Inside the Winter Circus

Emil Bouglione

Inside the Winter Circus

By Patricia Tennison

I stepped into Le Cellar for lunch, chilled from the quick walk. The owner, Christian, greeted me with the usual warm kisses on both cheeks and escorted me to the bar.

I struck up a conversation with the man beside me. He was well dressed, more so than the other habitués dropping in from work. He wore a pink shirt with impeccable white trim, a well-cut black jacket with a red scarf in the pocket—and a confidence that comes from at least 70 years of flirting with women. He bought me a drink. And a conversation began.

Christian poured us yet another drink, then said to me loud enough for both of us to hear, “Do you know who you are talking with?”

“Yes,” I replied. “A very charming man.”

Christian smiled at the coquettish remark. “This,” he said, “is Monsieur Bouglione.”

In France, this is the equivalent of saying “This is Mr. Barnum & Bailey.” Everyone knows the name. Bouglione is the circus family, of the Cirque d’Hiver, a colosseum-like monument opened by Emperor Napoleon III in the early 1850s, across the street from Le Cellar on rue Crussol in the 11th arrondissement.

Cuff links were a clue

It was only then that I noticed the “E.B.” embroidered on Emile Bouglione’s shirt cuff, and the heavy silver cuff links. He smiled, joined me at a table as I ate my lunch, and talked.

“It’s luck,” he said. He was just born into the family that gave him a chance to run a circus, to meet extraordinary people. “Tony Curtis, he was charming. Burt Lancaster—well, they filmed 'Trapeze' right across the street. Grace Kelly—oh, belle, belle.”

M. Bouglione stopped and reached into a pocket. He pulled out a creamy white envelope addressed to Monsieur Emile Bouglione with a return address from Monaco. Inside was this year’s Christmas card from Grace Kelly’s son, the reigning Prince Albert II of Monaco.

My duck with cepes was excellent. And so was the company.

“A man told me the other day that I was looking even better than usual,” M. Bouglione offered. “I said, ‘Thank you. It’s just a better brand of champagne than usual.’ ”

He sipped his glass of rosé. He continued, “Was I married? No, but my wife was.”

Inside—through the back door

Lunch wrapped up and M. Bouglione invited me to see his kingdom, performing right now. We crossed the street and entered through the back door of the Cirque d’Hiver, past the practicing jugglers, the beautiful women on horseback, the clown with his hair slicked up straight.

“Bonjour, patron,” nodded a stage hand who rushed to open the next door.

“She’s my daughter and she’s my daughter-in-law,” M. Bouglione said with a wink as he pointed to the two women on horseback. They threw him a kiss.

“She,” he said, as he kissed the woman selling balloons, “is my fiance.” She tolerated the joke. “And she is my fiance,” he repeated about another young woman selling booklets.

We stopped at the bar in the lobby and M. Bouglione opened a bottle of chilled champagne, Nicholas Feuillatte, blue label brut. He pointed to the painting behind him, portraits of his parents. “My parents, they gave me this life. I am very lucky.”

The show begins

Soon we were seated among the families, all eyes on the one ring. “Oh, this is good,” he said, as the lights beamed on an athletic couple who flew overhead, entwined like lovers.

The talent entered the ring for the greatest show in Paris: the acrobats, the trained birds, the horses, the clowns.

“This is my favorite,” he said. “C’est petit, mais bon.” Indeed, his favorite was over in just a minute, as a clown played ringmaster for eight dancing women—in tuxedos and shiny little bras—who kept all eyes focused toward the center as the next entertainers readied in the shadows.

M. Bouglione tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up to the orchestra platform. A saxophone introduced a note—not down in a tiny Paris cave but floating up high in this circus in the round, surrounded by red velvet and pumped-in smoky air.

M. Bouglione sighed and smiled. This is his circus, his Chocolate Factory.

He excused himself, and I lost myself in the show: The music that throbbed the back of my chair. The bicyclist, the clowns, the eight dancing women with long pony tails and high heels. The illusionist, who appeared and disappeared.

The photos: From left to right, the audience exits the Cirque d’Hiver, 110 rue Amelot, 75011; circus owner Emile Bouglione at the circus refreshment stand; horses perform inside the circus ring.

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