Lido has come a long way from being a small cabaret nearly a century ago. Now a brand in itself, it has dazzled the audience of all ages with its Bluebell girls and innovative features such as the kids-only Christmas special.
Back in 1928, Edouard Chaux, whose name is barely remembered now, built an underground pool in an elegant building on the Champs-Elysées in Paris and baptized it the Lido, after Venice’s celebrated beach. A cabaret of its kind, it soon became the place to be seen. Men in tuxedos and women in elegant gowns met among the marble and gold at the stroke of midnight to watch water nymphs frolic in the pool’s sea-colored water, while gondolas bobbed in the canals that wove among the tables. The guests came not to dine, but to listen to jazz, have a few drinks, and enjoy the private rooms.
Cabarets, in the 15th century, were taverns where poets and artists met to drink and talk, but it was not until the 19th century that they became a popular phenomenon. During those times, songs were often the only way of commenting on current events as only the educated bourgeoisie and aristocracy could read. In 1881, wine merchant Rodolphe Salis created the first cabaret, The Chat Noir in Montmartre, in the modern sense that became an immediate success. It offered a blend of entertainment and cultural expression that soon spread across Europe. Like the Lido today, it welcomed unknowns and celebrities alike, with patrons such as writer Guy de Maupassant and composer Claude Debussy. Cabarets in Europe were pivotal for artistic and political movements. Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, for instance, was a meeting place for artists during World War I. Events at the cabaret proved essential in the founding of the anarchic art movement called Dada. Cabarets reached the United States in 1918, and flourished thanks in part to Prohibition. In 1958, an exact replica of Lido was staged in Las Vegas. The original contract was for six months, but the show eventually ran for 32 years.
Soon after the initial fascination and merriment, the fickle patrons that had flocked to the Lido became tired of it and the beach went under in 1933. Three years later, Léon Volterra, who owned a string of theaters and a renowned racing stable, took the Lido in hand. He filled in the swimming pool and transformed the facility into an enormous playhouse that soon gained fame for the many columns that supported the building. Once again, Parisians came in droves to the Lido, followed by the rest of France and the world, making it a smash hit, until the war intervened.
After the end of the hostilities, the Lido returned to its pre-war glory under the impetus of the Clerico brothers, who acquired it from Léon Volterra in 1946 by accident. In 1946, when they were still building entrepreneurs, they and two friends purchased a building at 78 avenue des Champs-Elysées. While their partners took the stores and offices, the Clericos took the Lido, marking the start of an extraordinary adventure. Once again, the Lido was transformed, incorporating sumptuous décor and innovative ideas. Each revue was a huge success, reflecting the quality of the acts. In addition, the brothers introduced the dinner show, a concept that was copied worldwide. In 1947, the cabaret even welcomed Laurel and Hardy on the only occasion the comedians performed in France.
In 1948, Lido saw another monumental change with Miss Bluebell joining the cabaret. Born as Margaret Kelly on June 24, 1910 in Dublin, she was an abandoned Irish baby. Bewitched by the baby’s beautiful blue eyes, the doctor leaned over and whispered ‘Bluebell’. Kelly later made this nickname her stage name when she became a professional dancer. She was met by an impressive crew when she joined Lido. At the helm were brothers Joseph and Louis Clerico. The Clerico brothers, soon after they started, had acquired in the team Pierre- Louis Guérin, a showman and impresario who owned a nightclub in the area. He was an ambitious free-spender who liked nothing better than to pursue new business opportunities. A year later, in 1947, the three men were joined by René Fraday, a fount of ideas who combed the world for exceptional acts. Over the years, he added an ice-skating rink, a pool and water effects, and helicopters – all previously unheard-of initiatives – to the Lido’s revues. If told that he was attempting the impossible, he dug in his heels and coaxed and cajoled until he won people over. He always got his way and was always proved right by the ensuing success. Thus, with the association of Bluebell, was formed the “Club of Five” that for 30 years purveyed dreams, dominated the entertainment industry in Paris and dazzled the world..
Challenges and innovations
One weekend in May, a pipe burst in the Champs-Elysées area. The basement of the Lido was flooded, with nearly two meters of water covering the electrical installations. Although nearly 2,000 people had reservations, the show could not go on. After firefighters finished pumping out the water at nearly noon the next day, the cabaret’s technicians stormed Paris’ hardware stores, bought hairdryers by the dozens and spent the afternoon drying out the cables, wires and electrical equipment cabinets. That evening, the curtain rose again. No one remembers exactly when this legendary event occurred – mostly because it has never happened again since.
There were some doubts about going ahead during the student unrest in May 1968, but in the end the doors opened at the appointed hour. The 400 employees would take any unscheduled interruption personally. Whether they work there every day or are only called in when a new revue is being developed, the performers, stagehands, electricians, decorators, costume-makers, plumassiers, sound engineers and other trades feel like they belong to a tight-knit family and are very aware that they are presenting a unique show. The show consists of more than just the 42 Bluebell Girls and 16 Lido Boy Dancers directed by Pierre Rambert. Everyone, whatever his or her task, helps to enhance the cabaret’s renown and makes a creative contribution. For instance, one day back in 1955, Lido photographer Jacques Sabrou decided to print customers’ photographs on matchboxes. This exclusive offer was an enormous hit and has been continued by his son Richard, who sells close to 100,000 a year.
From the outset, Lido has innovated and leveraged new technologies to achieve its artistic aspirations. Part of the room descends 80 centimeters to ensure an uninterrupted view for all the audience. This was possible due to Joseph Clerico’s dissatisfaction. Every evening when he watched the show from the same table near the kitchen, he came to the unpalatable realisation that some members of the audience had a poor view because their eyes were at stage level. That was unworthy of his beloved Lido. He came up with an idea: if the stage couldn’t be raised, he’d lower the audience. Although he was told that was impractical, he couldn’t be contradicted for long.
Other innovative features include a pool that contains 80 metric tons of water, an ice-skating rink, and water effects that use up to 60,000 liters per show. All were pioneered by Lido and have been copied by only a few other venues worldwide. Enhancements have been introduced for the new revue to ensure even greater audience enjoyment. The lighting – that comprises more than 17,000 light bulbs – was revamped to be brighter while using fewer spotlights. The sound system is fully digital, which provides unparalleled quality and delivers unique sound effects. Faithful to the cabaret tradition, music is essential at the Lido, the foundation for the entire evening. So much so that when the music stops, the lights go out. And although extensive automation is used – only two light and sound technicians are needed for the entire show – the music is in no way artificial. It was composed especially for the new revue by Jean-Claude Petit, recorded by a symphony orchestra, and is supported live by the Lido orchestra. This gives even greater range to the show. The Lido band continues to provide a musical accompaniment during the dinner, still under the baton of Gilbert Viatge but with the addition of a girl singer. Lido has remained faithful to its guiding philosophy: innovate without disturbing, surprise without shocking, invent while preserving tradition. It has, however, also maintained its technological edge, because it has long understood an obvious truth – in today’s world, dreams cannot be achieved without technology.
Lido, as it is now
A new Lido was born in 1977, when the cabaret moved from 78 to 116 bis avenue des Champs-Elysées. Although bigger and more luxurious, the spirit was unchanged. And the surprises that have shaped the history of the Lido have also continued. Today, for instance, its stage lies just behind the screen at the Normandie movie theater. If you could walk through walls, you could keep one eye on the gorgeous Bluebell Girls and the other on your favorite movie star, all at the same time.
With its long history, Lido has continued to entertain its viewers and appreciators. Despite its reputation as a tourist mecca many locals, business people and celebrities can be found at Lido. The show opens with a theme production number featuring singers and dancers plus the famous Bluebell girls. Known for its spectacular costumes featuring thousands of dollars in feathers and rhinestones, rich fabrics, sequins and top quality furs; about 44 girls and 16 Kelly Boys appear on stage each night. Each dancer changes costume between 20 and 30 times a show, with less than a minute for some changes. At the backstage, 24 dressers, who scarcely have time to catch their breath, stitch and sew every day. Their one overriding imperative is to ensure that the costumes are as elegant and sparkling on the last day as the first. In this way, they also contribute to the magic of an evening at the Lido. Additionally, Lido’s revues have always featured animals, who have their own special freight elevator to take them almost straight to the stage. Nearly all animals under the sun have performed with the Bluebell Girls, from birds, chimpanzees, llamas and camels to black panthers, seals and bears.
At Lido, 800 corks pop every evening, which adds up to 292,000 bottles a year, making the cabaret the world’s biggest consumer of champagne. Around 900 diners are served by a hundred men in black – maitre d’s, captains and commis waiters in uniforms designed by Franck Boclet for Francesco Smalto. In the kitchen, an immense cavern from which two ramps slope gently toward the house, men in white wearing the traditional chef’s hat officiate, an army of 30 chefs and pastry cooks directed by Philippe Lacroix.
Roughly 500,000 people enjoy this cuisine and the show each year. Of this 55% are French, 20% are European, 10% from North and especially South America, and 10% from Asia. Lido’s fame is such that the cabaret holds special evening events to meet demand. Since its creation, Lido has hosted fashion shows, charity galas, and performances by famous singers such as Frank Sinatra and Sir Elton John, in addition to prestigious premieres. France’s soccer team chose Lido to celebrate its Football World Cup victory in 1998. The most enjoyable show, however, remains of the kids-only Christmas special, an idea that came from the employees. Since 1996, 30,000 children a year have been the guests of the Lido. And this is the only time when the parents’ eyes glow like their children’s, as all are wonderstruck.