A Country Cottage or a Cabaret?
During a stroll around Montmartre, Paris, I came across a curious house on the corner of Rue des Saules and Rue St Vincent facing Le Clos de Montmartre Vineyard. With its rickety wooden fence and salmon-pink walls, the building looked more like a country cottage than a building in the centre of Paris. But it piqued my curiosity, so I checked out the sign on a wall to one side. To my surprise, and delight, I discovered this was a historic cabaret, Au Lapin Agile, promising an evening of “chansons et poésie” (songs and poetry)
The Thieves Meeting Place
The history of this place proved fascinating. Over the early years, its name changed from questionable names such as “Rendez-Vous Des Voleurs” (Thieves Meeting Place”) “Cabaret des Assassins” which probably says something about the calibre of the clientele back in the 19th century.
Around 1875 caricaturist, Andre Gill, painted a sign with a rabbit leaping out of a saucepan which was hung on the side of the building. The place became known as Le Lapin à Gill (Gill’s rabbit) which morphed into its current name Au Lapin Agile.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Au Lapin Agile was facing closure but rescue came in the shape of cabaret singer and comedian, Aristide Bruant.
He bought the establishment and handed the tenancy to Frédéric Gerard, known to all as Frédé.
It became a great venue for budding musicians to make their debuts and also became a regular haunt for impoverished artists. Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo would spend their evenings immersed in philosophical debate and music at the Lapin Agile.
Often Frédé would accept paintings from the artists in payment for their drinks.
An Original Picasso Painting Sold For $20
Picasso gave Frédé one of his artworks called Au Lapin Agile. It showed himself dressed up as a mannequin sitting in the cabaret next to a female customer. Frédé is also in the picture, playing the guitar in the background. In 1912, Frédé sold the painting for $20. In 1989, it went to auction at Sothebys and sold for $41 million.
A replica of Picasso’s painting is on the far wall in the above image. The original is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Other famous patrons included Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, who would play his violin there. In more recent years, American actor/comedian, Steve Martin, wrote a play called “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”. It was about an imaginary meeting between Picasso and Einstein and was performed at several major theatres in USA.
An evening spent “Au Lapin Agile” was, for me, a truly memorable occasion. I’d imagined a Parisian cabaret would be about topless dancers, the cancan and loud music reminiscent of the cabaret show further down the hill, Le Moulin Rouge. So I was curious how they would pack all that into this little cottage.
The evening’s performance started at nine pm, but people came and went as they liked. The cabaret had begun when we arrived, so the man who greeted us asked us to wait until the song had finished. Then he led us into this dark, cavern-like room with an eclectic collection of artworks covering the walls. Wooden tables and chairs dotted the room with benches pushed around the perimeter walls. We found somewhere to sit, and the man brought us their standard drink of fortified wine with a few cherries in the glass.
There were no dancers, or semi-naked women, instead a group of people having a good time singing mainly traditional French songs, the type you’d imagine Edith Piaf would sing if she were there.
The performers welcomed audience participation, but I noticed that a group sitting at one table seemed to join in the singing with more enthusiasm and confidence than the rest of us. I could hear their powerful voices way above everyone else’s. And, even though there were no songbooks, they knew the words to all the songs. I discovered these were also performers and as the night progressed, they each had a “turn” to perform their own solo. Au Lapin Agile has helped launch the career of many of its musicians.
Patrons came and went between acts. Eventually there was just me, Peter, and a mother and daughter from Japan. Just as well, because the next song required audience participation. The performer thrust a microphone in front of us at various stages to sing phrases from the song. Being of a rather introverted nature, I found this a little embarrassing at first, but did my bit anyway.
I’m not sure if you could get other drinks besides the cherry drink they gave us on arrival. We didn’t see anyone serving drinks, but that didn’t bother us. I loved the quirky, intimate nature of the cabaret. If you’re looking for a taste of authentic Paris from a bygone era, check it out for yourself. We didn’t book, but we were there late September, out of season. I believe bookings are essential at other times.
For further information, here’s a link to the official website. Au Lapin Agile