Foottit et Chocolat

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Foottit and Chocolat.jpeg

Clowns

By Dominique Jando


Foottit (often misspelled Footit) and Chocolat were, at the turn of the twentieth century, the toasts of Paris; they were the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.-stars of the very fashionable Nouveau Cirque, rue Saint-Honoré. Foottit & Chocolat are often credited with having originated the classic clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team./augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. association which became the norm in twentieth century’s European circus, although this can be argued: This entitlement could also be attributed (and perhaps more rightly so) to their rivals at the Nouveau Cirque, Pierantoni & Saltamontès. Yet, Foottit & Chocolat were instrumental in the development of classic European clowning during that period, and they still personify today this important milestone.

George Foottit

George Foottit (1864-1921) was born on April 24, 1864 in Manchester, England, where his father’s circus was showing. His father’s real name has been said to be Tudor Hall (or Theodore Hall, which could have been a phonetically misspelled Tudor Hall), but this identity has been called into question by George Foottit’s direct descendants. For all intents and purposes, George’s father was known, like his son, as Geo (George) Foottit (?-1874), and he had performed at Drury Lane Theatre in London as the clown Funny Foottit—a classic stage clown in the manner of Joseph Grimaldi.

Foottit (c.1895)
George, Sr. eventually created his own traveling circus and, in 1867, he partnered with the equestrians Anthony Powell and Alfred Clarke to launch the Powell, Foottit & Clarke’s Great Allied Circus. Unfortunately, Geo Foottit, Sr. had an inordinate love for the bottle, and his chronic drunkenness led Powell and Clarke to end abruptly their partnership with him in the middle of the 1868 season. Foottit, Sr. got back the equipment and horses he had invested in the venture, and continued alone with his Foottit’s Allied Circus, while Powell and Clarke carried on their fruitful association in Ireland.

George Foottit, Jr. debuted in the ring at age three as a miniature version of his father’s clown character, and learned under him his acrobatic repertoire. He was eight years old in 1872 when his parents sent him to Arnold College, near Nottingham, to improve upon the rudimentary education he had received so far at the circus from a musician, who also taught him music. George’s academic schooling didn’t last long: When George, Sr. died two years later of liver cirrhosis, young George’s mother, Sarah (née Crockett), perhaps sensing that her son was now out of harm’s way, pulled him out of school.

Sarah Foottit remarried one year later with a more sober husband, the equestrian Thomas Batty, who took over the management of the circus. Young Foottit learned horseback riding with his stepfather, and quickly became a capable equestrian—as well as a fine acrobat and wire-walker. Sarah was related to the Sangers, and George was sent to his uncle, the legendary “Lord” George Sanger, whose establishment was by far the United Kingdom’s premier and largest traveling circus. Sanger’s stables were particularly rich, and young Foottit furthered his equestrian education in his uncle’s circus. In 1882, at age eighteen, he left the family cocoon and began a career of his own as an acrobat on horseback.

This was still the golden age of equestrian circus, and the equestrian field was crowded; if Foottit was a capable bareback rider, he was not exceptionally talented, and his rather stocky and unappealing physical appearance couldn’t offset his limitations in his specialty. After a little more than one year working with meager success as an equestrian, Foottit reverted to his first area of expertise: He debuted as a clown at the Cirque Continental in Bordeaux, France, where he had already been working as a bareback rider.

Clowning Debuts

Foottit (c.1890)
Circus clowns, at the time, were skilled physical performers, generally acrobats and tumblers—qualities that Foottit had developed since childhood—who had an eccentric appearance and often did parodies of straight acts. They also spoke and used verbal humor, but in this domain Foottit had an apparent handicap: He had a poor control of the French language. His French audiences, however, found hilarious his attempts at expressing himself in French, with his heavy English accent and his malapropisms. The handicap proved an asset, and the clown Foottit met with great success.

Unfortunately, the Cirque Continental went bankrupt, and George Foottit returned to England. There, he got an engagement with Hollander’s Great International Circus, which performed for Christmas onstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. In his own country Foottit couldn’t rely on his linguistic idiosyncrasies to make his mark, and he was competing with an army of clowns: They were always in great numbers in British (and American) circuses, and they were all fending each other for a small place in the spotlight.

Foottit however was by now used to being in that spotlight, and to set himself apart he decided to produce what none of his colleagues could (unless they happened to be, like him, former equestrians): A parody of the romantic "écuyère de panneau(French) A flat, padded saddle used by ballerinas on horseback."—the traditional ballerina on horseback. Many such equestriennes captured gentlemen's hearts at the time, and some of them were true stars that attracted large crowds around the rings. In full makeup, wearing an ornate tutu, the sturdy Foottit cut a hilarious figure impersonating a gracious ballerina dancing on the panneau(French) A flat, padded saddle used by ballerinas on horseback. affixed to the back of her galloping horse—and he had the skills to give his parody the necessary veneer of realism.

Foottit scored a major hit, and his parody was soon much in demand in Europe. He went to perform at the Hippodrome de l’Alma in Paris, in a show whose star was the first augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. seen in France, James Guyon. The augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. was a newcomer to the circus ring; the equestrian Tom Belling had originated the character at Circus Renz, in Berlin, around 1869. As opposed to the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., a stylized character wearing a rather abstract makeup and a very distinct costume whose origins could be traced to the Middle Ages, the augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. didn’t rely on physical skills or an oddball look to elicit laughter: he was fundamentally human, a funny idiot, an everyday-man put in absurd and embarrassing situations that generated comedy. Audiences could relate easily to this new comic personage, and they loved him.

The Nouveau Cirque

Foottit, as a traditional clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., obtained his customary success at the Hippodrome with his equestrian parody, and in 1886, he was offered a contract to open Paris’s brand-new circus, the Nouveau Cirque, which was located in the heart of the French capital just one block from the Place Vendôme. The Nouveau Cirque’s company of performers also featured a well-known and very popular clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., Tony Grice (a fellow Englishman), but Foottit quickly outshone him. By 1890, Foottit had become the leading clown of the Nouveau Cirque—which had rapidly turned into Paris’s most fashionable place of entertainment.

Foottit (1901)
That year (1890), Foottit made the Parisian headlines. The great tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was playing Cléopâtre (Cleopatra) in Victorien Sardou’s eponymous play; as usual, she obtained an immense success. The then-conventional overacting of the "reine de l’attitude et princesse des gestes" (as she had been admiringly dubbed) invited easy parody—especially the tragic grandiloquence of the lengthy Cleopatra’s death scene—and Foottit jumped at the opportunity. His parody was hilarious: Foottit’s Sarah-Cleopatra, replete with opulent red mane, bejeweled dress, and her fatal rubber snake, died endlessly and finally resurrected. Foottit's piece, In which Chocolat played a slave and Saltamontès was Mark Antony, quickly became the talk of the town.

Some in the tragedienne’s coterie were outraged—notably her author, Victorien Sardou—and the affair turned into a mini Parisian scandal: One didn’t make fun of the "divine" Sarah! Eventually, Sarah Bernhardt decided to judge by herself, and went to see Foottit perform at the Nouveau Cirque. A true superstar and in every respect the diva, she and her entourage made a grand entrance, which practically stopped the show, a few moments before Foottit’s turn. As Foottit entered the ring, the house froze when Madame Sarah bellowed out a peremptory "Clown, fais-moi rire!" ("Clown, make me laugh!")—which would have been enough to paralyze any comic performer, regardless of his talent. Yet Foottit didn’t flinch and went on with his lampoon. Madame Sarah laughed heartily. Not only the scandal melted away, but Foottit’s star rose even higher than it already was.

Foottit relished female impersonations, and he was very successful in them. He developed a large repertoire of female characters, which had started with his "Ballerina on horseback" parody. Obviously, the contrast between his rugged physical appearance and the grace and elegance required by the roles was funny. It also went comically against his well known clown persona, that of a bossy yet spineless, aggressive and violent character, whose eventual failures led to ridicule. A very physical clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., Foottit was always grimacing and his attitudes were voluntarily graceless. Thus to see him as a graceful woman was such an incongruity that it was immediately funny; it made for easy comedy, and Foottit happily built upon it.

Chocolat

Chocolat (c.1910)
The origins of Chocolat (1868?-1917) are shrouded in mystery. According to his death certificate (filed by Georgey Foottit, George Foottit’s son, and Charles Barbier—alias the clown Bob O’Connor) his name was Rafael Padilla, and he was allegedly forty-nine when he died in 1917. Yet, the great circus and clown historian Tristan Rémy said that Chocolat never mentioned this patronymic during his lifetime—neither did his son, Eugène Grimaldi, aka Chocolat Fils. Eugène was the son of Chocolat and his wife, Marie Grimaldi, née Hecquet (1866-1925), whose name came from a previous marriage; Marie (who actually never married Chocolat legally) always called herself Mrs. Raphaël Chocolat (and later, Veuve Chocolat, after Chocolat's death), and Chocolat himself declared not to have any legal document related to his identity. (Chocolat and Marie had also a daughter, Suzanne, who died in infancy.)

Whatever his legal name—if ever indeed he had one—Rafael was born to an African slave in Havana, Cuba, around 1868 (according to the alleged age given on his death certificate) and was raised by another slave before being bought as a child by a Señor Castaño, a rich Antillean merchant, who had a trading post in Bilbao, Spain. Castaño’s mother had a home in nearby Sopuerta, where Castaño placed Rafael as a servant. Rafael eventually escaped, and took menial jobs in Bilbao, from porter to miner. In his spare time, he performed exercises of strength or danced in local cafés for a few pesetas.

This is where the clown Tony Grice saw him, around 1884. There was something about Rafael that caught his eye: He was entertaining, he was black (and therefore "exotic"), he had a good physicality, and he was young (Rafael was perhaps sixteen at the time). Tony Grice, who was then one of the star-clowns of Madrid’s Circo Price, offered Rafael a job as his apprentice/assistant in exchange of room and board and a small stipend. Rafael accepted, and he joined Tony Grice and his Portuguese partner, Tonyto—another apprentice who was to become the talented clown Tonitoff. He was immediately nicknamed Chocolat (chocolate in French), a racial slur that looked innocent and amused the public in these colonial times.

Parisian Debut

La Noce de Chocolat (1887)
Chocolat made his Parisian debut at the brand-new Nouveau Cirque with Tony Grice in 1886; Grice performed a sketch for which he was famous, a parody of the “Maître de Manège” (equestrian director, or ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show.), in which Chocolat and Tonyto animated a canvas horse. Thus the legendary Chocolat made his first appearance in the French capital as the hindlegs and bottom of a fake horse. Rafael Chocolat was not only Tony Grice’s apprentice and assistant: He was also his servant in private life. At a banquet that followed the baptism of Tony Grice’s son, Chocolat spilled a saucepan on Mrs. Grice’s new dress. Grice, furious, fired Rafael on the spot.

Foottit, who was a guest at the banquet, thought Chocolat’s reaction to his misfortune couldn’t help but be funny—as everything else the clumsy Chocolat did. Chocolat was a natural comic, and Foottit, who saw potential in him as a full-fledged augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown., went to see Raoul Donval, the Nouveau Cirque’s director, and convinced him to hire Chocolat independently of Tony Grice—to which Donval agreed. Chocolat proved himself indeed an excellent, if unruly, augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown., and served as foil not only to Foottit, but also to Geronimo Medrano, who had been hired by the Nouveau Cirque in 1887, and to Pierantoni.

Chocolat became immediately popular. Beside his role as augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. to various clowns, he was featured in the water pantomimes that set the Nouveau Cirque apart from its competition. (The Nouveau Cirque was the very first circus building equipped with a ring that could sink to reveal a water bassin—an extraordinary technical novelty at the time.) As early as 1887, Chocolat was the "hero" of a very successful comic pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). built around his character, La Noce de Chocolat, which would be revived several times over the years. In it, the newlyweds (Chocolat and a female partner) and their guests finished in the water—an inescapable ending in such pantomimes.

As it often happens, serendipity defined Chocolat’s stage appearance. Among Parisian dandies, the fad of the time was to wear not only top hat and tails at parties, but also a black French “culotte” (or breeches) with black tights. Furthermore, wearing a red tailcoat (as did the British toastmasters) was considered particularly chic. Off-stage, Chocolat had become a man about town: Gregarious and pleasant, he had made many friends among Parisian artists and bohemians—Toulouse-Lautrec among them—and he participated actively in the Parisian nightlife.

One day, he came to the circus in the full regalia à la mode, replete with top hat, red tails, white tie, breeches and tights. Everyone thought his attire, which, as a fashion statement, already looked rather silly to many, appeared particularly funny on him; the costume was thus adopted and became part of Chocolat’s image—and remained so even after the fad had passed.

Foottit & Chocolat

Foottit & Chocolat (c.1895)
Around that time (1890), Foottit made Chocolat his regular partner. He followed in this the example of the very successful clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team./augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. association of Pierantoni and Saltamontès, whose complementarity worked superbly. There was a difference, however, between them and the duo Foottit & Chocolat. Pierantoni and Saltamontès had in the ring a complicit, rather brotherly relationship; that of Foottit and Chocolat was more markedly delineated, Foottit appearing as the dominant, bossy character, and Chocolat as his victim.

Such balance, at the time, was expected in this bi-racial relationship: The Negro was meant to be subservient to his intellectually superior White master. (In 1884, justifying European colonialism, the French Prime Minister Jules Ferry had declared: “the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.”…) Yet Foottit’s approach to clowning must be taken into consideration, since it also informed his rapport with Chocolat: To George Foottit, the clown reflected the inherent wickedness of human nature.

Much has been said of Foottit and Chocolat’s relationship by circus historians and scholars, and in time modern sensibilities have given it a Manichean aspect, in which Foottit would have been constantly bullying and even beating the poor Chocolat—who was supposedly nothing more than “He who gets slapped”. If it is true that Foottit was bossy in and out of the ring, the filmed documents that have fortunately survived do not show Chocolat as a passive victim; he often turned the tables to his advantage, and in his glorious moments of revenge, he ridiculed Foottit. And this is where the comedy lay.

George Foottit’s Contribution To Modern Clowning

Chocolat thus established a distinctive aspect of the subsequent definition of the augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. in his relationship to the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.: The augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. provokes laughter by making fun of authority—be that of the ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show., the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., or the more conceptual authority of social conventions. Which is, in fact, what the clown was meant to do initially.

However the clown was, in appearance and in effect, the equivalent of a court jester; he was in reality an outsider whose difference—his abstract makeup and eccentric outfit—created a gap between him and the spectators. He didn’t truly belong. The augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown., on the other end, was one of us, a familiar self. His audience was immediately empathetic. In time, the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., in spite of his eccentric (and increasingly ornate) wardrobe and abstract makeup, would gradually become the augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown.’s straight man, leaving to the latter most of the comic responsability.

Foottit & Chocolat in The Train Station (1907)
Nonetheless, it is Foottit who truly sent European clowning onto a new course, whose distinctiveness would be espoused by an ever-growing number of clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team./augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. teams. It came more by necessity than true intent. When working in teams, clowns often relied on a repertoire of loosely structured sketches that came from the fairgrounds’ lazzi, or were situations borrowed from the Commedia dell’ arte—some of which dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond. Clowns sometimes adapted them to fit modern times, or to play with topical subjects. Nothing was written, but their improvisation had to stay more or less within the boundaries of a thin storyline.

Foottit, however, met with a problem: Chocolat was a lose cannon and had very little self-discipline in the ring; his improvisations had to be reined in, lest he become lost and unable to find his way back into the storyline. To avoid this, his partner, whoever he was, had to be not only a strong leader, but also a quick improviser able to revert swiftly to the original course of action; by and large, he had to do that verbally, since dialogue was a key component of these sketches—both as an explicatory tool and a source of humor.

Unfortunately, Foottit was not comfortable improvising in French. To solve this problem, he created stronger structures for the age-old repertoire he and Chocolat used, clarifying and better defining storylines and comedic situations. Since the stories were not scripted, improvisation remained necessary but it could be now perfectly contained within a clearly established (and well-rehearsed) framework.

Thus Foottit and Chocolat developed a familiar and finely honed repertoire of what would be known as entrées. (The term came from the printed program announcement of a "clown entrée(French) Clown piece with a dramatic structure, generally in the form of a short story or scene."—clown entrance—in which the word entrée(French) Clown piece with a dramatic structure, generally in the form of a short story or scene. eventually morphed into the definer of the material). Foottit & Chocolat had made these well-structured entrées quite successful, and other clowns soon borrowed Foottit’s new and clearer versions, and interpreted them according to their own personalities—thus enriching the original material along the way. Entrées would be constantly re-adapted over the years to fit the times, and new ones would be invented.

Hence a clear difference emerged between "entrée(French) Clown piece with a dramatic structure, generally in the form of a short story or scene." clowns—a combination clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team./augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown.(s) performing expanded sketches—and "reprise(French) Short piece performed by clowns between acts during prop changes or equipment rigging. (See also: Carpet Clown)" clowns (or carpet clowns in English), who just performed short gags, visual or spoken, between the acts—as they had done ever since Philip Astley had invented the Circus. Foottit & Chocolat had been indeed the catalysts of this evolution.

The End Of An Era

Foottit at the Folies-Bergère (1902)
Foottit & Chocolat were incontestably the stars of the Nouveau Cirque, and were often featured in its very successful pantomimes. Foottit’s parody of Sarah Bernhardt was part of one of them, the revue À la cravache, and Chocolat held the title role in La noce de Chocolat, which was revived several times after Chocolat had become famous—the last time in 1909. In 1907, the well known writer, librettist, and poet Franc-Nohain (1872-1934) penned Foottit & Chocolat's "memoirs," Les Mémoires de Footit et Chocolat.

In spite of this, Foottit and Chocolat had begun to drift apart with the arrival of the new century: Foottit wanted to work with his sons, Thomas (Tommy), George (Georgey), and Harry. He saw in them his heirs in the art of clowning, and believed they would hone their skills at his side and eventually replace him. It was wishful thinking: as it so often happens when sons are supposed to follow in their famous father’s footsteps and assume his succession, none of them had any notable success once they left the great Foottit’s shadow.

In 1902, Foottit was a compère in the first revue presented by the Folies-Bergère—the harbinger of a series that would make that Parisian theatre famous all over the world. Chocolat had also a small part in the revue. Foottit & Chocolat returned to the Nouveau Cirque at regular intervals, in spite of several changes of management: Their star power had not faded. However, they didn’t form a permanent team anymore; although they still performed as a duo in entrées and pantomimes, they also appeared, in the same shows, individually or with other partners (in Foottit’s case, with his sons).

The famous circus director Hyppolite Houcke, who had managed for a time the Nouveau Cirque, took them on tour; but they were not as successful in the provinces as they had been in Paris. In 1909, they starred in two new pantomimes, each written for one of them, Foottit réserviste, and Chocolat aviateur (this was the year Louis Blériot flew over the English Channel). These were to be their swan song. In September 1910, when the Nouveau Cirque reopened for its new season, Foottit and Chocolat were conspicuously absent: They were at the Cirque de Paris, where Foottit had brought his sons along; on the posters, Chocolat appeared behind them.

Then Foottit went on the road with his sons and his own circus, and Chocolat found himself in a precarious situation: Without Foottit (with whom he had remained in good terms), he had difficulties finding jobs. He managed to get a small part in Moïse, a play by Edmond Guiraud given at the Théâtre Antoine in 1910, but it was a short-lived experience: He quickly returned to clowning.

Foottit’s Final Years

Chocolat had began to work at the Nouveau Cirque with his son, Eugène, as the duo Tablette & Chocolat; but although Eugène was a competent clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., Chocolat was lost without Foottit. As for Foottit, his star power and his stage vitality simply faded away without Chocolat. Both of them were in precipitous decline. Yet their status as living legends was maintained and amplified by the Parisian press and intelligentsia—but they were becoming legends of a bygone era, which indeed did them more harm than good. Parisians remembered their glory years as a duet; separately, they were basically has-beens, living relics of “La Belle Époque,” an era that was quickly vanishing.

George Foottit in Fièvre (1921)
Foottit’s circus venture didn’t last long: He had been a Parisian star, but was not very well known in the French provinces. During WWI, he worked for the Théâtre aux Armées, the entertainment branch of the French military, performing for the troops. In 1916, he appeared in a revue by Rip (Georges-Gabriel Thenon, 1884-1941), L’école des civils, at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris. Nothing much is known of his reaction when Chocolat passed away in 1917, but beside his personal feelings, he must have sensed that an era had ended. After the war, in 1920-21, Foottit played the part of a clown philosopher, especially written for him by Maurice Verne in Les Mille et Une Nuits, produced by the great director Firmin Gémier (1869-1933) at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

Yet by that time, Foottit, disillusioned, had begun to drink heavily. He didn’t hold his liquor cheerfully, however, and became increasingly unreliable: He had been unable to properly remember his few lines in Les Mille et Une Nuits. His forays in the theatre were not really successful; audiences came to see him principally as a curiosity. In 1921, Foottit appeared also as “the man with a gray hat” in Louis Delluc’s silent movie, Fièvre, in which he played a drunk, unhappy and nasty card-player in the café where the action took place—a role that probably suited him perfectly.

George Foottit had opened a small bar in Paris, Avenue Montaigne, which was in effect his main source of income. His last public appearance in a show was at the celebrated couturier Paul Poiret’s home, as part of the Friday entertainments Poiret (1879-1944) offered to the Tout-Paris in his garden, known as L’Oasis. Foottit made a parody of a Degas’s ballerina—a reminder of his once glorious impersonation of a ballerina on horseback. He died in his home, 6 Avenue Montaigne, on April 29, 1921. He was only fifty-seven years old. He had not been forgotten, though, and the press gave him long and flattering obituaries that celebrated him as the greatest clown of his generation. He was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where his tomb is still visible.

Chocolat’s Legacy

Chocolat in a Bon Marché Ad (c.1895)
For all his extraordinary fame and his immense impact as Paris’s most celebrated augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown., Chocolat didn’t have Foottit’s versatility of talents, and having never received a formal education, he had no business skills. His career after the Nouveau Cirque, which had been his comfortable Parisian refuge for so many years, was more a fight for survival than anything else. He accepted everything that came his way, regardless of quality or financial compensation—so long as he could barely cover his basic family needs.

He worked principally in the provinces—where his name was known, but not necessarily his talent as an augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown.—with traveling circuses. For a while, his son Eugène partnered with him as a clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., but their duo was still unsuccessful, and Eugène eventually went on to work with other augustes (notably the great Porto) as Chocolat Fils. Like Foottit, Chocolat had become an alcoholic. On Sunday November 4, 1917, at 10:30 am, while he was working along with Georgey Foottit and Bob O’Connor at the Cirque Rancy for an engagement at a fair in Bordeaux, Chocolat died suddenly in his hotel room; the cause was diagnosed as a massive heart attack.

Toulouse-Lautrec had made several sketches, drawings, and paintings of Chocolat (and some of Foottit for that matter); Colette mentioned him in her celebrated novel, Gigi; the Lumière brothers filmed him with Foottit in some of the first movies ever made; his likeness had been used in a profusion of advertisements, from chocolates (as expected) to department stores, and everything in-between; he had been caricatured in cartoons, and in chromos and cut-out sheets for children; and he has even been immortalized in a French popular expression, "être chocolat," which means to be thwarted, or foiled.

Yet his passing, unless Foottit’s, didn’t make the headlines; Chocolat was just a funny Negro, after all… Sadly, he was buried, in the Protestant cemetery of Bordeaux, in the section reserved to the "indigents"—the needy. In a twist of fate, however, he is best remembered today than his partner, George Foottit; in 2012, he was the subject simultaneously of a book, Chocolat Clown Nègre, by Gérard Noiriel, a play by the same title, directed by Marcel Bozonnet, and finally, a film adaptation, Chocolat (2016), directed by Roschdy Zem, with Omar Sy in the tile role, and James Thierée as Foottit. And there are still many French people who find themselves, at a moment or another, "complètement chocolat!"

Suggesting Reading

  • Franc-Nohain, Les Mémoires de Footit et Chocolat, illustrated by René Vincent (Paris, Editions Pierre Lafitte,‎ 1907)
  • Tristan Rémy, Les Clowns (Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1945 — reprinted in 2002) — ISBN 2-246-64022-9
  • Gérard Noiriel, Chocolat, clown nègre: L’histoire oubliée du premier artiste noir de la scène française (Montrouge, Editions Bayard, 2012) — ISBN 978-2-2274-8271-5
  • Gérard Noiriel, Chocoalt — La véritable histoire d'un clown sans nom (Montrouge, Editions Bayard, 2016) — ISBN 978-2-227-48617-1

See Also

Image Gallery