Bags, posters, coasters, mats, t-shirts… the Chat Noir tournée’s playbill decorates the bestselling souvenirs of Paris, and the brazen muzzle of its black cat is famous worldwide. But how many know about the extraordinary adventure behind it?
The mischievous kitty, crowned with a Byzantine crown, is part of a playbill created by the cat-loverest artist in Montmartre: Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923), and it appeared much later than the beginning of the adventure I was talking about. The Cabaret du Chat Noir was, by then, in their prime.
The legend of this establishment speaks of an unique reality, sometimes brilliant, a concentrate of art, literature, music and showbusiness whose sparkling, if brief, history revolves around the remarkable figure of its founder: Rodolphe Salis (1851 – 1897). Irriverent, insolent, a braggart “respecting nothing and no on”, Salis said, with his usual modesty:
«God created the world, Napoleon the Legion of Honor, but I created Montmartre».
This sentence might sound exaggerated, but it’s ultimately true that Salis succeded in recognizing the potential of the sparking spirit of the Parisian Belle Époque and, above all, satisfy its needs. Salis’s idea was offering to the most brilliant members of the period’s literary scene a place to gather, discuss, read and even brawl when needed, everything, on one condition: drink!
This place was at 84 boulevard de Rochechouart at the feet of Montmartre’s hill and consisted, originally, in a decommissioned post-office. The place was roughtly 3×4 meters, and had a storage closet under it, accessible by going down three stairs. It could accomodate roughly 30 people, but in good weather it was possible to use the terrasse, the sidewalk beside the boulevard, conveniently filled with small tables and chairs.
This is an important detail in itself: the image – or better to say “the icon” – of Parisians sitting tightly close to one another at café’s tables, stems from this period: the decade following the extensive urban transformations promised by the Seine prefect: Baron Haussmann (half XIX century). The face of the city changed with the introduction of boulevards, but also the life of cafés and restaurants, that could now take advantage of an outside space that, before, was unthinkable due to the extremely thin – let’s just say claustrophobic – size of the medieval streets crossing old Paris.
Salis started the refurbishing to give the place an eclectic look of medieval-reinassance inspiration, just as the period’s fashion indicated. According to the design, the cabaret would have to imitate the elegance of the Louis XIII’s stule but, to be honest, I don’t think that His Majesty would have appreciated the connection, seen the disputable taste of the cheap junk they put together (including a skull and a crow that, according to some of the records, was alive, while in others is reported as stuffed, but he could have absolutely undergone both states, come to think of it.)
It was then that Salis, between crates and dust, found a black kitty. The feline was instantly adopted and given the honorable task of mascotte of the new cabaret of boulevard de Rochechouart.
The first Cabaret du Chat Noir was inaugurated in November 1881 and it rapidly became clear to everyone that the true richness of the place wasn’t the furnishings, but the community of artists, poets, writers and songwriters livening it up.
This brilliant clientele couldn’t, obviously, be satisfied for long to just be a consumer. Many artists contributed to the place’s decoration, like Adolphe Willette who designed the Cabaret’s sign and the main canvas of the interior design: the majestic Parce Domine (the same Willette, just to be clear, who gave the not far, famous Moulin Rouge its façade).
The cabaret’s storage space was dubbed “the Institute”, a space reserved to a selected number of customers, usually involved in the more stormy meetings.
Along the years, Salis’s initiatives to enrich the unique atmosphere of the Chat Noir, filled with satire, art, literature and music, piled up, until they amounted to an original ensemble. The waiters, for example, must display an imitation of the famous green uniform of the Académie française, one of the oldest institutions of the Country whose main function is, still today, to keep watch on the national language.
These are just some of the anecdotes tied to the beginning of a much more rich and complex experience. The most brazen cabaret of the Belle Époque could offer, to those who want to linger on the key characters of its “soul”, a perfect cross-section of Montmartre’s attitude, the most mad and brilliant hill in Paris. I’ll present them in the article: