valentino, a once-popular Second Empire ballroom on the Rue Saint-Honoré.

A man named Joseph Oller, better known for popularising horse racing and betting in France, bought the building with the intention of creating a swimming pool. After taking over the establishment he had a better idea: a swimming pool in the summer and a circus in the winter.
The swimming pool never took off, but the circus, first opened in 1886, was a big success. The expensive and innovative machinery he had installed to accommodate both operations was though put to good use. Oller was able to produce shows that combined circus acts and performances in water.

A circus at this time was a show that combined musical acts, acrobatics, clowning and some equestrian performances. A clown named Chocolat began performing at Le Nouveau-Cirque in this period, becoming perhaps its best-known performer. Chocolat, one of the city’s first black show business stars, would appear regularly at the circus for over 20 years, and was later celebrated in a 2016 film starring Omar Sy.

The circus enjoyed its golden age under a director called Raoul Donval at the end of the 19th century. The combination of belle époque grandeur and fashionable, innovative acts made it one of the most in-demand venues in the city. 

Moving into the twentieth century, people’s expectations of circuses slowly began to change, and competition grew fiercer in Paris. Larger spaces encouraged the development of more daring and spectacular acrobatic acts, and the presentation of exotic and wild animals progressively grew in importance to the detriment of the more traditional equestrian fare. Enter the tigers at Le Nouveau Cirque...

What was the situation at Le Nouveau Cirque in 1921?

The article in Paris-Midi speaks of vast crowds being attracted to le Nouveau-Cirque, but in reality it was struggling to attract full-houses. It was 'nouveau' only in name, being already 35 years old, and nearing the end of its existence. What had made it so popular initially – an elegant and intimate space in a chic part of the city – was holding it back in the post-war society, and new, larger establishments elsewhere in Paris were tempting away circus lovers who were looking for new thrills.

Management at the circus were either unwilling or unable to make the necessary transformations, or to convert the space to another use, and in 1926 it held its final performance. The entire building was demolished, and an office block was put up in its place.

What is at this address today?

If you are lucky enough to have you ever stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (251 rue Saint Honoré), you have slept on the site of what was once the city's most fashionable circus! The office block was converted into this Paris branch of the international chain in 2011.

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