“In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off stage, we were colored again. The other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.” That is how Sammy Davis Jr. described performing in Las Vegas during the 1950s. Beginning in the 1930s Las Vegas was segregated, even earning the nickname “The Mississippi of the West.” While audiences loved Black entertainers, they could not enjoy the amenities of the the venue like their White peers, and as Sammy Davis Jr. noted, they couldn’t even walk through the front door, let alone stay there, instead staying at boarding houses in Las Vegas’ African-American neighborhood. The lone exception appeared to be Lena Horne, was allowed to stay at the Flamingo thanks to owner (and mobster) Bugsy Siegal, as long as she stayed out of the public areas, such as the casino and restaurants. However, once she left, it is said the sheets and towels she used were burned. When it came to non-headlining African-Americans, they were not allowed to interact with the public at all. Even the typical jobs for African-Americans at the time, such as bellhops and waiters, were given to Whites, and Blacks were only employed in “behind the scenes” positions, such as cooks and dishwashers. All of that changed for a few months in 1955 when the nation’s first integrated casino opened, the Moulin Rouge.
Opening May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge was the brainchild of relatively forward thinking White investors, who hired Joe Lewis, a Black former boxer, as official greeter and co-owner. With a 60 foot neon Eiffel Tower designed by Betty Willis (who would go on to design the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign), 110 rooms, and a swimming pool, the Moulin Rouge was reported to have “all of the plush appointments of the swank establishments which proceeded it, and serves some of the finest food in the city.” “It was a hell of a casino,” Q.B. Bush, a former craps dealer at the Moulin Rouge, reflected, “It was an A-1 place, no bones about it, and people were treated A-1, whoever they were. It was just a little too far ahead of [its] time, if you wanna know the truth. It was just a little early.” Here African-Americans, like Bush, could be dealers, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, security guards, managers, and showgirls. It was the only place where Black and White entertainers could socialize together. And boy did they! Entertainment royalty such as Ella Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Harry Belafonte, Gregory Peck, Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and Marlene Dietrich could be found here. Sinatra was even known to be found on stage at the Moulin Rouge late at night along side Black entertainers giving impromptu performances. The place was “[a]lways quite busy” Bush noted.
The Moulin Rouge offered an African-theme show called the Tropi Can Can, with an all Black chorus line, the only one in Vegas. Less than a month after opening, the dancers would grace the cover of Life. The show had “a standing room every night,” according to former dancer Anna Bailey.
Then, on an October day, just months after opening, Moulin Rouge employees arrived to find the door padlocked, and in December the owners filed for bankruptcy. But why? It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of business! There is a lot of debate, Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon simply says the Moulin Rouge closed “under uncertain circumstances.” Other stories say the Moulin Rouge was facing backlash from other casinos who noticed their business dropping off, especially after midnight, when not only their patrons, but their own showgirls, would head over to the Moulin Rouge. The casinos tried to counter the loss of business by offering free drinks to their showgirls to stay and interact with patrons and encourage gambling. Some went so far as to fire any showgirl who went to the Moulin Rouge after work! “So they hid in the back seats of cars, and partied with us behind the scenes, eating soul food, singing and dancing,” recalled Dee Dee Jasmin, another former dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Jasmin also remembers seeing her bosses leave with briefcases full of cash, apparently looting their own establishment. The consensus is that the Moulin Rouge closed due to bad management, and with it, the integrated utopia Black Las Vegas citizens had hoped for.
By 1960, five years after the Moulin Rouge closed, Las Vegas was still segregated, while the rest of the country was moving forward. Swept up in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Las Vegas citizens planned a march calling to desegregate the city. City officials began to sweat, because a march would be bad for the business Las Vegas relied on most, tourists. Days before the march was planned, NAACP branch president, and Nevada’s first Black dentist, Dr. James McMillan, sat down with Nevada governor, Grant Sawyer, and gaming executives at the closed Moulin Rouge. There, in what became known as the Moulin Rouge Agreement, they agreed to end Las Vegas’ racist policies, and the march was called off.
After the Moulin Rouge Agreement, the historic building sat, going through various incarnations as a motel, public-housing complex, and eventually a flop house, said to be crawling with roaches, rats, and drug dealers. Recognizing the building’s importance, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, however, nothing actually happened to restore or preserve the property. In 2003 much of the hotel was destroyed by an arson fire, leaving simply the facade and sign. Another fire swept through in 2009, the same year the Neon Museum got its hands on sign that spelled out “Moulin Rouge” in a sweeping script. In 2017, the crumbling remains were bulldozed, and since then the property has more or less sat in limbo, changing hands, but with the land of the fleeting but groundbreaking hotel remaining vacant.
Today relics of the Moulin Rouge can be found at the Neon Museum, where they have it in pieces with parts laid out to (awkwardly and forcibly) spelled out “in love” and at the Mob Museum.
To see and read more on our visit to the Neon Museum click here. For more on our visit to the Mob Museum click here.
September 2020 Update: The Neon Museum has restored the Moulin Rouge sign to its former and proper glory! See and read more here.