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Le Chat Noir

We've all seen the iconic prints featuring the black cat but what's the story behind Le Chat Noir and what was it doing "avec Rodolphe Salis"?

Louis Rodolphe Salis was the creator, host and owner of "Le Chat Noir" - the very first modern cabaret. The format was new and novel: a nightclub where the patrons sat at tables and drank alcohol while being entertained by a variety show on stage, introduced by an MC who interacted with people he knew at the tables.

Although it was briefly known as "Cabaret Artistique" when it first opened in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris in 1881, it soon became "Le Chat Noir". The black cat was already associated with a certain provocative and animalistic style and it soon became a symbol of the baudy, irreverent humour and the provocative art created by the actors and artists of Montmartre.

Salis began by renting the cheapest venue he could find, two small rooms at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart, but within three and a half years, its popularity forced him to move into larger premises a few doors down. Located at 12 Rue Victor-Masse, the new establishment was sumptuous. It was the old private mansion of the painter Alfred Steven, who, at the request of Salis, had an architect transform it into a "fashionable country inn".

Salis also had the idea of playing music in his tavern and installed a piano, which was an innovation at that time. This was soon banned for newer establishments, so Le Chat Noir was set up with a permanent advantage over the competition.

In its heyday, Le Chat Noir was a bustling nightclub that was part artist salon, part rowdy music hall. The cabaret also published its own journal Le Chat Noir, a weekly humorous paper featuring poems, short stories and illustrations which survived until 1899.

Salis most often played, with exaggerated, ironic politeness, the role of MC and he also developed the new practice of comic monologues. As MC, Salis interacted with the audience who were often the butt of his humour. It was not unusual for him greet customers with "Well, you're finally out of prison?" or "What have you done with your chick from yesterday?" to a new client visibly accompanied by his wife. Even the future King Edward VII was not immune from his cutting banter: "Well, look here: it looks like the Prince of Wales all pissed!"

With legendary stinginess, Salis found every excuse for not paying his staff, suppliers and artists. However, despite this, his irreverent and amusing patter and his organizational skills and personality attracted exceptional artists of all kinds, and a large crowd for this new style of venue.

In the 1890s, Salis took his entertainment company, Le Chat Noir, touring all over France, hiring theatres and venues, something that was an innovation for the times. Continuing his stingy streak, he often refused, for various elaborate reasons, to pay the venue hire charge.

And it's for this touring program that the iconic posters were created. Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen artwork advertised "Coming soon - The tour of The Black Cat show". And although Le Chat Noir cabaret is no longer with us, the artwork certainly lives on.

According to Salis: "The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world."

Much to the disappointment of Picasso and others who looked for it when they came to Paris for the Exposition in 1900, this ground breaking cabaret closed in 1897 not long after Salis' death from tuberculosis.