George Brassaï, Paris by Night, 1932
Target Date: The Ball: July 2019; The Whirl: October 2019
In 1900 the City of Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, which featured the Eiffel Tower, as well as Magic City, an American-style amusement park. While this world fair stretched all the way from the Eiffel Tower to the Invalides, Magic City was a “parc d’attraction” constructed at the base of the Pont de l’Alma and stretched from 67 to 91 Quai d’Orsay along the Seine.
In an article entitled Magic City: My Parisian Neighborhood a Century Ago, Matthew Fraser describes the amusement park, on his blog, in the following way:
Built by Ernest Cognacq, the rich owner of the Samarataine department store, Magic City featured all the usual theme park attractions — everything from roller coasters and water slides to more novel curiosities in 1900 such as moving sidewalks and a mini railway. Another attraction was more morally questionable but typical of the era circa 1900: a sort of human zoo showing African natives – called “headhunters” – who were put on display like caged animals for the curiosity of bourgeois Parisians.
Fortunately we have photos of most of these attractions thanks to the Belle Epoque postcards of Magic City that survive (see here for postcard images, also here for a photo diaporama). The unique feature of amusement parks during that period is that they were mainly for adults. The “family” amusement park for children would come later.
The most popular attraction was the Magic City ballroom where Parisians came to dance to orchestra music. By the “Années Folles” in the 1920s, the Magic City ballroom had become popular with the Parisian gay scene. Particularly notorious were the Magic City “drag balls” held on Mardi Gras. The photographer Brassai took many photographs of these transvestite soirées, called “Bals des Invertis” (see photos here).
Wikipedia describes these events as “(t)he emblematic event of homosexual life in Paris in the inter-war years was a series of masked balls held annually during Carnival on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) and Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent) at Magic-City Dancing, an immense dance-hall on the Rue de l’Universite, near the Eiffel Tower. … Between 1922 and 1939, thousands of men, most costumed and many in extravagant female drag, attended the balls at Magic-City every year. ‘On this night,’ wrote a journalist in 1931, ‘all of Sodom’s grandsons scattered throughout the world…seem to have rebuilt their accursed city for an evening. The presence of so many of their kind makes them forget their abnormality.’ Gyula Brassaï, whose photographs have immortalized these fabulous balls, described the ‘immense, warm, impulsive fraternity’ at Magic-City:
The cream of Parisian inverts was to meet there, without distinction as to class, race or age. And every type came, faggots, cruisers, chickens, old queens, famous antique dealers and young butcher boys, hairdressers and elevator boys, well-known dress designers and drag queens…“
Today Magic City, shut down by French authorities in 1934, has largely passed into oblivion. Most of the area was razed and rebuilt, which explains why so many buildings are Art Deco style constructed in the 1930s.
Magic City had a curious epilogue however. When the Germans occupied Paris during the Second World War they requisitioned the old Magic City ballroom. After the war France’s state-owned television network – the equivalent of the BBC – moved into the same building and used the old ballroom stage as a TV studio. For decades, the French public television network was operating out of the old Magic City dance hall that had been a gay nightclub during the Roaring Twenties.
Today France’s public TV networks have moved elsewhere, but the old Magic City studios are still standing, home to a few small TV channels on the digital service. Fittingly, the address is rue Cognacq-Jay, named after the same rich Parisian who built Magic City in 1900.
This Dancerie: Return to Magic City – The Ball and The Whirl
As part of a multi-year, multi-platform project, Tony Whitfield has entered into the planning phase of Return to Magic City reviving the tradition of the Bals des Invertis. In the absence of the original ballroom, Whitfield is in planning to create a site reminiscent of the original Magic City at the Le Halle des Blancs Manteaux in the 4th arrondiesement. In keeping with its original character, this event will focus on dance as a context for the expression of gender and sexual diversity within diverse LGBTQ communities in Paris and its suburbs. Tony Whitfield and his production team will seek to work with community based groups that manifest racial, national, ethnic, religious, physical ability, age, economic class difference in the context of “queerness.”
Paris, Gay Pride Parade 2010
Original Site for Magic City
Proposed site for Return to Magic City: Le Halle des Blancs Manteaux in the 4th arrondisement.
Based upon the original Magic City pavilion and imagining performers that might include those below, initial designs for the stage for Return To Magic City have been designed.