Located in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, the real and authentic Moulin Rouge was founded by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler in 1889 (the same year as the Eiffel Tower) – ten years before the setting of the musical (and film). The infamous nightclub is still open today, entertaining approximately 600,000 visitors each year with its glittering stage show, Féérie.
“Since its creation in 1889, the Moulin Rouge has focused on developing a concept of spectacle, a distinctive imagery and a singular universe that is now internationally recognized and has made its success in France and abroad.”Paris City Vision 2019
“Its founders wanted to create a place dedicated to entertainment for a diverse public. The cabaret quickly acquired a solid reputation that would in turn inspire international artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Renoir.”Moulin Rouge Site Official: About Moulin Rouge
The early years at the Moulin Rouge established its renowned French Cabaret style: raucous, free-spirited, party-entertainment. Le Moulin Rouge was masterful at drawing in its customers with its setting and entertainment, attracting those who wanted to indulge in the club’s elaborate, thrilling, unabashed fun.
The original Moulin Rouge was co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller, who nicknamed their establishment Le Premier Palais des Femmes (the first Palace of Women). It was host to lavish stage shows featuring singers, dancers, and variety performers and catered to both the wealthy bourgeois and poor bohemian artists alike. The Moulin Rouge is known as the birthplace of the French can-can, a raucous, rhythmic dance considered scandalous in its day due to the suggestive, and often revealing, way the dancers kicked their legs up in the air.
Also known for its architectural wonder, the Moulin Rouge is easily recognized by the iconic red windmill, which stood on its roof, and for which the establishment was named. It was one of the first buildings in Paris to be electrified, and both the windmill and the building’s marquee were filled with dazzling electric lights. To add to the eclectic and opulent decor, Zidler and Oller purchased a giant stucco elephant from the Parisian Universal Fair, which they placed in the garden and in which they housed an opium den used to entertain men with private dances.
The original Moulin Rouge burned down in 1915, but the cabaret was fully rebuilt six years later, reopening in 1921. Today it is still operating as a cabaret and hosts a variety of performers providing nightly entertainment to visitors from around the world. The Moulin Rouge was immortalized by the works of the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a frequent visitor to the establishment in the late 1800s. Both Toulouse-Lautrec and Zidler appear as characters in Moulin Rouge! and were inspirations for the story created by Pearce and Luhrmann. Its history has inspired numerous novels, films, and stage productions, including Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
Coming from all walks of life, the patrons ranged from unruly locals to wealthy Parisians and tourists to prominent, renowned artists, such as the Post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec frequented the “red windmill” and captured the club life by painting the nightly scenes, which became iconically associated with his work.
Beginning in 1909, Jeanne Bourgeois, a performer who took on the stage name Mistinguett, starred at the Moulin Rouge. Mistinguett was also a performer in the well-known Folies Bergères and had longstanding love affair with Maurice Chevalier, the famous French cabaret singer and actor. She became the highest-paid female entertainer in the world, with legs insured for 500,000 francs! As star entertainer, co-director, and costume director, Mistinguett’s influence on the Moulin Rouge is formidable; she was clearly one of the many people who made the cabaret what it is today.