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Paris Cabaret Passe

The cabaret scene, once as much a part of Paris as surly waiters and avant-garde driving habits, has hit hard times.

From the Lido to the Moulin Rouge, the Crazy Horse to the Folies Bergere, cabaret owners are in a sweat. Hit by a series of troubles ranging from terrorist bomb attacks to a lengthy world recession, the showmen are finding it increasingly difficult to make an honest buck.

Shows are becoming ever more expensive to put together, audiences have been lured away by the rival attractions of television or revamped cinemas, and in the era of new technology and special effects, the sight of high-kicking belles in varying states of un-dress has lost some of its novelty.

“Out of the past eight years, we have had five bad ones,” sighs Moulin Rouge chief Jacki Clerico. “We had the terrorist attacks in 1986 and 1987, the Gulf War in 1991 and two years of recession in 1993 and 1994. We also have a government that wants a strong franc, so that has hit tourism from Italy, Spain and the United States. The dollar should be at six francs, not 5.3 francs.”

Across town at the Lido, Clerico’s brother Christian has a similar tale to tell. The two seldom talk to each other and there is little love lost between the Lido and Moulin Rouge teams, but they are both in the same boat at the moment. “We have sustained considerable losses in 1993 and 1994,” admits Christian Clerico. “The market for entertainment has got(ten) very tough. We’ve known years when one or two countries were suffering economically but seldom when everyone was in trouble.”

Despite the difficulties, the Clerico brothers and Folies Bergere general manager George Terrey aren’t about to roll over and die. In their own ways, both have tried to pump life back into the cabaret scene.

On Nov. 29, the 1,200-seat Lido unveiled its latest and most costly show to date, a lavish $9.4 million techno-extravaganza titled “C’est Magique.” Under the direction of American Bob Turk, the Lido’s new revue has all but done away with the traditional feathers and frills. Lasers, ice rinks and state-of-the-art video technology are the craze today.

A thorough evolution

Even the Bluebell Girls have been revamped. It’s no longer enough to simply be a bevy of beauties – the new crop of Lido lovelies were picked for their dancing abilities.

“The shows have evolved, especially on the technical side. With developments in cinema special effects, it is now very difficult to surprise people with live shows. It’s a real challenge,” says Christian Clerico.

If all goes well, the Lido topper hopes to recover his investment after three years and start seeing some profits in year four, by which time he will be prepping the next revue. But if the green shoots of economic recovery wither and die, “C’est Magique” may not prove so magical after all.

“We would normally try to finance a new revue out of existing funds, but this time around we have had to draw on the banks more than usual,” says Christian Clerieo, who estimates 1995 revenues in the region of $56 million.

Elder brother Jacki also has been knocking harder on the banking doors. “Since 1986 I’ve been obliged to borrow from the banks. We just haven’t had enough good consecutive years to self-finance,” he says. In normal times, the Moulin Rouge changes its spectacle every five years, breaking even in year three or four. But the current “Formidable” revue has been out for seven years and won’t be replaced until 1996.

Unlike his Harvard-educated brother, Jacki graduated from the school of hard knocks and has the reputation for being a fighter. Aware that tourists were no longer flocking to the cabarets of their own accord, the Moulin boss has gone out in search of auds.

“Over the past three or four years we have opened permanent marketing offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, New York, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro,” says Jacki. “We know we can’t sit back and wait for people to come to us. We have to promote ourselves.”

With most of the major cabarets relying on tourists – around 60% of audiences for the Lido, 70% for the Moulin Rouge and 50% at the Folies-Bergere – for the bulk of their business, the risks are high. Even the Paris tourist operators who steer business toward the cabarets in return for a commission are not a recipe for success.

Estimates are that at any one time the Moulin Rouge has between $1.8 million and $2.3 million worth of bills sitting on the desks of the tourist agencies. Those companies have 90 days to pay, but as one well-placed source notes, “If an agent goes out of business owing us a million francs, that’s money we’re never going to see.”

Infighting

In the increasingly tight market, cross-cabaret sniping has become all the rage. Veterans at the Moulin Rouge, where the show is decidedly French and proud of it, pour scorn on the Vegas-style newcomer at the Lido. “Why come to Paris to see something that is American?” snorts one Moulin loyalist.

Speculation also abounds that the Crazy Horse, more of a high-class strip offering than a traditional cabaret, may have to close for a spell while a bitter family feud is resolved.

Last September, Crazy Horse founder Alain Bernardin put a bullet through his heart, leaving his wife of 10 years (former Crazy Horse dancer Lova Moor) to do battle with his three children from a previous marriage.

Moor has said 78-year-old Bernardin had been worried about a $9.4 million loan he had taken out in the early 1990s to finance the Crazy Horse. Now his three children have basically shown Moor the door, although she insists she will fight to stay part of the Crazy Horse management. The Bernardin trio did not return repeated calls from Variety.

Bergere follies

Others have written off the Folies Bergere, gleefully insisting that Folies management no longer produces its own shows but simply rents out the venue.

Folies Bergere general manager George Terrey bristles at the suggestion. He acknowledges that in 1992 the Folies was losing money fast and the time had come to re-think the traditional Parisian fare of feathers and Can-Can dancers.

“The style of cabarets hadn’t evolved for 30 years. We closed for eight months and returned with a more modern concept, ‘Fous des Folies.’ That went on for 18 months until last October, when we closed again before the November launch of our current ‘Les Annees Twist.’ The difference between us and the other cabarets is we don’t think we should keep a show for five years. How many theater owners on Broadway give a guaranteed five-year run?”

Another difference is that Terrey and his team are now co-producing. “We have partnered with a company called Glem for ‘Les Annees Twist’ and we also co-produced ‘Fous des Folies.’ It’s pretty much like the independent film industry. You spread the financial load – and the risks.”

Terrey turns again to the film industry to justify the sizable reduction in production budgets. While “Fous des Folies” cost about $5.6 million, “Les Annees Twist” is nearer $1 million. “It isn’t because you throw $60 million at a film that you have a certain hit. It’s the same with our business,” Terrey says.

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