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Curtain drops for Eiffel Tower puppet theatre before Paris Games

The marionette stage is over 120 years old
The marionette stage is over 120 years old - Copyright AFP Fabrice COFFRINI
The marionette stage is over 120 years old - Copyright AFP Fabrice COFFRINI
Pierrick YVON

Julien Sommer has been putting on a puppet show in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower since he was 15, filling his picturesque theatre with starry-eyed children and their parents several times a week.

But now Paris city hall is turning off the lights to make way for this summer’s Olympics, and the 38-year-old puppet master fears they may never come back on again.

Sommer’s theatre is in the way of construction work in preparation for the Games being held in the French capital.

The Champ-de-Mars, site of the French capital’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, is the site of the Paris 2024 beach volleyball competition.

Early January, Sommer received a letter from city hall — “by registered mail” he said — telling him that his lease agreement would be cancelled as of March 31 to allow work planned by the Olympic Committee at the famous site to begin. The six-year lease agreement was supposed to run to end-November.

“I always knew that I would have to close shop because of the Olympics,” Sommer told AFP.

“But this outright cancellation of the contract is traumatic because it leaves me with no prospect for the future. That’s stressful.”

He owns 350 puppets that he calls “the apple of my eye”, and performs three days per week all year around, and every day during school breaks.

– ‘We are shocked’ –

Located around 400 metres (1,300 feet) from the Eiffel Tower, the 150-seat theatre was  covered with a roof in 1978 by Luigi Tirelli, who won nationwide fame for his “guignols” performances thanks to a television show.

The puppet stage itself dates back to 1902.

“We are shocked by this brutal way of proceeding” by city hall, said Jean d’Izarny-Gargas, president of the Friends of the Champ-de-Mars neighbourhood association.

The puppet theatre has “heritage value”, he told AFP.

“It’s a fixture of the neighbourhood,” said Emmanuelle Vonceslau, 48, who came to see a performance of “Beauty and the Beast” with her two daughters, six and eight, on a recent rainy afternoon.

“It’s magnificent, the children love it and it would be a shame for it to close,” she said.

Four-year old Gustave, also in the audience that day, “feels sad” about the theatre’s imminent closure, said his grandmother Karima Chauvalon, 63.

Contacted by AFP, the Paris mayor’s office said that Sommer’s lease could potentially be renewed after the Games, but that he would have to submit to a competitive public tender procedure, which officials said was a legal requirement.

The theatre is not the only local kids’ attraction forced to decamp for the Olympics, which run from July 26 to August 11.

A nearby go-kart installation will have to leave by March, too.

– ‘It’s a sad sight’ –

A merry-go-round featuring wooden horses, believed to be Paris’s oldest, is already gone, as is a food stand alongside centenarian wooden swings.

The sites, and surrounding grass areas, have been cordoned off with wire fencing.

“It’s a sad sight of barricades and construction work,” said Lauren Carraud, a parent. “I’d much rather see our children’s gleaming eyes.”

Sommer says he makes a pre-tax 2,000 euros ($2,200) per month from the theatre.

Now he will lose that income for the foreseeable future, and will also have to rent storage space for the theatre’s set, props, benches and lights.

The mayor’s office told AFP that the theatre, and other affected businesses, “may receive compensation” for the forced closures.

They could also be given access to alternative sites during the Games, based on a selection process, officials said.

But Sommer hopes that he can eventually return to the same spot.

“This theatre is my life,” he said. “All I want is to come back and make the children dream.”

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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