As you walk from Place Blanche into the Boulevard de Clichy, Le Moulin Rouge appears at the bottom of the Montmartre hill, in Paris’s 18th district: Pigalle. Immediately, the feeling of oddity seizes you. The mystery takes you to another dimension: one of dance, sequins, feathers, wild colors, and music. If you stare at the facade long enough, the red windmill whispers its secrets.
Its story begins the year Eiffel inaugurates his tower for the Universal Exhibition. Joseph Oller (1839-1922) and his associate Charles Zidler (1831-1897) full of ambition, want to create a temple dedicated to the Cancan dance, the biggest and most famous cabaret. With a vision or a hunch, they open their doors to a new world. Now, close your eyes and imagine walking into a Toulouse Lautrec painting. Jump into the loud world of a cabaret at the turn of the century: music and colors, the ﬂaming orange hair of the entertainer Jane Avril, the focal point of gentlemen seated group; in the background, the dancer La Goulue. A rainbow of colors adorned her movements, her skirt goes up and down in a whirlwind, at an incredible speed. Further, you see the figure of an aristocrat, beside him, the silhouette of an artist, as if they belong to the same world. For a blink of an eye, nothing separates them from enjoying the same pleasures.
Step into Joseph and Charles’s office while they discuss strategy. They want to seize the world’s attention, to become the number one cabaret in town. The place where, everybody, from aristocrats to working men, dreams to be. Joseph has already an acute sense of marketing and decides to coin a nickname for the cabaret: “the first women’s palace” (“le premier Palais des femmes”) a name that invites people’s imagination to party.
On October 6th, 1889, the construction is barely finished, the room is bursting of people, the curtain and dance floor open, the magic starts. Everybody and anybody is here, the atmosphere is euphoric and wild. The champagne flows. The eccentric and extravagant decors, (including an elephant real life-size in the garden) and the iconic facade stand out. The facade is decorated with electric lights, which is a novelty. Adolphe Léon Willette designed a brightly colored electric-powered facade. 10 pm, The show is about to start. The cabaret lights up to the Place Blanche, like a lighthouse, sending color lights never seen before. The facade, a huge red windmill, at the very front of the building, is a reminder to what was once a village with many windmills. Still staring at the building, you wonder: why Red? In people’s minds, Red is the color of love, passion and eroticism and Joseph Oller, wants to make the cabaret more visible.
Joseph and Charles win their bet that day. Joseph becomes an accomplished businessman. Throughout times and struggles, Le Moulin Rouge remains a gem in the Parisian nightlife, both a symbol of the past and undisputed icon of the “gaie Paris” which survived wars and disasters. The cabaret was shut down for 6 long years after a devastating fire broke down on February 27, 1915. The fire destroyed the auditorium and the ballroom. Only the façade and a part of the stages remained. Ten years after a disastrous fire, the theatre is rebuilt. At the time, the actress-dancer-singer Mistinguett became Co-director of the cabaret. Many renovations later, in the 1950s the happy afterwar era, the Red mill needs to reclaim its place the Parisian nightlife.
The red windmill continues to murmur its backstage stories. First, it takes you back to La Goulue’s Cancan. Louise Weber (1865 - 1929) (the Glutton) gets her nickname while partying and finishing the customer's wine glasses while dancing in cabarets. Oller scouts and hires her for his new revue and Grand Quadrille. She also performs with her dance partner Jacques Renaudin, also known as Valentin le désossé (the boneless). “The story has it that one evening when she is dancing a frenetic cancan, between two cartwheels she spots the Prince of Wales, who came to spend an evening on his own at the Moulin Rouge. She calls out, with the Parisian cheek for which she was well-known: ‘Hey, Wales! The Champagne’s on you?”
Other times, other decors, bring Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois alias Mistinguett, to the Moulin Rouge. In 1907, she meets Jacques-Charles, who is, so to speak, the “father of the modern revue.” she becomes Mistinguett “the woman with the divine legs.” On stage, she embodies the legend of Music Hall. She and Max Dearly perform the famous Apache Dance together in 1909 and then go on and create spectacular revues, one after another for almost 30 years. She is, at one time, the highest-paid female entertainer in the world. In 1919 her legs are insured for 500,000 francs. Star of the Revue Mistinguett (1925), she is also Director of the sewing shop. Her songs, « Ça, c’est Paris! », « Il m’a vue nue » and « On m’suit », sung with Jean Gabin, are all tied up with the history of the Moulin Rouge.
in 1916, She first records her signature song, "Mon Homme".
The red mill invites you to step in the auditorium, as more stars dance on stage, from the likes of Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and Josephine Baker. Not just dancers, but also singers such as Frank Sinatra and France’s national chanteuse Édith Piaf and Yves Montand perform to demonstrate the show must go on and the red mill remains number one.
The wind of memories is picking up and the red mill still turns its pages so fast through new centuries and witnesses the world events. Still standing and still red, immortal testimony to the Parisian nightlife.