It isn’t merely by chance that the Moulin Rouge became the most famous cabaret in world. This is what its founders, Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller, set out to do when they opened the now the legendary cabaret on October 6th, 1889. Daring and extravagant, below are some of the most interesting facts about the Moulin Rouge that have helped it wow people from the four corners of the globe for over 130 years.
Before launching into those, get a primer on the cabaret with this short interview I had about the cabaret on Times Radio!
10 Fascinating Facts about the Moulin Rouge
The name may have been inspired by a gory event in Montmartre history
Back in the 1800s there were a number of windmills (moulin in French) up in Montmartre. The founders of the Moulin Rouge could have simply been inspired by these… or legend has their inspiration came from specific, tiny red windmill linked to a tragical historical event which took place in the area. During the last days of Napoléon Bonaparte’s rule in 1814, the French were in the process of being defeated by the Russians. Their victory was confirmed in an attack on Paris, however, not all Parisians were giving in that easily. While the Debray brothers, owners of the Moulin de la Galette (its two windmills are actually called le Moulin Radet and Blute Fin) were defending their property against the invaders, three of the four were killed. The one who survived avenged his brothers by shooting a Russian officer. This act in turn led to him being killed, his body cut into pieces and nailed to the arms of their windmill. In memory of this sorrowful event, their mother put a little red windmill placed on their grave. You can see and visit this in the smaller of Montmartre’s two cemeteries, the Cimetière du Calvaire.
It was the first building in Paris to have electricity
Back in the late 1800s electricity was brand new and the Moulin Rouge was the first building in the whole city to use this marvelous new technology. This is how the windmill’s arms spun around and the building was ablaze in electric lightbulbs. So it wasn’t just the dancers who were electrifying!
It didn’t only put on a cabaret show
The Moulin Rouge was one of the largest entertainment facilities in Paris. It had a huge dance floor, the stage where the can can dancers performed, but also a back garden where there were donkey rides to entertain female guests. More on this part of the complex below!
The back garden was home to a large elephant
Okay, not a real elephant, but the garden was dominated by a gigantic plaster one. Perhaps you noticed this in the Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie on the cabaret. And, just like in the movie, the inside of the elephant was actually used. It had a private club where men could pay 1 franc to view a belly dance show. Apparently it also held some of the dressing rooms, but I doubt these were anything like the boudoir shown in the movie.
The cabaret made the Cancan famous, but it wasn’t invented here
An exact date cannot be placed on the creation of the Cancan and that’s because it developed rather organically. The dance actually sprung from a previous one, called the Quadrille Naturaliste, which was first recorded as early as the 1820s. Originally performed by men and women, a version of this involving high kicks and jump splits, became famous in the Montmartre area in the 1850s. In the 1860s London music hall owner Charles Morton, adapted this dance as the “French Cancan.” However, this ended up being too shocking for the British public, who deemed this dance, with its dancing showing off their knickers, too indecent. Morton’s version was re-imported back to France where it became a big hit even though the authorities still considered it too risqué. Charles Zidler, co-owner of the Moulin Rouge, was determined to make the cancan famous at his cabaret — a goal at which he definitely succeeded!
The Moulin Rouge’s Cancan is in the Guiness Book of World Records
The Cancan will forever be linked to the Moulin Rouge, and it’s even helped the cabaret enter the Guinness Book of World Records. To celebrate the cabaret’s 125th anniversary in 2014, the dancers of Moulin Rouge did 29 consecutive kicks in 30 seconds, impressive!
A current building isn’t the original
Alas, the original complex was ravaged by fire in 1915. It was rebuilt in 1921 identically, but the elephant had disappeared sometime beforehand. The garden had also been gradually fazed out. Today, you can experience something close to the ambiance of the garden at the cabaret’s hidden bar, Le Bar à Bulles, accessible via the alley to the left of the cabaret.
The cabaret has featured in over a dozen movies… and several music videos!
The exuberant ambiance of the cabaret natural transfers beautiful to film, and over a dozen movies have been made revolving around the Moulin Rouge. In addition to these, Prince featured the in his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times and The rock group the Killers’ set the music video for “Mr. Brightside” at the cabaret.
Many very famous performing artists have graced its stage
In the early part of the 20th century the venue started to be used more for theatre. New cabaret life was brought to it by lead performer Mistinguett from around 1907-29. Then as of the 1930s, it was also used for concerts. In addition to the more likely personalities like Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, the cabaret’s stage has played host to Gina Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and more surprisingly Elton John and The Village People!
And the cabaret has had a number of famous guests
The cabaret has also had more than its share of famous guests. Among these were two British royals. Back in 1890, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who loved spending time in naughty Paris visited the cabaret. Then, almost a hundred years later in 1981, his more prim and proper ancestor, Queen Elizabeth II, had a special performance put on just for her at the cabaret.
If you would like to learn more about Montmartre’s cabaret history, check out this other article I wrote on the cabarets of the area.