Cafe des Ambassadeurs
The Café des Ambassadeurs was one of most fashionable and best-known summer venues in Paris situated on the Avenue Gabriel at the entrance to the Champs-Elysées near the Place de la Concorde. Named after the nearby Hotel Crillon that had become the residence of foreign ambassadors, it was founded in 1764 as a simple open air bar, a small pavilion was added in 1772 and it evolved into one of the most famous of the Parisian café concerts.
The café concerts of the Champs-Elysées were constructed in a very rudimentary way: a few yards from their frontage, planks were placed on trestles to form improvised stages on which perambulating singers took their stand. By 1840 the Champs-Elysées was lit up with gas lamps and the Cafe des Ambassadeurs became a more elegant place with a small stage. The following year the boards made way for the charming rococo edifice that was a centre of fashion during the Second Empire. A roofed bandstand was installed to protect the artists in 1848 but customers still sat in the open air. Every evening from 5-11pm a vocal an instrumental concert was held and every half-hour one of the artists would pass the hat around to gather payment. Some of the more famous singers included Fleury, a comic singer; Jules Moulin; Magne, the baritone; the Casirola family; the Piccolo family and Madame Piquet Wild who had a great reputation for delivering light songs. In 1846, the singer Darcier gained great popularity by singing Pierre Dupont’s famous song ‘Bread’.
In 1848 the Café Concerts in the Champs-Elysées were reconstructed and little pretty kiosks replaced the trestles. By 1861, the city of Paris decided to make the Champs Elysees a unique walk and endowed the café concerts (there were others nearby including the Pavilion d’Horloge, Folies Marigny and Café Morel) with delightful English gardens.
In 1867, Pierre Ducarre, who had made a name for himself by opening a magnificent restaurant at the Universal Exhibition, bought the Ambassadeurs. Under his leadership it became a centre of entertainment for the aristocracy and continued to flourish as one of centre of singing in Paris enduring to the beginning of the 1914 war. In the 1870s it was a regular destination of some of the best-known figures of art and the demi-monde. Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed numerous scenes of the nocturnal acitvities, Aristide Bruant performed there and Cheret designed a series of 26 famous posters.
A galaxy of songsters performed at the Ambassadeurs from 1870-1914: Fagette whose bolero jacket was embroidered with real diamonds; Kam Hill, who sang ‘L’Omnibus de la Prefecture and La Garde-Champetre Rose ; Bouligard who sang all his dongs with his trombone; Theresa who rose to prominence singing ‘Rien n’est pas sacre pour un sapeur and La Femme a Barbe; Yvonne Guilbert noted for her Chat Noir black gloves who for several season drew capacity crowds; a talented youngster wearing a straw hat called Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett who sang about apaches.
In 1903 the trio of Pinard-Cornuche-Chauveau took charge of the Ambassadeurs. The pivotal partner, Eugene Cornuche, was one of the most influential businessmen in France and had just sold the world famous Maxim’s restaurant to an English syndicate and was looking for new business interests. To make the Ambassadeurs an even greater attraction he added an open air theatre and dance hall to the existing restaurant. Later, he would buy the Folies Marigny and build the Municipal Casinos in Trouville and Deauville. The new management hosted all the major stars: Polin, Felix Mayol, Max Dearly, Boucot and Dranem and staged a series of revues with Gaby Deslys (from 1909) and Maurice Chevalier (1910).
After a short period under the direction of Eugene Heros and then under Raphael Beretta and Leon Volterra the venue was taken over by Oscar Dufrenne and Henri Varna sometime in 1917. Oscar Dufrenne was also the director of the Concert Mayol, du Theatre Moncey, des Bouffes-Du-Nord-Concert and the Casino Municipal of Trouville. Under Dufrenne’s direction the Ambassadeurs staged a series of elaborate summer revues that included: Revue Schoking, (1919); La Revue Legere (1920); Paris En S’himmy’s (1921); Revue de la Femme (1922, with Edmonde Guy and Van Duren); Paris Sans Voiles (1923, starring the Dolly Sisters) and C’est d’un Chic (1924).
In early 1926 Edmund Sayag bought the lease from Dufrenne. Sayag was clearly intent on replicating his success at the Kursall, Ostend in Paris to reap an even great financial reward from the huge American contingent that regularly flocked to the Paris each night in growing numbers.
Sayag completely renovated the venue and turned it into more of a superior dining resort than a music hall. Before, the restaurant of the Ambassadeurs was run separately and there were only a few tables on the balcony at the back from which diners could see the show below. Sayag swept away all the stalls and boxes and converted the space into a cool and airy mix of an extravagant nightclub and sophisticated restaurant that had the advantage of being open air in the summer. Shallow steps connected the small stage to the dance floor in the centre of the auditorium for general public dancing and for performers who could interchange between the two surrounded by a myriad arrangement of little round tables with comfortable wicker armchairs.
On either side of the stage were silvery fountains in niches covered by a transparent screen and the orchestra’s (“tango alternating with jazz”) were also on either side of the dance floor. Trellis work covered the walls, columns and ceiling with a massed display of rose hydrangeas, yellow aburnam and wisteria. The décor and rosy lights created a perfectly luxurious ambiance.
Sayag produced four annual shows from 1926 to 1929 each summer. The inauguration of the new Ambassadeurs featured Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds staring Florence Mills, imported directly from New York. It was the most fashionable function of the 1926 summer season and firmly established the Ambassadeurs as the most important theatre-restaurant in the world. For the 1929 season Sayag created a new gambling room to accentuate his takings from his rich and famous clientele.
After the closure of the 1929 show, Sayag announced that the Ambassadeurs would be demolished. In its place was built two completely separate structures – a restaurant and theatre as the Parisian authorities ordered a thick wall, both fire and sound proof, to be built between them. The Theatre de Concorde was intended to be the home of smart revues and the adjacent Ambassadeurs restaurant was designed to be a duplicate of the Central Park Casino in New York.
Clement Hobson (who was part of the Englsh syndicate that owned and ran the Ciro’s restaurant chain) took the restaurant under a 27 year lease from Sayag who was the ground lessee from the city of Paris. The restaurant was a fine room that could hold 600, though this was far above the dining capacity. The stage was small with few possibilities for lighting effects and the dressing facitlities for the performers were slight and far from adequate. Nevertheless, Hobson carried on the tradition that Sayag had started and even though his floor shows were more modest still maintained the Ambassadeurs as the most prestigious venue in Paris.
After five years, Clifford Fischer took over the Ambassadeurs in late 1935 and staged his first show in the summer of 1936. Fischer had worked for the booking agency of William Morris and had helped Sayag book most of the talent for his shows in the late 1920s so was well placed to run the venue. He was also in the midst of expanding his activities with the French Casino project and venues and shows in Chicago, New York, Miami and London. Sadly, the management overreached themselves and the venues eventually failed and with the onset of World War 2, Fischer lost control of Les Ambassadeurs.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Dancing Times, Variety, the Stage, Eve
1930 Les Ambassadeurs programme
Florence Mills : Harlem Jazz Queen by Bill Egan
A Hard Act to Follow by Peter Leslie
How Paris Amuses Itself by F. Berkeley Smith
Days and Nights in Montmarte and the Latin Quarter by Ralph Nevill
Paris was yesterday by Janet Flanner