The Moulin Rouge Goes Disney...As High Tech Drives Up Rents

It's Saturday night, and the Lydon family, in Paris for a week from Cape Elizabeth, Me., are sipping Cokes as they take in the show at the Moulin Rouge. They gaze impassively as the 60 women, some bare-breasted, strut their stuff. Larry Lydon, when asked his critical opinion of the performance, limits himself to a nervous smile and a careful "It was good." Adds his wife, Tracy, trying for a quick save: "The vaudeville acts were good, too." Son Benjamin, 10, liked the mime, who pretended to make a movie with members of the audience. For daughter Katie, 14, who's studying dance, the highlight was the can-can, high-kicked by showgirls in French Revolutionary red, white, and blue ruffled petticoats. Grandpa and Grandma, Richard and Audrey Lewis, visited the Moulin eight years ago; it was their idea to bring the whole family this time around.

They're not alone. The 850-seat dance hall, which staged its first show in 1889, is going after the family audience with its first new revue in 12 years. The new show, which opened on Dec. 23, 1999, features more male dancers, up-tempo music and 1,000 couture costumes, which run from 1900 coquettish to 21st century slinky. The $1.7 million production, called Feerie ("Fairy Tale"), is expected to boost revenues this year by 10%, to about $25 million. That will be a welcome change, since the Moulin has been through a tough decade, thanks to the Persian Gulf War (1991), France's strong-franc policy (pre-1999), and the Asian economic crisis (1997).

The Moulin's family fare reflects the slow transformation of its neighborhood, Pigalle, which is noticeably less raffish these days. Young French people beg for rentals in the quarter, says real estate agent Pascale Laisne, but there are none, just a few pricey studios to buy. The young are attracted by the nightlife that now rivals Bastille and the Marais: hip new bars such as the Vietnamese-themed Chao Ba, overflowing cafes like Le Sancerre, cabarets such as Chippendale's-style Sexy Boys Band (for "ladies only") at the Folies Pigalle, and quirky boutiques like Do You Speak Martian. At Chao Ba, at the corner of Metro Pigalle, owner Bruno Keignaerp has a bouncer at the door to keep out the riff-raff, a practice that only increases its snob appeal. "Before, Pigalle had a bad reputation with tourists. Now, that's beginning to change," he says. Saying the word Pigalle, though, is still difficult for some locals. "We call it the neighborhood of Blanche or the Feet of Montmartre," says Fanny Rabasse, spokeswoman for the Moulin Rouge.

OTHER CHARMS. Nearby at Place du Tertre, where artists of dubious talent hawk their wares to hordes of foreigners, Montmartre Tourist Office President Laure Morandina talks at length about the neighborhood's many other charms, giving short shrift to the "boulevards," as she calls them, which since World War I have been infamous for their sex shops. Morandina says the sex industry "has become tired." Little by little, she's seeing seedy shops gentrify. The reasons she cites include the ubiquity of nudity in France's media, the cornucopia of pornography on the Internet, and the worldwide spread of the sex industry. Agrees Thirza Vallois, author of the Around and About Paris series of books on the city's neighborhoods: "Paris is no longer the center of the world from any point of view, be it the arts or sex."

The Moulin Rouge Goes Disney...As High Tech Drives Up Rents (int'l edition)

Meanwhile, in another red-light district, Sentier, the New Economy is threatening two of the oldest professions: streetwalking and garment making. By an unofficial count, more than 100 tech outfits, including Yahoo! France in 1998, have moved into space made vacant by garment companies that have moved or gone belly-up, explains Jerome Lascombe, CEO of Hopscotch, a public-relations firm for Net startups. "There used to be space. Now there's none," he says, in the area coming to be known as Silicon Sentier.

Hopscotch, which moved into 200 square meters on Rue du Sentier in March, has already outgrown its space. It wants 700 square meters in the neighborhood, but that's unavailable at any price. One reason: long commercial leases. Landlords who now rent to garment factories or ladies of the night lust for the day when they can switch to high-tech lessees, as rents have jumped 50% in the past two years. So the streetwalkers may not rule the streets for much longer.

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