In 1889, some 32 million visitors stormed Paris to see the Exposition Universelle and the new Eiffel Tower that was its standout attraction. Visitors lined up for hours to ride the slanting elevator, or walk, up to its two dizzying observation terraces, and over the six-month course of the fair alone, their tickets pretty well paid for the tower’s construction. The lacy iron-latticework structure was painted in graduated shades of red for the occasion, and at night it glittered with electric lights.
Beneath the tower, the fair’s pavilions were filled with modern wonders and novelties—steam locomotives, typewriters, German engineer Gottlieb Daimler’s small motorcar with its new internal-combustion engine. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison was among the fair’s stars, and so were Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, who performed in a park near the Arc de Triomphe.
And at the foot of Montmartre, in a windmill also painted a festive bright red, entrepreneur Joseph Oller and impresario Charles Zidler opened the Bal du Moulin Rouge. Their extravagant new cabaret, dance and music hall—with a giant statue of an elephant towering over the tables in the big garden—captured the exuberant Belle Epoque spirit of bohemian, naughty, gaudy, seedy Montmartre, where rich and poor, top hats and casquettes, socialites, seamstresses and coquettes, the upper and the underworlds met, drank and danced in the afternoon, at night and into the early morning.
The dance that made the Moulin Rouge famous had been evolving since mid-century, growing out of the quadrille and the galop, and variously known as the coin-coin and the chahut (uproar). Mark Twain, visiting Paris for the earlier 1867 Paris Exposition, described it in Innocents Abroad: “The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can…” It was a popular dance, done by both amateurs and professionals on the dance floor as well as on stage. Costumes evolved too—ruffled skirts, black stockings and pantaloons gave way to more froufrou, scantier undies and sometimes none at all. English impresario Charles Morton, importing the pounding, shouting, acrobatic dance for a London show, is credited with naming it the French cancan.
Only a year after it opened the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, booked a table at the Moulin Rouge to see the quadrille réaliste danced by the notorious La Goulue. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was already a patron then, and in 1891 he did the first of his many posters for the Moulin Rouge, of La Goulue in action. She and her sister denizens of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge—Jane Avril, Nini Pattes en l’Air, Grille d’Egout, Yvette Guibert—and their “boneless”, high-kicking male colleague Valentin le Désossé, were among his favorite subjects for the rest of his sadly short life.
By the early 1900s dance halls were losing their luster, and the Moulin Rouge turned into a concert theater, with revues and operettas, including a scandalous 1907 Rêve d’Egypte starring actress and writer Colette. With the legendary singer Mistinguett in the 1920s and 1930s came the first big song-and-dance revues with Broadway-style dancing girls. In one of them, the young actor Jean Gabin made his debut with “La Miss”; much later, he would play the music-hall impresario inspired by the Moulin Rouge’s Charles Zidler in Jean Renoir’s 1954 film French Cancan.
In the 1950s, new owner George France brought back the cancan, in shows that starred Charles Aznavour, Charles Trénet and Line Renaud. The Doriss Girls, started as a quartet by German dancer Doris Haug in 1957, grew to become the full-fledged dance troupe of today. In the 1960s, with new kitchens, the dîner-spectacle was launched, and the new show in 1963, Frou-Frou, was the first revue whose name started with the letter F, a tradition instituted by slightly superstitious director Jacki Clérico.
Hoofers and hoofs
Today the show is Féerie—a nice double entendre, since the word, meaning an enchanting fairylike vision, also means a stage or film spectacular. The magic in this case is not only in the nonstop, fast-paced glittering extravaganza of feathers, plumes, rhinestones, sequins and long-legged, scarcely-clad showgirls, but in the enormous effort it takes to get it all on stage, two shows a night, 365 nights a year.
The checklist alone is an eye-opener: 1,000 costumes, 800 pairs of shoes (sizes 5 to 12-1/2), 80 dancers (20 male, 60 female) of 14 different nationalities, 120 maîtres d’hôtel and waiters, 25 cooks, six miniature horses and five pythons.
The delightful little horses trot in on dainty hoofs, led by their showgirl “jockeys”; the pythons swim with their beautiful topless trainer in an aquarium holding 40 tons of water that rises up from the stage floor.
Féerie’s big full-cast numbers with elaborate, colorful sets include a pirate sequence somewhere in an exotic Asian land; a circus full of clowns and majorettes with a Disneyesque Grande Parade; and a historical rundown through the 20th century, with some 1940s boogie-woogie and—of course—a raucous Belle Epoque cancan.
Currently, the classic in-between acts include the marvelous Mario Berousek, the “fastest juggler in the world”; the Duo Stykan, astounding acrobats who certainly would have outdone Valentin le Désossé; and Eric Boo, a comic mime who offers a truly funny and charming routine with members of the audience brought on stage.
It’s all in good fun, precisely rehearsed and executed, and brought off with brio. It’s essentially a tourist attraction, of course, although the approximately 600,000 spectators a year are more or less half French and half international. And judging by the high-spirited applause on one recent evening, the audience has a fine time—aided, surely, by a fair share of the 240,000 bottles of champagne served annually in the 800-seat room.
82 blvd de Clichy, 18th, 01.53.09.82.82. www.moulin-rouge.com 
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of France Today