Excelsior Hotel, Lido
The Hotel Excelsior has always been the focal point of social life on the Venice Lido and is one of the most luxurious and famous hotels in the world. It was made famous during the mid 1920s when it became one of the most fashionable spots in Europe with its very own cabaret called Chez Vous.
The Excelsior was the creation of architect Nicolo’ Spada working with Giuseppe Volpi of the Italian Great Hotel Company (Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi or CIGA) and opened on 21st July 1908 with a festive band, fireworks and over three thousand invited guests from all over the world. Situated on the beach near the Quattro Fontaine it was a vast edifice built according to that unique Venetian style tinged with Byzantine and Moorish influences, intersected with low cupolas and slender colonnades. It had 700 bedrooms, a restaurant, palm court, park, tennis courts, terraces, direct motor-boat connection with the rail station in Venice for guests and its own beach and cabaret.
It was such a success that by 1913, the annual revenue was already exceeding the then astonishing sum of 37 million of Italian Lire. The American financier Pierpont Morgan was able with some justification to quip that ‘In America, those who have visited Europe talk more of the Excelsior Palace than they do of the Doge’s Palace.’
During the summer season from June to September the Excelsior became the playground for the rich and famous and it was here in the early 1920s that the fashion for wearing picturesque summer attire most notably pajamas started. However, it was not the place for the conservative old guard but mostly attracted the younger elements of the ‘smart set’ who found the Lido the perfect place to do little during the day except luxuriate in the sun, swim and startle with trend setting beach wear and then party all night.
It was the accepted routine to put on your pajamas when you woke up in the morning but this was ‘not too early, as a rule, for early to bed and early to rise means that you will not meet many prominent people.’ Once in pajamas and reaching the ground floor one stepped across a great and violently airy hall before reaching the beach and the sea via a big terrace. Each guest was given a cabin directly in front of the hotel. The beach was semi-circularised by rows of cabanas or bathing huts intersected by narrow planks and a wider board walk led from the centre of the beach to a majestic flight of steps to the terrace of the hotel. It was noted that even here social selection persisted. ‘The swankiest, richest and most aristrocratic and least dressed occupy the rows nearest the water’s edge. The less prominent socially occupy cabins progressively further from the water and the pajamas and bathing suits they wear become thicker and more extensive the further back they go.’ But everyone did the same thing by lying in the shade or sunbathing with occasional interludes of bathing in the Adriatic, eating green figs and melons and gossiping. Attendants were everywhere at hand to spread beach carpets and red sail cloth awnings for those who find the blaze of the midday sun too intense.
Lunch was taken in what was called the Pajama café and in the afternoons backgammon or bridge was played interspersed with more sunbathing. Gender aside, the entire day was spent in pajamas silk dressing gowns, bathing wear or silk kimonos. There was a tea dance on the terrace in the afternoon from about 5-7 (but this was more for the day trippers from Venice) then cocktails until 7pm when it was time to dress for dinner.
It was only after sunset that any real gayety burst into life. At 8pm the lobbies, reception rooms and bars of the Excelsior took on an air of activity. Healthy looking men and women all tanned by the sun appeared in evening dress. Cocktails appear on every table and then there was an advance to the beautiful pink dining room on the second floor. Dinner was an important function and it was 10pm before coffee and liqueurs were served. Afterward it was time to proceed to Chez Vous which was the part of the hotel devoted to dancing and cabaret. There are few more attractively arranged nightclubs anywhere in the world. The huge room opens onto a special stone floor and beautiful garden lit by hundreds of constantly changing multi-coloured lights displaying glorious floral arrangements and 30 foot fountains.
There was an outdoor and indoor stage where performers appear on gala occasions and two bands usually played. There was no closing hour and the wine lists looks like a bargain sale to Americans. It is attractive, well ventilated and relatively inexpensive. Chez Vous staged gala nights or grand fetes two or three times a week there were additional artistes and decorations and increased entrance fees. However, to many every night was a gala night.
The annual charity gala event staged in the ballroom of the Hotel Excelsior by the American born Princess Jane di San Faustino has in the past been seen as the only event worthy of notice and yet Alfredo Campione, the Managing Director of the CIGA was extremely deft at securing a range of international artists to perform throughout the summer season.
In the summer of 1923, Princess di San Faustino’s gala featured Billy Reardon danced (he had had just completed a tour with Irene Castle and had appeared in London at the Embassy). the Duke of Verdura led of a trio of eccentric dances, Prince Jit of Kapurthola did a lively ukelele number, Count Volpi’s daughter did the black bottom and Lady Diana Cooper served champagne. At another gala in 1925 the film star Mary Corday danced and Gladys Cooper and Miss Florence Ellis gave improvised eccentric shimmy dances to old songs. One of the main acts that Campione presented at Chez Vous was Kadel and Herberi performing an exotic serpent dance.
The 1926 season was packed full of events and Campione staged a series of elaborate galas. On the 17th July was ‘Baccanale et Veglione de Redentore’ (a nautical fete); 24th July saw ‘Fete retrospective de la mode’; 31st July ‘En Dirigeable vers Le Pole sud’ (with performers from the Scala, Milan); 12th August ‘Fete Enfantine’ and 14th August ‘Le Chine a Venice’ (a gala designed by Umberto Brunelleschi reflecting the middle ages). The stars of the Chez Vous cabaret from 25th July were the dancer Mary Corday and the sensational Charleston dancing of the American Dora Duby straight from an 8 month run at the Casino de Paris in Paris.
At the same time Cole Porter, who had rented the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice had imported a negro jazz orchestra headed by Leslie Hutchinson and persuaded the legendary black singer Bricktop to visit. For the Princess di San Faustino’s charity gala on 14th August, Bricktop organised a mini-jazz revue as the main feature of the entertainment. Her ‘troupe’ comprised some of the top names in society and Elsa Maxwell wore a blond wig and a short dress and sang ‘I’m a little old Lido lady’. Bricktop closed the show dancing the Charleston with the chorus behind her.
The summer of 1927 saw a proliferation of first rate cabaret entertainers at Chez Nous. From 20th-26th June the American dancers Billy Shaw and Bobby Dupree, direct from the Piccadilly Hotel London appeared in various numbers including a tableaux called ‘Ballet Vermal’. They were supported by Circe (an Italian dancer) Sadie Hopkins from the Mascotte Palace, Berlin and the Europa Ramblers Jazz-Band. They were followed by the American ballroom dancing team of Rosita and Ramon, the American Lorraine sisters who opened 25th July direct from Deauville and the Casino de Paris, Charles Sabin and Edwina St Claire and lastly the British team of Claire Divina and Lawrence Charles.
During the 1930 season it was noted that the audience were showing a preference for ballroom dancing instead of the once popular acrobatic work and the world champion British dancing team of Maxwell Stewart and Pat Sykes made a great impression and were filmed by the New York Herald.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
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New York Times, Vogue (UK), L’Officiel de la Mode, Eve, Variety, Time magazine
Programme Summer 1927 Lido / Excelsior Hotel
Venice Revisited by Sandra Harris
RSVO Elsa Maxwell’s Own Story
Cole Porter by William McBrien
Grieben’s Guide book to Venice and Lido (1929)
Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare
The Long Party by Stella Margetson
Bricktop by Brickstop
Diana Cooper by Philip Ziegler
Pleasure if Possible by Karl K. Kichen