Folies Bergere tries to keep kicking


PARIS -- When Gilbert Brandini got word that the legendary Folies Bergere music hall was closing its doors, he didn't exactly shed a tear.

He didn't spin yarns about the glories of the cancan, or the erotic allure of seminude women in plumes. He didn't bemoan the fact that 125 dancers had been thrown out of work. He didn't cry about how sad it was that such an institution, once home to Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker, should be shut down after 123 years of gaudy naughtiness.

Instead, he said, "What took them so long?"

Mr. Brandini has worked in the Paris entertainment world for two decades, and he looks upon the demise of the Folies Bergere -- the erstwhile symbol of city nightlife, now shuttered since Christmas -- in Darwinian terms.

"There were all the reasons in the world why that place would have to close," he says. "I always thought it was going to die."

Beyond the walls of the Folies, Paris was changing rapidly. The natives no longer were interested in revue and music halls. Who needed to pay for peekaboo nudity when Madonna was baring all on the kiosk posters? Who wanted to pay $115 for dinner and an antiquated show? Why not go to the Zenith, the hip concert hall, for an evening of "variete rock"?

In recent years, Paris has lost nearly all its revue and music halls, and the survivors are rumored to be the target of property speculators. For the moment they live, as did the Folies for years, only because the foreigners show up. This sort of show had become merely a pit stop on a package tour, a glitzy evocation of a Paris that was no longer relevant to Parisians -- and a pale echo of the kind of show that predominates in Las Vegas.

It is said here, with a certain snobbery, that the only French patrons were factory workers vacationing from the provinces. And what they saw never varied: a male dancer in a sequined jockstrap and antlers, a trio of tourists lured to the stage for an impromptu cancan lesson, a group of tap-dancers keeping time to recorded music.

Georges Terrey knows all this, although he doesn't like to admit it. He has been administrator of the Folies for the last 15 years, and he insists that a modernized format can be found, that a new Folies will emerge, but he's at a loss to provide details. Clearly, the old way didn't work; in the first quarter of 1992 alone, the Folies ran a deficit of roughly $960,000.

Mr. Terrey sits in his office -- all dark wood, a Humphrey Bogart office from the '40s -- and measures out his words in dollops: "It is difficult to say what a new show would do, because that is the creator's job. We are speaking to a number of creators" -- which is his way of saying that the old director had been fired -- "and perhaps it would be someone who could give us a new vision of the past."

He flatly declares that the Folies is not dead, that it would reopen within nine months. Clearly, he loathes the notion of being on the sidelines.

"Thirty years ago," he says, "the French intellectuals supported the Folies. They wrote fabulous articles about how this type of show was part of the French mentality. But in the decades since, the show seemed to be created for the foreigners. Somehow along the line, we got away from what is the real French culture.

"We didn't evolve. There was a decline in creativity. No sense of offering something fresh, and this coincided with the period when mass tourism was developing as well. The Folies is like one of those families that [have] too much in-breeding, where you end up with bizarre children. Perhaps over the years, we made an error by relying too heavily on all those feathers."

Mr. Brandini, meanwhile, gave up working in music halls eight years ago; today, he manages a comedy show. He says, "Today you can go to the beach and see everyone naked . . . ."

So where does this leave Mr. Terrey, with his dream of a Folies for the '90s?

"We are talking here about preserving a myth. Look at what Madonna has done for Marilyn Monroe. She has taken a myth and modernized it. This is what we want. Never underestimate the power of myth."

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