The secrets about the Moulin Rouge in Paris

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Ohh la la… Le Moulin Rouge is one the most famous cabarets in the world. It is easily recognisable with its red windmill on the corner of boulevard de Clichy and place Blanche, Paris. What secrets lie behind the music-hall revue’s history ? I’ve done my research about the well known Moulin Rouge at the foot of Montmartre and what I found was captivating.


What is the Moulin Rouge?

Moulin Rouge © French Moments

The Moulin Rouge from Place Blanche © French Moments

You may have heard about this Parisian institution without knowing exactly what the Moulin Rouge is.

It’s a cabaret that offers a lively dinner with a glittering music-hall revue. Wild and colourful dance shows are performed by topless women dancing with whirls of feather boas, sparkles and sequins.

However, according to the Moulin Rouge company, the show is for all ages. Children are accepted from age 6 (provided that they are accompanied by an adult).

The magic of the Moulin Rouge resides in its atmosphere reminiscent of the turn-of the-century Paris.


Where does the Moulin Rouge get its name from?

The red windmill (‘moulin rouge’ in French) was inaugurated in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower. 

Built at the foot of the Montmartre Hill, the cabaret got its name from a much older event that took place in 1814.

On 30 March 1814 the Battle of Paris took place which led to the fall of Napoleon. A day of fighting filled the streets of Paris when the French troops opposed the Sixth Coalition (Russia, Austria and Prussia).

The Russian troops broke rank and assailed the Montmartre Hill, a strategic location in Paris. On their way to the hilltop, the Russians encountered difficulties.

Four millers, the Debray brothers, defended their family windmill against the assault. During the confrontation three of the brothers were killed. The last one resisted valiantly and shot the Russian officer, commander of the troop.

To avenge his death the soldiers took the brother, cut his body into four parts and hung the pieces on the windmill’s sails. At night, the victim’s wife came to detach what was left of the body and put put it in flour sacks.

Montmartre Moulin Radet © French Moments

The Radet Windmill, rue Lepic on which sails the body of Debray was hung © French Moments

In memory of this tragic event, the brothers’ mother had a little red windmill placed on their grave which is still visible today in the Calvary cemetery in Montmartre.


Why is the Moulin Rouge’s windmill red?

Whether this is an urban legend or not, it seems that the colour of the Moulin Rouge was chosen for other motives.

Red is the colour of love, passion and… erotism. It is therefore not surprising that it was chosen for places dedicated to pleasure.

And red stands out! What better colour to make the cabaret more attractive and visible, particularly from the Grands-Boulevards. The red windmill was and still is impossible to miss.

Moulin Rouge © French Moments

The Moulin Rouge by night © French Moments

To ensure that the windmill’s silhouette can be spotted from far away at night time, its creators had lights installed onto the façade. In fact the Moulin Rouge was one of Paris’ first buildings to be electrified.


The red windmill: a Parisian landmark

Moulin Rouge © French Moments

The red windmill of the Moulin Rouge © French Moments

The emblematic silhouette of the fake red-painted windmill has overlooked Boulevard de Clichy since the Belle Epoque. The trademark of Paris’ most celebrated cabaret was designed in 1889 by Adolphe Willette (1857-1926). In fact the present-day windmill and its sails are a 1925 replica as the cabaret burnt down in 1915 and was rebuilt from 1921.


The cabaret: a success story

The Moulin Rouge opened on 6 October 1889.

It was designed by Spanish entrepreneur Joseph Oller (1839-1922) and French impresario Charles Zidler (1831-1897).

Josep Oller and Charles Zidler

They were inspired by the famous Moulin de la Galette. This mill-turned guinguette is still located near the top of the hill. A guinguette (pronounced “gang-ETTE“) was a popular drinking establishment until the 1950s. It was often a place located in villages close to Paris (Montmartre, Nogent-sur-Seine…) where you could eat, drink and dance.

Threatened with destruction, the Montmartre windmills were transformed into cabarets or guinguettes. Montmartre was then associated with parties.

The Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1876

The Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1876

The new Moulin Rouge included a wide dance floor and the cabaret had an extravagant garden at the rear. There was a giant plaster elephant made for the 1889 Paris World Exhibition.

The Elephant of the Moulin Rouge

The Elephant of the Moulin Rouge


The Moulin Rouge’s shows and stars

Magical shows were inspired from the circus world.

Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec had their paintings on display which contributed to the Moulin Rouge’s fame.

At the Moulin-Rouge. Painting by Toulouse-Lautrec (1889)

At the Moulin-Rouge. Painting by Toulouse-Lautrec (1889)

In fact, the shows were immortalised in the posters and drawings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The French painter was a regular patron.

In 1903 the cabaret was rebuilt by French architect Edouard Niermans (1859-1928) in Art Nouveau style.

The original Moulin Rouge in 1914

The original Moulin Rouge in 1914

Its western side was flanked by a medieval-style decor with a turret and crenelations.

Moulin Rouge in 1910

The Moulin Rouge in 1910

The Moulin Rouge was turned into a dance hall in the 1900s, its main attraction became the French cancan which originated in Montparnasse.

French Cancan Dancers

French Cancan Dancers in an Art-Nouveau style poster from the late 19th C

Until now the vigorous high-kicking and skirt-lifting dance has been associated with the Moulin Rouge.

The cabaret has featured many stars. These famous dancers have now escaped the French’s memory: Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue, Nini Pattes-en-l’air, la Môme Fromage, Jane Avril, Mistinguett. They were the Lady Gagas and Shakiras of their time.

Other famous entertainers were Valentin le Désossé (Valentin the Rubber Man), one of the few men to dance the French cancan, and (believe it or not!) Joseph Pujol le Pétomane (the immensely popular professional farter).

The Moulin Rouge was ideally located at the centre of nightlife entertainment in Paris.

Moulin Rouge by night. Postcard by Georges Stein c.1910

Moulin Rouge by night. Postcard by Georges Stein c.1910

Burnt down in 1915, the cabaret was rebuilt by 1921 (including a true copy of the iconic red windmill).

The Moulin Rouge when it burned down in 1915

The cabaret when it burned down in 1915

The shows went on during the German occupation of Paris. In the 1960s the Moulin Rouge returned to cabaret after a period of restoration.


Some fun facts about the Moulin Rouge

At the foot of the Montmartre Hill, the Moulin Rouge has some interesting facts:

  • 600,000 spectators each year
  • 2 shows per night 365 days a year
  • 240,000 bottles of champagne each year served in 750 Champagne buckets made from silver (Europe’s largest consumer of Champagne!)
  • 81,000 costumes of feathers, sparkles and sequins, 800 pairs of shoes.
  • 455 employees including 80 dancers and 5 pythons!

Where to find the Dragon fountain of Paris?

    • Location: 82 boulevard de Clichy (place de Clichy), 18th arrondissement.
    • Closest métro stations: Place Blanche (métro line 2).


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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