Hubert Fisbacq, the St. Dizier town architect, built a new corn exchange in La Place d’Armes (Armes Square). The exterior complemented the Town Hall style and was in the Neo-Classic design so in vogue during the mid-19th century under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. The first floor was transformed into a theatre and reception rooms some years later. At the end of the 19th century, quality plays with famous actors were staged, but the stage and audience section was small and uncomfortable and not popular with the townspeople.
In 1906, Dr Mougeot, the town mayor, commissioned the building transformation, creating an Italianate theatre by the Parisian architect Émile Ferrant. The decor was sober, just plain stone highlighted with gold. The theatre now had sufficient seating for 714 people and had three tiers. It was inaugurated in 1908 with a play by Henri Bernstein: ‘Le bercail’ (The sheepfold).
This era saw the start of prosperity and popularity, increasing in the 1920’s to include the influx of the great theatrical companies from Paris, among them the Odéon, the Comédie Française and the Édouard VII Theatre group. For the townspeople, the most popular performances were still the operettas!
Cinema took its bow early on. In 1913, the director Mr. Vauquelin obtained rights to show Pathé films and had two showings a week. The 1920’s saw the film repertoire increase to include comedies, dramas, news and documentaries. But competition was growing in rival cinemas and the director stopped showing Pathé films because of rising costs.
The theatre was requisitioned during the First World War, but the authorities allowed some performances as entertainment for the troops in what was called ‘The Soldier’s Theatre’.
The floral decorations and trompe-l’œil carvings that can be seen today were done by German prisoners of war after 1919.
Despite intervening conflicts, the theatre remains popular. More than just an Italianate theatre, it remains at the town’s heart for festivals and shows.
The Louis Aragon room was built in 1982 and it was after this that the theatre fell into neglect and in 2003 it was closed following a security inspection. The town council applied for and obtained a preliminary listing for eventual classification on the Historical Monuments list and a year after in 2008, renovation work was begun, lasting two years. The aim, an uncommon one in France, was to preserve the Italianate horseshoe shape, restore the 1920’s décor, provide efficient theatrical equipment and enlarge the orchestra pit. It can now hold an audience of 334 people.
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