Fictional Letter from Caroline Reagen to Josephine Baker about the Casino de Paris

September 25, 1925

Dear Ms. Baker,

I believe I have finally found the perfect location for our new show, La Revue nègre. The Casino de Paris boasts a luxuriousness that even the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergères cannot compare to.1
And their shows are always so exciting, flashy, and exotic! Given what audiences seem to enjoy at this location, our shocking revue will do very well at the Casino.

First of all, the music hall itself is designed to provide an entire night of entertainment not just centered around a single show. The hall can seat thousands, and oftentimes socializing is one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening. Yet it never feels too crowded, as one can easily move their legs around and feel very comfortable throughout the whole show. The building is split into two sections so that two separate shows can be happening at once. An evening at the hall is designed so that one can easily move between the two shows, get a drink at the bar, or socialize with others in the main hall. The experience is almost overwhelming (a quality us Parisians seem to enjoy when it comes to entertainment), and there is such little monotony that it takes several visits to fully soak in every aspect of the evening.2

Now, some of my colleagues argue that Parisians are going the wrong direction with the flashy, exotic costumes and dances, saying that they are not French enough. I argue however, that it perfectly captures the French spirit simply because it is so anti-German in nature. Wagner’s operas in his Bayreuth Festspielhaus are designed to be a completely immersive experience. Yet the immersion that Wagner relied upon his theater to create, the French have always been able to accomplish through our brilliant scenery and mise-en-scène.3
 I expect to grab people’s attention through the show I am creating; I do not want my audience to feel trapped by the actual theater. The Casino de Paris provides a much more enjoyable experience for the audience, allowing one to enter and leave at his or her pleasure.

Exoticism encapsulates many anti-German sentiments. While German opera draws primarily from German nationalism and ancient mythology (the Germans care not for other cultures), Parisians are fascinated by the exotic and bizarre. In fact, my first version of La Revue nègre was set as a standard Negro American spiritual. I realized however that Parisians seek raw exuberance in any production, nothing too stiff. My most recent version of the production is an erotic and exotic presentation of African dancing, which I think will be much more to the audience’s liking, given the recent Parisian obsession with exoticism.4

The shows at the Casino demonstrate this obsession exactly. When Léon Volterra took over the music-hall in 1917, his first revue  “Laissez-les tomber” was wildly popular and was sold out for weeks.5 The title was, of course, mocking the German bombs of the war, and the essence of the show was a conglomeration of French, American, and other exotic tunes.6 I remember reading one commentator’s remarks after the premiere, describing the band as “[letting] out cries, whistles, sings, grunts, howls, while its musicians deafen us by slapping, blowing, pulling out their bizarre instruments, a tempest of appalling, enervating, cramped, crushed sounds…  It’s a party, a big party, and exceedingly joyful parade.”7 Parisians seek distraction from the horrors that the War brought. They seek escape, an escape that the allure of exoticism has from everyday life. It began when the Casino first premiered this American Jazz, most often referred to as “ragtime”. The public absolutely loves it, and we find jazz popping up in every hall.8

I believe the public wants even more exoticism, more African culture, hope to provide what the audience of the Casino de Paris is looking for in La Revue nègre. I look forward to continue working with you and sharing this art with the citizens of Paris.

– Caroline Reagen

1 L.K., “At the Big Casino De Paris,” New York Times, November 2, 1890.

2 L.K., “At the Big Casino de Paris.”

3 Richard Wagner, Art Life and Theory of Richard Wagner, Selected from his Writings, trans.Edward L. Burlingame (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Library), 143.

4 John Kear, “Vénus noire: Josephine Baker and the Parisian Music-Hall,” in Michael Sheringha, ed., Parisian Fields (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1997, 49.

5 Jacques Damase, Les Folies du Music-Halls, (Paris: Editions ‘Spectacles’ Paris, 1960), 105.

6 Jeffrey H. Jackson, Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 19.

7 Jackson, 19.

8 Jean-Claude Klein and J. Barrie Jones, “Borrowing, Syncretism, Hybridisation: The Parisian Revue of the 1920s,” Popular Music 5, (1985), 180.