Moulin Rouge Cafe

416 South Wabash Avenue
Opened 1921, closed 1926

Opened in November 1921 at 416 South Wabash, the Moulin Rouge was one of Chicago’s more celebrated dine-and-dance clubs of the early 1920s. Located at 416 South Wabash Avenue, the cafe contributed to the growing popularity of the Loop as a center of urban leisure and night life, not just commerce and trade. The cafe occupied the former site of the Mandarin Inn.

The proprietor of the Moulin Rouge was Albert Bouche. During the late 1910s, Bouche operated the Moulin Rouge Gardens on the city’s far north side. The young impresario had helped transform the old nineteenth-century roadhouse into a thriving urban amusement center, by hiring top-rated jazz orchestras and maintaining an easy-going dance and liquor policy. During the First World War, Bouche’s Moulin Rouge Gardens prospered like never before by attracting large crowds of young, urban pleasure seekers from across the city and surrounding region. Night after night, the establishment roared with the energy and vitality of youth. Soon after the war, restaurateurs Fred and Al Mann gained control of Moulin Gardens and subsequently renamed it Rainbo Gardens.

A slumping postwar economy and the nationwide ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages under Prohibition severely threatened the viability of Chicago’s night clubs. Young men and women who in earlier times grown accustomed to spending a “night on the town” at one or more of the city’s increasing number of dance halls, cafes, and cabarets opted for other, less expensive, and less illicit forms of amusement. For impresarios like Bouche, the early 1920s brought uncertainty but also new opportunities. Innovative night club owners devised new ways to attract young revelers. Some turned a blind eye to patrons who brought their own alcohol to the club to drink, and warned customers of anti-liquor raids by federal law enforcement agents. Others compensated for the ban on alcohol by introducing lively, even risque floor shows– often featuring African-American performers—improving their food menus, and playing up the romantic ambiance of their establishments.

Shortly after the Manns took control of Rainbo Gardens, Albert Bouche broke his association with the establishment and set about adjusting to the new realities of Chicago’s postwar, Prohibition Era night club scene. In June 1921, he opened a new night club known as The House That Jack Built. Shortly thereafter, Bouche agreed to lease a restaurant on the west side of Wabash Avenue just south of the Loop from restaurateur John R. Thompson, owner of the Thompson’s Cafeteria chain. Bouche planned to convert the restaurant formerly known as the Mandarin Inn into another dine-and-dance restaurant.

During the summer and early fall of 1921, Bouche transformed the one-time Chinese restaurant into a dine-and-dance paradise for young lovers. Spending more than $30,000 on the project, he completely remodeled the building’s interior. He covered the walls with a romantic rose-colored velvet wallpaper and decorated the rest of the establishment in a seductive rose, gold, and ivory color scheme. He also installed a spacious 16-foot by 40-foot dance floor. To further enhance the new club’s appeal, Bouche revamped the restaurant’s menu with an appetizing selection of French dishes and renamed the establishment “Moulin Rouge,” after the north side roadhouse he had managed so successfully during the 1910s and, indirectly, the famous Paris cabaret.

The new Moulin Rouge opened in November 1921 and quickly gained a reputation as one of the Loop’s premier night clubs. At a time when the owners of many Loop hotels, restaurants, and other night spots refused to hire African-American musicians and performers for fear of offending the racial sensitivities of their predominantly white clientele, Bouche routinely hired black artists to entertain his guests. Their performances helped draw customers to the new establishment by lending it an air of interracial cosmopolitanism. Through visits to the Moulin Rouge and other night clubs that hired black performers, a steady stream of white Chicagoans reinvigorated their lives by indulging in the free-spirited styles of African-American song and dance.

In January 1922, a Variety correspondent visited the Moulin Rouge. “The new cafe,” he wrote, “is a novelty. The color scheme is red, and is offset with a low and colored lighting scheme. The place has a soothing air about it. The main floor has a dance floor as well as the balcony. Two orchestras supply the music; in the early part of the evening a four-piece band entertains, and the better part of the time Jack Sharpe’s eight-piece band offers the syncopation.”

Like many other night club managers during Prohibition, Bouche permitted patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages with them to the Moulin Rouge. However, as the night club became known as a place that tolerated hip flasks, overlooked discreetly carried liquor bottles, and readily provided glasses of soda or juice for do-it-yourself bartenders, Prohibition agents targeted the Moulin Rouge for closer surveillance. In May 1922, federal agents raided the night club and, citing violations of the Volstead Act, moved to force its closure. The following month, a federal judge issued an injunction against the Moulin Rouge. The injunction ordered Bouche to cease operations at the night club immediately and remain closed for one year.

More trouble came in June 1924 as Bouche preared to reopen the Moulin Rouge upon the expiration of the federal injunction. Shortly before the scheduled reopening, a bomb exploded outside the front entrance of the night club. The explosion injured two night club employees and completely wrecked the front exterior of the building. Bouche blamed the owners of other cabarets in the vicinity for the bombing, saying they were opposed the increased competition that would result from the reopening of the Moulin Rouge. The bombing, however, did not prevent the night club from eventually reopening.

Over the next two years, the Moulin Rouge struggled to regain its former popularity. In February 1926, a Variety correspondent reported that the cabaret was once again one of the best night spots in Chicago. The Moulin Rouge, he reported, “is getting to be a hang-out for show folks,” many of whom came to hear the James Wade Orchestra, “the hottest band the Chicago cabarets have to offer….” The band’s red-hot jazz music thrilled the club’s patrons and challenged dancers to keep pace with its snappy, fast-paced tempo. “When you dance at Moulin Rouge,” he wrote, “you have to be in condition. It’s serious business keeping afloat. But a joy for the dance-fiends.”

For undisclosed reasons, the Moulin Rouge closed its doors in December 1926.

Sources: Variety, 27 Jan. 1922, 9; 24 March 1922, 19; 21 October 1925, 41; 3 February 1926, 46; 22 December 1926, 46;Chicago Daily Tribune, 30 Oct. 1921; 18 May 1922; 13 June 1923; 17 June 1924.