Meet SBF Member, Michel Ben Lahoussine, born and raised in his early years in Germany along with his younger brother, Mehdi Ben Lahoussine. Traditionally, in many circus families, citizenship stays indefinite and the Lahoussines have settled on this custom. Shortly after World War II the whole family moved to Paris, hence the Rios Brothers, as they are known in showbusiness, are generally perceived as French circus artists.
Their Moroccan father, Djamaa Ben Lahoussine, headed a well-known troupe of Moroccan tumblers, The Rios, from which the brothers have retained their stage name.
When the Rios Brothers began working as "Icarists", the most famous Risley duet, was The Akeffs, an Egyptian act pursuing a brilliant international career and setting the standards by which other similar acts were judged. By the end of the 1960s, the Rios Brothers’s Risley act had taken over that role and become the standard of reference - and still is today, as most Risley duets are built on the model set by Michel and Mehdi Rios. Subsequently their career has evolved into Revue productions, which they have exported all over the world.
Read this interview and find out about how their transition from being solidly established Icarists to becoming show makers occurred...
...The world is a stage... and I'm not about to leave!
What was it like being born into a circus family?
Actually, it was not a circus family. At the time, my father, Djamaa Ben Lahoussine was a Moroccan variety artist - tap dancer and acrobat. He met my mother, Brigitte Bartel, who was the German daughter of a successful Jewish tailor, in Königsberg, Germany. We came to France 1948, when I was six and my
brother, Mehdi was three and I went to a boarding school for a year, while our parents worked at the Cirque Amar. Vacation time was my first encounter with a circus.
By the time I was eight I was in the ring, as part of my father's acrobatic troupe. My professional debut was in a pantomime called Fan of the Fair, in a London theatre.
What was your circus education like and how were your skills used in the beginning in your father's troupe?
As all circus kids, we did everything, from tumbling, to wire walking, to contortion. I was a tumbler in my father's troupe and I was very good. The reason why I was so good was because my father wanted me to be better than the other acrobats in his troupe.
Along with your brother Mehdi and fellow icarist, you created your own Risley act. Can you tell us what a Risley act is?
A Risley Act is performed by acrobats called "Icarists". One acrobat, lying on his back, juggles with his feet another acrobat, just like he was a prop. In French it is called Jeux Icariens, named after the Greek mythological character Icarus, who is known to be the first one to attempt flying. In English it is called a Risley Act, because it is named after the Risley family who developed this type of act in the 19th century.
The Rios brothers, premiered at the Cirque d'Hiver - Bouglione in Paris in 1957. Can you please tell us about the premier and the training involved in creating the act?
Circus schools didn't exist in those days. We trained for 4 years before our first live performance, firstly with our father and then with Augusto Lesi, whose teaching methods were particularly grueling, at the legendary Gymnase de la Cité du Midi, in Paris, where many new circus acts were created.
When we started, the act was only a fraction of what it was to become in the late 1960s. In 1959, we got our first real break at the Casino de Paris in the show Plaisirs, with Line Renaud.
When did you make the transition from circus to cabaret?
...To have had such an incredible amount of varied experiences has given me a much broader understanding of the world in which we live...
In 1963 we were hired by the Moulin Rouge for a year. That was followed by the Casino Du Liban in Beirut. After that we did 12 years at the Lido de Paris, two years at the Moulin Rouge and then the Stardust in Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, now known as Bally's, also in Las Vegas.
How did working at the Lido and Moulin Rouge in Paris and the MGM Grand and Stardust in Las Vegas compare with the circus?
The girls were prettier and taller! We didn't have to help to put up or take down the tent...
You have performed for numerous public figures and Heads of State. Which of them is the one you are most proud of and what memories do you treasure from that performance?
Our proudest performance was at a private audience for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. At the end he congratulated us… in French.
What's your most memorable show and the highest moment of your life as a performer?
It was the première of Grand Prix at the Lido in Paris in 1969. I have never seen so many famous international stars from movies, politics, stage … they were all there. It was the famous gypsy themed opening, where all the guests were dressed as gypsies. This included such famous people as Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dalì, Romy Schneider, Alain Delon. It was a fantastic audience!
What awards have you won as Icarists?
We received numerous awards, from the Silver Clown in the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, in 1976, to the World Championship, in London and everything in between.
However, in this profession it is not what you win, but rather where you have worked. I guess we should have received an award for having worked for months at the Lido & Moulin Rouge at the same time - 7 days a week - 2 shows in both places - and coming back for the finale!
What was your most challenging show?
Radio City Music Hall, where we did four shows a night for six weeks, without a day off and we did the Ed Sullivan Show at the same time! Another challenge was, while performing at the Big Apple Circus in NYC, we went to London on our day off to do a TV show at The Palladium and returned the next day to work at the Big Apple.
What's your funniest moment on stage?
One night when we were working at the Big Apple Circus in New York, Michael Jackson was in the audience and during our act, people recognised him and started chanting: "Michael! Michael!". We couldn't work - so we left the ring!
Your career has covered both sides of showbiz, in front and behind the scenes. How did your artistic journey progress into creating the successful production company, Rios Productions?
...I went to a boarding school for a year, while our parents worked at the Cirque Amar. Vacation time was my first encounter with a circus. By the time I was eight I was in the ring, as part of my father's acrobatic troupe...
It was being in the right place at the right time, but I must confess that it all started with a big bluff! In 1986 we returned from Sun City and went straight to the Sheraton Grande Walker Hill Hotel in Seoul for 3 months, where we befriended Mr. Kato, a well known promoter from Japan. On our return to the Lido, one night he visited us and told me he came to Europe to launch an ice show in Austria, but this show went bankrupt...
We had never created a show before, but the temptation was irresistible! There's nothing like starting at the top... So, half joking, I told him: "We can do that, Mehdi's wife, Iris is a champion ice skater and she knows the skating world...". At that time we were rehearsing at the old Lido, just before starting a new contract at the new Lido. I had the old Lido's keys - Eric Clerico was and still is, a good friend - so I took Mr. Kato there and showed him the stored old Lido costumes and told him that... yes, I could have them! He believed it! We did our first show with 25 performers on stage, with some costumes David Moore had bought from Charley Henchis and we restored for a bloody fortune. All this was done down in the old Lido, which became for a while "our" place. We overpaid all the performers, lost money, but had fun... After that we did 11 more big shows in South Korea, also in Japan, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam, New York, Paris, etc.
click anywhere on the image below to watch video
What type of productions do you have?
We have created about 40 productions over the years in Paris, NYC, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Seoul, Busan, Kuala Lumpur, on cruise ships, etc. I would say we have hired about 1000 artists over the years. We have given jobs to singers, dancers, variety acts, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, choreographers...
How have your showbiz years helped you in your life outside of the stage?
The world is a stage... and I'm not about to leave! To have had such an incredible amount of varied experiences has given me a much broader understanding of the world in which we live.
What advise would you give to up and coming performers?
Don't copy others. Create your own performance value, based on your own talents.
From your experience, what are the "DOs & DON'Ts" of this business?
Don't break a contract or go back on your word, if you have agreed to an engagement.
...I would say we have hired about 1000 artists over the years. We have given jobs to singers, dancers, variety acts, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, choreographers...
How has entertainment changed during your showbiz years?
Budgets and salaries have stagnated, therefore creativity has become somehow restricted.
What are your plans for the future?
For the last two years we have been running a show in Paris, which is very satisfying. The cabaret, Cesar Palace Paris, is owned by Frank Clerico. It is the epitome of a variety show and brings back the "old show biz" feeling, but it is quite up-to-date and not stuck in the 70s, like so many cabaret shows. So, we are continuing with this. I don't solicit for jobs anymore, so if something comes by that is appealing, we do it - we are presently preparing the show for the Casino Barrière in Deauville.
If you had the chance, who would you thank for what you have achieved in your life?
The first part of my career is thanks to my brother Mehdi and the second part of my career is thanks to my wonderful wife Nancy.
What do you think of ShowBiz Friends?
I think it's great to have a good website like this and that you have the courage, time and interest to do this is appreciated, because it links people together again in our small world of showbiz. It is a special sort of world, after all...
Thank you Michel for sharing your showbiz life with us in this great interview, congratulations on your remarkable career and may it continue for many, many years to come!