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Paris: Kicking it at the Moulin Rouge

Epic Weepie: Moulin des amours, Tu tournes tes ailes (Moulin Rouge, Tino Rossi, 1951) Images: T. Brack’s archives

Life Magazine, 1946 (Donna Atwood and Bobby Specht)

By Theadora Brack

Embracing ice skates, glitter, and sequins, this week, let’s glide on up to the  Moulin Rouge, sitting pretty in the hills of Montmartre. That’s right. Get ready for some more time travel as smooth and exciting as a vintage Johnny Weir solid gold triple axel. He is still my hero. However, did you catch Yevgeny Plushenko shining like a diamond as he skated to the “Tango de Roxanne” from Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack (2001)? His quad toe / triple toe possessed mass appeal in my book. Love will lift us up where we belong! Indeed!

You will be missed, Monsieur.

Now, let’s grab soda pops at the nearby Monoprix, and commandeer a bench with a view of the centuries-old Moulin Rouge. Spirits are high and I’ve got a tale to spin. Lean in because it’s show-time.

A tale I often tell

“Life is beautiful; here comes the French Cancan!” artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would shout out before the highly charged show within the Moulin Rouge’s pulsating walls. Built in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller (founder of the Nouveau Cirque—the first venue in Paris to offer the comfort of reclining seats!), the Moulin Rouge has remained the undisputed queen of cabaret dance halls and monarch of her neighborhood, Montmartre—where at one time as many as 30 windmills turned “as swiftly as the Parisians’ heads,” as one smitten Italian poet wrote.

In 1908 Gaby Deslys performed at the Moulin Rouge. She is credited with having performed the first strip tease on Broadway—while serving as a spy for the French government!

Drunk in love

The eager crowd would rush the stage, forming a tight circle around the cancaneuses. Hemmed in by their aggressively courted fan base—sometimes six-deep—the dancers performed the quadrille naturaliste, always competing to see who could kick the highest with (but often without) pantaloons underneath their multiple layers of lacey petticoats, before climaxing with a final exuberant high split in mid-air!

Do an old-school dance

“Naked feet, and thighs, and arms, and breasts were being flung on me from bloody-red foam of translucent clothes,” wrote Andrey Bely in his 1906 letter to Alexander Blok about the “Tavern of Hell” at the Moulin Rouge, where lackeys dressed as devils, and dancers whirled demonically. Talk, talk about a show-stopper.

On the flip side

Dancer Jane Avril’s description of the scene reminded me of a poem or perhaps, perhaps my new spring wardrobe wish list: “The dancer’s skirts, some twelve metres in circumference, were of panels and frothy lace, as were the drawers. The effect of the black stockings against this snowy whiteness was to emphasize the shape of the legs.” Avril, Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite red-haired muse, was the first to wear ruby red lipstick and vibrant-colored undergarments.

Moulin Rouge, 1952, Art by Maggi Baaren (MoviePosterDB)

Dancing Queen

Here at the Moulin Rouge is also where the famed terpsichorean, La Goulue (the Glutton), another muse of Toulouse-Lautrec, made her debut. In Montmartre, she earned her moniker for swiping drinks and entrees from her audience while distracting them with her pantaloons and little pet goat.

“When I see my behind in these paintings, I find it quite beautiful!” she told Toulouse-Lautrec when she first saw his drawings of her.

Singer Yvette Guilbert wrote,La Goulue, in black silk stockings, made the sixty yards of lace in her petticoats swirl and showed her drawers, with a heart coquettishly embroidered right in the middle of her little behind!” Toulouse-Lautrec mused, “When you saw her dance, you forgot her sins.”

Elephant Love Medley

Like the queen of Parisian sensuality, the early Moulin Rouge’s most remarkable feature was her derrière. Just on the other side of her main façade—in the secret garden that became not such a secret but an outdoor café during the summer months—stood an enormous stucco elephant. Originally constructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, any dandy with a franc to burn could climb a spiral staircase inside one of the elephant’s legs to the hollow belly of the beast to reach a small stage set adorned with red flags and banners. Sadly, when the Moulin Rouge was rebuilt after a fire in 1906, the elephant wasn’t called back for an encore; it mysteriously disappeared.

Bonjour, Monsieur Elephant at the Moulin Rouge, 1905

Le Strip Tease

The Cancan wasn’t the only dance born at the Moulin Rouge. Legend has it that on February 9, 1893, art students gathered at the music hall for their second annual Bal des Quat’z Arts. At midnight, an atelier model named Mona jumped up on a tabletop, and started removing her garments one by one, as she danced the Fandango, much to the sheer delight of her companions. Bump and grind, Le Strip Tease was born! However, it didn’t tickle everyone’s fancy.

Because haters are gonna hate: Mona was arrested, setting off a series of student protests in the Latin Quarter. After a bystander was fatally injured during one of the harrowing tumults, the government relented and apologized, setting Mona free. Like wildfire, word spread about the new craze, and soon other Paris music halls followed suit, adding a little “artistic nudity” to their repertoire of titillating skits.

Fast and Forward: In 1907, writer Colette caused a few commotions of her own when she shared an onstage kiss with the Marquise de Belbeuf at the Moulin Rouge during her Rêve d’Égypte” pantomime, and performed topless at the Folies-Bergère. In fact, she was one of the first to bare it all. “Boredom helps one make decisions,” Colette quipped. By the 1920s, prancing in the buff was the norm in most Paris clubs. Josephine Baker’s 1926 debut at the Folies-Bergère sealed the deal. Wearing only a banana skirt, black Kohl eyeliner by Helena Rubinstein, and a “smile to end all smiles,” a star was born. Yes, we have no bananas!

Moulin Rouge

Flawless: All that glitters at the Moulin Rouge, early 1900s

All that glitters

Despite many major and minor modifications and reconstructions through the years, the Moulin Rouge has steadily flourished. Today a single show may involve 1,000 costumes, 800 kilos of shoes, and 60 kilos of paste jewelry and glitter. The little “Red Mill’s” creaky wooden stage and plaster of Paris walls have seen the likes of Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Yvette Guilbert (Madame Arthur), Mistinguett (Queen of the Music Hall), and Cab Calloway—just to name a few.

Star Power: Numerous movies have been made about the the historic music hall, including John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge (starring José Ferrer and Zsa-Zsa Gabor), Réne Clair’s 1925 Fantôme du Moulin Rouge,  Ewald André Dupont’s 1928 Moulin Rouge, Jean Renoir’s 1954 Le French Cancan, and Baz Luhrmann’s particularly exuberant 2001 Moulin Rouge, with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

Scrubbed clean and almost family friendly but not to everyone’s liking!

In 1950, remorseful co-founder Charles Zidler wrote, “I liked the Moulin Rouge as she was, lighthearted and hot-blooded, a little strumpet who thought only of tonight. Now she is grown up and knows better. She has money in her stocking, wears corsets, and never drinks a drop too much. Worst of all, she never sees her old friends anymore. She has gone into society!”

Clipping from Colette, “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.”

Moulin Rouge, FRENCH SPICE 24 COLORS BY COTY, 1958

Moulin Rouge, FRENCH SPICE 24 COLORS BY COTY, 1958

Moulin Rouge, 1952, Art by Boris Streimann (MoviePosterDB)

Folies Bergere by Bourjois, 1950s

Folies Bergere by Bourjois, 1950s

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge, Antoine Blanchard, 1950 (Vintage purse, 1960s)

Dressed to the nines: Moulin Rouge in neon, 1950s

Fast Forward: Moulin Rouge still shines today

BRACK Rouge 9996

I woke up like this: Cils en Cheveux Naturel

Moulin Rouge, 1928, Art by Dolly Rudeman (MoviePosterDB)

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92 thoughts on “Paris: Kicking it at the Moulin Rouge

  1. Dearest Theodora
    This is simply delicious!
    Oh that this Dandy had been alive in the Belle Epoque and could have thrown away a final franc to enter the inside of a fake elephant!
    The plaster, the make up, the ostrich feathers, the fear of ostracisation. The girls, the boys, the booze, the social diseases the society of artists and artistes.
    How much better it must have been to have been there when it was somewhere truly to be, not another stop on a coach tour for an uninspired stage show a step down from the Lido an insipid dinner and some unspeakable wine.
    Legends I suppose must decline, but at least the Moulin Rouge remains forever in the pictures,the music and that beautiful half-working ruin at the bottom of the hill.
    Toujours Montmartre.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

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    • Such beautiful words, Perfumed Dandy! Thanks for contributing such a lovely passage. What a gift! I loved your lines: “The plaster, the make up, the ostrich feathers, the fear of ostracisation. The girls, the boys, the booze, the social diseases the society of artists and artistes.” Fantastic flow and rhythm, too! You must read your works of art out loud, I am sure of it.

      YES. Ghosts still haunt the Moulin Rouge. As I make my way to Monoprix, I sometimes see them flitting in between the lampposts in the new promenade and bike lane. More good news: After a recent fire, the nearby bal de l’Elysée Montmartre” reopened. Its gorgeous façade and sign were saved. La Goulue and Jane also performed here. I report back with more information about this dance hall.

      Photographer Richard Guest asked about the 1943 “Folies Bergère” by Bourjois. Do you have the scoop on its original notes? I have a tiny bottle from the 1950s. I’m still able to detect rose notes but that’s about it. Bourjois has such an interesting history. “French Lace” is another favorite. My “Evening in Paris” bottle and box collection keeps growing. Good. Golly. Fantastic artwork.

      Enjoy the weekend!
      T.

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    • AH, Merci! It was a fun post to create. Especially the mini-GIF at the top. I’m now hooked! T. (Have you heard Tino Rossi’s “Moulin Rouge” song? It’s definitely worth a YouTube spin. Warning: It’s an Epic Weepie!)

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  2. wonderful Theodora, wonderful. Have liked and ReTweeted and all the rest of it. ‘Coming to Paris in mid-late April, must ask your advice soon about top-notch, off-beat but highly erudite walking tours, if you ever come across such a specimens! Hope all is well, keep up the great work
    – Arran.

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    • Thank you, Aaron! I appreciate your thoughtful words. And thanks for jumping on the horn! A trip to Paris? Very exciting news! YES. Feel free to ask questions. I’ll create a short must-see list for you. In Abbesses-Montmartre, there’s a great old-school bar. Chez Ammad (at the Hotel Clermont, 18 Rue Véron) is the real McCoy. Located a few blocks away from the Abbesses Métro, but you rarely see tourists. Decked out with a zinc bar, murals, and beveled mirrors, this was a favorite haunt of Henry Miller, Brassaï, and Edith Piaf. Edith actually stayed at the Clermont in the 1930s, while performing on the streets of Pigalle. And the prices? Super cheap. Keep this tip under your hat! After visiting the nearby Musée Montmartre, this is the perfect spot for more time travel and reflection. T. (Enjoy the weekend and the trip planning!)

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    • Thanks, Patti! Say, have you shot any in the old Broadway theater district? While working on the Moulin Rouge post, I spent some time with “Flo” Ziegfeld and his Follies. They used to perform in the New Amsterdam Theatre. Built in 1902, it’s such a beauty. Do you know if it reopened? I love old theaters. Treasures! T.

      Like

  3. Absolutely delightful post! Having been a competitive ice skater (as an adult), I too love watching the sport, and of course, Johnny Weir and his gorgeous outfits 🙂

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    • Thanks, Kim! YES. I’m also a big-time Johnny Weir fan. Have you seen his 2010 “Be Good Johnny Weir” documentary series (Sundance)? I think there are two seasons. It’s fascinating. He’s so charming!

      Wait. Stop the presses! So you are a competitive ice skater? Very cool! What are your signature moves? Are you still skating?!

      T.

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  4. Glorious post!! Toulouse Lautrec is my favourite artist. I stood in the D’orsay for ages in front of those huge canvases. He conjured up the atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge….as have you! Cancaneuse is my new favourite word!! Xx

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    • I agree! I’ve spent entire days at the Musée d’Orsay. Have you seen his La Clownesse? Another Ah, the yellow dress is fantastical, along with her topknot hair do and ribbon. Gorgeous. And let’s not forget the mysterious man in the mirror. T. (Picasso’s “At the Moulin Rouge” is also a stunner. Cancan dancers abound in the background! And speaking of Picasso, the Musée Picasso is scheduled to finally reopen in June of 2014. Keep your fingers crossed!)

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      • Ooo good news. Love both those paintings. Wish I could have been a face in the crowd at that time. Musee d,Orsay has always been my favourite museum. Xx

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    • Thank you! And speaking of color and history, I think it’s high time for another viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman! T. (Have you seen the movie? Fun soundtrack, eh?)

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    • Thanks, Richard! Folies-Bergère was created by the centuries-old Bourjois in 1943. For you, I tested my little 1950s sample of the scent. It’s quite old, but I’m still able to detect a little (dusty) rose. I wonder if the Perfumed Dandy has more dirt on the Folies-Bergère’s notes. I’ll report back! Bourjois also created “Evening in Paris” and “Soir de Paris” in 1928. The bottles and gift sets were sold in department stores and dime-stores. Gorgeous artwork in cobalt blue, white, silver and red! T. (Enjoy your weekend!)

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  5. I was on a short trip to Costa Rica when the Olympics started, so I missed the men’s skating. But the women’s last night was phenomenal, as was the ice dancing. What I’m waiting for is today’s US-Canada men’s hockey game. As for your evocative post, I think I’ll invest in a goat and head over to some wonderful restaurants. 🙂

    janet
    from Chicago, where the wind is trying to rip off parts of our house for the second day

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    • Funny, Janet! Yes! Invest in a little pet goat. It will help save you big bucks in the long run. La Goulue would approve, I’m sure of it. Did I miss your Costa Rica posts? (I’ve been away working on a project.) How was your trip? Did you catch the women’s skating event? What did you think of the results? Yuna Kim was amazing.

      Enjoy the weekend! And stay safe and warm!
      T.

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      • If you have to ask, I guess you missed them. They’re all in the last couple of weeks, so you can easily find them. The trip was wonderful. We were only there 4 1/2 days, plus the half day in San Jose, yet we went horseback riding in the mountains, on a catamaran tour where we saw a mother humpback whale and baby, visited a vanilla farm and toured the rain forest. As for skating, I did see it. Kim was amazing, but the Russian girl had a much higher level of difficulty, so…

        It was warm here for a couple days with lots and lots of rain yesterday so it’s quite a sloppy mess. 🙂 All good, though. Have a great weekend yourself.

        janet

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      • Yes, I’ve been away. Horse back riding and baby whales, along with a rain forest and vanilla farm tour? I’m impressed! T. (Did the vanilla farm have a gift shop? :-))

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      • Oh, yes. I should have gotten more (has that ever NOT been said), but I got the biggest bottle of vanilla they had, some vanilla beans, Ceylon cinnamon, turmeric and some cinnamon bark for tea. I wish they’d sold the chocolate I’m highlighting in today’s post (the Weekly Photo Challenge.) Wait until you see what the cacao pods look like before they’re dried!!

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    • Merci, Merci, Monsieur! Reading the old descriptions of the dance hall was very interesting. Lovely passages! Exquisite, really. T. (And thanks for sharing the Cancan!)

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  6. Wow, after that spinning neon and the yarn you spun, my head is spinning. Tho more like lace and taffeta than yarn, I’d say. Fever dreams of times past and yet to come!

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  7. great writing and beautiful photos, I should be paying a visit Sunday morning after all the hoopla is gone to be back in other times. cheers

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  8. Galloping galoshes Theadora you have Orpheus in the Underworld thundering through the room. Black stockings mended,black shoes polished , toes pointed, petticoats starched, red, red lipstick – I’m ready to fling my arms, do the splits, and in general behave in the most scandalous manner. I do believe I see Monsieur Tinny, complete with walking, stick sipping champagne in the front row. May the dance never end.

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    • And you look divine, Virginia!! Oh, Louise Weber (a.k.a. La Goulue) is going to be quite jealous, I do believe. But fret not! Jane Avril just gave us a great tip. Jane said, “It was tough to please Louise, but always easy to make her happy. Just tell her she is the Queen of France and everything will be fine.” Clever woman! Say, where is the Tin Man? I’ve spotted the Perfumed Dandy and Picasso. I am up next! It’s now time to fluff the frothy petticoats, polish the shoes, and refresh the red lipstick! YES. May the dance never end! T. (Have a wonderful weekend!)

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      • As I understand it .. The Tin Man with his core of Flying Monkey assistants is busy organizing the Farmstead, and sharing treasures discovered along the yellow brick road, with dear friends. Check the front row when the high kicking begins, Tinny never misses an outrageous occasion. V.
        (May the sun shine on you all weekend)

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      • Ne vous inquiétez pas, mes chéris …….. M. Tin Man est ici et a été si pris par le spectacle qu’il a oublié de vous donner un signe! I so apologize……every time I get things organized those dammed monkeys get into the baubles and strew them about. O……..did you see one of the dancers lost a shoe and it has hit M. Perfume Daddy in the back of the head………for the love of the Dandy….what a marvelous evening!

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      • There you are, Monsieur Tin Man! Heavens, the flying monkeys are still with you. But how divine they look in their ritzy-glitzy baubles and rhinestones. A shoe hit Monsieur Perfumed Dandy in the back of the head? Was it Virginia’s red ruby mule? The riot police are on their way, I’m sure of it. YES. YES. The evening was ‘S Wonderful,’S Marvelous! T.

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    • Thanks, Julia! I wonder what Louise Weber and Jane Avril’s dancing shoes looked like. Maybe Toronto’s International Bata Shoe Museum has cancan shoes in their collection. I think it’s time for some shoe research. Heck, it’s always a great time for some shoe research! I’ll report back with my findings. T. (Enjoy your weekend!)

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    • AH, thanks! I feel the same way about your works of art. (I just spotted your Caramel Pecan Banana Cake!) They inspire on a daily basis! I’m now working on post about the historic movie theater in Montmartre, Studio 28. Built in 1928, it’s a charmer! T.

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    • Thanks, Brooke! And speaking of the good old days, here’s a tip for the road: Toulouse-Lautrec lived on rue Pierre Fontaine (#21 and #30), almost kitty-corner to the Moulin Rouge. A plaque marks the spot. T.

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  9. Lots of fun…Somewhere back when we enjoyed an evening at the Moulin Rouge on my BDay during my first trip to Paris. That and a short walk near Place Pigalle. Paris the City of Light with dark but interesting corners.

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    • What a swell memory! The city has recently dressed-up the middle promenade stretch and added attractive bike lanes. It’s looking pretty spiffy. There is a fun candy stand at Place Blanche. Big selection. Keep your eyes peeled for the clown! T. (Enjoy the weekend!)

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  10. That quote by Zidler says it all, doesn’t it? Yet I got to relive the joie de vivre, if only for a moment, thanks to your fantastic post! Thanks for the view into the past with your lovely words and photos. BTW, the GIF that starts off the post really rocks, if you’ll pardon the malapropism. 😉

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    • As always, thanks for the thoughtful words, Paul! Say, didn’t you do something similar with the sparkling Eiffel Tower? I think you did. Your GIF also rocked! I’ll try to hunt down a link. Happy Weekend! T.

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    • Thanks, Karen! Ah, there’s still much to discover about the dance halls in Montmartre. Perhaps I’ll create a little walking tour. Their facades—decked out in sculptures—are still beauties! Theadora (Enjoy the week!)

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  11. Phew! You have inspired me to squeeze into my red robes, pull on my frothy undergarments, add ostrich feathers to my neat chignon, lash on the lipstick and slip into my dancing shoes! Well, it is Saturday night after all…..

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    • Apologies for my delay! And I bet you looked marvelous, decked out in ostrich feathers, red robes, and dancing, dancing shoes. Fabulous passage, Mary! Fabulous. T.

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    • YES. An elephant to boot! It took me a year to score the postcard. I’m still on the hunt for a postcard image of the front of the elephant. I’ll post it after I find it. So stay tuned! T. (Have a creative week!)

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    • OH, thank you! And speaking of sweet words, I just spotted your “Amelie’s Bakery” post. Good. Golly. What scrumptious-looking treats! T. (Is that Marie Antoinette above the “Bonjour” sign? Funny detail!)

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  12. Hi, Theadora! Long time, no see/read. 🙂 I’m having so much fun in Istanbul! But working very hard and not having much time to write (or paint). Sigh. But I can assure you, I’m living life to the fullest! I love this MRouge post and am sending it to my daughter. She will love it. Be patient with me. I will get back to writing faithfully soon. xoxo

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    • Great to hear from you, Anita!! Soon you’ll get back to writing and painting. I just know it. Right now, you are soaking up the inspiration. I’m off now to visit your site. Perhaps I’ve missed a post or two. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying following your (not so) new teaching adventure in Istanbul! Big Hugs, T.

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    • Ah, thanks, Resa! Your Art Gowns fantastical. (I thank Virginia for making the introduction.) I tumbled flat after seeing your “La Vie en Rose” creation. Of course, the colors and wine corks caught my eye. Brilliant! Breaking the rules, indeed. Theadora

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    • Ah, thanks, Thom! I’m now working on a post about my French cinema. Do you have a favorite movie house in New York? Have you been to the Paris Theater? I love the sign. I used to catch classics at the Film Forum. Memories! T.

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    • HA! I’m currently on a work trip in another time zone. Nice catch! 🙂 T. (Your “Purple Rain Parapluie shot is fantastical. Yes, I also the gentleman’s stride. He looks like he’s floating. Perfection.)

      Like

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