In Pigalle, the joyful rebirth of Madame Arthur, the very first Parisian transvestite cabaret

ReportageThe place celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer. However, without the audacity of a buyer and a troupe of queer artists, it could have disappeared. The place continues the legacy of Bambi, Fétiche and Coccinelle who performed there at a time when cross-dressing was not without risk.

The small round tables are lined up facing the stage. The public – from 20 to 70 years old, the majority of whom are in their thirties – clink glasses and dine noisily. Suddenly black. A circle of light stands out in the middle of the room. Under this halo sparkles Martin Poppins, a “creature”. This is how the artists of Madame Arthur are called. the “first transvestite cabaret opened in Paris”, in 1946, is currently experiencing a joyful rebirth.

Red beard encrusted with sequins, turban set with (faux) diamonds, river earrings falling below the collarbones, azure eyelids, crimson lips, dress in volutes of red taffeta, satin gloves, choker studded with roses, heels 12 centimeters… There is not enough space in an article nor enough superlatives in the French vocabulary to describe an outfit worn at Madame Arthur. Knowing that the artists change with each appearance and that the same excessiveness applies to the decorations as to the vocalizations of their revisited songs, it is easier to summarize a report behind the scenes of the establishment by its antithesis: a meditation retreat silent in the Vercors.

But it is in Pigalle, in Paris, that we are, behind the red facade with the twisted columns of the cabaret. Closed for five years, from 2010 to 2015, it seemed condemned to the same disappearance as many establishments in the district. Today, the evenings are packed and start on the most imposing stage of the adjoining Divan du monde. The talent of its artists shines as far as television (“Extravagantes”, on Paris Première), the cinema (Romain Brau in Spangled Shrimps), the theater and in new underground cabarets (Le Secret, in the 20e district, La Bouche, in the 18e).

This success is the result of a bet and an improbable meeting between an entrepreneur and three crazy queer cabarettists. A resurrection with twists and turns where audacity, recklessness, courage, shouting matches, humor and the history of the place each played their part.

The end of a certain Pigalle

When in July 2010, the red neon with the warped letters “Madame Arthur” goes out, no one can imagine seeing it shine again. The overwhelmingly heterosexual, middle-class audience has stopped coming for the thrill. Striptease bars and sexodromes close around, signing the end of a certain Pigalle. The neighboring transformist cabaret, Michou, at 80 rue des Martyrs, owes its survival to tourist buses attracted by its general public formula: the men dressed as women who sing there in playback are perfect look-alikes of Céline Dion, Mylène Farmer, Dalida…

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In Pigalle, the joyful rebirth of Madame Arthur, the very first Parisian transvestite cabaret

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