For Simon Max, talented actor, bewitching tenor and star of the Belle Époque stage, it all began with a telegram.
For the whale it probably started in the chilly North East Atlantic.
The year is 1893 and Simon Max is at the peak of his Parisienne popularity. Far far away a large whale is rather unwell.
Not an easy life for major mammals
Today the majestic whale can suffer from scooping up plastic bags and general rubbish while touring the seas in search for krill. But in 1893 their suffering was likely to be a confrontation with one of the many Atlantic whalers.
Damaged and disoriented but still free, our whale swam south to the deadly shallows of the Seine Estuary.
Shortly afterwards on the morning of 21 October 1893 the town of Villerville woke up to a marine mammal tragedy, lifeless or nearly so, on its beach.
While the town’s people gawped and prodded, a shrewd employee of the local casino telegraphed its new proprietor Simon Max. Because the whale was worth a fortune.
In a few, increasingly smelly, days the town organised an auction and Simon Max travelled up from Paris with a grand idea and a determined glint in his eye.
Clearly a number of telegrams had been sent and bidding was fierce but Simon Max won the day and the whale, for the huge price of 450 francs. He may have paid a little over the odds, but he was an entertainer, a visionary and his plan was just beginning to unfold.
Not a speck of whale wasted
First the whale was taken to Le Havre. Experienced processors removed every scrap of valuable whale oil and blubber and paid Simon Max richly. By the time the bones (and skin) came back to Simon Max 15 days later it had been picked clean white.
Stage two of the Simon Max plan
Our entrepreneurial M. Max then shipped the remains to Paris, to a certain M. Boubée. This gifted naturalist proceeded to put the whale back together, following a few special instructions from its owner. The alterations would be obvious to anyone who had seen the original whale. It no longer smelt, had a lot of new ‘skin’ and had grown considerably.
The whole reconstruction took some months but in early 1894 it was ready and Villerville had a very new, very original attraction.
La Baleine (that’s French for ‘whale’) theatre!
A theatre, in a whale, now 17 metres long and big enough to hold a stage plus an audience of 99! The whale theatre was open for business. The first show? the ‘Jonah Review’. Of course.
Seating was available in the larynx, stomach or abdomen.
A roaring success!
That summer Villerville in Normandy could barely contain the number of visitors who came to see the amazing whale theatre and watch ‘Jonah’ from inside a whale.
Quickly our ambitious entrepreneur could see a bigger future for his theatre. To the dismay of Villerville, after the summer season the wonderful Whale Theatre boarded a train and went to Paris.
Whale theatre in the Casino de Paris
The whale theatre opened to excited crowds on the first floor in the Casino de Paris. Here it stayed earning a healthy profit for M. Max and the Casino, for some months.
Then in one day it was all over.
A fire destroyed the unique whale theatre belonging to Simon Max and took a fair chunk of the Casino with it.
Fortunately injuries to people in the Casino were minor. Less fortunate was the Casino’s decision to sue Simon Max for damages. He was furious and counter-sued instantly.
A clipping in Petit Journal 4 August 1895 revealed the outcome … was it negligence by M. Max or the Casino?
We are delighted to report that Simon Max was awarded 755 francs for the loss of his wonderful whale theatre, the like of which has never been seen again.
And that, as they say, would be that, but not for Villerville.
Remembered in Villerville today
Villerville still remembers the whale theatre and has in the last few years held a day of celebrations. You can join the Friends of the Villerville whale (French) on Facebook; it has lots of pictures and information about the theatre and annual celebrations.
Our visit. One evening in Villerville
Through an open window a lone pianist serenaded another perfect sunset in Normandy.
We stood on rippled sand to listen as the sonata rose and fell. Before us the sun gently fell behind a haze of lilac clouds, each moment perfectly reflected in silent pools around us. The sea a distant silver line.
At Villerville the tide backs away from a pretty shoreline to expose a mile of golden sand.
We meandered between shallow pools avoiding strange jellyfish and sharp blue mussels until darkness fell. At peace.