A Night at the Café de Paris
The unexpected concurrence of the prolonged spell of fine weather with a string of celebrations and festivals has gripped London with such a pervasive atmosphere of high day and holiday, that Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie and I decided it was time for one of our rare trips up West – to see if we could experience for ourselves some of the glamor and tinsel of the sophisticated metropolitan nightlife that is on offer.
Our destination was the legendary Café de Paris, built as an exact replica of the ballroom on the Titanic and opened by impresario Harry Foster in 1924. This was the glittering nightspot where Louise Brooks introduced the Charleston to London, where Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich partied, where Orson Welles waltzed with Vivien Leigh, and where Cole Porter played many of his songs for the first time. Generations of Londoners celebrated here, the top place to see and be seen in the capital, and it stayed open throughout World War II until a pair of fifty pound bombs fell through the roof and exploded on the dance floor.
Yet in spite of everything, the Café de Paris is still here and it is just what a night club should be – with a pair of sweeping staircases leading down to an oval floor, surrounded by old gilt plasterwork and pillars with acanthus capitals supporting twirly gilded iron balconies, furnished with pink plush-velvet sofas, adorned with fringed rosy lanterns upon sconces, and topped off by a scarlet ruched-satin ceiling with a glistening crystal chandelier at the centre.
Promoter Tom Gravett has dedicated himself to rekindling the glory days of the Café de Paris as a cabaret venue with La Rêve each Friday night, and he certainly knows how to wear a double breasted suit to advantage too. Sporting a Clarke Gable moustache and floppy hair parted in the style of Errol Flynn, and flaunting an orchid in his buttonhole, he whirled us upon a breathless tour of the club and through into the dressing rooms upholstered in louche red velvet, where his performers – blithely unaware of our presence – were practising, preening and primping upon day beds in various stages of undress.
It was time to make our way to the centre of the floor where, beneath a haze of gold, pink and blue lights, candles glowed upon our table. Once we had taken our seats, Dusty Limits, a skinny birdlike young man with spidery limbs, fluent repartee and calculated insouciance, took the stage as master of ceremonies to promise us “an extraordinary cavalcade of cabaret genius.” Meanwhile, Tom retreated discreetly halfway up one of the sweeping stairs, a key position to scrutinise the progress of the evening. And all those in the balcony craned forward in excitement, their faces bathed in the reflected glow from the stage.
Opening act in the cabaret burlesque were the Bees Knees, an upbeat Charleston duo who did a bizarre quick change from Matelots to Russian peasants in folk costume while dancing all the time, followed by Miss Trinity Vogue in a red fedora who performed “Let’s have another drink!” accompanying herself on the ukulele, then the curvaceous blond Cherry Shakewell who lived up to her name with a neat trick spinning gold tassels from her appendages. Yet the undoubted early highlight of the show was Pippa the Ripper, rotating multiple hula hoops in opposite directions simultaneously from her gyrating legs, arms and torso. An act of excruciating complexity performed with a carefree expression of uninhibited delight, as if merely to say, “Look at me!” – when we were already slack-jawed in amazement at such an elegant spectacle.
East End favourite, Fancy Chance, winner of London’s Next Top Tranny Contest at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Social Club last year, burst into the club in a wedding dress – with the irresistible wayward intensity that is her forte – tearing off her bridal gown to reveal a sassy feathery number and then discarding this too, she let her waist-length hair flow free and cavorted like a siren in her fringed scanties, chuckling with elation at her teasing charade.
All these acts shared a wit and ingenuity that included the audience in the joke, and the charismatic intimacy of this soulful old nightclub encouraged a natural sense of complicity. There was a pleasing spontaneity about the show yet the individual turns were slick, and seeing such diverse talents live at close quarters imparted a frisson of excitement you might not experience elsewhere – especially true of the final act of the evening, Brett Vista, an aerialist who performed in a hoop suspended over our heads.
As if unaware of anyone watching, this lithe young man drew himself up into the roof and hung suspended there, twisting and stretching his body into extraordinary contortions with grace and ease, constantly moving and turning in slow rhythm like one lost in a dream. The mesmeric quality of his movement held us all spellbound. He incarnated the magic of the place like a spirit conjured out of air, and, as he revolved in a shimmering aura of light above the audience at the Café de Paris, silent in wonder, the vibrant poetry of this extraordinary venue was alive for me.
The Janus Sisters.
Tom Gravett, promoter of La Rêve.
Tricity Vogue, with Michael Roulston at the piano.
Louise London, prestidigitation at your table.
Dusty Limits, master of ceremonies.
Pippa the Ripper, hula hoop artist.
The Bees Knees, Charleston duo.
Cherry Shakewell, blonde burlesque bombshell.
Cigarette break on the fire escape.
Brett Vista, aerialist.
“an extraordinary cavalcade of cabaret genius.”
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie