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Entertainment Arts and Sports: One Man Connects Them All



By Bennet Liebman

There may be maybe some cynical individuals who consider the fields of entertainment, arts and sports law to be separate areas of legal practice. These individuals might similarly consider the Entertainment Arts and Sports Law (EASL) Section of the New York State Bar Association to be a catchall designation intended to bring a variety of disciplines together with one designation.

These cynics did not know Joseph Oller. Nobody signifies the connection of these practice areas better than he. Oller was not a lawyer; he was basically a 19th century businessman. He was not an American, and lived almost all of his life in France. He died in 1922, well before anyone would have envisioned the possibility of the existence of an EASL Section. Yet, Joseph Oller personified EASL.

Oller, who was born in 1839 in Spain, started off as a businessman in the sports field. He ran a business in Paris in the early 1860's selling tickets on horse races. It started off as a pool/sweepstakes business, wherein a customer bought a ticket on a race - without any selection of a particular horse or horses - and won a prize based on the outcome of the race. It was a game of pure chance, much like a raffle. The amount paid to the winning bettor(s) was based on the number of persons with winning tickets. Under these conditions, the proprietor of the pool deducted a certain share of the total wagers (generally 10%) for his or her own purposes, and the rest was paid out to the winning bettors in proportion to their shares of the net pool. Under this system, the bettors were wagering against themselves, and the pool proprietor kept a share of the total amount wagered.

The pool system was profitable, but it raised legal pitfalls. France had a law banning lotteries. It was likely that this pool system based entirely on chance would be considered a lottery. Accordingly, in 1868, Oller developed a system which added a skill element to the horse racing game. Under Oller's new pari-mutuel system, a number would be assigned to each horse in the race. "People are at liberty to stake upon the horse which most takes their fancy until a given time of the day." ("The 'Paris-Mutuels,'" Daily News of London, July 30, 1872). Oller would then take 10% out of the full pool for himself and paid the remaining net pool back proportionately to the people who had bet on the winning horse.

Oller's pari-mutuel system was a winner both in business and in the court of law. While the authorities prosecuted Oller and others for running a lottery, the pari-mutuel business survived the legal challenge. While the sweepstakes business was an illegal lottery, the pari-mutuel system was not. In the pari-mutuel context, the skill used by a bettor in using his or her own discretion in placing a wager on a particular horse sufficiently limited the extent of chance involved in the game, and placed it outside the realm of a lottery. The public took to the pari-mutuel system quickly, and Oller's business boomed. Oller even developed machines to help him calculate the pool payouts.

Oller's business was interrupted for a short time by the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. He returned after the war, and again his business prospered. In fact his pari-mutuels - occasionally called the Paris mutuels - may have become too successful. Numerous imitators (especially many from Great Britain) followed Oller's example and started a slew of pari-mutuel businesses in Paris. (Oller appeared to run the largest of these businesses.) In August of 1874, the authorities raided and indicted all pari-mutuel operators.

This time, the basis of the suit was that the pari-mutuel operators had defrauded the bettors in connection with the operations of the wagering. All 24 defendants were convicted. Oller was fined $4,000 francs and spent 16 days in jail. His days of operating a pari-mutuel business were ended.

Eventually, however, Oller's system triumphed both in France and the rest of the world. In 1891, France outlawed bookmaking and made Oller's pari-mutuel system the only legitimate way of wagering on horse races. Pari-mutuel wagering spread to the United States, and now outside of Nevada, federal law makes pari-mutuel wagering the only legal method for betting on horse racing, dog racing or jai alai. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oller's pari-mutuel system "has spread to every country in the world and forms the rational basis for running nearly all modern lotteries as well as most organized betting on horse racing, association football (soccer) and other professional sports." Oller's 1868 system is a dominant factor in the world of sports.

After his ventures into the gambling world concluded, Oller became involved in the entertainment business. In 1889, he owned and opened the Moulin Rouge, the nightclub cabaret. Not only did the Moulin Rouge quickly become famous for its entertainment, it was soon known worldwide for popularizing the Can-Can dance. The dancers who performed the Can-Can became celebrities. The entertainment and the atmosphere at the Moulin Rouge made it a recognizable and notorious symbol of pre-World War I Paris.

The entertainment aspect of the Moulin Rouge continues to this day. There have been numerous books, movies and a musical about it; including John Huston's 1952 "Moulin Rouge", the 2001 Baz Luhrman musical similarly entitled "Moulin Rouge!", and Cole Porter's Broadway 1953 musical (later a 1960 movie) "Can-Can". Charles Aznavour's musical "Latrec," which ran in London in 2000, similarly focused on the Moulin Rouge. With a revised book, and newly entitled as "My Paris," the Aznavour musical ran this summer at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut.

Similarly, the art aspect of Joseph Oller's Moulin Rouge remains with us. The paintings and posters of Toulouse Lautrec are an integral part of the Bell Époque art movement. Other artists similarly have painted scenes from the Moulin Rouge. A number of composers, including Franz Lehar and Jacques Offenbach, have written music for the Can-Can. There is even "Moulin Rouge - The Ballet", which has been a major hit for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet over the last decade. Finally, the Moulin Rouge has always played an outsized role in the fashion world. Even the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film inspired a fashion trend, as Moulin Rouge boutiques opened in the United States, and "numerous designers from Los Angeles watched the film and then created their own version of the `Moulin Rouge' look with petticoats, dresses, crystal chokers, tiaras, gloves, hats, tap pants, bustiers and stockings." (See Barbara De Witt, "Fashion Designers Go Ga-Ga Over Can-Can," Long Beach Press-Telegram, May 21, 2001.)

Jospeh Oller achieved the hat trick of the EASL Section. He was a most prominent figure in entertainment, arts and sports. He demonstrated that the three areas were not merely compatible, but that they could be part of one achievable and realistic alliance. In the 19th century, Joseph Oller embodied the work of the EASL section.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 30, 2015 11:22 AM.

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