Welcome to the Cabaret

Cabaret was one of the defining features of the Jazz Age and these supper entertainments were staged in a venue other than a theatre all over the world. Besides providing food, drink, jazz music and an entertainment, customers could also dance. Indeed dancing was the key to the 20th century cabaret craze.

Imagine yourself in London, Paris or New York in the mid 1920s. We are in company and have had cocktails, an early dinner and been to the theatre. We have seen a marvellous show but even though it is now late, we are in need of further entertainment. After all, the night is young and we want to party until dawn. Where do we go?

Palais de Danse, New York, c.1915
Palais de Danse, New York, c.1915

In fact the choice is simply bewildering because there are so many places to eat, drink, dance, hear music and, most importantly watch a show. Further, most places have two shows one at dinner and one at supper. Should it be one of the fancy restaurants, or one of the ballrooms in one of the swanky hotels, or one of the exclusive night clubs? What does it matter? We choose and make haste eager not to miss a thing at a supper show.

Programme cover for the New Princes Frivolities and a sketch of the interior of the New Princes Restaurant
Programme cover for the New Princes Frivolities and a sketch of the interior of the New Princes Restaurant

Entering the foyer we deposit our coats, pay our entrance fee and get ushered through a large, spacious, marvellously decorated room to a well laid out table, one of many that form a horseshoe shape around the dance floor. The lights are dimmed and cast a glow over the room through the billowing swirls of cigarette smoke and twinkle on the vast array of glittering jewels worn by all the women. The place is alive with a cacophony of sound. All is seemingly in uproar and confusion. The dance band at one end of the room plays high-spirited jazz music as couples dance on the crowded dance floor to the latest dance craze like the Fox Trot, Charleston, Black Bottom. Many of these bands are world renowned, their leaders stars in their own right like Paul Whiteman, Jack Hylton, Ted Brown or Vincent Lopez and their music widely available on glorious 78s records.

Paul Whiteman and his orchestra c.1924
Paul Whiteman and his orchestra c.1924

If it is crowded and difficult to dance it is fashionable. Expensive couture gowns rustle, glasses are chinked and conversation and laughter abound. Above the noise we order our drinks and supper from the excellent menu and become part of the unfolding revellry. The room is packed with an eclectic mix of people of all ages but they have one thing in common: they are all immaculately dressed and the men have large wallets.

On the stroke of midnight the music suddenly stops and the lights are dimmed. The drums roll, trumpets blow a fanfare and in the distance at the end of the room the curtains open to reveal a small stage lit by several spotlights. The orchestra takes up a new tune as a bevy of show girls appear in their rather brief, yet colourful feathery costumes. The chorus sing and dance and then disappear to hysterical cheers, wolf whistles and clapping. In their place emerge the principals of the show in their first number, a dancing duo of international renown, beautifully dressed and full of grace and skill, whirling across the dance floor causing gasps of delight. The stars of the time included such famous names as Moss and Fontana, Sielle and Mills and Divina and Charles (British); Fowler and Tamara, Maurice and Walton and Cortez and Peggy (American); and Mitty and Tillio, Roseray and Capella and Guy and Van Duren (French).

Some dancing duos (from left to right) Roseray & Capella, Fowler & Tamara, Moss & Fontana and Sielle & Mills
Some dancing duos (from left to right) Roseray & Capella, Fowler & Tamara, Moss & Fontana and Sielle & Mills

This is the beginning of a spectacular supper floor show (most places also have the same show earlier at dinner to) that will last thirty minutes or more and will feature more artists singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, magicians and other novelty acts) and more show girls in even more bizarre outfits. The entertainers could be British, French or American because there was a transatlantic network in place and artists moved around following the seasonal highlights from one country to the next. Certainly, in Europe, American artists predominated as the kudos of performing in Europe was huge but equally many European artists flourished in New York and elsewhere.

Across all the major cities of Europe and America (slightly later of course because of GMT) in dozens of venues the same thing would be happening – a world of entertainment designed to entertain and amuse and full of novelty would be coming to life.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

One Response to “Welcome to the Cabaret”

  1. […] has an introductory article entitled “Welcome To The Cabaret” with which I would suggest you begin your reading here.  The cabaret section also includes […]

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