August 18, 2014

Caddy Rowland - Making History, Bohemian Style (Part 8)

Please welcome back historical fiction author and artist, Caddy Rowland, our monthly contributor here at Historical Fiction Connection.

We’ve talked about the two most popular places the late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists inhabited, but there’s another cabaret these and many others visited. I’ll bet all of you have heard of it. The Moulin Rouge. This famous cabaret is now very different than the Moulin Rouge of the 1800's. The original opened in 1889 at the same location. Technically in Pigalle, another district of Paris, it shares the 18th arrondissement with Montmartre. For that reason most people think of the Moulin Rouge as part of Montmartre. After all, it sits right at the foot of Montmartre hill.

When this new entertainment spot opened, a huge red windmill sat atop its roof, along with electric lights! Joseph Oller designed it as a place to come for an evening of Montmartre magic, which was by now very trendy and happening. Just like at the Chat Noir and Le Lapin Agile, a hodge-podge of people were drawn to place that lit up the night. Most of them had a whole lot more money than the artists. A gigantic, fake elephant “resided” in the courtyard, reserved for men only. Inside, they could partake in opium, booze, and women.

Although the décor was lush, glitzy and extremely glamorous, what went on there was 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. Sometimes they were arrested for kicking up their legs in public! Next the can-can moved to the dance floors and was done by couples, who were also encouraged to refrain from doing.

"The First Palace of Women" soon became the nickname for this cabaret for good reason. The dancers were mostly courtesans who danced their dances to advertise what they really had for sale. Usually they had on lacy, revealing lingerie; lingerie which showed when they kicked up their legs. It was not unusual for them to routinely forego the lingerie, allowing the crowd full view of their most prized items for sale. Was that where the children's rhyme, "There's a place in France, where the ladies wear no pants" came from?

Yes, the original Moulin Rouge was considered a place people with morals wouldn’t frequent. And so the throngs grew, along with the wild stories. Fun and exciting on the surface, many men financially ruined themselves at the Moulin Rouge because of the drugs and women. Some even committed suicide because of the debauchery they indulged in.

As time marched on, it lost the tawdry decadence of the early days and became a legitimate place of entertainment. In 1903 it was renovated and reopened. The focus changed from prostitution to featuring world class performers onstage. Many famous singers and musicians played there and
the Moulin Rouge regularly featured the operetta. Goodbye bawdy, hello social acceptance.

In 1915 the Moulin Rouge was completely destroyed in a fire. Six years later it reopened and still stands today. You will still find the dancers doing the can-can, but they have their private parts covered. Drugs are no longer legal. The crowd is almost all tourists, wishing they could relive the excitement of the past, just for an evening. Oh, the show is still flashy and appealing to visitors, but the raw energy that was part of the original has moved on. It may be a much better place morally, but Moulin Rouge is only a shadow of what it once was.

Time really does change everything. Even though I’ll admit many of the changes at the Moulin Rouge were for the good, a part of me wishes we could go back in time. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what it was really like when it first opened and anything one wished for could be found?

If I were thirty years younger, I might even jump onstage and do my own wild rendition of the can-can. Just because I could back then, but now my legs tell me I can’t.

Yes, indeed. Time changes everything.

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