On the Evergreen Moulin Rouge

We are delighted to report that the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! re-opens today on Broadway, another sign of slowly returning post-pandemic normalcy (touch wood). We thought this a natural occasion for a brief backgrounder on the storied venue, which we’ve had many occasions to mention here on Travalanche.

The Moulin Rouge opened in the Jardin de Paris at the foot of Montmartre, on October 6, 1889. “Moulin Rouge” means “Red Mill”; the famous café-concert  has a whimsical working replica of a windmill on the roof, a typically garish advertisement. It was far from the first storied Parisian variety venue. The Folies Bergère dated to 20 years earlier and Joseph Oller, backer of the Moulin Rouge, had previously opened the Fantaisies Oller, La Bombonnière, Théâtre des Nouveautés, Nouveau Cirque and the Montagnes Russes. But the new venue rapidly became the centerpiece of Belle Epoque nightlife in the City of Light.

It was configured like a ballroom for floor shows, with flexible cabaret seating, so that performers and audience constantly mixed. Outside there was also cabaret seating in the garden, with a giant stucco elephant sculpture from the 1889 World’s Fair as an added attraction. Dancing girls were the venue’s bread and butter; the Can-Can was introduced here. “Can-Can” means “scandal”, a nickname given to the dance because it provided so much opportunity to look at women’s legs, and, reputedly, more. Toulouse-Lautrec created many of the posters, and chronicled life inside the club in his art. Early performers included Joseph Pujol a.k.a “Le Petomane” (the Fartiste), Colette (who was a dancer before she was an author; she caused a famous scandal there with an onstage lesbian kiss), chanteuse Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue (who kicked hats off of men’s heads), and the clowns Foottit and Chocolat. There were also acrobatic acts. The modern vogue for trapeze artists in night clubs dates to this time and place. The Moulin Rouge was one of the most fashionable establishments in Paris, attracting wealthy patrons as well as the Bohemian crowd, carrying with it promises of the forbidden: courtesans, opium, absinthe.

The original Moulin Rouge burned down on the eve of the First World War. It was rebuilt in 1921 and revitalized during the Jazz Age with revues built around the talents of Mistinguette and new comers like the Sisters G and Maurice Chevalier, as well as American acts like the Gertrude Hoffman Girls and Adelaide Hall (to rival Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère). World War II and the post-war years saw performers like Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. It continues to thrive as a tourist attaction to this day. Prior to opening his many night clubs, Oller was known for his contributions to the world of illegal gambling.

Some notable films about the Moulin Rouge, or set there, include the silent Queen of the Moulin Rouge (1922) starring Martha Mansfield;  René Clair’s The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1926); the Hollywood musical Moulin Rouge (1934) with Constance Bennett, Franchot Tone, Russ Columbo and the Boswell Sisters; John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge starring Jose Ferrer (my favorite of Huston’s films); Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955); and of course Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), which I loved immoderately when it came out, have watched many times, and is now, ye gods, 20 years old! Honorable mention goes to the 1953 Broadway musical Can-Can, made into a 1960 film, which evokes the time and place of the Moulin Rouge, but is not set there per se.

For more on the variety arts, including French music hall and cabaret, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,