Friday, September 27, 2013

Those Crazy Bohemians (The Moulin Rouge)

As we've discussed on previous Crazy Bohemian posts, Montmartre during the late 1800's and early 1900's was a hotbed of not only cutting edge artists, but of both common and nefarious entertainment. The circus people headquartered there, there were many places where one could buy drugs, a woman, a young boy, or indulge in drinking and dancing. The two places most often frequented by artists (Chat Noir and Au Lapin Agile) have already had posts of their own.

Another cabaret opened during this time that most people are still familiar with today. The Moulin Rouge is now very touristy, much different than the Moulin Rouge of the 1800's. Opening in 1889, the Moulin Rouge was technically in Pigalle, another district of Paris, but it shares the 18th arrondissement with Montmartre. The boundaries blurred and most people think of the Moulin Rouge as part of Montmartre, since the place sits at the foot of Montmartre hill.

It sported a huge red windmill on its roof, along with electric lights! Joseph Oller was its creator, and he designed it as a place for the very rich to come and "slum" for an evening in Montmartre, which was by now very trendy and happening. Workers, artists, foreigners, elegant women, middle class, the extremely wealthy all mingled here. There was a huge, fake elephant in the courtyard, which was reserved for men only. Inside, they could partake in opium, booze, and women.

Back in the beginning, the place was ribald and, although its decor was upscale and extremely glamorous, the activities that went on there were anything but mainstream. Legend has it that the can-can dance started there, although in reality that dance was first done earlier by young boys on the streets in lines, who were sometimes arrested for kicking up their legs in public! Then it moved to the dance floors and was done by couples, who were also encouraged to refrain from doing it.

The Moulin Rouge soon got the nickname "The First Palace of Women" for good reason. The dancers were mostly courtesans who danced their dances to advertise their "wares". Usually they had on lacy, revealng underthings that showed when they kicked up their legs. However, sometimes they tended to forego the underthings, allowing the patrons full view of their most prized items for sale. I often wonder, as a friend of mine pointed out, was that children's rhyme, "There's a place in France, where the ladies wear no pants..." based originally on this cabaret?

It was considered a tawdry, decadent place; a place where people with morals didn't frequent. At least, in theory. In reality, many people visited once the evening came.  As time progressed, it became a legitimate place of entertainment, with much less emphasis on prostitution and the focus on world class performers gracing its stage. Many famous singers and musicians played there over the years.

The Moulin Rouge looked fun and exciting on the surface, but many men were financially ruined because of the drugs and women. Some even took their lives. In 1903 the place was renovated and reopened and that was when the more famous, legitimate acts started performing. In fact, the Moulin Rouge regularly featured the operetta. The bawdy, raw Moulin Rouge of old was no more. It was now not only socially acceptable, it was a must to be seen at.

In 1915 the Moulin Rouge was completely destroyed in a fire. It reopened in 1921 and still stands today. The dancers still do the can-can, but they have on underwear, drugs aren't for sale, and the women aren't hawking their bodies. At least, not that I know of. All in all, its now a very showy, tourist driven place that has lots of appeal to visitors but none of the energy that was part of the original. It may be a much better place morally, but Moulin Rouge is only a shadow of what it once was.

Time does change everything. Even though many of the changes were for the good regarding the Moulin Rouge, a part of me wishes we could go back in time; see what it was really like when it first opened and anything one wished for could be had. What an interesting evening that would be!

Of course, we would only be spectators.

Of course.

Look for more "Those Crazy Bohemian posts here in the future!

Caddy Rowland is a novelist and painter. Her social media links follow.
To find out about her novels (including The Gastien Series, a story that begins with a bohemian artist in France) visit
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Twitter: @caddyorpims

1 comment:

  1. wow..i love this..i know so much more about Moulin Rouge..thank you so much Ms.Rowland...i picture Gastien as i read it...:)