Magical secrets of Paris
of Marvels, one of the trio of collections in this three-ring circus. The darkened room is like a Baz Luhrmann movie combined with a Diane Arbus circus photo: grandiose, lush, lurid and a little bit creepy. It’s a place where fin-de-siècle oddities compete for your attention: toy theaters, mermaids posing provocatively in L’isle aux Trésors (Treasure Island), mechanized fortune tellers (like the one from the movie Big), feathered dancing ladies and gilded Egyptian statues. But also: a wooden leg, a large disembodied model hand with fortune-telling lines painted on it and, in the courtyard, arms holding candlesticks protruding from the trees. In one room, a half-woman, half-unicorn looms ominously over a player piano and, as my English brochure tells me, is said to play by telepathy. Music can be heard throughout the tour — mostly from Favand’s collection of restored organs, some of which have been computerized. It’s the kind of sprightly vaudevillian march music you associate with circuses and carnivals, but when it comes from antique instruments, it resonates more deeply. That’s because some of these organs have a serious set of pipes. One mechanical organ, which uses a punch card to cue its notes, was so powerful I could feel the tune vibrating through my body. Another organ played Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 — famous from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and suitable, considering all the masks you’ll see on this tour — and all the children in the room began to dance. Entire rooms are built around music. In the Salons Vénitiens, a collection of Italian artifacts, one of the highlights is a red-curtained ballroom with masked figurines from the Venetian Carnival peering down at you. At Bedeau’s cue, the animatronic actors begin to “sing” — or at least mechanically gesture along to a recording of the best-known songs from operas such as La Traviata and Lakmé. Think a highbrow version of the automated, anthropomorphized guitarplaying animal robots of the Rock-afire Explosion at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Once Favand acquired those figures, he commissioned an engineer to create the computerized system that brings them to life. “He’s like a stage director,” Bedeau said. “He thinks it’s like a stage here.” If that’s the case, Favand’s production has the most incredible set — thanks, in part, to his eye for the dramatic. Much of the museum is in darkness, with spotlights highlighting prized objects. When you emerge from the cave-like pavilions, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust. “The dark is very important for him,” Bedeau said — it’s a tool to “create mystery.” Mystery is already abundant. The warehouse where Favand stores his collection is “forbidden to journalists.” Bedeau said Favand will not say how many items he owns. Some have pegged it at approximately 50,000. But the tour guide says that the objects on display represent less than 10 per cent of the collection. Many of them required hours of painstaking restoration. Why, then, let people touch — and potentially ruin — them? Favand, Bedeau said, “thinks that objects are alive because you play with them.” They die not when they are broken, but when they are ignored. Things break all the time in the museum, Bedeau said, but that is not their worst fate: “So they are ruined, maybe, but alive.” We mounted a carousel that dates to 1900 and, in its present incarnation, is a conglomerate of the best parts of other carousels. You’d never be able to tell if it weren’t for a few provided clues: ears that are pointing forward indicate a German carousel horse, but ears that are straight are French. (They aren’t on this ride, but it’s even easier to spot an English carousel horse — they look to the left because English carousels turn clockwise.) One scene from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was shot on this ride. A waltz honked out of the organ as the horses bumped up and down, and exhilarated kids grinned. I felt light. I was on vacation in Paris and had spent the previous day drinking wine, eating steak tartare and walking the grand boulevards. But I didn’t truly relax until I hopped onto a carousel. The next ride didn’t have any horses at all. We approached a carousel with no platform — just a metal cage encasing the wheels of a circle of connected, oversize bicycles. Built in 1897 in Belgium, this carousel is self-propelled: Visitors climb on a bike and pedal to get it moving. It’s said to be one of two remaining in the world. “In order for it to work better, I need sporty people older than 12 years old,” Bedeau said in French. (Younger kids could ride on a bench, where they wouldn’t have to pedal.) In English, he added: “Please join us on this carousel. It can go very fast, up to 64 kilometres per hour.” He wasn’t lying. We all pedalled furiously, and the ride creaked and squeaked as much as you’d expect for a nearly 120-year-old amusement. By the end, we were all flushed and dizzy — and ready to do it again. Favand, the eccentric owner, is counting on his guests to give his rides life. Really, it’s the other way around.
The Musée des Arts Forains features turn-of-the-century games, decorations, theatrical sets and this wonderful, vintage carousel.