If you have ever watched the film, Moulin Rouge, you may get a sense of what is to come as soon as you wander off of the street and through the doors of what is perhaps the most well-known cabaret show not just in Paris but around the world.
Where Did it all Begin?
Originally ‘cabaret’ referred to any public house that had a liquor license, which then went on to become a social saloon-type environment where artists, poets, writers and composers were often found discussing there word and ideas. However, over time they became known as more seedy establishments, designed to lure men in particular through the doors with the raunchy dances performed by under-dressed women.
One such performer, Louise Weber, who was also known as “La Goulue” or “The Glutton”; was, during this time considered to be the Queen of Montmatre at the Moulin Rouge and a favourite of some very well-known artists of the day including painter Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Due to the show’s popularity with male clientele it wasn’t long before a certain reputation developed…but how are shows like Moulin Rouge seen today?
Would You go to One of the Famous Cabaret Shows for an Evening of Entertainment Whilst in Paris?
For many, the only knowledge of a cabaret show in Paris lies in the famous “Red Mill” building on Montmatre but this is not the only, or indeed the oldest in the city.
The oldest is believed to be that of Le Chat Noir which opened in 1881. Meaning “Entertainment House” this is thought to have been the first modern cabaret show and after closing its doors in 1897 the site has since become a boutique hotel on Boulevard de Clichy. This cabaret show is widely remembered due to its depiction on iconic poster art by Theophile Alexandre Steinlen.
Following in the footsteps of Le Chat Noir, Folies Bergere opened in 1869 on Rue Richer, predominately as an opera house. However, by 1886 Edouard Manchand had created a new genre of entertainment, namely a form of cabaret that became the start of success for this venue. Today, you can still go and watch a diverse mixture of shows here, including a cabaret but it has been forgotten by many and is not necessarily widely recognised as a traditional cabaret anymore.
Another, perhaps less well know cabaret show can be found at La Nouvelle Eve on Montmatre. The theatre built in 1898 was known as “Fantaisies Parisiennes”, not gaining its current name until 1949 when a variety and dance show was introduced. The French Playwright, Vaudeville Leon Gaudillot, lived above the theatre whilst penning the burlesque comedy called “Bonheur a Quartre” and in 1920, it was to house the first topless revue created by Leo Berryer, gaining it the nickname “Gaite Parisienne”. Today, whilst still home to the cabaret you will also find comic shows being performed here.
Where Can You Go to Watch a Traditional Cabaret Show?
Four Main Venues Stand Out; Varying in Glitz and Nudity Each Show Holds an Allure all of its Own
#1 Paradis Latin
For an evening still steeped in history you might like to try the Paradis Latin. Based in the Latin Quarter, close to Notre Dame and the Pantheon, the show “Paradis a la Folie” is a burlesque show that classes itself as one of the great cabarets for Parisians. Built initially by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, standing on the spot that was once a fortification known as “the wall of Philippe Auguste”, history is at its heart. Unfortunately, the original building was burnt down, which led the way for the great architect, Gustave Eiffel, to recreate what is still standing today. During this period he was also devoting time to designing, what for many is the great symbol of the city, the Eiffel Tower.
#2 The Lido
The Lido, once an underground pool, was converted into a playhouse by Leon Volterra but it was not until the Clerico Brothers took over that it became a venue for dinners and shows. Relocated in 1977 it can now be found on the Champs Elysees in a building that has no pillars blocking the view for the audience, an orchestra pit that sinks below the stage and a real ice rink.
This venue was made famous by Mary Kelly who became the original Bluebell Girl back in 1948 and those performing here today still carry the Bluebell Girl name. Famous people, including Laurel and Hardy and Elton John, have been known to visit this venue and perform to audiences. Rumour has it that Elvis Presley also gave an impromptu performance one evening.
The current show, Revue “Bonheur”, was created by Artistic Director Pierre Rambert, and has a more contemporary style associated with it whilst retaining an element of tradition. To date, 26 shows have been performed on this stage, making it one of the most successful cabarets. To add to this success in 1958 The Lido was reproduced at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas and ran for 33 years.
Described as a mixture of cabaret and burlesque, this venue seems to attract more Parisians than other similar shows of this genre, making it less touristy and is often seen as the most elegant of the cabarets.
#3 Crazy Horse
A slightly more risque performance can be found at Crazy Horse, Aveune George V, near Champs Elysees. Classed as the most seductive cabaret in Paris, visiting here you must be prepared for more nudity. It is said that the dancers are selected so that they are all the same height, making their nipples and hips sit at the same level; reason being that the dancers often have less of a costume and therefore artistically need to look the same.
The most famous dancer to walk through the doors of the venue in recent years is the star of burlesque, Dita Von Tesse. Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra have also graced the stage here, happy to continue the more seductive theme. Alongside dancers this venue is home to magicians, jugglers and mime acts. There is also a quirky side to this venue which can especially be seen in the ladies toilets; two toilets in one cubicle, continuing to fuel the idea that women need to go to the bathroom together. Add to this a bottle of Crazy Cuvee Champagne, created for the venue and you will have a very distinctive experience.
Founded in 1951 by Alain Bernardin; shows have been of an avant-garde nature and this continues to be the case with “Desirs”. Directed by Philippe Decoufle the show has been a success since 2009. All dancers are classically trained, representing some of the most Elite Paris has to offer, creating performances that are truly unique. Always on the look out for new talent dance auditions continue to take place every Wednesday; over 500 dancers auditioning each year for the 20 spaces.
#4 The Moulin Rouge
Finally, we have the Moulin Rouge, also known as the “Red Mill” on Montmatre. The district of Pigalle has a reputation for being Paris’s centre of sleaze due to the sex shops and the association with it being the Red Light District of the Capital. However, this should not put people of; as you come out of the metro station (Blanche Line 2) the venue is literally just across the road and has several bouncers on the door looking out for any trouble.
Constructed at the same time as the Eiffel Tower, this cabaret is not only the most famous but also one of the oldest in Paris. Co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller they wanted to create a cabaret that “transcended class and boundaries”. In the early years however, it was seen more as a vulgar establishment where Parisian males would go to be entertained by young females; some would say without any limits. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the venue gained in popularity, cleaning up their reputation to become best known for being the birth place of the modern can-can.
The Moulin Rouge stood out from other cabaret shows for its extravagance and gained the nickname “Le Premier Palais des Femmes” and was believed to have had the most talented dancers. Talent was clearly drawn to this venue – Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra all performing here. Still standing out today the show “Feerie” created by Doris Hang and Ruggero Angeletto, see scores of visitors each week. Giving a sense of glamour and Belle Epoque comfort to everyone that walks through the doors you can still get a sense for the history of the place.
What should be highlighted is that due partly to this historical nature of this building and partly due to the fame that has been generated by Hollywood this is probably the most touristy of the three shows, leading to very few Parisians now attending. Does this impact on the quality of the show, no, but depending on the atmosphere you are after I think you need to consider this when making a choice.
Do any of them live up to the elegance and grandeur that they project in their images?…I think this comes down to personal preference and what works for one person won’t work for all.
Have you ever visited the Moulin Rouge or any other Cabaret Show in Paris? Where will you decide to spend your evening in Paris?