The French Casino Project

Following the example of the Ambassadeurs theatre-restaurant in Paris, an ambitious business consortium conceived the idea of a chain of luxurious theatre-restaurants and at one time in the mid 1930s they had branches in Chicago, New York, Miami and London. Clifford Fischer (who owned the Ambassadeurs) staged extravagant, French inspired revues that were created to tour each venue and were hailed as being the best cabaret entertainment ever seen.

Art deco advert for the French Casino, New York
Art deco advert for the French Casino, New York

In late October 1933, the old Casino Theatre (The Earl Carroll Theatre) at 7th Ave and 50th street, New York was sold to a business consortium of Louis F. Blumenthal, Charles H. Haring and Jack Shapiro for $52,000,000. This set in motion the beginnings of the French Casino project with branches eventually in New York, Chicago, Miami Beach and London.

In the following summer of 1934 the Rainbo Gardens in Chicago re-opened as the French Casino. The venue sited at Lawrence Ave and North Clark Street had been closed in 1932 but had been taken over and completely revamped and redecorated by Jules Stein and Corlett Huff. Jules Stein was an interesting character – reputedly one of the richest men in the USA and president of the Music Corporation of America who controlled the careers of scores of celebrated radio and cinema stars and bands.

Stein engaged the legendary booking agent and producer Clifford Fischer to mount an ambitious production for the new venue. The show called the Revue Folies Bergere was devised in Paris at a cost of $60,000 and featured many performers from Europe. It was divided into two halves with a forty-five minute interval for public dancing with music from the Noble Sissle and Carl Huff orchestra’s. It was as if the Paris music hall had been transplanted to Chicago and the Chicago Tribune reported ‘it is the most ambitious café entertainment now on view in Chicago.’ Needless to say attendance ran at capacity and it became the ‘wow’ of Chicago nightlife.

Fischer may have inadevertently precipated or pre-empted a French wave that engulfed America by importing French style shows and naming the venues the French Casino before the success of the Maurice Chevalier films The Man from the Folies Bergere released in February 1935 and Folies Bergere in April 1936 heightened a French craze.

A view of the stairway at the French Casino in New York
A view of the stairway at the French Casino in New York

In October 1934 there were revisions to the Revue Folies Bergere and after 2am a further attraction was added that comprised a troupe of local coloured entertainers that blended the style of a Harlem floor show with French frivolity all directed by Nobel Sissle. The show itself was hailed as record-breaking and by December it was estimated that there had been 225,000 patrons attending the theatre-café.

A completely new show opened in mid December 1934 called Hello Paris, Vienna Hello. This revue had a different twist with the first section being Parisian and the second Viennese and was once again highly praised and remained until March 1935 when the venue sadly closed for some reason presumably due to high running costs.

Perhaps the consortium of Blumenthal, Haring and Shapiro and already been in discussions with Clifford Fischer, before the advent of the French Casino in Chicago, to bring his panache as producer to their new venue in New York. Or perhaps they simply observed what he was doing and decided his model was right for them. Whatever happened their new venue in New York was completely renovated with a $125,000 budget and opened as the French Casino (formerly the Earl Carroll Theatre) in late December 1934 with a capacity of 1,500.

The French Casino redefined the high volume formula for the rest of the deccade and was the most lavish theatre-restaurant club New York had seen. The venue was admired by Variety who said that it was ‘the latest in cabaret theatres and the last word in smart environment and nocturnal divertissement.’

Programme cover for Revue Folies Bergere staged at the French Casino in Chicago and New York in 1934 and 1935
Programme cover for Revue Folies Bergere staged at the French Casino in Chicago and New York in 1934 and 1935

The sparkling Revue Folies Bergere show straight from Chicago was the first presentation provided by Fischer and Stein of the Music Corp of America (as a silent partner) while Shapiro, Haring and Blumenthal controlled the theatre. It is not clear what the split of profits were, but it is likely that Fisher was given a flat fee for staging the show.

Revue Folies Bergere featured the dancers Herald and Lola, muscle men Les Manginis, Maria Desty in a salacious apple dance with Freddy Roberts and the comedian Emil Boreo as MC. There were also several elaborate and exotic tableaux that included a tour of the Paris sights, Rue de la Paix frivolities, cabaret hell and Place de la Concorde with showgirls, all gorgeously costumed. The New York Times thought that the production set ‘a high water mark in elaborate, expensive and spectacularly varied cabaret entertainment in New York since the repeal of prohibition’ and Variety said the ‘show is a gasp on artistry, talent, colour, flash, dash and daring. Nudity is as Frenchy as vintage champagne. But it is all done with taste in costumes – it is not blatant or offensive.’

The French Casino was temporarily closed on 24th August and extensive renovations were made upon the large bar at the entrance floor of the building and finally, on 7th September, the second, even more lavish and sumptuous French Casino show was launched. Folies Parisienne featured Nikita Balieff, proprietor of the Chauve Souris as the MOC, the daring dancing trio of Arabelle, Rich and Artini, Benita Kramer in a novelty love scene, Georgie Hayes’s plastic toe work and the acrobatic comedy act of the Four Craddocks. The most talked about number was Arabella’s dance Nude at Midnight. Some of the more elaborate tableaux included the arrival of the liner Normandie, ladies with dogs, a ballet of jewels, a curtain of illusion, a pantomime bull-fight and a finale of fountains.

Advert for the French Casino, New York
Advert for the French Casino, New York

Variety said that ‘it’s more than just a very good nitery show – it’s of production proportions.’ The atmosphere was French but the talent a mix of French, British and German and there was talk that Broadway had become more Parisian than Paris. It was a bargain considering the $2.50-$3 minimum dinner check, although a premier slot cost $10 for a de luxe dinner and cocktails.

Unlike the first deal, Blumenthal, Haring and Shapiro controlled the show as well as the theatre. Fischer produced the show but the house paid for it and Fischer shared a percentage of profits. The first year Fischer and Stein did better than the French Casino and took more net than the operating management which just put up the theatre, food and liquor.

Folies Parisienne carried on into 1936 but then closed in January to make way for the next show. In the meantime, Blumenthal, Haring and Shapiro had been busy and had invested a further $1,000,000 to build a new venue in Miami Beach at 13th street and Washington Avenue. The entire production of Folies Parisienne was transferred to the new French Casino which opened for the winter season in mid January to further great acclaim with the added attraction of the Brooks Steel and Emerson Gil orchestra’s.

In the New York French Casino, Fischer’s third show Folies de Femmes opened early February 1936. Andre Randall from the Folies Bergere was the conferencier or MOC with principals including dancers Estelle and LeRoy, Kirby’s flying ballet, the femme gaucho band of the ten Argentinas and big tableaux that included the women of Paris, military fashions, birds and a supper in Paris. Russell Patterson also had a marionette show in the cocktail lounge for the entr’actes. Jack Denny’ orchestra performed alternatatively with Vincent Tracers from Philadelphia.

In March 1936, Fischer and the French Casino management formed their own booking agency called the International Theatrical Corporation designed to be a supplementary extension of their activities. This had long been Fischer’s main activity and he had originally planned to work with Stein of the Music Corporation of America.

Advert for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago
Advert for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago

Folies Parisienne closed in March at the French Casino, Miami and the entire cast of a hundred sailed for London. The French Casino consortium had also been busy in England and had bought the old Prince of Wales Theatre on Old Compton street, Soho and under Jack Shapiro’s direction transformed the former theatre into another magnificent cabaret-restaurant. When the London Casino opened on 2nd April 1936 with Folie Parisienne, the Stage said ‘there is nothing else quite like it in London.’ Staged twice nightly, Folies Parisienne was basically the same show that had been staged in New York and Miami but with a few alterations.

Back in New York, there was a revised summer edition of Folies de Femmes featuring the singer Diana Ward, the dancers Dario and Diane and the piano monologist Leo Beers. The fourth show Folies d’Amour was launched at the end of August with even more flamboyant costumes and sets, along with the comedienne Cinda Glenn, the clowning antics of the Bryants and tableaux that included the Jewel box and Flowers of Paris. The New York Times called it a ‘nocturnal splendour’ and ‘a perfect sultan’s dream of stage magnificence.’ At the same time the Folies de Femmes troupe decamped for the London Casino.

With branches now in New York, London and Miami, the French Casino had formed a syndicate and the shows produced by Clifford Fischer were to alternate at each venue. The consortium were keen to return to Chicago and in late December they established the Casino Parisien at the Morrison hotel in the former Terrace room with an entertainment called Revue Internationale which was an ice skating show starring the Norwegian world champion figure skater Sonja Henje (Henie). At the same time, the fifth programme at the French Casino was the French Casino Folies that included the spectacle of the bottom of the sea, birds of the Southern Seas, a thousand and one nights and the underskirts of days gone by (a Can Can scene).

Menu cover for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago
Menu cover for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago

The cast of Folies d’Amour left New York aboard the Normandie for London and this, the third show London show, was launched at the London Casino on 9th January 1937. The management spent more and more on each successive production and while the first and second revues at the London Casino cost £15,000 and £20,000 respectively to produce, Folies d’Amour cost £25,000. According to Theatre World the venue had become the ‘most popular rendezvous in the entertainment world.’

The French Casino, Miami Beach opened in January 1937 for its second season with Folies Montmartre which was in fact a re-working of Folies de Femme. A little later in mid-February Paris-Montparnasse opened at the Casino Parisien in the Morrison hotel with Emil Boreo as the principal, along with Choppy, the Bredwins, Georgie Hayes and Enrico Bertolosco – all of whom had appeared in Fischer’s previous shows. This was followed in May by Springtime in Paris.

In New York, the fifth Fischer show – the New Folies Bergere – was launched in mid-August at the French Casino. According to the New York Times this show topped the rest by head and shoulders and was studded with humour and mounted with magnificent taste with such tableau as Apaches, an Arabian fantasy (Algeria) and the extravagant historical finale of the Nobility of France.

At the London Casino Nuits de Folie (a re-working of the French Casino Folies) was launched in November with the venue once again being praised by Theatre World as ‘one of the smartest and most popular resorts of London’s night life.’

 

However, all was not good and on the eve of the launch of a new show in late November 1937, the French Casino folded in New York with a $150,000 debt. The original consortium had clearly been far too ambitious and over reached themselves. Repercussions were to follow and the Miami and Chicago venues were also abandoned. However in London, Folies Superbes was launched (a re-working of the New Folies Bergere show) in December 1937 and the London Casino remained as the only focus of the old consortium. By the end of April 1938 a new policy was inaugurated with two separate shows being staged nightly at dinner (Plaisirs de Paris) and supper (Montmartre Midnight). These shows were new and staged for the first time in London. Sadly by the end of the year the London Casino was also abandoned.

Advert for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago
Advert for the Casino Parisienne, Chicago

Although this marked the end of French Casino project and the consortium behind it, Clifford Fischer carried on. He transferred his successful dual shows of Plaisirs de Paris and Montmartre Midnight to the International Casino in late 1938, which the New York Times thought rivalled anything that Broadway, had seen since his last venture at the French Casino. Sadly the International Casino did not last long either and operations were suspended by early 1939. One of Fischer’s shows – Folies d’Amour – tried out in Adelaide, Australia in April 1939 and then had its premier at the Kings Theatre Melbourne through Ernest C. Rolls.

In the meantime, Alfred Esdaile who directed the Prince of Wales Theatre re-opened the London Casino in May 1939 with La Revue du Bal Tabarin staged by Pierre Sandrini (director & producer of the Bal Tabarin in Paris) and Jacques Charles and both personally supervised the staging of the show. This was followed by Revue d’Elegance (at dinner) and Folies de Minuit (at supper) in August but thereafter Esdaile also succumbed to debts and closure followed.

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

Take a look at the page about Clifford Fischer

Take a look at the page about The French Casino

Take a look at the page about The London Casino

Take a look at the page about The Revue Folies Bergere

Take a look at the page about Folie Parisienne

Take a look at the page about Folies De Femme

Sources:

New York Times, Variety, Dancing Times, The Age, The Stage, Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine.

Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhatten by Burton William Peretti
Routledge Guide to Broadway by Ken Bloom
Broadway: Its History, People and Places: An Encyclopedia by Ken Bloom

Programmes for all the shows

Chronology

10/33            The old Earl Carroll Theatre in New York bought by a business consortium
3 /6/34         The Rainbo Gardens, Chicago becomes the French Casino. Opens with The Folies Bergere Revue
9/12/34        Hello Paris, Vienna Hello opens at the French Casino, Chicago
12/34            French Casino, NYC opens with Revue Folies Bergere (1st)
3/3/35          The Palace Theatre, Chicago stages Hello Paris, Vienne Hello from the French Casino
26/2/35        The French Casino, Chicago closes
5/9/35          French Casino NYC Folies Parisienne (2nd)
22/1/36        French Casino Miami opens with Folies Parisienne
1/2/36          French Casino NYC Folies de Femmes (3rd)
11/3/36        Formation of French Casino agency
2/4/36          London Casino opens with Folies Parisienne (1st)
27/8/36       French Casino NYC – Folies d’Amour (4th)
9/1936          London Casino, Folies de Femmes (2nd)
30/12/36     French Casino NYC – French Casino Follies (5th)
30/12/36     Casino Parisien at the Morrison Hotel, Chicago with Revue Internationale
Jan 1937      London Casino – Folies d’Amour (3rd)
Jan 1936      French Casino, Miami – Folies Montmartre (2nd)
21/2/37        Casino Parisien at the Morrison Hotel, Chicago with Paris Montparnasse
16/5/37        Casino Parisien at the Morrison Hotel, Chicago with Springtime in Paris
21/8/37        French Casino NYC the New Folies Bergere show (6th)
17/9/37        The International Casino opened (Times Sq at 45th) with Bravo
9/37              London Casino – Nuits de Folies (4th, French Casino Folies from NY)
29/11/37      French Casino, NYC folded
22/11/37      The French Casino, Miami folded
22/12/37      London casino – Folies Superbes (5th, the New Folies Bergere show from NY)
30/1/38        Billy Rose re-opened the French Casino as Casa Manan
30/4/38        London Casino has two shows – dinner (Plaisirs de Paris) and supper (Montmartre a Minuit or Midnight).
18/12/38      International Casino new shows – dinner (Plaisirs de Paris) and supper (Montmartre a Minuit or Midnight).
12/38             London Casino closed, but lease taken over by Alfred Esdaile
12/1/39         International Casino suspended operations
17/3/39         International Casino re-opened in early May
10/4/39         Folies d’Amour in Adelaide and then Kings Theatre Melbourne
2/1939           London Casino – La Revue du Bal Tabarin
17/8/39         London Casino – Two revues Revue d’Elegance (at dinner) and Folies de Minuit (at supper)
18/12/38       International Casino new shows – dinner (Plaisirs de Paris) and supper (Montmartre a Minuit or Midnight)
12/38             London Casino closed, but lease taken over by Alfred Esdaile
12/1/39         International Casino suspended operations17/3/39 International Casino re-opened in early May
10/4/39        Folies d’Amour in Adelaide and then Kings Theatre Melbourne
2/1939          London Casino – La Revue du Bal Tabarin
17/8/39        London Casino – Two revues Revue d’Elegance (at dinner) and Folies de Minuit (at supper)

 

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