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The history of the Moulin Rouge

if you're lucky enough to have visited Paris, maybe you walked by it, and marveled at the red windmill. But have you ever been inside the Moulin Rouge? The famous Paris cabaret is the same age as the fabled Eiffel Tower – both opened 130 years ago.

"At that time, it was the first building with electricity when it first opened," said Fanny Rabasse, who has been at the Moulin Rouge for a quarter-century.

"It's really quite something when you look around," said correspondent Alina Cho.

"Yes, and I like the warm atmosphere, the red. You know the little red lamps?  They are made only for us," Rabasse said.

The Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris opened its doors in October 1889. CBS News

The Red Mill (that's the English translation for Moulin Rouge) sits in Montmartre, a section of Paris that was filled with windmills. A few still stand today.

"It was a way to pay tribute to these windmills of Montmartre," said Rabasse.

And why was it painted red? "Because they wanted it to be seen from everywhere."

It didn't hurt that Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler, the two businessmen behind the Moulin Rouge, also put on an eye-popping show. Author Francesco Rapazzini said, "Here was the party. Here were the girls. Here was the music. Here was the freedom. And here all the classes were mixed together. There were the bourgeois, there were the aristocrats, there were the laundry girls. There was everybody."

The chorus line at the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris.  CBS News

Rapazzini said the Moulin Rouge attracted greats like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the diminutive painter who came to the cabaret almost every night. 

"He lived not far from here," Rapazzini said. "And he loved to be between the women. But he was a dwarf, and women escaped from him. And here he could be in the middle of them and see them dance and laugh and drink. And he loved to drink a lot, too."

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Toulouse-Lautrec was behind the now-familiar posters for the Moulin Rouge, and the originals still hang there. He painted dancers like Jane Avril, the inspiration behind Nicole Kidman's character in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie.

And the Moulin Rouge has even come to New York, in a hit Broadway musical set to modern-day pop songs. It is a show that, Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane points out, is not the real Moulin Rouge: "This is the Moulin Rouge of the imagination."

Even so, McLane visited the real Moulin Rouge to help him visualize the stage version. "You know, I really wanted it to feel like this is the club, that you're transported to another world," he said.

So, McLane transformed almost every inch of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre from "boring" beige to raging red.

"In John Logan's script, he describes this club very simply. He says, 'The club: sex and smoke,'" laughed McLane.

"Moulin Rouge!" scenic designer Derek McLane 04:09

Today, the smoke is gone, but the Paris show is sexier than ever. Sixty women (and men) perform twice a night, 365 days a year.

Janet Pharaoh, a former dancer herself, is an artistic director.

Cho asked, "What are you looking for?"

"I'm looking for very good dancers, good classical training," Pharoah said. "The girls also need to be tall. At least 5'8", but really these days you're looking at more than 5'10" and going to 6-foot."

And the can-can doesn't come cheap. Each elaborate handmade costume can cost $50,000.

Australians Amanda Chapman and Jessica Evans are long-time dancers.

"Some of the routines are very difficult," Chapman said.

"The can-can is the hardest, I think," said Evans. "I think the stamina to get from the beginning to the end, 'cause it's just so difficult."

Backstage at the Moulin Rouge. CBS News

And revealing. Most of the 90-minute show is performed topless.

Cho asked, "There are people who are going to watch this and say, 'Do we need to see so many nude girls dancing on stage?  Isn't it demeaning?'"

A topless dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. CBS News

"The 2,000 people watching the show tonight don't seem to think that, do they?" Pharoah replied. "And the girls don't think it. They're not forced to be here or do anything. They've come because they want to do it. … They're earning enough money to be totally independent at the age of 18. They are totally independent. They are reliant on no man."

Chapman said, "We can do this and be so proud of our bodies and doing it in an artistic way, in a beautiful way. It's completely normal and it's OK."

After 130 years, there is still something romantic about the Moulin Rouge – so much so, marriage proposals are common. But not all have a Hollywood ending.

Fanny Rabasse said, "In the past, we used to agree that people can ask and do the proposal on the stage of the Moulin Rouge – after the show, of course. But one evening there was a guy from America. He took the microphone and he ask his girlfriend, 'Do you want to marry me?' And in front of 900 people, she said, 'No.' So from now on, we decided that there won't be any more proposals on stage. Now you can come and do your proposal at your table in a more intimate way. But that's it!"

See also: 

For more info:

  • Moulin Rouge, Montmartre, Paris
  • "Moulin Rogue: The Musical" at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York City | Ticket info
  • "Moulin Rouge" (2001), directed by Baz Luhrman (Official site), available on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD
  • "Le Moulin Rouge en folies" by Francesco Rapazzini (in French), available in Trade Paperback and eBook formats via Amazon

Story produced by Jay Kernis. 

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