The Grand Casino or Cercle d’Aix-le-Bains
The Cercle (Casino) of Aix-Le-Bains was an elegant and architecturally magnificent monument comprising a labyrinth of rooms dedicated to entertainment and pleasure.
In 1824 the number of visitors to Aix-le -Bains was around 4,000 a year and it was thought that a place was needed for assembly and recreation. And so the Chateau of the Marquis d’Aix (a 16th century building that later became the town hall) was adopted for this purpose and given the name of the Cercle d’Aix, even though it was also called the Casino. As traffic increased a handsome ballroom was built based on the designs of architect M. Melano, who was superintending the restoration of the Abbey of Hautecombe.
As visitors increased, the old venue was deemed insufficient and in 1847 a plot of land was acquired and new buildings were erected under the direction of the architect Pellegrini and in 1849 the saloons were opened to the public. The venue comprised a central ballroom (the Grand Salon or Salle des Fetes) with lounges on either side – one for gambling and one for reading and writing, along with a restaurant and terrace. The new edifice was a brilliant success, the gaming tables attracted a large number of visitors, the regiments from the garrison at Chambery furnished a band of excellent musicians and many successful fetes and balls were staged during the season. An elegant little movable stage was added in 1853 and various comedies and comic operas were presented and for twenty years Strauss conducted his orchestra here before going to Vichy.
By 1861 the number of visitors had increased to 7,000 and by 1880 it was more than 20,000. The Cercle d’Aix saw its receipts double in ten years from 1871 to 1881. As a result there was a vast extension of entertainment and facilities to meet the demand and the building and gardens were embellished to form the building that was best remembered in its prime during the Jazz Age. Two side wings were added with a new Salle de Baccara and Salle de Lecture and in 1899, a new theatre was built with 900 seats.
On entering the main vestibule overlooking the entrance court, one crossed the old drawing room made into the luxurious Galeria des Glaces and enter the festival chamber, or Grand Salon (Salle des Fetes), that had an exquisitely painted ceiling. On the right a gallery (Foyer du Theatre) gave access to the theatre and on the left was access to the Salon des Mosaiques (Grand Hall or Salle de Concerts), the Salle de Bacchus (café/restaurant), the restaurant and the terraces of the garden, via three flights of stairs.
The arrangement of the Cercle d’Aix allowed visitors to pass from one part of the building to the other without going out of doors, to always be under shelter, to be cool in the summer on the various terraces, to enjoy a delightful view of the gardens, and to see all that is passing through the Cercle.
The Salon des Mosaiques or the great hall, which served in some way as an annexe to the Grand Salon or Salle de Fetes, was quite sumptuous. The centre was occupied by an artistic gaselier in silvered and gilt bronze, with a circular velvet-covered seat surrounding its base. Similar seats were placed around the columns, near the restaurant.
The vaulted ceiling of the hall was decorated in 1883 with splendid mosaics by the great Venetian artist Dr. Salviati, after cartoons by the artist Lameire and on the plans of the architect Boudier of Paris. Salviati was Charles Garnier’s collaborator at the Opera of Paris. The mosaics are regarded as masterpiece of decorative art and comprise 3,500,000 golden enamel cubes on a surface of 300 m².
The central vault is ornamented at the top with a scroll bearing in letters of gold on a blue background the name of the town of Aix, and supported by two winged figures. This device occupies the centre of a medallion formed by the twelve signs of the zodiac, beautifully executed in cameo and relieved by polished uncut stones of various colours. At angles are four large standing figures symbolize the four seasons with their attributes. The gold background is covered with elegant arabesques and grotesque floral devices.
The four small vaults contain no figures, but simply ornaments in polished uncut stones. Lastly, the four double arches each have a medallion in the centre with the figure of a child representing the genius of the elements, and on each side bouquets of foliage and flowers interwoven with ribbons on which are inscribed the names of four thermal or mineral spas of Savoy.
The programme of summer events followed a similar plan for decades. Three times a week from June 1st to September 15th comic operas, interpreted by celebrated artistes were stages while from September 1st to October 15th Italian operas were produced. Also three times a week grand symphonic concerts were performed. Tuesday was reserved at the Cercle for the evening fete with music, illumination of the grounds, firework displays, and a grand ball in the Salle des Fetes. Every day a special Italian orchestra played in the grounds during the daytime and in the evening. Finally, in addition various theatrical and dancing artistes were frequently engaged for special fetes and appearances.
In the summer of 1923 for example, M. Sartori, the Director of the Cercle had been let down by the dancing team of Ted Trevor and Dina Harris from London. In there place he engaged the team of Robert Sielle and Annette Mills who scored such a hit that they remained in residence for twelve weeks, the longest contract for any dance team there.
Regular fetes were organised in Cercle by Parisian experts Ruhlmann and Flers in the summer. For example, in 1924 the season started with ‘Primavera’ (16/7) about Hollywood and America’s own garden of the Hesperides. Then there was ‘Pour Etre Belle’ (a paean to modern woman), ‘Pulcinella’ (a Venetian comedy of masks), ‘Semiramis’ (a night with the dark queen of old Babylon) and ‘Ali Baba’ (a musical version from the Thousand and one Nights). At the height of the season was ‘Venus Poudres’ (27/8) a colourful musical evocation of the famous beauties of the XV111 century centred around the gallantries of Mimi Dancourt, the Bois de Boulogne under Louis XV, the opera in those days and other recollections. This was followed by ‘Il y a Cent Ans’ (3/9) a revival of Aix a hundred years ago. Fireworks, dancing and special concerts accompanied all the fetes.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
[p2p type="id" value="617" text="Take a look at the page about the Mountain Resort of Aix-Le-Bains"]
[p2p type="id" value="842" text="Take a look at the page about the the Villa Des Fleurs"]
Chicago Tribune and Dancing Times
Quite by Accident/the unpublished memoirs of Robert Sielle (CL Roberts) at the Theatre Museum Archive.
From Deauville to Monte Carlo by Basil Woon
Aix Le Bains and its Environs by Victor Barbier