Cafe de Paris, London
The Cafe de Paris was one of the most fashionable dining haunts in London in 1920s. Intimate and elegant it was described by Vogue magazine as ‘delightfully comfortable’ and by Dancing Times as ‘the smartest dance restaurant in London…’
There were several venues that were named the Cafe de Paris. The most famous was the restaurant in Paris that had a long history; there was a short-lived restaurant and cabaret in New York in the 1920s; the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo flourished for many years and the rather sumptuous Cafe de Paris in London became an iconic representation of Jazz Age London.
The Cafe de Paris in London opened in 1924 taking over the premises of the Elysee Restaurant, at 3 Coventry Street. It was situated in the basement of the West End Cinema (Rialto) and opposite the Prince of Wales Theatre. The Elysee was probably created at the turn of the century and had been a fashionable restaurant and dancing venue. Even during World War I its popularity was unabated and a range of dancers entertained guests including Givre and Paulette (mid 1915), Oliver and Olivette (late 1915) and a young Noel Coward and his partner Eileen Denis. It was especially favoured by visiting American servicemen.
In the spring of 1924 a syndicate comprising George and Harry Foster, Major Robin Humphreys (sometimes called a Captain) and Edward Dolly took over the Elysee Restaurant and began alterations and re-decoration to open as a cabaret – restaurant providing lunches, dances, teas, dinners and a dance supper until 2am. Harry Foster was a booking agent and manager who furnished the show at the Piccadilly Hotel and was a director of the newly formed Princes Restaurant cabaret that also staged a cabaret. Edward Dolly was the brother of the famous Dolly Sisters and a choreographer and cabaret producer. With Foster he had already successfully launched the first cabaret at the Piccadilly Hotel called Dolly’s Revels (February 1924) and undoubtedly was brought in to stage the cabaret show. They also recruited the headwaiter from the Embassy Club who was called Martin Poulson to add further panache to proceedings.
One descended a flight of stairs into a little lounge that led onto the balcony and below the dance floor. The main floor was reached by the famous double staircase that did enable a rather grand entrance. It was not too large or too small and a perfect size for a cafe or restaurant of its kind and seated 400. The whole place except the dance floor was carpeted in blue green and decor that was meant to be a replica of the Palm Court of the Luisitania.
The grand opening was on Wednesday 28th May 1924 and every table was occupied and dance, dinner and cabaret cost 15s 6d. Poulsen excelled himself with a dance-supper which began with caviars and green turtle and ended with a delicious ‘Coeur Flottant. At 11.45pm a ‘frothy, bubbly cabaret’ called Summer Time Frolics was staged that had five days for rehearsals.
Charles Brooks and Velma Deane gave a delightful exhibition of singing and dancing, Winnie Collins captured many with her solo work, and there was clever dancing by an artistic couple called Ginos and Lolette with their apache dance being an intense little reality drama in itself. However, the star of the show was Martin Broones (an American composer and singer who also composed all the music used in the show) and the Frolic girls. Since Dolly Tree worked with both Edward Dolly and Harry Foster at the Piccadilly Hotel it is most likely that she designed all the costumes. The Crichton Lyricals played from the gallery level and gave the dancers a full measure of well-balanced harmony.
By mid June the excellent dancing due of Ted Trevor and Dina Harris were added to the bill, followed in July by the ballroom dancing of Ronald Greene and Miss Florence Banister who without employing exaggerated or acrobatic steps showed the boundless possibilities of foxtrot, waltz and tango on a modern dance floor during the dinner hour. During August most of London’s nightclubs and dance restaurants closed but theSummer Time Frolics show was so successful that the Cafe de Paris remained open. ‘The nightly ‘House Full’ fortunes of the Cafe de Paris are not surprising. The cabaret public had got what it wanted at the cafe: dancing and a rollicking show amid cheerful surroundings.’
The show with Martin Broones carried on but the chief attraction became the legendary American coloured singers Layton and Johnstone. They had originally appeared in early 1924 at the Quadrant Club and were seen by Major Humphries who quickly secured them, spotting their unique singing talent. The duo found the atmosphere and surroundings of the Cafe de Paris ideal for their work, scored a big hit with London’s clubland clientele and were described by Max Wall as ‘one of the most charming singing duos the world has seen.’
The Cafe was the first cabaret venue in London to drop the elaborate show and dispense with the chorus girls in favour of just a few carefully chosen acts. The new show was changed to include the dancing of the American Forde Sisters and Doreen Read and Frank Leveson followed by Joan Pickering and Danny Fer (September) and then the Viennese dancers Andre and Denise (October).
Enthusiasm for the Cafe, as the ideal rendezvous, continued and in one night in early September there was a record in its annals when 250 dancers thronged the splendid new maple wood floor. Within one week as many as 2,000 diners and suppers were served. Layton and Johnson ‘masters of the rhythmical harmony and syncopation sang many new drolleries’ and there was some new dancing from Nancy Jackson. By late October, the popularity of the Cafe and the entertainers was so great that many people were turned away and large numbers were compelled to sit on the stairs leading to the ballroom.
Following the French fashion, little ‘Favours’ were created and showered on the visitors. They were most original and comprised slender sticks on which were posies of coloured flowers, black cats with arched backs and glowing eyes and grotesque faces all of which can be lit up by a tiny electric bulb. At midnight the lights were lowered and the effect of the dancers moving around the room with these illuminated favours was by all accounts charming.
Since Poulson had been headwaiter at the salubrious Embassy Club he knew everyone and one guest he made sure to invite was the Prince of Wales who danced for 45 minutes and commenting on the wonderful dance floor. From then on the Prince of Wales became a regular visitor and the Cafe gained its royal seal of approval. Sometimes he would dine there as much as three times a week. The Cafe was also frequented by other European royals and many of society’s leading lights, film stars, politicians, stage celebrities and professional beauties was regularly called upon to cover up their indiscretions as the Café boasted a secret staircase from the balcony to Rupert Street which proved useful for admitting Royalty and evicting undesirables.
By Late November 1924, the Cafe de Paris was staging a brief cabaret entertainment during the afternoon dances each day with Doreen Read and Frank Leveson (who also featured in the evening) and Elliot a juggler who did a hundred and one dexterous feats with a pile of silk hats. The Crichton Lyricals played during tea and at night-time the tantalising dance music of the Mayfair Four took hold.
In early 1925 Louise Brooks (later to become the well-known silent screen actress) gained a featured part in the cabaret at the Cafe De Paris. Bewitching the crowds with her shimmy and criss cross knees she helped popularise the new Charleston dance, although she was not the first to introduce it to London. Louise did not stay long and returned to New York in mid February. Meanwhile Frankie Leveson and Doreen Read continued dancing through the spring of 1925 and were followed by Mr and Mrs David Leslie.
At some point, presumably in 1925, ownership of the Cafe changed. According to Variety the original combine did not quite meet expenses during their management and Harry and George Foster sold out their shares to Humphreys and Martin Poulsen. Directly Humphreys and Poulsen took it over it began to be sensationally successful. But Harry Foster did not leave the syndicate entirely. Since he was a booking agent and manager and was in charge of the acts introduced into the Piccadilly Hotel cabaret, he continued doing the same for the café.
Humphreys and Poulsen expanded their activities and first of all decided to establish a summer rendezvous at Bray following the example of Jack May’s successful Murray’s River Club at Maidenhead. It would later become known as the Hotel de Paris and, on opening in the summer of 1925 had attractions in the open air with fairy lamps twinkling in an old world garden, a dancing platform built around a walnut tree and the addition of midnight bathing! Also, in late 1925 the new syndicate – called Hotels de Paris – took over the Cavour restaurant in Leicester Square, which was, renamed the Cafe Anglais.
In the autumn of 1925 the main attraction at the Café was the London debut of the American dancers Billie Shaw and Barrie Oliver (he later danced with Beryl Evetts). They had achieved a big Charleston reputation in America and gave Londoners their unique take on the Charleston that had been gaining rapid popularity. Also featured in the show was the singing and antics of Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar, along with rope tricks and stories from the American Tex MacLeod. Later, in November the American singer Nick Lucas performed and was admired for his marvellous timing, syncopation and attractive voice and personality.
At the same time the larger than life figure of Teddy Brown settled down to a long stay. The 24-stone, American xylophonist had arrived in Britain with the Joseph C. Smith band, but made a name for himself at the Cafe eclipsing his own excellent orchestra in more senses than one.
As a rule three or four high class acts, including a pair of exhibition dancers and a singer were presented twice during the evening, first at dinner and then at supper and there were several excellent bands: the Lyricals continued to perform along with Teddy Brown and his band and the Ledor Tango band. The charge of £1 1s for dinner and 15s 6d for supper, inclusive of the cabaret was all well in keeping with other venues.
Theatre World took stock of the success the Cafe de Paris was having by saying ‘they have relied on expensive single turns and have had to turn people away.’ It also observed that the girls who went there were by far the most attractive and the best dressed ever seen in any ballroom in the country. ‘The clientele of some cabarets give the impression that they have emerged from a dingy suburb. They look self conscious and uncomfortable and their clothes lack taste or distinction.’
At the end of 1926, the Kit Cat Club in the Haymarket was raided by police and closed down. By mid May 1927 Humpreys and Poulson had bought the lease and finally it was re-opened as a restaurant in October 1927. The new Hotels de Paris syndicate effectively controlled three of the major nightspots in London – the Kit Cat Restaurant, the Cafe de Paris and the Cafe Anglais. But at the same time as this latest acquisition they were having problems with the landlord of the Cafe who seeing their success increased their rent. A clause in the lease gave them the privilege of terminating the tenancy with 6 months notice. So they announced that the Cafe de Paris outfit would move completely to the Kit Cat restaurant. Needless to say this did not happen and the landlord must have moderated his demands.
Through 1927 Barrie Oliver was retained as MOC (he was also appearing at Uncles Club and doubling club to club was seen as a first and a novelty). He was not just a wonderful dancer but also talked to people and he fooled about with the Lyricals, the dance band. During September the featured dancers were Ernest and Yvonne, followed by the Americans Miller and Farrell and then the glamorous Tosh Twins.
The Cafe continued to feature some of the top dancing acts in the world: in April 1929 the American duo Fowler and Tamara; in June 1929 the French act of Roseray and Capella; in July 1929 the American act of Rosita and Roman and in December 1929 the British duo Robert Sielle and Annette Mills. In the summer of 1930 the café featured the first appearance in Europe of the American Emil Coleman and his band and the cabaret featured Jack Smith, the whispering baritone, the exceptional dancing of Jean Barry and Dave Fitzgibbon (an American dancing act) and the acrobatic dancer Mary Lee.
Cafe de Paris’ reputation was enhanced by providing the backdrop for A.E. Dupont’s classic silent film Piccadilly (1929). Providing a stylish evocation of Jazz Age London, this sumptuous show business melodrama seething with sexual and racial tension starred the Chinese-American Anna May Wong as a scullery maid in a fashionable London nightclub (Café de Paris) whose risque routines catch the eye of club owner Valentine Wilmot prompting bitter jealousy from his former lover and star dancer played by Gilda Gray.
During the war the Cafe was allowed to stay open and was advertised by the management as being safe since it was in a basement; a claim which was tragically proven to be untrue when a bomb fell on the building on 8th March 1941 and 80 People were killed including Martin Poulson.
After the war the Cafe was reconstructed and refurbished and endured though many decades and many British, American and European artists launched and established their careers at the Cafe, including Marlene Dietrich who made her London concert debut there 1954. Today it is probably the only cabaret in London from the 1920s to survive and is owned and run by Brian Stein as a high profile events venue.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Variety, the Stage, The Referee, Theatre World, Dancing Times, Eve, Vogue, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Sunday Referee
The restaurants of London by Eileen Hooton-Smith
Nights in London by Horace Wydham
Theatrical companion to Coward
Noel: A Talent to Amuse by Charles Castle
The Fool on the Hill by Max Wall
Louise Brooks by Barry Paris
The Stage Yearbook