17 Dec The captivating story of the origins of the Moulin Rouge
The Moulin Rouge Cabaret
The Moulin Rouge is one of the most famous cabarets in the world, yet few people are familiar with its past.
Located in the city of Paris, at the corner of Boulevard de Clichy and Place Blanche, it is difficult to miss, thanks to its scarlet red colour and sparkling lights.
You’re nearly sure to have heard of it before, although you may not know what goes on behind its doors. Every night, after the curtain comes down, customers leave the cabaret with stars in their eyes! Over a delicious dinner, let yourself be transported by the magic of its unforgettable shows. The combined effect of its sumptuous colours and decorations, its giant aquarium, and its drawings by renowned Italian artists, will plunge you into a totally enchanting world. In French, ‘Enchanting’ or ‘magical’ can be translated as ‘féerique’ and this is where its latest show ‘Féerie’ gets its name from. The show is composed of dozens of artists (80 to be exact) including 60 professional dancers called the Doriss Girls, who are carefully recruited from all over the world. The show uses nearly a thousand costumes with feathers and glittering sequins that are made in the high-end sewing studios of Paris, and which are carefully worked to enticingly reveal the elegant silhouettes of the dancers. The cabaret presents the best international shows and stages some extraordinary numbers. The music is completely original and recorded by 80 musicians and 60 singers. Despite the sensual content of these ‘music-hall shows’, the Moulin Rouge is open to all audiences, including children 6 years and older (accompanied by an adult).
The cabaret’s history is quite interesting.
The origin of its name
The Moulin Rouge, built at the foot of the Hill of Montmartre was inaugurated in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower. Although its name is linked to an event dating even further back, to 1814!
Further reading: the Eiffel Tower
In March of 1814, a battle took place in Paris that would cause the fall of Napoleon. The streets of Paris were a veritable warzone due to the fighting between French troops and the opposing Cossacks (a Russian, Austrian and Prussian coalition). At the foot of the Hill of Montmartre, which had high strategic value, the Russian troops prepared an attack. Unexpectedly as they began to advance on the hill, they found themselves facing a stubborn enemy. The four Debray brothers, millers by trade, fought courageously to prevent the Russians from storming the hill and taking their one possession: the family mill! After three of the four brothers died in the attack, the last of the siblings, gathering together his remaining strength and courage, shot down the commander of the Russian troops with a single pistol shot. The Russians savagely reposted however, to avenge their superior. The remaining brother was captured and his body, cut into four pieces, was hung from the sails of his own windmill. It was only at nightfall that the poor wife of the victim, downtrodden and heartbroken, secretly took down the remains of her unfortunate husband, and hid his remains in sacks of flour. As for the mother of the dead brothers, she paid tribute to them by placing a small red mill on each of the graves. If you visit the Calvary Cemetery (located at the top of the Hill of Montmartre), you will still find these small mills.
Why is the Moulin Rouge in Paris red?
Was it painted red in tribute to the Debray brothers? Or is that just a legend?
It seems that the colour was not chosen haphazardly, quite the opposite in fact. The colour red is often a symbol of love, passion and eroticism and so is often found in places reserved for the pleasures of the senses. It’s one of the brightest and most eye-catching of hues! So, it should come as no surprise that this would be the colour of the most attractive and noticeable cabaret north of the Grands Boulevards. The Moulin Rouge is simply one of those Paris monuments that’s impossible to pass by without a second look. An interesting fact is that it was also the city’s first electrified building. Thanks to its atypical architecture and the myriad lights that glow on its façade as the night falls, the cabaret is easily seen from afar.
The Moulin Rouge, an icon of Paris
Ever since the bohemian era known as la Belle Époque, the Moulin Rouge has been an emblematic part of the Boulevard de Clichy. Designed by the architect Adolphe Willette (1857-1926), this icon of Paris is the most famous cabaret of all time. In 1915, the building was ravaged by fire and the cabaret was forced to close for six years. It didn’t open its doors again until 1921, three years after the end of the World War I.
The success of the cabaret
It was the Spanish entrepreneur Joseph Oller (1839-1922) and the French impresario Charles Zidler (1831-1897) who came up with the idea for the Moulin Rouge. It opened its doors for the first time on October 6, 1889.
Their source of inspiration was none other than the famous Moulin de la Galette, located near the top of the Hill of Montmartre and which still exists today. Until the 1950s it was styled as a guinguette, which was a type of open-air café or dance hall where people went to drink, dance and generally have a good time. These guinguettes were, for the most part, located in the satellite cities close to Paris, and were very popular entertainment spots. It was when the mills of Montmartre were threatened with destruction that they ended up being converted into cabarets or guinguettes, making Montmartre the trendiest corner of Paris.
In the new building of the Moulin Rouge, a large dance floor was built while the courtyard was turned into a beautiful garden. On the occasion of the Universal Exhibition held in1889, a gigantic elephant made from plaster was placed there.
The Moulin Rouge shows and its stars
Most cabaret shows drew their ideas and inspiration from the world of the circus.
Posters drawn by famous artists like Renoir and Toulouse–Lautrec adorned the walls and strongly contributed to their fame. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French artist and frequent visitor to these places and it was his painted posters that immortalized the Moulin Rouge’s greatest music hall shows.
In 1903, the cabaret was rebuilt by the French architect Edouard Niermans (1859-1928) in the brand-new Art Nouveau style.
The Moulin Rouge is practically synonymous with ‘French cancan’! And although their names are for the most part forgotten today, a large number of these cancan artists, dressed in their alluring costumes, dancing to the furiously paced music and driving high society into a frenzy, were veritable stars in their heyday. Among these famous forgotten celebrities were Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue, Nini Pattes-en-l’air, la Môme Fromage, Jane Avril, and of course Mistinguett.
Other stars who have since passed away like Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf and Yves Montand also contributed greatly to the success of the Moulin Rouge thanks to their appearance on its famous stage.
Soundtrack of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge:
It is often thought, and wrongly so, that the cancan was danced exclusively by women, yet a small number of men were also adept at it, such as Valentin le Désossé, or the very famous Joseph Pujol le Pétomane.
Discover that story in pictures, with some of the most beautiful moments in the history of music hall.
Some interesting figures that make the Moulin Rouge the most famous cabaret in the world:
● The shows continued during the German occupation of Paris and in the 1960s, the Moulin Rouge resumed its main function as a cabaret after a period of restoration.
● The Moulin Rouge welcomes nearly 600,000 spectators a year.
● There are two shows a night, 365 days of the year.
● 240,000 bottles of champagne are served in 750 silver champagne buckets (the biggest champagne consumer in Europe!)
● Its wardrobe contains 81,000 feathered and sequined costumes and 800 pairs of shoes!
● There are 455 employees including 80 dancers and 5 pythons!
● It made the Guinness Book of Records when its dancers managed to perform 29 leg lifts in 30 seconds on the occasion of its 125th birthday. As for the solo dancer, he managed 30 in 30 seconds!
● More than a century old, not only has it survived two world wars and a fire but also many economic crises.
Book here for a magical and unforgettable evening.