Who are the "Toone"?

The oldest Toone dates back from 1830. He was born in 1804 and was called Antoine Genty. He had an exceptionally long "reign" of forty-five years. Between 1830 and 1890 Toone, which is short for "Antoine" in the Brussels dialect, played "Ourson et Valentin", "Vivier et Malgase", "Les Quatre Fils Aymon" and a number of religious plays. He was seen in the area of the Rue des Sabots (presently Rue de Wynants), Rue du Miroir, Rue des Vers (Rue Pieremans), Rue Christine and the Impasse des Liserons, before ending his days in a home.

Toone II (1848-1895), also known as Jan van de Marmit because his theatre was called "In de Marmit", was actually named François Taelemans. He played from 1865 until he died. He lived in the same building as Toone the Elder, who became his son’s godfather. He too never left the quarter of the Marolles. And he was the one who is going to be called Toone II in the genealogy that was established by the "Les Amis de la Marionnette" (the friends of the puppet) in 1931.

Georges Hembauf (1866-1898), Toone III, was trained by François Taelemans. His nickname was "Toone de Locrel" as he had established his puppet cellar in the Impasse de Locrel that borders on the Rue de la Rasière. In the newspaper "La Réforme", he declares in 1897 that his theatre was the only one of the about fifteen theatres in the Brussels region that did not loose its public and saw its reputation increase. He employed ten workers and a chief scene-shifter, and a collection of four hundred puppets. His repertoire encompassed no less than 1000 pieces, under which "La Belle Gabrielle", "La Guerre de Charlemagne", (the war of Charlemagne) "Le Bossu" (the hunchback), "Hamlet" and "La Bataille de Waterloo" (the battle of Waterloo).

The history of the Toones gets complicated as there was another legitimate pretender to the title of Toone III : Jan Schoonenburg (1852-1926), hatter by trade. Because his hat covered his abundant hair, he was called "Jan de Crol" (Curly John). According to Louis Quiévreux, a journalist, he was undoubtedly a great artist. When he played "Les Trois Mousquetaires" (The Three Musketeers), "Vingt Ans Après" or "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne", he performed them for two months, and every night one would notice the same regular visitors sitting on the benches. But the competition between the dance-halls and the cabarets became increasingly tough, and Toone de Crol ended up losing his public. One evening in 1926 he was found hung among his puppets.

Jean-Baptiste Hembauf (1884-1966) the son of Toone de Locrel, directed his theatre as Toone IV for thirty years. For the first time, the name Toone was passed on from father to son. Since his father had sold all his puppets, he started working together with a puppet manufacturer, Antoine Taelemans, the son of Toone II. It was Toone IV who created the play "Le Mystère de la Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ" on the 30th of March 1934, a puppet play which had been written down by Michel de Ghelderode according to oral tradition. He also warmly approved the choice of Jef Bourgeois, a painter from the Marolles, as the guardian of the puppet play, and invested José Géal with the sword of the puppet Charlemagne before he crowned him Toone VII.

Daniel Vanlandewijck (1888-1938) came into office as Toone V in a cellar of the Impasse Sainte-Thérèse. Everything went well until the day when the Commission for Hygiene of the City of Brussels decided to close the hall for reasons of insalubrity. In a fit of depression, Toone V sold all his puppets. However, a small group called "Les Amis de la Marionnette" (the friends of the puppet) was willing to save this essential element of the Brussels folklore. Its members were, amongst others, Adolphe Max, Burgomaster of Brussels, Marcel Wolfers, a sculptor-jeweler (who had bought the collection of puppets that was in danger of being dispersed and offered it to the new theatre) and Jef Bourgeois, who became the first curator of the theatre. The new hall in Rue Christine was inaugurated in the presence of Adolphe Max on the 31st of March 1931.

Because this hall was too small, the theatre of Toone V soon moved to the Impasse de Varsovie, where the first "pornographic" performance took place. During this play, a stark naked Woltje has a lot of fun with a "toffe mokske" (nice girl) in his bed. The puritan part of the audience shouted "Curtain !", and urged by the right-minded press, the theatre had to close for several days. Daniel Vanlandewijck passed away in the Hospital Saint-Pierre in May 1938.

Pierre Welleman (1892-1974), also known as "Peïe Pââp" (Peter with the pipe), takes over in the Impasse de Varsovie as Toone VI. However, during a November night in 1944, the only V-bomb that fell on Brussels hit the ground only a few steps away from Toone’s cellar. Seventy-five puppets were destroyed in the disaster. Because the door of the cellar was smashed to bits and its roof collapsed, Pierre Welleman gathered the debris of his troupe, took it to the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and stored the puppets in an old stable that had been transformed into a cart depot.

On the occasion of the creation of the "Farce de la Mort qui faillit trépasser" (farce of the death who almost passed away) by Toone VI, Michel de Ghelderode wrote an homage to all Toone’s : "Toone, Rex Marollorum". In October 1956, Toone VI was forced to move and he installed his small universe in café "Le Lievekenshoek" (lover’s corner) on the Place de la Chapelle. But television, second residences and caravans, football and the growth of the car park kept the public away from the "poechenellekelder" (puppet cellar). The death-blow came in March 1963, when Toone VI was expropriated once more. His old age and ill health prevented him from fighting back.

Once again, it was Jef Bourgeois, the curator of the museum, who saved the puppets by creating "Les Amis de Toone" (the friends of Toone). This group was temporally housed in the cellars of the Maison du Roi on the Grand Place. Jef Bourgeois, together with Jean-Baptiste Hembauf, insisted that José Géal, who had had a great success with his interpretation of "La Tentation de Saint-Antoine" (the temptation of Saint-Anthony) on his farewell party, assured the continuation of the Toone dynasty.

José Géal, a man of popular Brussels descent, had the advantage of being a professional puppet player . After having been an actor for the National Theatre of Belgium for two years, he created the "Theatre des Enfants" (children’s theatre) in 1954. It was the first professional puppet theatre for children. After the World Exposition of 1958, where he received a gold medal, he started to make programs for the Belgian Radio and Television. He is the father of "Plum-Plum" and "Bonhommet et Tilapin". In 1962, he was elected president of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (International Union of the Marionette) during a meeting in Warsaw.

José Géal was enthroned as Toone VII at the Place de Brouckère on the 10th of December 1963. With the support of Toone IV (Hembauf) and Toone VI, he gave the Toone Theatre the statutes of a non-profit association. He also managed to acquire a dilapidated 17th century house in the Ilot Sacré, in the middle of the Petite Rue des Bouchers. After a rough renovation, the Toone Theatre was inaugurated with "La Passion" by Michel de Ghelderode on the 1st of April 1966. It was not until 1979 that the final restoration of the theatre could be carried out.

On September 16, 2000, for the 40th anniversary of the Free Commune of Ilot Sacré, José Géal yields for the first time its place to his son Nicolas Géal who interprets all the voices of "Duvelor ou la Farce du Diable vieux" (Duvelor or the Joke of the old Devil) from Michel de Ghelderode. In front of a conquered room, the Burgomaster of Brussels, François-Xavier de Donnea, exclaims: "the taking over is ensured!".

Forty years day for day after the enthronement of his father by Jean-Baptiste Hembauf, on December 10, 2003, it is the turn of Nicolas Géal to be established in the Town hall under the name of Toone VIII, under the aegis of Freddy Thielemans, Burgomaster of the town of Brussels. At this occasion, Nicolas Géal interprets "Genevieve of Brabant", opera for puppets from Erik Satie, accompanied on the piano by the virtuoso Pierre-Alain Volondat, prize winner of the Queen Elizabeth International Contest in 1983.

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