Sometimes, it doesn’t take long to change the course of history. Such was the case for Las Vegas’ Moulin Rouge.
Opened on May 24, 1955, it lasted just six months before being shut down. But in that time, it broke a key color barrier, becoming the first racially integrated casino-resort in the United States.
This month marks the 65th anniversary of the Moulin Rouge’s opening, a good time to reflect on its pivotal role in the history of our Valley and beyond.
Why the Moulin Rouge?
Las Vegas still seems like such a new city, many might assume it arrived after the ugliness of Jim Crow and the advances of the civil rights movement. But what has become an inclusive haven was once restricted to whites. Minorities toiled in kitchens and performed for audiences, but they weren’t permitted to mingle on casino floors, sleep in hotels or eat in restaurants.
They worked on the Strip but stayed in boarding houses on what is now known as Las Vegas’ Historic Westside.
In his 2008 book, The Moulin Rouge and Black Rights in Las Vegas: A History of the First Racially Integrated Hotel-Casino, CSN social sciences professor Earnest N. Bracey describes the era as “ugly history,” during which the city had an “almost total disregard for the well-being of the black community.”
Las Vegas Sun founder and publisher Hank Greenspun publicized that sentiment in a 1955 newspaper column, writing, “Las Vegas has long been a backward town in its attitude toward civil rights and race relations.” And his son Brian—now CEO and publisher of the Sun and Greenspun Media Group, which includes Las Vegas Weekly—added to it in a 2014 column: “This nightmare of racial segregation stained our town.”
During the early 1950s, as the early wave of casinos sprung up on the Strip and Downtown, one group of investors sensed a different opportunity, setting out to create a luxury resort to rival the competition. The difference: its location, on the Historic Westside.
Located at 900 W. Bonanza Road, the Moulin Rouge was named after the famous Parisian cabaret. The French flair added an element of glamour, while also alluding to a European city with views on race relations far more progressive than much of the United States at the time.
‘Dignity and pride’
By all accounts, the Moulin Rouge was a roaring success. On the exterior of the gleaming modern building, a giant neon sign attracted passersby. It was hand-drawn by Betty Willis—of “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign fame—and today it’s on display at Downtown’s Neon Museum
Moulin Rouge Timeline
•May 24, 1955 Moulin Rouge Casino opens
•June 20, 1955 Moulin Rouge dancers grace the cover of Life magazine
•Ocotober 1955 Moulin Rouge shut down by the sheriff
•March 26, 1960 Integration of the Las Vegas Strip via the Moulin Rouge Agreement
•1992 Moulin Rouge listed on the National Register of Historic Places
•May 29, 2003 Moulin Rouge damaged by a fire, later determined to have been caused by arson
•2009 Moulin Rouge sign moved to Neon Museum Boneyard before another fire damages the building
•2010 Remaining building demolished
Nearly a decade before “Viva Las Vegas” was written, the Moulin Rouge captured its spirit: dazzling entertainment including can-can dancers and high-quality live music, along with elevated cuisine. Security guards dressed as spiffy French gendarmes manned the entrance, while a “ladies shop” featured “style, quality and popular prices,” with designer dresses and “a complete line of furs for milady,” as advertised in a flyer from the time. And former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis served as a host.
Most significantly, it all happened against a backdrop of civic progress. “It was a revolutionary concept—the notion of providing a sense of racial togetherness and harmony at a hotel-casino,” Bracey writes.
The Moulin Rouge provided well-paying jobs, empowerment and political clout for black Las Vegans, while serving as the “heart of the black community,” Bracey explains. “Building the Moulin Rouge was an extraordinary achievement, as it increased contact and interaction between blacks and whites in Las Vegas. … For a time, the dream was brought to fruition on a grand scale.”
Katie Duncan, president of the Historic Westside Chamber of Commerce, was too young to visit the Moulin Rouge in its heyday, but she marvels at its accomplishments: “Can you imagine not being able to go to a hotel, and suddenly they open one just for you? And then all the white people come, too? We were told it was the first time that black people really felt like they had dignity and pride, because they were equal.”
A dream deferred
The Moulin Rouge had everything going for it, with one notable exception. Like other casinos of the era, it faced financial troubles.
Some mystery surrounds the exact reason for the closure. Some historians, including gaming historian and UNLV administrator David G. Schwartz, point to unpaid debts or insolvency, while others suspect institutional racism. Perhaps the shutdown was a way to protect Strip casino owners from competition—the Moulin Rouge’s popular 2:30 a.m. show had begun drawing crowds away from white-owned resorts.
Whatever the reason, in October 1955, less than a year after its promising birth, the sheriff locked the doors to the Moulin Rouge.
Over the course of the decades to come, the property opened and closed, cycling through various owners and offerings. It made civil rights history again in March 1960, as the host site of a meeting resulting in a critical desegregation agreement for the Strip and Downtown, brokered by Hank Greenspun.
But the Moulin Rouge would never recapture the glitz of its original incarnation. “It was never the same glamour,” says Claytee White, director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center. “From time to time, people did come in with entertainment. [It was] just never the same. Never that glamorous line of dancers. Never the restaurant again with the fabulous food. Never the dress shop again. It wasn’t the same place.”
White, also too young to have visited the Moulin Rouge in its prime, has gathered oral histories from many of those who did experience it. She says that if she could go back in time, she would love to witness the opening-night crowd, mingle with Joe Louis and dine at the casino’s restaurant. “All the waiters wore white gloves,” she says.
After the Moulin Rouge suffered from a string of fires over the years—at least one due to arson—the city cleared the way for it to be torn down in 2010.
An enduring legacy
An empty lot. A vintage Life magazine cover. A salvaged sign at the Neon Museum. These are a few of the physical artifacts that remain. But the legend of the Moulin Rouge lives on.
Plans are in the works to rebuild the Moulin Rouge, to relaunch it as an anchor for the Historic Westside. The new version would include educational and museum components in addition to commercial aspects. Whether that happens remains to be seen—other such efforts over the years haven’t come to fruition—but regardless, the Moulin Rouge has already made an indelible mark on Las Vegas.
“What happened at the Moulin Rouge 60 years ago … was a major component in the growth of Las Vegas,” Brian Greenspun said during a Moulin Rouge Agreement Day video panel in March. “Without that agreement, I dare say Las Vegas would be a very different place, if indeed it was a place at all.”
Opening its casinos and other venues to people of all colors and creeds helped Las Vegas become the Entertainment Capital of the World, Brian Greenspun continued. The integration agreement signed at the Moulin Rouge allowed Las Vegas to lead the country towards unity.
“Everybody saw Las Vegas was integrated from that day forward, … [and] nothing bad happened,” he said. “So they went back to places where they lived, and it was much easier for them to accept what was coming and what should have always been there.”
Born in 1952, comedian and star Las Vegas performer George Wallace is old enough to have experienced segregation firsthand. Though the Moulin Rouge peaked before his time, Wallace reveres and appreciates those who came before. “Every day I thank God for people like Redd Foxx, Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne,” he says. “They paved the way for people like me to be able to walk out on those stages every night.”
Wallace considers the Moulin Rouge a part of a story that’s still unfolding. “We’re making progress, [but] we still got a lot of work to do,” he says. “As great as Las Vegas is, there’s still separation there a little bit, and separation everywhere. We’re doing what we can and making the best of what we do.”
The newspaperman’s story
The following is an excerpt from a 1955 column by Las Vegas Sun founder Hank Greenspun.
“The Moulin Rouge Hotel is a positive, affirmative act toward the belief that all men are created equal. To be told by a colored waiter: ‘It was my pleasure to serve you and I hope I will soon have this opportunity again,’ is something which I have yet to hear elsewhere in all my years in Las Vegas. It gives a person a warm, friendly glow. You walk away feeling like somebody. It brings a new dignity to man.
There are few hotels in Las Vegas that can boast of such championship among their staff. Somehow, I cannot put myself in the frame of mind of “they and we”—the white man and the black man. I thrilled as much to Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship of the world as I did when Jack Dempsey was on top. And who greets me and makes me feel at home in the Moulin Rouge but my longtime idol, Joe Louis.
Sonny Bowell, former star basketball player of the Harlem Globetrotters and general manager of the new hotel, lights up the place with his big, cheery smile for everyone. Popular Jimmy Gay, longtime Las Vegas resident and one of the fastest trackmen in the Southwest Conference, when he ran for Arkansas State University, is another champion member of the staff.
Mercer Ellington, son of the one and only Duke Ellington, writes the musical scores. Benny Carter, one of the great sax players in the country, is the bandleader, and for putting a chorus line together and staging a production, Clarence Robinson has to be ‘the mostest,’ for what he has done with the Moulin Rouge show.
I have seen entertainment of every type, kind and description on Broadway, Las Vegas and Paree. There might have been better shows than the Moulin Rouge, but I can’t recall any this minute and it’s a cinch there were few more lavish or exciting than the dancing of the Tropi-Can-Can Revue, the comedy routine of Stump and Stumpey, and the warm singing and friendly personality of the Master of Ceremonies, Bob Bailey. From the men in the light and sound booth at the back of the dining room to every entertainer on the stage, everything about the show is top performance. And it would be criminal negligence if I failed to mention the food served at the Moulin Rouge. There is none finer.
I like the Moulin Rouge Hotel. I like what it stands for. As a citizen of Las Vegas, I appreciated the efforts of the operators and hope they will be most successful.”
A dancer’s story
Dancer Anna Bailey was performing in Buffalo, New York, with producer Clarence Robinson when they got the call about a job at the Moulin Rouge. “We were just ecstatic, just overjoyed, just so excited about coming out here,” Bailey says from her home in Las Vegas.
The casino flew out about 20 girls, along with several photographers, Bailey recalls. “We were very impressed.” But a surprise was in store for the dancer. “We went past the Strip and we kept on driving. We didn’t know where the Moulin Rouge was. Then we went under the underpass. We just looked at each other and were kind of shocked.”
The New Yorker had expected the casino to be on the Strip, “but when we saw the Moulin Rouge, it was really beautiful. We were happy once we got there.”
Bailey performed at the Moulin Rouge for the entirety of its tenure. Her late husband, Bob, was the show’s singer, master of ceremonies and, later, a leader in the local push for civil rights. “It was a wonderful experience,” Bailey says. “The lighting was so beautiful there. And the shows … we did the can-can. We blew the one at the Tropicana away, because ours was more acrobatic, with more swing and a faster tempo.”
The dancer-turned-businesswoman, who still refers to the casino as “the Rouge,” says she has always hoped it would open up again. “I might not see it, but maybe it’ll happen one day.”
A barber’s story
Jesse L. Wesley has run Wesley’s Barber Shop at 1320 D St. for 65 years, which means it dates back about as long as the original Moulin Rouge. He’s still cutting hair at age 91.
“I cut most of the fellas’ hair,” Wesley says of the elite crowd of Vegas entertainers who frequented the Moulin Rouge, folks like Sammy Davis Jr. and Lou Rawls, whose photos adorn the walls of his shop. “I enjoyed people like Joe Louis and B.B. King—all of the entertainers.”
During the Moulin Rouge’s 1955 heyday, Wesley spent his Mondays watching the musicians rehearse at the hotel. “At the Moulin Rouge, you could hear some of the best music that you wanted to hear at that moment—free,” Wesley says. “It was a nice, large room. It was really a party time if you loved to dance. I wasn’t that much of a dancer.”
But, Wesley remembers, times were tough, too. “I loved it, but the Strip didn’t really care for it. If you worked at the Strip and visited the Moulin Rouge and they found out, they would fire you.”