Moulin Rouge – The End of Segregation in Vegas

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Moulin Rouge

The neon sign from the Moulin Rouge casino, the first integrated casino in the country.  The sign was designed by Betty Wilis, who also designed the Welcome to Las Vegas, Stardust and City Center signs.

 

Moulin Rouge Hotel – The End of Segregation in Las Vegas
900 West Bonanza Road

If you traveled to Vegas prior to the 1960’s, you would notice that it looks quite different than today. I’m not talking about the architecture…I’m talking about the people. If you went into any
of the casinos on The Strip, the only African Americans you would see would either be serving drinks/food to you or singing/performing on the stage for you. And those performers…think Sammy Davis, Jr or Lena Horne….would have to enter by a door in the back, that was designated for “Blacks Only”. Expecting to see the celebrated Rat Pack perform together? Not likely because it was illegal for white and black performers to be on stage together. This strict segregation of blacks and whites earned Vegas the nickname, “The Mississippi of the West”.

That all changed with the opening of the Moulin Rouge.

Opening on May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge opened with great fanfare. Named for the famous Parisian theater, the Moulin Rouge opened on May 24, 1955, in the predominantly black community, West Las Vegas. It was the dream of Will Max Schwarts, Louis Rubin (owner of the famed Chandler’s Restaurant in NYC), Alexander Bisno and the great American boxer, Joe Louis, who wanted to see Vegas (and America) become more like its famous Parisian namesake and the French, who were more open to an integrated society. Keeping with the French and open society theme, the first show was titled “Tropi Cancan” and was inspired by the Cancan dance, created at the Moulin Rouge in the 19th century, as well as the music of Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to find fame in France.

The Moulin Rouge was actually two stucco buildings, built in the Modernist style: one building with hotel rooms and the other building housing the casino, restaurant/coffee shop, showroom, bar and dress shop. The theme of the casino and rooms was based on the famous Moulin Rouge theatre in Paris. The guests were met by staff dressed in uniforms inspired by the French Foreign Legion and the restaurant boasted a true French chef. The sign, designed by Betty Willis (who also designed the Welcome to Las Vegas sign), featured an Eiffel Tower, as did the casino chips.

An interesting note on the design of the sign….If you look carefully, you will see “In Love” embedded in the letters of the sign. The “in” in Moulin is placed above the Rouge, with the “R” looking an “L” and the the “u” looking like a “ve”.

From its opening doors, the casino attracted the most celebrated African American performers, including Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Sarah Vaughn. It also started attracting white performers such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (who performed onstage with their friend, Sammy Davis, Jr.), Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead and Judy Garland. As these white stars performed, they brought in more white patrons, making the Moulin Rouge the first desegregated casino in the United States.

By December of 1955, within less than twelve months, the doors of the Moulin Rouge closed. Though its life was short, the Moulin Rouge was the spark needed to desegregate the most segregated city in the West. In 1960, amidst potential protests on The Strip, then-governor of Nevada, Grant Sawyer called for a meeting between casino owners, local black leaders, city and state officials and then-president of the NAACP, Dr. James McMillan. The meeting was held at the closed Moulin Rouge and resulted in an agreement to desegregate all casinos in Vegas….the first such agreement in the country.

In 1992, the building was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places for its contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. Over the years, several groups have attempted to purchase and restore the building. It has been destroyed by multiple fires and there has been a push to demolish the remaining buildings for safety reasons.

 

For more information on the Moulin Rouge, check out these references:

A Vegas jewel, the Moulin Rouge. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/vegas-jewel-moulin-rouge

Moulin Rouge. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moulin_Rouge_Hotel

Online Nevada Encyclopedia. (2009, September 01). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/moulin-rouge

USA, National Park Service. (n.d.) Moulin Rouge. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from nps.govhttps://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/nv1.htm.

Wasser, Fred. (2016, February 26). The Moulin Rouge and the Story of Civil Rights in Las Vegas. Retrieved October 25, 2017 from https://knpr.org/knpr/2016-02/moulin-rouge-and-story-civil-rights-las-vegas

White, C. D. (n.d.). Moulin Rouge. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/moulin-rouge

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