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The adventure of the Studio des Champs-Elysées

A work of masters

The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées has marked history with its many memorable premières and concerts. But it has another exceptional claim to fame, little known by the general public.

 

In 1955, it was the first building of the 20th Century to be registered in the French inventory of historic monuments. Its architecture is obviously striking, with a pioneer structure in reinforced concrete, the work of Auguste Perret, who became one of the masters of the 20th century (as well as the man who rebuilt the city of Le Havre after the war). It boasts beautiful bas-reliefs by Antoine Bourdelle, interior decoration including frescos and mosaics by the painters Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard, and lighting by René Lalique. But, when referring to the Théâtre, one often forgets that it is constituted of three auditoriums. The first and largest is consecrated to opera and concerts. The second is the Comédie, and the third, the Studio.

Modigliani Tzara or Picabia

The last of the three auditoriums was born a decade after the others. At the time of the inauguration of the theater in 1913, it had another function: it served as an art gallery. During the première of the Sacre du Printemps on May 29th, 1913, there was, after all, a showing of watercolors by Valentine Hugo inspired by the dancers of the Ballets Russes. The monumental scandal sparked by Stravinsky’s work, one of the key events of the 20th century avant-garde movement, overshadowed the showing. After the war, the Montaigne galley continued to welcome important exhibitions, notably that of Modigliani. In 1921, Jean Crotti was honored. A Swiss painter and great friend of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whom he met in New York and whose sister Suzanne would become his wife), Crotti had periods of cubism and dadaism. The same year, Tristan Tzara organized a Dada salon here, featuring the sketches and poems of Picabia.

 

1. Valentine Hugo, 1887-1968
2. Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920
3. Tristan Tzara, 1896-1963
4. Francis Picabia, 1879-1953

Hébertot and after

But the gallery was expensive and unprofitable. It was decided that it should be sacrificed, which was not so easy! The director of the theater at the time was a man of many talents whose name is written in posterity: Jacques Hébertot. A great personality of the theater (he gave his name to the Hébertot Theater, which he directed until his death in 1970 at the age of 84), he was also a newspaper owner and an exceptional cultural precursor. Among his many initiatives, was an unsuccessful plan to transform the Casino de Forges-les-Eaux into a great cultural center! Friend of painters and sculptors, Hébertot, nonetheless, resolved to close the Montaigne gallery. Louis Jouvet, who had only recently joined the establishment, would finally supervise its transformation into an avant-garde theater: the Studio des Champs Elysées.

An excellent beginning with Maya

Auguste Perret personally took charge of the architecture of this new theater. While the programming was entrusted to another remarkable figure in the world of theater between the two wars: Gaston Baty, then assistant to Firmin Gémier.

In May of 1924, the Studio was inaugurated with a play by Simon Gantillon entitled Maya and starring Marguerite Jamois. The success of this play, the story of a young prostitute in Marseille who charms sailors, was so phenomenal that it would run for more than a thousand performances and would give rise to a film adaptation in 1949 directed by Gantillon himself and Raymond Bernard, the son of Tristan Bernard. With such an opening success, the destiny of the Studio des Champs-Elysées was guaranteed, even after the
departure in 1926 of the magical Hébertot.

 

 

A very full half century

In the years following the war, the Studio, directed by Maurice Jacquemont, continued to make news, particularly with the plays of Garcia Lorca. And it was here that Beckett experienced his first true success with Fin de Partie in 1957. Antoine Bourseiller headed the Studio at the beginning of the 1960’s and called in Jean-Luc Godard. During the next half century, a constant parade of stars from Michel Simon to Jean-Claude Brialy, from Suzanne Flon to Mathilde Seigner, firmly established the studio in the theatrical geography of Paris. And at times, the Studio flirted again with its old loves. During the Biennale de Paris of 1967 it welcomed an exhibition on “le Cartel”, the quartet of actor-directors that marked French stages between the two wars (Jouvet, Dullin, Pitoëff, Baty). Today, needless to say, no one talks about reopening an art gallery here…

 

1. Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989
2. Michel Simon, 1895-1975
3. Jean-Claude Brialy, 1933-2007
4. Suzanne Flon, 1918-2005
5. Mathilde Seigner, 1968

 

 

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