history of the moulin rouge: the great periods

the great periods


Paris, from Montmartre to the Place Blanche

Such a “Belle Epoque”

Nonchalance, light-heartedness and ‘joie de vivre’… these are the words that could best sum- up this unique period in the history of France. It was a moment of respite between two wars, a period of transition between two centuries, during which social barriers collapsed and the industrial revolution gave hope of a better life for all, in a rich cultural profusion of fun and frivolity. The middle-class mixed with the riff-raff; popular culture was enhanced by a happy disorder of joy and vitality. In this atmosphere, which favored artistic creativity, literary circles appeared and disappeared according to chance encounters, while painters and illustrators grew increasingly inspired by this joyful, sometimes outrageous but full of fantasy atmosphere that broke with the former rigid classicism of the period.

“Japonism” *, a movement of Far-Eastern inspiration which used Japanese influences in French art, was at its height. Toulouse-Lautrec, with his famous Japanese engravings, was one of its most famous disciples at that time. The atmosphere fitted perfectly the appearance of the first cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge in 1889.

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A term employed by the art critic Phillippe Burty in 1872 to define a new artistic movement inspired by objects and art from Japan, shown for the first time in 1867 at the Universal Exhibition of Paris.

Times of the 7th Art

Concerning architecture, Gustave Eiffel, a real genius with iron, now began his most spectacular project: a 300-meter-high tower that could be admired from anywhere in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was to be the main attraction of the Universal Exhibition of 1889. Another event of major importance during those years was the first cinematographic screening. On the 28th of December 1895, in the Indian lounge of the Grand Café, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris, 23 guests attended an extraordinary show by the Lumière brothers. The photograph that had just been projected onto a small screen had come to life! Coaches, horses and passers-by started to move; a real-life street appeared on the screen. “At this sight, we stood open-mouthed, completely overawed” said the conjurer Georges Mélies, who later became famous by making more than 500 movies filled with fantasy and poetry, such as the remarkable Voyage dans la Lune (Journey to the Moon) in 1902.

At the following exhibition, in 1900, it was Hector Grimard who found fame. In the ever- changing expression of Art Nouveau, he gave a new style to the entrances of the Parisian subway, the Metropolitan, never before seen. Blanche station was the first to see the decorative arabesques and leaf-like curves, blending with amazing energy and vivacity.

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The Butte Montmartre, bastion of pleasure

In the midst of this effervescence, the Butte Montmartre figures as a symbol. In 1891, the Basilica du Sacré–Coeur was inaugurated with great pomp. It was hoped that, with the basilica on the hill-top, a little prestige would be back to the ill-frequented hill.

However, against all expectations, the proximity of the Holy place to the Hell-like slopes only added more character to this mecca of Parisian life. Eccentrics, artists and performers continued going to cabarets, music-halls and cafes in large numbers, joined by the middle- classes, aristocrats and socialites who were becoming increasingly attracted to night-time pleasures.

Café-concerts became the true symbol of this social and cultural melting-pot. Workers, artists, middle-classes and aristocrats gathered at the same table in a joyful atmosphere of feast and frivolity.

Here again, painters found their inspiration, among them Toulouse-Lautrec, a regular customer in the area, who came to immortalize the strange, colorful scenes that lie midway between frenetic entertainment and the tragic lives of the lower classes, in famous paintings such as Le Chat Noir and La Goulue.

“Les mêmes coins abritent les mêmes gens. Sous les colonnes rouges, les solives peintes, dans ce décor de palais barbare, roulent les mêmes types, danseurs et danseuses liés ventre à ventre dans la communion du rythme, mecs et graines de mecs, combinards, vendeurs de neige ou de tuyaux, marchands de viande ou de plaisir, artistes, flâneurs, michetons, lames de fond que n’absorbe pas la grande houle humaine des étrangers curieux. A cet élément mâle s’enlace l’élément femelle, putains, demi-filles, bourgeoises, lesbiennes, et brasseuses d’affaires. Tout se mêle, se fond et se confond dans le lent tourbillon qui, de la piste, gagne les pourtours et les promenoirs.”

Henry-Jacques. Moulin Rouge - 1925

The world famous cabaret opens its doors

On the October 6th, at the foot of Butte Montmartre, the atmosphere was pretty festive: a new music-hall was opening in the Jardin de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, and it wasn’t going unnoticed.
The public came in mass to Place Blanche, to discover this extravagant place with its huge dance floor, mirrors everywhere, and galleries that were the last word in elegance, to mix with the riffraff and girls of easy virtue, in a garden decorated with a big elephant with rides on donkeys for the ladies’ pleasure. There was such a wild atmosphere that the show was not only on the stage but all around: aristocrats and louts in caps had fun side by side, in an atmosphere of total euphoria.

Le jardin du Moulin Rouge
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Charles Zidler

The masters of the place were Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. They nicknamed their establishment Le Premier Palais des Femmes (the first Women Palace) and bet on their success, enthusiastically claiming to whoever listened that the Moulin Rouge would become a temple of music and dance. On the very first day, their hopes were fulfilled, the other music-halls just had to learn!

“Vingt jambes en l’air. La pesanteur est envoyée par-dessus les moulins. En lames successives, les femmes s’écartèlent sur la piste, offrant leur sexe aux forces obscures de la terre. Quand elles rebondissent, c’est pour retrouver les ailes perdues. Ainsi, disputées entre deux éléments, les danseuses miment la lutte du corps et de l’esprit.”

Henry-Jacques. Moulin Rouge - 1925


The French Cancan painted by Toulouse-Lautrec

The divine “unruly girls”

The balls at the Moulin Rouge quickly became highly prized events.

For the grand finale, the public discovered, with overwhelming enthusiasm, a new dance, the French Cancan with its dancers, the Chahuteuses (the unruly girls), and its boisterous rhythm, which, to the great displeasure of some people, really made heads turn!

In the Guide to Paris nightlife, edition 1898, the French Cancan dancers are described as an army of young girls in Paris who dance this divine hullabaloo the way its fame demands it… with such an elasticity when they launch their legs upwards that we are allowed to presume that they are at least as flexible with morals.

Amongst these figureheads of Parisian life, some will go down in history, like the famous La Goulue, immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec.

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“Vingt jambes en l’air. La pesanteur est envoyée par-dessus les moulins. En lames successives, les femmes s’écartèlent sur la piste, offrant leur sexe aux forces obscures de la terre. Quand elles rebondissent, c’est pour retrouver les ailes perdues. Ainsi, disputées entre deux éléments, les danseuses miment la lutte du corps et de l’esprit.”

Arletty citée par Michel Souvais. Les Cancans de la Goulue

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The Quadrille, a prelude to the French Cancan

In 1850, Céleste Mogador, a leading dancer at the Bal Mabille – which later on became the Mabille Orchestra of the Moulin Rouge – invented a new dance, the Quadrille: eight breathtaking minutes in perfect harmony with Offenbach as undisputed master of music.

A boisterous rhythm, balance, flexibility, on the verge of acrobatics and the Quadrille girls in their titillating costume turned the heads of the high society of Paris.

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Le Quadrille, plus en chair, vaut surtout par la tradition qu’il offre, chaque jour, à ceux, hommes de tous les mondes, qui ont gardé la représentation d’un Moulin, asile du cancan, des jupes envolées, des corps renversés pour mieux s’offrir, des refrains carrés encadrés de puissants trombones et de cornets à pistons, dernière figure d’un symbole qui a quitté Paris depuis longtemps pour faire son tour du monde…”Furia francese”.

Henry-Jacques. Moulin Rouge - 1925

From London to Paris, the debuts of the French Cancan

It was in 1861, in London, when Charles Morton, a great master of the music-hall who was inspired by the Quadrille, invented the French Cancan. The word Cancan referred to the particularly noisy characteristic of this new dance. Whereas British people were rather shocked by this dance on the edge of indecency, in Paris the popularity of the Cancan was still growing. It was being shaped progressively, until it became a ritualized dance, exclusively for women, whose main art consisted of doing the splits and uncovering lacy underskirts.

Black stockings, garters and frills dressed girls of at least 1,70m tall, who spun in contentment in a series of gracious ‘pizzicatti’, before the eyes of bewitched clients of the Moulin Rouge.

“Elle était jeune et belle
Port’Saint-Martin Grenelle
Elle avait l’œil mutin

Sung in duet by Yvette Guilbert and La Goulue

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The Great Ladies of the French Cancan

Under colourful and rather roguish stage names, the most famous dancers of that time competed on the stage of the Moulin Rouge, each one with her own temperament. The undisputed figurehead of the French Cancan is still today the famous Goulue, with her inimitable cheeky humour. But she was not the only one who won fame thanks to the Cancan: there were Jane Avril also known as Jeanne la Folle (crazy Jane), La Môme Fromage named so since she was so young, Grille d’Egoût (gutter grate), who was well-known for her taste for uproar, Nini Pattes-en-l’Air (‘legs in the air’) who would open a French Cancan school, and Yvette Guilbert, a famous national fortune-teller who imitated Sarah Bernhardt.

The only notorious male character among the flowing rows of girls was Valentin le Désossé (the ‘boneless’) also called L’Homme du Quadrille (the Quadrille man), who will never be bettered in the way he had of making the girls dance.

Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the more regular clients, was the great witness of this splendid period. Among his paintings, seventeen are directly inspired by the Moulin Rouge, and many are famous world-wide. They represent emblematic characters. Undoubtlessly, Toulouse-Lautrec would not have become who he was without the Moulin Rouge and La Goulue. On the other hand, would the music-hall have become what it is today without the talented painter?

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“Aujourd’hui, ce n’est pas un jour ordinaire. Je tiens à remercier tous les contrôleurs, tout le personnel, patrons et employés, et surtout toutes ces femmes qui ont couru après moi pendant de si longues années.”

Valentin le Désossé

The Great Moments of

The first ten years of the Moulin Rouge follow one another in a whirlwind of evenings, each more extravagant than the next. It was inspired by the circus, whose attractions were shown at the cabaret – such as that of the Pétomane (the ‘farting’ man), who went down in history.

In addition to the French Cancan, the first real revues are performed: e.g. the revue Circassiens et Circassiennes, in 1890. Every night, people come for the 10 p.m. concerts; the Quat’zarts ball and its procession; a nude Cleopatra carried by four men and surrounded by nude girls.

A beginning trumpeted that lost some of its pomp by the new century. On the 26 December 1902, the last ball occurred in general indifference. The Quadrille was no longer fashionable, the ball of the Moulin Rouge became a concert-theatre under the leadership of M. Paul-Louis Flers, a well-known revue-director in Paris who wanted to turn the Moulin Rouge into a more prestigious place. He will remain at the head of the famous establishment… 9 months.

He was succeeded by many directors, which did not prevent Le Moulin Rouge from finding its prestige again.

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The Great Moments of Music-Hall

Operettas and Spectacular revues

Until the beginning of World War I, the Moulin Rouge has become a true temple dedicated to operetta.

There again, the music of Offenbach used to accompany successive shows with joy and festive spirit. The public was present for dreaming, laughing, crying and feel emotions at the sight of ‘Voluptata’, ‘La Feuille de Vigne’, ‘Le Rêve d’Egypte’, ‘Tais-toi tu m’affoles’… and many other revues with titles each time more evocative.

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The Automotive fair took place on the 7th December 1904 and many people from upper-classes gather to sing, dance and regret the end of a so delightful night. Whereas in 1907, the charming novice Mistinguett, makes her debuts on the stage of the Moulin Rouge in ‘La Revue de la Femme’. That was only the beginning of the long story. Quickly, her exceptional talent blasted in public: as she imitates the languorous jig of Max Dearly, she was the instigator of the famous Valse Chaloupée (swaying waltz) and then became a shining Star in the Music-Hall’s firmament.

“Je vous jure que ce n’est pas commode d’en trouver des “comme il faut”, ni trop grandes, ni trop petites, ni trop grosses, ni trop laides… ni trop jolies…”

Mistinguett regarding the Girls

The Mistinguett’s years

After World War I, Francis Salabert ran the Moulin Rouge. Since he was more of a businessman than a showman, he employed Pierre Foucret to hold the purse strings and left Jacques-Charles – the No. 1 revue-director of that time – the assignment of brightening up the “Great Revue”. He dreamt of setting-up a show with American dancing-girls. After much discussion, he succeeded in convincing Gertrude Hoffmann, then director of the Hoffmann ballet, to join him, and they started to create the revue ‘New York- Montmartre’.

At the top of the bill were the Dolly Sisters, Rosy and Jenny, the first twin sisters in the history of music-hall. The ‘Broadway style’ made a big impact when it entered the Parisian scene.

On the night of the first show, Mistinguett, then known as the Queen of Music-Hall, was in the audience. She understood at once that a true revolution was happening…

Jacques-Charles and Mistinguett had a stormy but very profitable relationship. Very close to each other in life and inspired co-workers on the stage, their story was punctuated with quarrels and make-ups, with disputes and reconciliations… A turbulent passion that gave birth to legendary creations: the “Revue Mistinguett” in 1925, the famous ‘Ça c’est Paris’ in 1926 and many others. Great Nights with the Miss and her Girls, animated the Parisian nights until 1929, when the two main characters retired from the stage.

Meanwhile, the French Cancan, which had regained prestige, was turning the public’s head in the Ballroom, in the lower ground floor of the Moulin Rouge. A certain Gesmar, only 20 years old, became a master in costume making. His drawings and models, which displayed pure and breathtaking beauty, remained associated with the Moulin Rouge’s image.

During that time, a young man named Gabin was making his debut on stage as the quintessential ‘badboy’ in Paris.

“Le directeur du Moulin Rouge a dû recruter une brigade de détectives pour interdire l’accès du théâtre aux curieux. Ce ne sont partout qu’amoncellements de dentelles, de fleurs, de fourrures, de plumes, de satins et de perles. Les coulisses du Moulin ressemblent à un conte des Mille et une nuits.”

Publicity release– November 7th, 1925

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The End of the Golden Age

After Mistinguett’s departure, nothing would ever be the same in the world of music-hall. The 7th Art, as the French call the cinema, overwhelmed the ‘Great Revues’ and the ballroom became an ultra-modern night-club. However, the Moulin Rouge still experienced some great moments: the acclaimed Cotton Club, which had had great success in New York, the nights with Ray Ventura and his ‘Collégiens’, some unforgettable moments before the dark years to come.

1939-1945: Paris did not have much fun under the Germans’ heel.

The only ray of sunshine, a few days before the Liberation of Paris, was Edith Piaf, whose talent was becoming renowned on the stage of the Moulin Rouge. In the first part of her show, a young man with a sort of cow boy style was scheduled…Yves Montand. She later said about him “this guy who behaves as if he were in the plains of the Far West is nothing but a singer from Marseille…the height of vulgarity!”.

He said in return that she was a “merchant of depression”. An exchange of kind words…but the ‘Great Lady’ was soon to understand the potential of this lanky boy, who needed just a little help to change his appearance. Later on, he admitted that she had made him save time.

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Today the Revival

The stars are back

It was six years after World War II before the Moulin Rouge recovered its former magnificence.

On the 22nd of June 1951, Georges France, alias Jo France, the founder of Balajo, bought the Bal du Moulin Rouge and set about renovating in order to allow the famous establishment to hold again the most wonderful nights in Paris, and regain its splendor of long-ago. *


* The settings imagined by Jo France and painted for the most by Henri Mahé still ravish the Moulin Rouge visitors.

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Dance parties, entertainments and receptions for charity were back. Among them, the 25th Bal des Petits Lits Blancs (for hospitalized children), on the 19th May 1963 was a red-letter day: some 1200 artists and stars came from every corner of the world to honors “Guy des Cars”, the organizer of that night.
Pierre Mac Orlan – 1951

I dreamt of the top of the bill

In 1955, Joseph and Louis Clerico became managers of the establishment and were eager to continue the great tradition of the ‘Bal Populaire’. They joined together with Jean Bauchet, a child of the theatre, to accompany this ‘old and respectable lady’, still lively, into the modern times.

A small revolution occurred in the palace: a kitchen was fitted. The ‘dinner-show’ of the Moulin Rouge became one of the most sought Parisian attractions. As the public really enjoyed this new option, the establishment’s fame spread abroad. From every corner of the world, people came to see the Moulin Rouge, as one of the great monuments of the most beautiful capital in the world.

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Both newcomers full of promise and prestigious stars were top of the bill: Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour, Line Renaud, Bourvil, Roger Pierre and Jean-Marc Thibault, Fernand Raynaud… All of them expressed their talent on the most famous stage in France.

Elvis Presley himself never came to Paris without spending a little time at the Moulin Rouge. It is said that he had a crush on a French Cancan dancer. The famous quadrille, then under the leadership of the demanding Doris Haug, kept winning over people’s hearts.

« Moi, j’aime le Music-Hall… »

Charles Trenet

F for Formidable

In 1962, Jacki Clerico, the son of Joseph Clerico, took-over the succession as head of the most famous cabaret in the world. The Moulin Rouge had taken back its legendary place.

The sanctuary of Place Blanche, famous for its long history, came back once again with flair. Two years after his arrival at the Moulin Rouge, Jacki Clerico embarked on a new adventure: the construction of a giant aquarium where nude dancers moved about like delightful mermaids in front of dumfounded spectators.

He selected only names beginning with an F for his revues: then due to superstition, nowadays it remains a tradition.

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Frou Frou, Frisson, Fascination, Fantastic, Frénésie… each one succeeded the others, until the unforgettable Formidable, the revue of the Centenary, for which the public is still enthusiastic today. Crowned heads, international bigwigs, stars of show biz… all of this high society met up on Place Blanche on the 12th February 1988, to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of this venerable institution dedicated to feast and pleasure… wishing it a long and joyful life.

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ray charles et ella fitzgerald carré au Moulin Rouge
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marlene dietrich Moulin Rouge