We’ve all seen the iconic prints featuring the black cat. But what is the story behind Le Chat Noir and what was it doing “avec Rodolphe Salis”?
Who was Louis Rodolphe Salis?
Louis Rodolphe Salis was the creator, host and owner of “Le Chat Noir” – the very first modern cabaret. The format was new and novel. It was a nightclub where the patrons sat at tables and drank alcohol while being entertained by a variety stage show. The show was introduced by an MC who interacted with people he knew at the tables.
It was briefly known as “Cabaret Artistique” when it first opened in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris in 1881. However, it soon became “Le Chat Noir”. The black cat was already associated with a provocative and animalistic style. It soon became a symbol of the baudy, irreverent humour and the provocative art created by the artists of Montmartre.
Salis began by renting the cheapest venue he could find, two small rooms at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart. But within three and a half years, its popularity forced him to move into larger premises a few doors down. The new establishment at 12 Rue Victor-Masse was sumptuous. Salis asked an architect to transform it into a “fashionable country inn”.
Salis also had the idea of playing music and installed a piano, which was an innovation at that time. This was soon banned for newer establishments. So Le Chat Noir was set up with a permanent advantage over the competition.
In its heyday, Le Chat Noir was a bustling nightclub that was part artist salon, part rowdy music hall. The cabaret also published its own weekly journal featuring amusing poems, stories and illustrations which survived until 1899.
The Role of MC
With exaggerated, ironic politeness, Salis played the role of MC. He also developed the practice of comic monologues. Salis interacted with the audience who were often the butt of his humour. It was not unusual for him greet customers with “Well, you’re finally out of prison?” or “What have you done with your chick from yesterday?” to a new client visibly accompanied by his wife. Even the future King Edward VII was not immune from his cutting banter. “Well, look here: it looks like the Prince of Wales all pissed!”
With legendary stinginess, Salis found every excuse for not paying his staff, suppliers and artists. However, despite this, his irreverent and amusing patter and his organizational skills and personality attracted exceptional artists of all kinds. This new style of venue drew and a large crowd.
Tournée du Chat Noir
In the 1890s, Salis took his entertainment company, Le Chat Noir, touring all over France. He hired theatres and venues, which was an innovation for the times. Continuing his stingy streak, he often refused, for various elaborate reasons, to pay the venue hire charge.
And it’s for this touring program that the iconic posters were created. Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen artwork advertised “Coming soon – The tour of The Black Cat show”. Although Le Chat Noir cabaret is no longer with us, the artwork certainly lives on.
According to Salis: “The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world.”
Much to the disappointment of Picasso and others who looked for it when they came to Paris for the Exposition in 1900, this ground breaking cabaret closed in 1897 not long after Salis’ death from tuberculosis.