A family of fairground showmen from Rive-de-Gier active from the later 19th century to the early 20th. The first encounter with puppets was in 1840 when Émile-Auguste Pitou was employed as a musician and scene-painter for Hubert Chok’s travelling theatre. The star of the show at this time was a character called Crasmagne, who has many similarities to the German Kasperl. The repertoire also included a number of the pieces collected by Carl Engel: Don Juan, Geneviève de Brabant, The Prodigal Son. Emile-Auguste learned to operate the puppets and became the associate of Chok, inheriting the fit-up in 1864 at the death of the latter. He developed his own repertoire, putting together melodramas, fairy plays and adaptations of some productions that had already been immensely successful on the Boulevard du Crime (Paris’s Boulevard du Temple). The company travelled widely and was well known around Lyon and in the Bourbonnais, Forez, Vivarais, Velay and Auvergne regions.
One evening in 1881, in Givors, Emile-Auguste Pitou died as he finished the show and a few days later the puppet stage (castelet) was destroyed by a storm. His son, Émile Pitou, tried unsuccessfully to continue, but was obliged to fall back on his skills as a painter. By 1884, he had a new and larger booth and his company became one of the largest of its sort, developing a new repertoire of fairy extravaganzas and farces: Pied de Mouton (Sheep’s Foot), Les Pilules du Diable (The Devil’s Pills), Victor, ou l’enfant de la forêt (Victor, or the Child of the Forest), La grâce de Dieu (The Grace of God). He also staged operettas and spectacular productions based on those of the Chatelet theatre in Paris (Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours Around the World in 80 Days), as well as operas without music (Mignon). He equipped the theatre with electric lighting and eventually even had a grid for flying scenery. Whilst many companies abandoned the older rod marionettes for all string figures, Émile Pitou retained the head rod until the end, but did have a small number of all-string variety figures, some of which were bought from the (English) firm of De Vere in Paris.
The Pitou family were famous for the character of Crasmagne who became very popular and, as the leading comic figure, was regularly announced in the role he would play.
In 1919, the Pitous put away their puppets and opened a cinema in Rive-de-Gier (Loire).
- Baty, Gaston. “Pitou”. Comoedia. 4 octobre 1932.
- McCormick, John. “A Travelling Marionette Theatre in 19th-century France – Le Grand Théâtre Pitou”. The Puppetry Yearbook V. Ed. James Fisher. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002, pp. 149-183.
- Pitou, Émile-Auguste. Carnet Pitou, 1892-1893. Manuscript. Paris: Musée des Arts et Traditions populaires.