Updated Oct 7 and Nov 13, 2012
Major discovery Nov 23, 2012: The Cabaret was still open for business when the Haunted Mansion opened in 1969.
Time to get our noses out of the Ancient Near East and back into the Victorian era, where we find more direct sources of inspiration for the Haunted Mansion. Back HERE I discussed briefly the Cabaret du Néant, with a link HERE to Cory's treatment of the subject, which is largely given over to quoting a lengthy passage from Bohemian Paris of To-day (J.B. Lippincott, 1900). It was written by W. C. Morrow from notes by Edouard Cucuel (the book also includes Cucuel's sketches). It's very good, very interesting, and a valuable source, but buyer beware; it's a second-hand account, and in places it's inaccurate. However, there are descriptions of the C du N published in other sources too, plus a lot of photos.
There is little doubt in my mind that the Cabaret du Néant was a direct source of inspiration for the Haunted Mansion. My reasons for thinking so will emerge with a fresh description of the Néant experience, drawn from several sources, as well as a closer look at the special effects used in the Néant show. I do not think these tricks have ever been explained accurately, so if you think you know the Cabaret well enough already—think again.
A bit of background. The pub originally opened in Brussels in 1892 as the "Cabaret de la Mort" (i.e. the Cabaret of Death), but it soon moved to the Montmartre district of Paris, where it was renamed the "Cabaret du Néant" ("néant" = nonexistence, obliteration, nothingness, death). The Montmartre district was THE place to be if you were an artiste in the second half of the 19th c. It seems like all of the important Impressionist painters lived there or hung out there. In the 1890's, it was bursting at the seams with cabarets and theaters, including fully-themed nightclubs. Practically across the street from the Cabaret du Néant, for example, were the "Cabaret of Heaven" and the "Cabaret of Hell," side by side. The waiters dressed as angels in the former and devils in the latter. Guess which one this is:
The famous Moulin Rouge cabaret is still there, but otherwise these pubs and theaters are all gone.
. . . Come to the Cabaret.
Shall we pay a visit? Oh, do let's. The street façade of the CdN is like a house dressed for mourning in traditional French fashion, with austere black and white coverings, although there is a skull and crossbones on the front door. There are two large, iron, torch-like lamps throwing yellowish-green light down on all who pass by. That kind of colored light makes people look shockingly sick and corpse-like, so we're already getting in the mood. In October of 2012 I discovered a photo showing the façade in the early days. In it, the two lamps can be seen:
The walls are decorated with skulls (which serve as dim lamps), sculpture, and posters with grim slogans such as "Life is a folly which Death corrects," "To be or not to be," and "Requiescat in Pace," as well as No Smoking signs, price lists, and notices that candles are available for 10 cents. More importantly, there are paintings all over the walls depicting death and carnage. Battle scenes, a guillotine in action, and in later times, a painting of an automobile with a demonic driver, running people down—at least I think that's what this is:
Upon entering, you are met with "Welcome, moribunds," or "Welcome, weary wanderer, to the kingdom of Death," or "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity," or some other greeting striking the same tone as "Welcome, foolish mortals." Better get used to it. You and your friends will be continually addressed as "mortals," "coffin worms" (asticots de cercueil), and "Maccabees," the latter term being a slang expression for anonymous cadavers found floating in the river. In an account from 1931, it says that the staff at that time received guests by chanting a mass for the dead. The staff are all instructed not to smile or do anything else to break the solemn atmosphere, much like HM butlers and maids. That includes the waiter, who seems to mean it when he says "Name your poison." The mixed drinks and the beer are all renamed after deadly microbes and bacteria of various diseases. The waiter will plop them down before you, saying something like, "Drink, coffin worms. Drink these loathsome poisons filled with the deadliest germs."
A man in clerical garb eventually enters and gives a lengthy speech in morbid detail about the horrors of death, progressing from the variety of gruesome and agonizing ends awaiting individuals to the miserable fates of mankind in general.
Here the place gets interesting.
As he commences this portion of the lecture, the speaker points to a painting depicting a battle scene. According to Morrow, it begins to glow, making its details clear (remember, it's pretty dark in there). Then the glow fades away, and the painting has changed. The human figures in it are now all skeletons. The same thing happens with a painting of a guillotine chopping away. When the glow fades, the figures are now skeletons. Another painting shows a festive ball. Glow and fade. Now the dancers are all skeletons.
In my earlier treatment I quoted without objection Albert Hopkins' explanation of this effect (written in 1901). He suggests that the paintings are transparencies with one scene painted on one side and another on the other, the second one becoming visible when illumined from the rear. I now think that explanation is inadequate. It doesn't really account for the effect as described by Morrow. The paintings light up and then fade back down, revealing a skeletonized version of the same scene. How would you do that with a single, two-sided cloth? The effect could be produced, however, by having two paintings layered very close to each other, much like the panes in a double-pane window.
In that earlier post, I drew a parallel between the CdN changing-painting effect and the attic wedding pictures and portrait hall paintings of the HM. If the above explanation is acceptable as a more satisfactory accounting for the effect as described, then the parallel between the Cabaret du Néant and the current Disney versions is extremely close indeed.
If you bought a drink while in the first room, you got a ticket entitling you to enter the Chambre de la Mort. You now take your puny candle and follow a man in Capuchin monk's garb single file through an arched doorway (painted to look like stone), down a narrow flight of steps, with green and yellow lighting once again, making everyone look cadaverous.
At the end of the steps is an antechamber where you wait your turn. The show repeats about every half hour, and only 15 or 20 are admitted at a time. To amuse yourself while you wait, you can look through holes or niches in the brickwork at gruesome tableaux, "studies of cholera patients, of persons buried alive, and similar cheerful subjects" (NYT Apr 9, 1894). Morrow (Cucuel) speaks of "bones, skulls, and fragments of human bodies." At last a cowled figure with only his eyes visible comes in and produces a large iron key, unlocking the spiked iron gate at one end of the room and opening it with a harsh grating sound. The monks mournfully announce that you have arrived at the Gates of Death, and in you go. There is an item inside, near the entrance: "By a clever arrangement of mirrors one sees one's self on entering reflected lying in a coffin" (NYT '94), which seems like a good idea since you can then see for the first time what you yourself look like under greenish-yellow lighting.
This part of the Cabaret du Néant show is justly famous. An upright coffin is visible in a narrow doorway at the far end of the room, which was hung in black in early years but later on left exposed, having been painted to look like stone vaulting. Also in early years, a pretty young lady was already in the upright coffin when you came in. She would smile and wink and then grow silent. While the monk guide kept up his groaning soliloquy about death and decay, she turned into a decaying corpse and finally a skeleton, right before your eyes. The process was then reversed, but instead of the young lady a fat old man returned. He would leave the coffin, and the monks would ask for a volunteer from the audience who would like to experience death. In later times they went straight to this phase and skipped the earlier stunt. Not missing a single detail, the Cabaret folks have a harmonium and an iron bell offstage somewhere, providing dirge music and solemn tolls at appropriate times.
I especially like this last set because it really shows the excellent trompe l'oeil work in this chamber, transforming blank wall into convincing arches and stonework through skillful use of the paintbrush.
The trick is done, of course, using the Pepper's Ghost illusion, which requires only a big sheet of glass and careful manipulation of the lighting. But here again, I think Albert Hopkins' explanation is inadequate. He's got a simple two-chamber set up, turning the coffin occupant into a skeleton and back again. With this arrangement, the sense of gradual transformation would be enhanced through the use of colored light. The light on the volunteer goes from normal to greenish-yellow before fading down, while the skeleton is gradually lit up.
There may even be a photograph of the intermediate, rotted-corpse stage as described by Morrow: