Nestled at the foot of Montmartre Hill in the 18th arrondissement of Paris lies one of the city's many historically peculiar institutions–the Moulin Rouge. Against the Parisian Gothic style apartments that line the city, the Moulin Rouge or "red mill" sticks out like a sore thumb on the Boulevard de Clichy with its exterior glowing in crimson and a small windmill placed atop as the crowning jewel. For over 120 years, the Moulin Rouge has held the title of dance hall, cabaret, and theater. Above all, the legendary space is known as a symbol of the liberated attitude during the turn of the century in Paris, a carefree period nicknamed the Belle Époch or "beautiful era" where a lust of euphoria and frivolities intoxicated the city.
Following the Franco-Russian war in 1871, the new-found exuberance of post-war Paris was unmatched. The city entered a state of prosperity as innovations in art and literature flourished. Paris soon became known as the epicenter of Europe, a moral playground for the bourgeoisie with a taste for absinthe. Capitalizing off the atmosphere of the era, Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler had a vision for their establishment as a place where people from all walks of life could engage in reckless fun. The Moulin Rouge opened its doors on October 10th, 1889 and acquired a quick reputation as a place where your worries and morals were left at coat check.
The interior of the Moulin Rouge designed by French architect Adolphe Willette was reflective of the era, decadent and glamorous with mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Behind the main building was Jardin de Paris, an open-air dance hall which guests could enjoy on sunny days. It was here that you were able to engage in some of the curiosities of the Moulin Rouge, like riding the back of a donkey for around 50 cents while watching ballerinas on the outdoor stage. Dominating the backyard was a large plaster elephant statue that allegedly doubled as an opium den. It was here guests were entertained by belly dancers and could consume the now controlled substance for a single Franc entrance fee. The ever-changing decor and entertainment was part of the spectacle and always gave audiences a reason to return.
Extravagant cabaret performances gave local name to the Moulin Rouge, but the club became a world renowned attraction as one of the original places to see the French cancan dance. In the 1830s, both men and women danced the cancan (meaning tittle tattle or scandal) contrary to the more modern female domain seen today. As the dance evolved into a chorus line style of female dancers, the connotations of the dance became scandalous as the women wore pantalettes, which exposed frilly undergarments and flashed crowds with their energetic high-kicks. The dance was deemed suggestive and, occasionally, some dancers were even arrested for performing it. By the 1890s, it became possible for women to earn a full-time living as a dancer performing at cabarets around Paris. Notorious French cancan stars like La Goulue ("The Glutton") and Jane Avril emerged and were highly paid for their performances at the Moulin Rouge.
As Paris' heart of entertainment, the Moulin Rouge attracted an impressive guest list of famous artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec. The ambiance of the Moulin Rouge provided artists of the era with inspiration that greatly contributed to their fame. Toulouse-Lautrec was a famous habitué of the nightclub and it was his painted posters that immortalized the Moulin Rouge’s greatest music hall shows. It was there that Toulouse–Lautrec would meet cancan star La Goulue. Driven by love, Toulouse–Lautrec would go to the cabaret every night and sip on a glass of absinthe as he observed La Goulue and the fellow guests that would appear in his paintings.
The building was renovated and reopened in 1903 by Dutch-born French architect Édouard Niermans. Niermans was known to work in Parisian-style architecture that was stylish during this time. He lavishly renovated the Moulin Rouge so the luxurious setting would attract elite and fashionable crowds. In 1915, the building was ravaged by fire and the cabaret was forced to close for six years. It was rebuilt in 1921 featuring a copy of the iconic red windmill. Following the fire, the Moulin Rouge became a theater for operettas rather than its history in cabaret. At this time, the stage at the Moulin Rouge gave name to early performers like Maurice Chevalier and Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois, better known as Mistinguett. The songstress accompanied her acts with risqué routines and dramatic costumes and soon amassed crowds at the Moulin Rouge. Mistinguett went on to become one of the highest-paid female entertainers in the world, even insuring her legs for 500,000 Francs in 1919 (around $7.4 million in 2019).
Around the start of the Second World War, the Moulin Rouge struggled to fit into Paris' nightlife scene. With most of its best performers retired, 1,500 seats were cleared out and the theater space was transformed into an ultra-modern dance club welcoming musical performances by Édith Piaf and Yves Montand.
After multiple changes from dance hall to cinema and everything in between, club owner Georges France and former President of the French Republic Vincent Auriol sought out to re-instill the soul of cabaret back into the Moulin Rouge. These changes aligned closely to the history of the Moulin Rouge and are still in place today, as the famed venue welcomes around 600,000 visitors each year. Shows called revues, where performances are divided into several scenes and are watched while dining, are the main-stage event nowadays at the Moulin Rouge.
While the building itself still stands in the Montmartre quarter, the legacy of sin and seduction at Moulin Rouge is what has held public fixation for around a century. In 1952, John Huston created the British drama film Moulin Rouge staring José Ferrer and Zsa Zsa Gabor, which followed the history of the club and included famous artists and performers noted at the Moulin Rouge. The nightclub has even provided inspiration for more recent pop culture moments including Baz Lurhmann's 2001 romantic drama Moulin Rouge!. At the 74th Annual Academy Awards, the film was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress for Nicole Kidman's leading role as courtesan Satine. The film also inspired a stage adaptation of the same title, which debuted on Broadway earlier this year and features the Moulin Rouge's iconic windmill in its set. Additionally Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, and P!nk paid homage to the Moulin Rouge, recording of the song "Lady Marmalade," originally sung by the girl group Labelle, for the soundtrack of Luhrmann's movie. The music video for "Lady Marmalade" also pulls references from the iconic club including dramatic cabaret costume and bright red interiors.
The Moulin Rouge is known today as a token of a special era during the turn of the 20th century in Paris. The establishment is known beyond its name for its interiors, performances, and reputation as a liberated place where just about anything was possible. Though we'll never really know all the details of what happened beyond the red windmill looming on the marquee out front, the Moulin Rouge remains a fascination and emblem of the illustrious Belle Époch.