Actor, Comedian, Circus Owner
By Pierre Fenouillet
It was surely a sign: On April 18, 1921, in Bessines, near Niort (France), Jean Richard (1921-2001) was born at a farm named "The Menagerie."
His early encounters with circus performers (particularly Martha-la-Corse, a lion trainer) triggered in him an enduring passion for animals, especially big cats. When he was as young as ten years old, he was known to tell people: "When I grow up, I'll have a lion or a tiger in my garden!"
In , Richard, who had a gift for drawing, began trying his hand at caricature: he would soon sell his cartoons to local newspapers.
After World War II, Richard organized German tours for French theatrical companies. He began to make a name for himself performing in a famous postwar Parisian cabaret, L'Amiral. There he developed a successful comic character, that of a jovial and naïve peasant from the small imaginary village of Champignol. He also began to work as an actor—in the movies, in the theater, and in comedies that were sometimes a little cheap. During his long career, he appeared in about eighty films.
His ever-growing popularity allowed him to purchase a vast property in Ermenonville, north of Paris, where he began to gather all sorts of wild animals. His menagerie quickly reached impressive proportions. In order to continue maintaining it, he had to open it to the public in 1956. His private zoological collection, the Zoo d'Ermenonville, became the most important in the country.
His passion for the circus never abated, though. An amateur animal trainer, he presented, in 1955, Rolf Knie's group of African elephants at the Cirque Medrano in Paris. The following year, he presented the horse-act of Alexis Gruss at the Gala de l'Union des Artistes. (The Gala de l'Union, as it was known, was a "circus of the stars" type of event—an extremely chic Parisian fundraising event benefiting elderly actors.) He would appear again at the Gala de l'Union des Artistes in 1963, this time with a tiger act.
The Cirque Jean Richard
In 1957, his wildest dream came true: he went on tour with a circus bearing his name, put together with the help of the Gruss family. The show consisted of three acts: a The Champignol Orpheon. Ecstatic, he said to a newspaperman: "Each night, when I enter the cage with my cats, I am rewarded for all my efforts and worries." The Cirque Jean Richard hit the road again in 1958, this time without its eponym. (From 1959 onward, the Grusses would tour under the name " with a group of lionesses, an elephant act, and a comedy sketch from his days at L'Amiral, Grand Cirque de France.")
Meanwhile, Richard continued to appear as a comic actor in movies and to sing in musicals. He also starred in theater plays, beginning with the role of Maigret, the famous detective created for television by Georges Simenon. Richard would impersonate Maigret for more than twenty years (1967-90).
1969 saw the concretization of his love of the circus with the launch of his very own Cirque Jean Richard, brand-new from the to the last trailer. The show's success was immediate, and three years later (1972), he bought the Cirque Pinder, the ultimate (and largest) French circus. The greatest artists of the time performed under his , and Richard found himself at the helm of the most important circus enterprise in France.
Gifted with a remarkable capacity for work and an astonishing memory, Jean Richard shuttled continually from radio studio to TV stage, from circus ring to theater board. To those who asked him how he could do so many things at the same time, he replied: "But I am in a vacation, since I do only things I love!"
The End Of The Road
In May 1973, the machine jammed. A terrible car accident left Richard on the brink of death for three weeks. After that, there would be a "before" and an "after." Richard was obliged to delegate. Even so, the company continued to expand, establishing a permanent in Paris, the Nouvel Hippodrome de Paris (1974-1982). In 1974, it launched Expédition Jungle, a short-lived itinerant menagerie, and in 1976, a third touring unit named Nouveau Cirque Jean Richard, later renamed Medrano. Despite its growth, the company had become a giant idol with feet of clay.
In 1978, a first alarm led to a complete reorganization of the company and to serious downsizing and financial cuts: The third unit (by then called Medrano) disappeared in June, in the middle of the season. But it was only a deferred sentence: The company was declared bankrupt in 1983, and the remaining circuses (Pinder and Jean Richard) were bought lock, stock, and barrel, by a former associate, Gilbert Edelstein.
Richard retired as an actor in 1990. He became a sort of "wise old man" of the French circus. By dint of sacrifice, sheer will power, and most of all, passion, he returned to the French circus its pride and respectability and made it possible for the French government to recognize the circus as a bona fide art form.
Jean Richard died December 12, 2001, orphaning an entire generation of circus enthusiasts, some of whom stand today at the helms of major French circuses.
- Jean Richard, Mes bêtes à moi (Paris, Fernand Nathan, 1969)
- Jean Richard, Envoyez les Lions (Paris, Fernand Nathan, 1971)
- Jean Richard, Ces animaux qu'on appelle des bêtes (Paris, Fernand Nathan, 1971)
- Jean Richard, Ma vie sans filet (Paris, Robert Laffont, 1984) ISBN 2-221-01209-7
- Pierre Fenouillet, Jean Richard et son cirque, ou l'histoire d'une passion (Vieux Boucau, Éditions du Nez Rouge, 1998)
- Pierre Fenouillet, Jean Richard, le risque-tout du spectacle (Talence, Editions Bastingage, 2011) ISBN 978-2-35060-022-2