The Whale Theatre

Every kid loves to think about Jonah in the belly of the big fish. Just like the Baron Münchhausen in the whale, or Pinocchio in the shark, living for some time inside one of these great sea animals is a fantastic idea which inspired artists and writers for centuries.

Well, you can probably guess what we are about to tell you. Yes, somebody actually lived inside a fish. Better yet, he built a theatre out of it.

This is Simon-Max, a French opera-bouffe tenor (1852-1923). He maily performed in Paris, but once he reached wide acclaim he managed to diversify his business, and in 1893 he already owned a casino in Villerville, a coastal city in Lower Normandy.

Just about at the time he opened his casino, news arrived that a whale was beached near the town. It was actually not so unusual for whales to end up beached on the coast of Normandy due to the low tide, as shown in this postcard published that same year (1893).

Simon-Max bought the whale from the local fishermen, and sold the oil and meat obtained from the animal. But then he decided that  he was going to try something unprecedented, using its skin. He built a theatre-museum inside the mounted cetacean.

The size of the animal in the original poster ads may be a little exaggerated, but they convey the idea of what the theatre might have looked like. The public entered through the whale’s mouth, watched the show in the interior room, which could host almost a hundred people, then exited through a small door in the tail. This attraction, called Théatre-Baleine (whale theatre), earned Simon-Max a huge amount of money, and made the city of Villerville quite famous for over a year. The tenor, inside his whale, performed an act called Jonas Revue (“Jonah Revisited”) which quickly became a hit.

The whale theatre was then transferred to the Paris Casino, but the following winter was completely destroyed by a fire.


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