Moulin Vert Absinthe
Moulin Rouge

History of the Moulin Rouge

In the closing decade of nineteenth century Paris a new period retrospectively christened La Belle Epoque ('the beautiful period') was born. As its name suggests, the Belle Epoque was characterized by relative calm, prosperity, enterprise and social freedom. Importantly the Belle Epoque gave birth to a new culture of entertainments immediately recognisable as modern. To mark the centenary of the French Revolution, a revolution against privilege and inequity, Paris staged the Universal Exhibition of 1889. Here, a variety of amusements and new technologies serviced wondrous worker and bourgeois alike. This 'levelling of enjoyments' as one contemporary called it, marked a democratisation of leisure that heralded the 20th Century's invention of mass culture.

As Paris raced toward the end of the century, automation and mass production brought headyrewards. There was more bread, wine, books, textiles, fashionable garments and new concept Parisian department stores to buy them in. Above all, the populace made a dizzying start on the twentieth century's love affair with new technologies. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the elevator, the bicycle, hand-held cameras, the first automobiles, the electric light and the first mass produced typewriters - not to mention advances in both public hygiene and in surgery, spawned an optimism at once practical and utopian. The Bohemians of Montmartre, called themselves 'the Children of the Revolution,' the promise of 'Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love!' of a better world, seemed germane in these unprecedented new technologies.

 

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Paris and the Belle Epoque

As Paris raced toward the end of the century, automation and mass production brought headyrewards. There was more bread, wine, books, textiles, fashionable garments and new concept Parisian department stores to buy them in. Above all, the populace made a dizzying start on the twentieth century's love affair with new technologies. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the elevator, the bicycle, hand-held cameras, the first automobiles, the electric light and the first mass produced typewriters - not to mention advances in both public hygiene and in surgery, spawned an optimism at once practical and utopian. The Bohemians of Montmartre, called themselves 'the Children of the Revolution,' the promise of 'Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love!' of a better world, seemed germane in these unprecedented new technologies.

Paris

 

With the rise of organised mass labour came the new concept of 'leisure hours' and a demand for mass entertainments. A booming middle class found more time for distraction - and more money to spend on it. An ever-growing new demand for popular entertainment, for race tracks, circuses, opera, brothels, cabarets and balls, was voiced. Indeed, turn of the century Paris hosted some 27,000 cafes which, in tandem with the wine bars and cabarets gave it more drinking places than any other city in the world. By century's end, 264 cafe-concerts or 'theatres of the poor,' many of which evolved into their grander relation the music and dance halls, also flourished. Here, bourgeois, worker and Bohemian alike could enjoy a song or a theatrical act for the price of a drink. All kind of distractions were in vogue, and the low life, in particular the amorous low life, was suddenly hot. Located right in the heart of artistic Bohemia and Paris' criminal underworld, the establishments of the Montmartre district were perfectly equipped to serve it up...and to fulfill that yen which the French even coined a phrase for, that is 'la nostalgie de la boue' (lit: longing for mud).

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The opening of the Moulin Rouge

Crowning the Montmartre-based world of commercial entertainment was Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler's landmark music hall, the Moulin Rouge. When the Moulin Rouge opened its doors on the Place Blanche at the foot of Montmartre on the 6th of October 1889, all Paris turned out. Highbrow and lowbrow society alike mobbed the 'Palace of Women' before the paintwork was dry on its extravagantly decorated interior. The Moulin Rouge's decor, by Montmartre painter Adolphe Willette, its exotic colour, form and themeing became an overnight legend. Besides the immense dance hall complete with galleries to watch the dance floor and an orchestra mounted above the stage, there was a garden with another stage, cafe tables, cavorting monkeys and unstockinged prostitutes riding donkeys.

Moulin Rouge

 

Also in the garden, a giant elephant (gleaned when the Universal Exhibition of 1889 terminated) housed an Arabian-themed club inside its body. Male clients entered via the elephant's leg where a spiral staircase opened onto belly dancing performances, an orchestra and an opium den. Making a radical break with the century's relentless class divisions, a microcosm of Parisian society rubbed shoulders in scandalous proximity. European royalty (including the Prince of Wales), ambassadors, politicians, industrialists and magistrates slummed it with celebrity courtesans, can-can girls and workers. The local Montmartre Bohemians and the cocottes and noctambules (prostitutes), pimps, madams and thieves who were their neighbours were also out in force. Within the Moulin's velvet draped walls, the aromas of women's scent, face powder, tobacco, and beer mingled as promiscuously as the audience. In a class of their own were the courtesans, a social phenomena that all but died out with the end of the Belle Epoque and the beginning of World War I. Though springinAs Paris raced toward the end of the century, automation and mass production brought headyrewards. There was more bread, wine, books, textiles, fashionable garments and new concept Parisian department stores to buy them in. Above all, the populace made a dizzying start on the twentieth century's love affair with new technologies. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the elevator, the bicycle, hand-held cameras, the first automobiles, the electric light and the first mass produced typewriters - not to mention advances in both public hygiene and in surgery, spawned an optimism at once practical and utopian. The Bohemians of Montmartre, called themselves 'the Children of the Revolution,' the promise of 'Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love!' of a better world, seemed germane in these unprecedented new technologies from the same working class as the prostitutes, the more celebrated courtesans were distinguished by the length and high-style of the relationships they formed (with, near exclusively, the elite of Europe). Like today's film stars and super-models, they were also cultishly observed by press and public. But if the Moulin Rouge quickly established its reputation as the most exotic sex market in Paris, it also represented a kind of cultural and social revolution. Think of it as a can-can-besotted version of Steve Rubell's disco-crazed Studio 54 crossed with Bangkok's sex market meets Mardi Gras' carnival.

Moulin Rouge Elephant

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Moulin Rouge and its actors

The Bohemian's anti-establishment mores thrived in Montmartre, whose Butte district was honeycombed with the studios of struggling, long-haired poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and students. Shunning the bourgeois world of their parents generation, the Bohemians plunged into cafe society, leftist ideologies and a drug and alcohol culture that many - notably the legendary poet Rimbaud and his lover Verlaine - saw as the gateway to artistic inspiration and transcendence. With characteristically anarchistic verve, Bohemian artists broke with the ultra conservative Academies and took art to the streets with their posters, overnight magazines, satiric cabarets, costume balls and the democratised theatre of the cafe-concerts. Painters began to observe the demimonde - the streetwalkers, beggars, drunks and petty crims they cohabited amongst - with a frankness and an observational wit that challenged establishment mores. Artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, reluctant scion of one of France's oldest aristocratic houses, became one of the most notorious Bohemians of fin de siecle Montmartre. (At 4'11" - a genetic bone condition had stunted his growth - he was also one of the shortest). Lautrec immortalised the inhabitants of bar, brothel and dance hall in his paintings, prints and posters with a stylishly simplified perspective that is now credited as one of the earliest forms of visual Modernism. Lautrec, whom a contemporary described as 'a queer top-heavy little man, swaying on his stunted legs like a ship at sea,' was a favourite at the Moulin Rouge with management and dancers alike. Armed with his legendary wit and drafting skills, and a fashionably fatal alcoholic habit, the diminutive Frenchman partied and observed the world from his regular table, often till dawn.

Entertainments at the Moulin Rouge included roaming performers and side show freaks; witty social comedy and stand-up; an opportunity to listen to the latest Edison phonograph from New York; a view of Paris from the howdah atop the Elephant or somewhere deep in its belly, a quiet shot of morphine; pseudo-exotic dancers; every sexual favour or deviance imaginable for a price, and most famously, the can-can dancers. Evolved in Paris' ragingly popular cafe-concerts and music halls, and identified with the lower classes, the can-can's violent abandonment and erotic acrobatics were the sensation of the day. Considered especially provocative was the height and violence of the dancers' leg kicks which were literally policed via the safety pinning of their split knickers. Legendary can-can practitioners at the Moulin Rouge included Jane Avril, La Goulue (lit: the Glutton, named for her habit of draining abandoned glasses at the bar) and the male dancer Valentin Le Desosse (the Boneless)...all of whom were favoured by Toulouse Lautrec. There was also Nini Belle-en-Cuisse (of the Beautiful Thighs) and Mome Fromage, a plump lesbian red-head. Inspiring further characters in the film were the North African cabaret artist Le Chocolat and the curious Le Petomane, a musical flatulator whose 'aspiratory anus' caused corseted ladies to be carried out in breathless hilarity.

Petomane

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Moulin Vert and Absinthe

The cocktail of choice among cabaret and musical hall goers was a bitter green alcohol called Absinthe that had something of a cult following amongst the Bohemians. With a high spirit content, Absinthe also contained elements of the poisonous herb wormwood and had rumoured hallucinogenic qualities. Its popularity in late nineteenth century Paris inspired a renaming of the city's beloved cocktail hour to l'heure verte, or 'green hour.' Taken either with or without sugar, Absinthe inspired one Parisian poet to shout "I take it with sugar" as a rapturous form of greeting that sorted fellow users from non.

On the right side you can watch a video of the former Moulin Rouge:

 

 

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