A Programme for the 1950s 'Paris to Piccadilly' at the Prince of Wales Theatre
To clear up a point of nomenclature to begin with, the Folies-Bergere has nothing to do with the eccentricities of a shepherd, as the scholarly may easily have imagined. The world-famous name eludes all attempts at a literal translation and you can take it from us that it derives, solely from the fact that the old Parisian music-hall where the great show originated in 1886 was situated in the Rue Bergere - although the present theatre, opened in the early '20's, is actually around the corner in the Rue Richer.
Both the theatre and the show, of course, have become more or less legendary. Since the '90s' no suitor to the French capital has dared return home without having sampled their fabulous delights. To decline an ascent of the Eiffel Tower is understandable; to neglect the treasures of the Louvre excusable; but to miss the Folies is unthinkable an omission which, not to put too fine an edge upon it, even a Bishop might have difficulty in explaining.
With this tradition there grew up also a belief that the Folies and Paris were inseparable, and the decision of the London impresario, Bernard Delfont, to uproot the show and transplant it here in England seemed at first foolhardy. But that was in 1949, and the last three years have seen Mr. Delfont's gamble succeed brilliantly.
Initially there had been innumerable difficulties to overcome notably, perhaps, the matter of censorship but the venture finally got under way on a provincial tour when it opened to Birmingham in March, 1949, after much pre-production controversy and speculation as to its chances of getting by the stringent Watch committee of the Midlands city. The fortunes of the company hung in the balance as the first-night curtain fell and they awaited the report of the civic committee. "Watchmen, what of the night?" was the question, and the word, when it came, was good. The Committee even referred to the show's "great artistic merit" and they had "no complaints."
Thus, in September of the same year, the Folies Bergere eventually arrived in London where Val Parnell managing director of Moss' Empires and the man who has made the London Palladium the world's top vaudeville theatre - became associated with Mr. Delfont in its presentation. The show was staged at the London Hippodrome where it ran for 17 months, and was immediately followed by another Folies show under the title Encore des Folies, which ran for a year that is, until February, 1952.
Altogether, some 2,000 performances of the revues were given at the Hippodrome. Appearing in them were such outstanding artistes as Chaz Chase, the funny little man with the baggy pants who ate everything he could lay his teeth to, from lighted matches to his shirt-front; Eddie Vitch, the "drunk" who threw himself out of bars; the red-headed American ballerina Marilyn Hightower; the juggling Balladinis; the captivating French star, Lilo; the dusky and seductive Marqueez; and the bearded "goon," Michael Bentine, of the wild eye and the eccentric props, who made his first real hit in the London Folies.
Even so, the great appeal of the show lay as it had in Paris in its lavish and spectacular production effects, and in its skillful and delectable presentation of the feminine gender. Their production technique reached a point in Encore Des Folies at which one of the capital's most discriminating critics could say, "The producers and designers of the extravaganza have gone about their work in admirable fashion, using such rare qualities as imagination, style and discrimination as though they were every bit as important as money and undress, and the result is altogether the handsomest show I ever laid eyes on."
THE new London edition of the Folies Bergere, Paris to Piccadilly, again under the joint auspices of Messrs. Delfont and Parnell, sees a change of headquarters from the Hippodrome to the Prince of Wales Theatre, but there has born no change in the essential quality of the show. Indeed, in at least one department humour it is probably better than ever before, thanks chiefly to the presence of Norman Wisdom who works hard and brilliantly and appears in half-a-dozen sketches scattered through the show. Though Norman has appeared in London before notably in a variety bill at the Casino about three years ago this is his first top-starring chance in a West End show, and it has established him in a place second to none among British comedians.
Norman Wisdom became a comedian almost by accident. As a schoolboy his hero was little Jimmy Wilde, the former flyweight champion, and he spent hours trying to box like "the ghost with the sledgehammer fists." At fourteen he ran away to sea and when he got tired of life on the ocean wave, in 1937, he joined the Army. In the mess one night the troops had a party and Norman, slightly in his cups, became Jimmy Wilde again he boxed with himself, added a couple of tumbles and found his comrades were laughing their heads off. So the shadow-boxing became the nucleus of a vaudeville comedy act which, since his demob in 1946, has taken in clarinet-playing, a remarkable variety of methods of falling and tripping, and rolling around in a suit that would hang loosely on Oliver Hardy. He has all the technical equipment, resourcefulness and plain human appeal essential to the great comic artist, and many judges have compared his work favourably with that of Charlie Chaplin himself.
In its leading lady the latest Folies brings to the West End a bewitching breath of the boulevards in the person of the twenty-two-years-old Parisian revue and cabaret star, Mini Gerard, whose platinum blonde hair contrasts, uniquely, with her flashing dark eyes. A sparkling personality, as typically and as captivatingly French as Norman Wisdom is English, Mlle. Gerard is an irresistibly decorative creature who would be an asset to the show even if her function in it were purely pictorial and, as it happens, it is a great deal more than that. If called upon, she can sing in sixteen different languages as well as doing some pretty fluent and expressive talking with those eyes but this is an Anglo-French enterprise and the management are letting fourteen of Mlle. Gerard's lingual gifts go to waste! To show that she can act as well, when the occasions arise, she plays a piquant role in one or two of the sketches, including Mr. Wisdom's enormously funny adventure as a prospective musical student.
The vaudeville specialties which are interpolated so skillfully introduce a number of talented performers who are new to London. The Barbour Brothers, for instance three young men who do their tap-dancing on stilts and who, incidentally, must provide their tailors with a rare problem, for the impeccably-cut trousers of their evening suits seem to be about twelve feet long! Then there is Baby Scruggs, a centrally-heated young woman the colour of milky chocolate, who comes on dressed in a couple of tasseled garments and dances like a direct descendant of old St. Vitus. Those tassels are important, for she has the remarkable knack of being able to rotate individually and collectively the two which hang from her fascinatingly supple bosom, as though the accomplishment were the easiest thing in the world!
Other specialty acts include those of Renee Strange and her Puppets; that brilliant acrobatic troupe, The Four Hurricanes; Aida Baki, whose bizarre candle dance is featured in the exotic Pirate's Hold scena; and two portly coloured gentlemen called Patterson and Jackson. These last have an amusing song-and-dance routine of their own, and one of them whether Patterson or Jackson it's hard to say scores an additional, personal triumph in singing the lyric accompaniment to the big Gambling Fever number, a colourful cavalcade which is probably the most ambitious single item yet staged in the Folies a vivid panorama of the get-rich-quick temptations which beset the speculative investor and make living so easy for casino operators, bookmakers and stockbrokers! It is a breath-takingly ingenious spectacle in keeping with the reputation of the Folies for doing unusual things on a monumental scale.
Glitter and gaiety, humour and song, colour, glamour, skill, invention, beauty-adorned and unadorned - Paris to Piccadilly is a show which has just about everything, and then some.
Meanwhile Mr. Delfont is kept pretty busy with all other aspects of his Folies presentations. Encore des Folies has gone to Australia for what is likely to be a two-year engagement in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand; the first Hippodrome revue is still touring the provinces; and further negotiations are afoot for an American production.
On each show, the impresario spends roughly 12 months in his search for talent, on the general design for the production, and in conference with M. Paul Dorval, chef of the Parisian Folies for the past 39 years, by arrangement with whom the London shows are always presented. M. Duval is always present during final rehearsals here, with his designer Michel Gyarmathy.
They can have no cause for complaint that the London editions are letting down the reputation of the Parisian original; sometimes, indeed, they must be just a little awed by the "spare-no-expense" sumptuousness which is the rule with Mr. Delfont and his production manager, Dick Hurran, responsible for the staging of the London shows. The finale of Encore Des Folies, for instance, grouped the entire company in black-sequined costumes against a decor composed wholly of rose-pink ostrich feathers! Altogether that particular show, on which the staggering figures are now available, used over twelve hundred costumes, a thousand yards of gold kid, and a quarter of a billion sequins; there were a thousand pounds' worth of white fox furs, and a hundred yards of material were used in each showgirls crinoline. Even the scantily clad showgirls cost over five hundred pounds apiece to "dress" in extravagant head dresses, feathers and bejewelled accessories! It's no wonder that the pride of Paris has become the talk of Piccadilly.
Now in his early forties (he was born in Russia in 1909 and came to England as a child), impresario Delfont has built for himself an enviable reputation in management during the past decade the Folies productions, for all their grandeur represent only a fragment of his theatrical interests. Initially an actor, Bernard Delfont first ventured into the business side of show business in 1941 when he sent out a tour of Room For Two, and, since that time, he has always had at least one show out "on the road" whatever his London commitments have been. One of his most notable provincial enterprises was the long tour of Old Chelsea with the late Richard Tauber in the leading role singing his famous song, My Heart and I. A little more recently there have been revivals of such well-loved favourites as Rose Marie, The Student Prince, The Chocolate Soldier and Bless the Bride. Here in London, though most of his successes have been with musical shows (Touch and Go, starring his glamorous wife, Carole Lynne, was one of them), he added greatly to his prestige last year with his presentation of Giraudoux' The Mad Woman of Chaillot. It was also Bernard Delfont who, at the Casino in 1947 took the first post-war steps towards putting big-time international variety back on the London map with programmes starring Laurel and Hardy, Sophie Tucker, Lena Horne, Harry Richman and the fabulous Mistinguett.
This Programme for 'Paris to Piccadilly' at the Prince of Wales Theatre was very kindly donated by Sue Wilde
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