Obituary: Jerome Medrano

In 1937 Medrano joined Grock, the greatest of all clowns, in his act - his one foray into the spotlight
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The Independent Culture
JEROME MEDRANO inherited the most charming and fascinating circus in Paris. During his 35 years as head of Cirque Medrano - from 1928 to 1963 - he promoted all the great stars of the circus world, and many from the theatre including Josephine Baker, Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Marais, Mistinguett, and Jonny Hallyday. Prince Rainier was a frequent visitor, and Medrano cultivated friendships with the painter and designer Vertes and with Jean Cocteau, who designed a programme cover for one of his seasons.

The greatest of all clowns, the Swiss Adrien Wettach, better known as Grock, entertained in the ring of Cirque Medrano on three occasions, and in 1937 was joined in his act by Medrano himself, the circus administrator's one foray into the spotlight. A charming, distinguished, cultured man, Medrano preferred to remain in the background.

The reputation and fashionability of Cirque Medrano was established by the painters, poets and writers who thronged Montmartre in the second half of the 19th century. Art spawned the style of painting known as "Impressionism" and painters flocked to the intimate little circus building on the Rue des Martyrs/Boulevard Rochechouart in the heart of Pigalle, a stone's throw from the Moulin Rouge.

Under its pink-tinged spotlights, great painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Seurat and Renoir created sketches for some of their greatest works. Seurat, whose last studio was close by in the Passage de l'Elysee des Beaux-Arts, was captivated by the equestriennes and the clowns, while Degas painted "Miss La-La" hanging from her teeth in the roof of the circus, a picture now in the National Gallery in London.

The story of Cirque Medrano goes back to 1873 when Ferdinand-Constantin Beert pitched his modest tent on wasteland in Pigalle and stayed on to erect the Cirque Fernando wooden building. Among the several stable circuses in Paris at this era, it became a favourite of Parisian audiences because of its warmth and enticing intimacy.

In 1897, the clown known as "Boum Boum", Spanish-born Geronimo Medrano, a former acrobat and trapeze artiste, took over the running of the building, changing its name from Fernando to Medrano. On his death in 1912, he left a widow and a five-year-old son, Jerome. Management of the building was put into the hands of Rodolphe Bonten, who became Jerome's stepfather.

On attaining his majority, in 1928, Jerome Medrano - a young man with taste, culture and education and fresh ideas - seized his inheritance, and became the director of the Cirque Medrano. Completely refurbishing the building and restructuring the seating (even though it meant losing several hundred valuable seats), he improved the venerable building which had become known as "Le Cirque de Paris".

It was an era when the greatest clowns of Europe appeared in Paris and Medrano's taste in clown acts brought in as many as three leading groups to each programme in a period when the programme changed every two or three weeks. Thus were established the leading clowns of the French capital, the sensational Fratellinis, the brothers Albert, Paul and Francois, who changed their repertoires with each appearance.

Others like Alex and Porto, Rhum, Iles and Loyal, Little Walter and Charlie Rivel followed, and a young Charlie Cairoli, then known as Carletto, made his early debut in the Medrano ring with his father and Porto, later joined by his brother Philip. Carioli enjoyed tremendous success in Paris prior to his first appearance in Britain at the Blackpool Tower in 1939 where he remained for 39 years, until the end of his career.

Grock appeared at Cirque Medrano twice in the 1930s and once in the early 1950s, just before his retirement. In January 1937, he appeared without his regular partner Antonet, and only agreed to perform if Jerome Medrano acted as his "faire valoir". They rehearsed and rehearsed the music, the dialogue, the physical gags, until perfection was achieved, and in his own magical ring Jerome Medrano became a star alongside the greatest clown of all time.

Among the artistes he presented at Medrano, were the sensational Flying Codonas, the greatest juggler of all time, Enrico Rastelli, Alfred Court's remarkable wild animals, and the tightwire genius Con Colleano. He was not scared to experiment, however, and often introduced unusual attractions, including Elroy the Armless Wonder, Britain's comic talent Lauri Lupino Lane (son of the "Lambeth Walk" creator), the ballet of Georges Reich, the 22 musicians and dancers of the Scottish Royal Kiltie Juniors Band, the American singing stars the Peters Sisters, the harmonica talents of Larry Adler, and even the "Cake Walk". Gala performances included great stage and film stars like Fernandel, Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, and the French heart-throb singer Charles Trenet.

In 1936, Jerome Medrano was successfully running three circuses under the Medrano title, one in Paris, one in a semi-permanent construction in leading provincial towns, and one in a vast big top which toured France. Financial problems, however, caused by divorce from his first wife, Rachel Baquet, from a French circus family, whom he had married while in his early twenties, put paid to these extra activities in the summer of 1937.

Joining the Navy in the Second World War, Medrano came to Britain as part of the Free French secret service, undertaking dangerous missions for the French Resistance. In 1940 his circus in Paris was taken over by the occupying Germans, who installed a German circus to entertain their troops.

Three years later, Medrano was back in charge, and produced the crazy burlesque show Les Chesterfolies with the comic Gilles Margaritis, a huge success repeated some time later with Robert Dhery and Christian Duvaleix of "La Plume de Ma Tante" fame (it ran for some time at the Adelphi Theatre, London before going to Broadway), and again in 1956 with the famous French clown Zavatta.

Annie Fratellini, a descendent of the Trio Fratellinis, and herself one of the world's great clowns, made her debut at Cirque Medrano, and Buster Keaton staged a comeback as a comedian in the early 1950s, earning critical acclaim at a time when his career had all but ended in America.

After the war, Medrano spent several years in America, but continued to send unusual attractions to the circus which was managed for him. In the early 1950s he married Violette Schmidt, a beautiful dancer of acrobatic skill, who had graced the stages of several Parisian theatres and who became a regular in his ring, both as an artiste and as a presenter.

Ever mindful of the competition from the rival Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, Medrano continued to trawl for new acts. These included a complete Spanish circus, the German circus Carola Williams and the first complete troupe of the Hungarian State Circus outside its native environs. He even replaced the circus ring with an ice surface for a spectacular Circus on Ice starring Raymonde du Bief, and devised a way of suspending a huge, animal cage in the roof of the building that could be lowered into the ring in seconds, in which disported a group of snowy polar bears, presented by a Dutch girl on ice skates.

Probably none of his discoveries was as unusual, however, as the trapeze artiste Barbette, the circus world's first and only transvestite star. Other attractions included Don Saunders, from Britain, hailed as the "new Grock", who appeared there in 1956.

By a cruel stroke of fate, Medrano lost his circus to his arch-rivals, the Bougliones of Cirque d'Hiver, who had acquired the ground lease of the building, and eventually reclaimed it from him. It closed as Cirque Medrano on 7 January 1963, and the Bouglione family ran it as Le Nouveau Cirque de Montmartre for a few years as well as turning it into a restaurant.

Finally, it was demolished in November 1972 and has been replaced by an apartment block, Le Bouglione. While demolition proceeded, the clown Achille Zavatta, a former star at Cirque Medrano, visited in full clown make-up and costume, bearing a wreath, his eyes filled with tears at the death of a circus.

For over 30 years, since Medrano's closure, Jerome and Violette lived in Monaco. Here they attended the International Circus Festivals promoted by Prince Rainier each January. Jerome Medrano was enshrined into the International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana in 1996. His body was interred in the Medrano family vault at the little cemetery in Montmartre, close to the site of his cherished Cirque Medrano.

Jerome Medrano, circus owner: born Paris 18 May 1907; married firstly Rachel Baquet (marriage dissolved 1937), secondly Denise Baillard (divorced 1958; two sons), 1958 Violette Schmidt (one son, one daughter); died Monaco 14 November 1998.

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