Monday 1 February 2021

Week 5: The Moulin...Bleu?

100 years ago this week: Week 5

Everybody knows the Moulin Rouge, but did you know that in the 1920s and 30s a rival with a very similar name was in operation not 200 metres away? I didn't until I saw an advert in a Paris paper from 1921...

Read on to find out more.

42, rue de Douai, tel 42-90
La Revue 
by Battaille-Henri and G. de la Fouchardière
Today, matinee at 3pm

The advert, like the majority at this time, is direct and to the point. Each word and line had a price, and the budget of this particular establishment was undoubtedly limited, as we will see shortly.

Most visible of all is the name: Moulin-Bleu. Doesn't that seem familiar? Created 30 years after the Moulin-Rouge, this establishment was trying to make its own imprint in January 1921, having leeched on to the identity of its illustrious neighbour just a few months previously (before becoming the Moulin-Bleu, the cabaret had known several previous identities; la Roulotte, la Trique, Little Palace and l'Harlequin, but this name would be by far the longest lasting). 

There were no direct links between the two moulins, and brand protection didn’t seem to be a thing in 1920s Paris. Interestingly, a third moulin, the Moulin-Rose, this time inspired by the Moulin-Bleu, also had a short existence in Paris in the mid 1920s. We will come back to this later too!

A family affair

If the names were similar, the Moulin-Bleu aimed to differentiate itself by outdoing its neighbour, not in the impressiveness of the spectacle, but instead for the amount of flesh on display. Generally the shows were operettas, racy adventures with song and dances that were little more than excuses to have as many naked women on stage as possible. That said, the creations were not without merit, and often created and produced by respected writers and musicians. The two named here - Jacques Battaille-Henri, the lyricist, and Georges de La Fouchardière, the writer, had good careers and were involved in many other productions at theatres in Paris.

The Moulin-Bleu was a family run affair. The Director was a man named Martial Tallien, whose wife – May-Liette (pictured) - was not only one of the stars but also – before the show or between scenes – barmaid, programme seller and usherette! The establishment was successful and influential, but it also seemingly embraced its homespun amateurism.

What was the Moulin-Bleu like both inside and outside? Unfortunately, there seems to be no pictorial evidence of the exterior of the cabaret, in any of its incarnations. Was this because there was no truly visible exterior? The only thing we can say for certain is that there was never any kind of windmill, in any form or colour! Some of the interiors seem to be visible in the photos on this page, but there is nothing to suggest that this was ever any kind of traditional theatre.

What happened to the Moulin-Bleu? 

At the end of the 1930s, the Moulin-Bleu changed name to the Moulin de Paris, then briefly to Le Rideau de Montmartre before closing its doors for good during the occupation. According to this article published in Le Monde, the building was empty and abandoned in 1950. The article describes the building not as an old theatre, but instead as an old brothel. This is the only mention I have found of this usage, but the boundary between cabaret and bordello may have been quite slim. A clue can be found in a surrealist classic.

In his book ‘Le Paysan de Paris’, published in 1926, Louis Aragon, describes the Théatre Moderne, the original name of the establishment that became the Moulin-Rose. It had a small auditorium divided in three sections, and an audience that barely ever exceeded 30. ‘15-year old boys’ and ‘overweight men’ in the cheap seats at the back, ‘beef merchants’ and ‘Portuguese men at risk of a stroke’ as close as possible to the nude actresses at the front. At the bar, a detail that has its importance; the actresses and their ‘men’. For Aragon, these establishments existed primarily to promote prostitution.

42, Rue de Douai today

It's difficult to imagine that a cabaret was once housed at this address. It is now the headquarters of the French national chamber of judicial officers (chambre nationale des huissiers de Justice), and appears rather non-descript. Is this the same building that housed the Moulin-Bleu? Looking at OpenStreetMap and the historic land registry, it would certainly appear to be. 

A curiosity of the address is that it seems to be three buildings in one. 42 shares a plot with 40 ter, and if 44 is a different building it has the same owner today and does not have a separate front door (the narrow entrance doors numbered 42 and 40 ter are another oddity). The plots are in any case identical today (left) and at the end of the 19th century (right).  

The article in Le Monde provides descriptions that correspond to the buildings standing today, and there is no reason to believe that the buildings were demolished and rebuilt. So where exactly was the cabaret/theatre, and what purpose does it serve today? To try to find out, I contacted the current occupiers.

"I heard that it was once a brothel" the person answering my call tells me, "but it's a modern building inside today." She is able to confirm that it is the original structure, and although there have been many renovations over the years, there are still painted ceilings in the Director's office. There is nothing though that resembles in any way a cabaret or theatre. What is perhaps easiest to imagine then is a kind of club, with the largest room of the building transformed into a cabaret. A small stage at one end, a bar at the other, and tables and chairs in between. 

It's not the Moulin-Rouge, but 100 years ago it was almost as popular.


Susan said...

I hope you are having as much fun digging around for information as we are reading your stories. Bonne continuation !

urbansquares said...

I really admire your efforts to find all information for any of your posts, thank you. Aleksandar

Annabella Bray said...

I wonder why it is 'Portugese men' who are particularly at risk of strokes from their viewing pleasure....?! 😄

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