French puppeteer and showman. The career of this son of puppeteers is a good example of the movement that, in the 18th century, brought many Parisian fairground entertainers into the first Boulevard theatres. As early as 1742, Jean-Baptiste Nicolet’s father, Guillaume Nicolet, managed a troupe of puppet showmen, Le Théâtre des Comédiens de Bois (The Company of Wooden Actors), on sites that were under the jurisdiction of religious orders: free zones for the fairs, Saint-Germain at the end of winter (near Saint-Germain-des-Prés), and Saint-Laurent in the summer (near today’s Gare du Nord).
Jean-Baptiste, like his brother, learned his unconventional trade and became well known, but not without fierce struggles against the competition, at a time when rival company managers wouldn’t hesitate to resort to blows, or even to arms. In 1760, boosted by success, he bought the small theatre of a former competitor on the Boulevard du Temple. There he mixed puppet shows with rope dancers, jugglers, actors and animal trainers. His monkey was as well known as Brioché‘s Fagotin.
In 1766, Nicolet married Anne-Antoinette Desmoulins, formerly a puppeteer with Nicolas Bienfait II’s company (see Nicolas Bienfait), who became a popular performer with Jean-Baptiste. In 1772, Nicolet’s acrobats performed for Louis XV at Choisy, and the king gave the troupe the title of Grands-Danseurs du Roi, which it subsequently took as its name. But from the Revolution and the end of all royal privileges, in spite of his petitions, Jean-Baptiste Nicolet could not obtain authorization to unite his various activities. In 1792, he presented only shows with actors at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, the new name of the Théâtre des Grands-Danseurs du Roi. He managed this theatre with his wife until 1795, when they turned it over to one of the actors of the troupe, Louis-Francois Ribié. Each day, Nicolet managed to add some new surprise for his audiences, hence the proverb: “De plus en plus fort, comme chez Nicolet.” (“From strength to strength, as with Nicolet.”)