The Carré Theatre and its circus origins
Carré Theatre is one of the most iconic buildings along the Amstel River in Amsterdam and a favourite venue for musicals, cabaret, pop concerts and festivals such as International Documentary Film Festival. Interestingly, it was originally intended as a circus performance venue, and at times, to this day, it still hosts spectacular circus performances, such as the annual World Christmas Circus!
Founded in 1887, the German circus director Oscar Carré was searching far and wide for a venue for circuses and eventually Circus Carré was built. This was during an era when circus performance was in its heyday and the most prolific circus companies were resident in permanent bricks-and-mortar premises.
Nowadays, we are all familiar with the idea of the colourful round tent with a pointed roof, where travelling circuses set up temporarily. Carré’s company gave circus performances in such tents on the Amstelveld until finally, Oscar Carré made plans to build a majestic circus building.
Building a permanent home for Oscar Carré’s company
First, a circus theatre was built for Carré's company entirely of wood, but it had to be demolished by order of the municipality, as it was a fire hazard. The wooden theatre was pulled down and a stone one was built in its place, which was completed in an impressively speedy eight-month construction period. The architects were J.P.F. van Rossem and W.J. Vuyk, who designed it in a neo-renaissance style.
The award-winning 19th-century sculptor Bart van Hove, professor at the Rijksacademie at the time, was brought on board to provide circus-themed decorations. On the façade, there are some clown head decorations and circus horses. During the restoration and renovation in 2004, many murals were also discovered. On a relatively small site, there was room for both a circus track and a variety theatre, and 2.000 spectators in the stands.
Carré got his inspiration from the circus theatre in Cologne, which had been built in 1878, after a design by H Nagelschmidt. Although some aspects may have changed over time, the theatre we see today on the Amstel was built to be almost identical to the one in Cologne: a round track with a stage floor, surrounded by three wings.
Mixed public reactions
At the opening night of the first-ever performances of the Carré theatre, the press praised the atmosphere in the foyers, which were illuminated by gas lamps and full of lavish decoration. The visitors were also very enthusiastic: this was a new cultural venue that the growing bourgeoisie of Amsterdam could enjoy.
Some were critical, however, specifically about the imperfection of the connections of the circular track on the square plot of land. Many also made a big deal of the fact that the architects of the Carré stood in the shadow of Dolf van Gendt, the architect of the Concertgebouw. In 1912, 25 years after the Carré Theatre was built, the iconic Amsterdam architect Berlage said that the architects of the Carré Theatre had been much too rooted in the past.
Carré – a famous name in the history of circus
Oscar Carré was born in Germany to a circus family. His father Wilhelm Carré was a circus director. His Dutch mother Cornelia Adriana de Gast was a famous horse-rider. In 1863, the family moved to the Netherlands and Oscar took over from his father as circus director.
Once the theatre was built, the Carré family lived in an apartment above the theatre (where nowadays you'll find the grand Loge Foyer) from November to April, and then they toured for the rest of the year all over Europe. They also had a villa in Hees, near Nijmegen, where they had a stable for the horses and cottages where the circus crew could stay when they weren’t on tour.
Carré, as well as being a circus director, was a skilled marketer and he was also a pioneer in film, responsible for some of the earliest Dutch film images, including the inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898.
From circus to pop concerts
The circus fell on hard times after Carré’s death, and further hampered by the rise in cinemas. From 1893 onwards, vaudeville shows were added to the theatre’s roster and these shows became so popular, that it was transformed from a circus venue to a place for vaudeville, cabaret, musicals and pop concerts.
The circus eventually went bankrupt, but Oscar’s legacy in the circus world continued thanks to some of his descendants who continued the family tradition. In particular, one of his grandsons and one of his great-granddaughters became successful circus performers.
The theatre’s name and purpose may have changed over the years, but with its origins in mind, today’s Carré Theater is a head-turning landmark that does justice to an important and fascinating thread of Amsterdam’s backstory.