Thursday, June 26, 2008
Fartmeister Extraordinaire, Le Petomane
That was entertainment!
Joseph Pujol, born in Marsaille in 1857, had an unusual talent. While swimming in the ocean as a child, he discovered that he could "inhale" a large volume of water by way of his anus. Later, as a soldier, he started practicing with air rather than water, and developed the technique of passing wind with no smell. Practice made perfect, and he was soon able to achieve a great variety of auditory effects in a range of pitches.
Pujol had a regular job as a baker, but worked up an act on the side and soon was able to support his family on his unique talent alone. He took the stage name of Le Petomane, "the fartomaniac," and toured France exhibiting this talent. Some performances were private, for men only, and explicit enough to assure the public that there was no trickery involved. One such session was attended by the King of Belgium.
In 1892, Le Petomane made his debut at the fabulous Moulin Rouge nightclub. His professional garb was an elegant costume consisting of a red coat with red silk collar, black satin breeches, black stockings, patent leather shoes, a white butterfly tie, and white gloves. Surely much of the humor originated in the contrast between this finery and the fundamental (pun intended) nature of his talent itself. His act started with a spoken introduction explaining the lack of stench, and went on to include the characteristic farts of the nun, the bricklayer, and those of other occupations. He could impersonate the firing of a cannon or the tearing of two yards of calico. Le Petomane performed a song, written by himself, in which he was a barnyard rooster describing the various animals and imitating their calls - puppy, older dog, blackbird, owl, duck, bee swarm, hen, cat, toad, nightingale, pig, and of course his own character, the rooster.
People laughed until they cried, and women fainted from mirth. Using a promotional gimmick later picked up by makers of horror movies, the theater management stationed uniformed nurses on the premises to aid audience members who were overcome with hysterical emotion.
Pujol also used a long rubber tube like a tail appended to his posterior. Through it he could smoke a cigarette, play the flute, and blow out the gas jets in the theater footlights. Even without the tail, he could blow out a candle located a foot away. His drawing power was such that he could earn twenty thousand francs in a single afternoon, and at the height of his fame he made more money than Sarah Bernhardt.
Then, as so often happens in show business, a dispute with management flared up. The Moulin Rouge sued Pujol for violation of contract because he had performed elsewhere, at the small business of a woman who owned a gingerbread stand, just to help her out. The night club replaced Pujol with a female imitator, but this second-rate imposter used a mechanical contraption to aid her talent. Pujol sued. The woman sued the local newspaper. And so it went.
Unlike many celebrities, Pujol refused to be drawn into controversial discussions. His only comment regarding political questions was, "Those who listen to only one bell, hear only one sound."
After parting company with the Moulin Rouge, Le Petomane built up his own travelling show, where some of his ten children and other hired performers danced and acted. The first World War ended his career. As Pujol aged, the Faculty of Medicine offered a sum of 25,000 francs for the privilege of examining his body after death, and though he did not object, his heirs refused the deal. He died in 1945 at the venerable age of 88.
The notoriety of Le Petomane had been presaged in St. Augustine's book City of God, written in the fifth century, which said, "Some people produce at will, without any stench, such rhythmical sounds from their fundament that they appear to be making music even from that quarter." His fame lived on in a filmed biography made in another country, in a street named after him in Marsaille, and in the movie Blazing Saddles, where a character is called Mayor Le Petomane.