My own version of a “Paris by Night” tour always includes a stroll around Pigalle, the most intriguing area of the French capital. I take my tourist friends there for a good, inexpensive meal on one of the side streets; a visit to the bistro on rue Lepic where the movie “Amelie” was filmed; or a jazz concert in an authentic two-hundred-year-old acoustically perfect “cave”. We stop for the obligatory photo session in front of the Moulin Rouge. We do not pay the exorbitant entrance fee. We take a seat on one of the sidewalk terraces nearby and I give my tourists a decadent history lesson about the most famously infamous cabaret in the world. Now this lesson is for you.
More than a hundred years ago, the Pigalle area, and especially the Moulin Rouge was a living movie, filled with amazing characters from all walks of life and social circles. The Moulin Rouge (literally translated as Red Mill) was built in 1889 by Joseph Oller
and Charles Zidler. By the way, Joseph Oller was also the inventor of “pari mutuel”, which is basically bookmaking. He built the racetracks at Maisons-Laffitte and Alma and his betting structure was the predecessor of today’s French state-controlled betting system, the PMU, or Pari Mutuel Urbain – but that’s another story.
Anyway, when betting became illegal, Joseph concentrated on developing music halls and theatres, investing in the Moulin Rouge and other well-known venues such as the Olympia and Salle Pleyel, which still exist today. The Moulin Rouge became the temple of music and dance, the home of the French Can-Can and THE place to go for an evening of daring dancing and risqué relaxation. It was immoral maybe, especially for the beginning of the 20th century, but the Moulin Rouge exuded a joie de vivre that was no less than euphoric.
The army of young ladies who performed there were skilled, free-wheeling, flexible artists – almost acrobatic in their approach to the Can-Can – jumping and splitting as easily as giant rubber bands. They were gaily provocative, waving their white skirts in the air and showing their clingy underwear, a bit of skin and black garters. All of this was quite shocking at the time and a bit comic when you think of the topless, practically nude dancers who work there today.
There were many loyal customers of the Moulin Rouge. The most famous one, the French artist, Toulouse Lautrec, had his own table. He never paid for anything and immortalized the ambiance and clientele of the Moulin Rouge with his sketches and paintings. He was inspired by a couple of legendary Moulin Rouge dancers – Jane Avril (who was known for being discreet and nimble) and Louise Weber, nicknamed “La Goulue” who could take off a man’s hat with her foot while dancing!
The Moulin Rouge had its ups and downs; closed from time to time; burnt down in 1921 but was rebuilt soon after. It was known as “Pig Alley” right after WWII, when it was the epicentre of the Parisian red light district. It is just a tourist business now, without the energetic “joie de vivre” that was there at its origin. People are bus loaded in for the show at eye-boggling numbers. Each revue runs for 10 – 12 years and costs between 7 to 9 million euros to produce. The present revue is called “Féerie” which translates to “Extravaganza”. The next Moulin Rouge review will start just before Christmas 2015. The new show will be called “Flash”. For some unknown reason, every Moulin Rouge show begins with a “F” (no comment here).
There are other daring establishments to visit in Pigalle – things like erotic supermarkets and raunchy peep shows. I recently (and for the first time, really) went to the Musée de l’Erotisme on the Boulevard de Clichy. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised at how boring it was. The place itself was more like a gallery of phallic carvings and religious artwork from India, Japan and Africa – interesting but not really exciting. No “joie de vivre” there, just a historical account of fertility symbols and erotic skeletons. There were some exquisite relics but, frankly, the Louvre is a better buy for the money.
The real fun in Pigalle lies in just walking around with an open mind (and your wallet safely out of pickpocket reach). Imagine what it was like over a hundred of years ago with bawdy laughter, music, dance, wine-tinged camaraderie and no tourist buses. Imagine Pigalle as a Parisian playground, an adult amusement park, the first of its kind and the only one worthy of becoming a legend.