Walking along the promenade, a swift cool breeze blows in from the Ohio, bringing with it the ghostly whistles of steamboats and the calls of longshoremen as they toss bundles of cotton, textiles and corn to and from the boats along the waterfront. In the 19th century, rivers like the Ohio River were the main source for travel and moving goods from the North to the South. Nestled about 15 miles upriver from Cincinnati, New Richmond on the Ohio was the hub of moving people and goods from Clermont county to the rest of the country. The town was home to a steamboat manufacturer, as well as saw mills, textile mills, distilleries and furniture factories.
The town was also a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. The location along the river made it an ideal location to offer shelter to escaped slaves as they made their way north to freedom along the Underground Railroad. This often placed the town at odds with its neighbors in the slave state of Kentucky, which was located just a couple of miles across the river. The town offered acceptance and a home to free blacks, as well as protecting escaped blacks when pursued by slave trackers. New Richmond was the home of the first anti-slavery association in Clermont County and James Birney established the abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist in the town. As early as the 1830’s, the Presbyterian and Baptist churches missed edicts decrying slavery.
Underground Railroad Sites
The Stardust – From Criminals to Celebrities
With a cosmic and astronomical theme, the Stardust opened its doors in 1958. It was occupied 63 acres at the northern edge of The Strip, and was the last casino/resort built in the 1950’s. When it opened, it offered 1,065 guest rooms at $6 a night (the equivalent to $50 in 2017) and featured The Big Dipper, the largest swimming pool on the Strip, and the only drive-in theater that offered first run movies. The casino was also the first to introduce Keno. In 1958, the owners purchased the Royal Nevada next door and converted it to a convention center and high roller suite that housed high roller guests and The Stardust Showgirls. The resort sponsored an auto race in Desert Springs, which drew famous drivers like Mario Andretti and Mark Donahue. A golf course was later added to the property.
As much of an attraction as the hotel itself was the sign. Designed by Kermit Wayne and fabricated by Young Electric Sign Company, the sign was designed to promote the cosmic atmosphere within the resort and casino. The concept behind the sign was to give a panoramic view of the solar system, with the earth at the center of the neon and electric lights. The name Stardust “floated” among the cosmic dust. The sign used 7,100 feet of neon tubing, with over 11,000 light bulbs and was said to be able to be visible for over 60 miles.
The last bet was placed and the chimes of the slot machines rang out for the last time in the fall of 2006. Fireworks lit up the Vegas sky as the last of the buildings were brought down with explosives in March of 2007 to make way for a new generation of casinos and resorts. The site is currently being developed as the Resorts World, an Asian and South Pacific themed resort set to open in 2020.
The story of the Stardust was intertwined with organized crime and glitz of Hollywood. “Astronomical luxury at down to earth prices…” was the motto of Anthony Comero as he conceived of his dream casino and hotel on The Strip. Comero, aka The Admiral and Tony the Hat, was a bootlegger and gambling entrepreneur from Los Angeles. He made his money during Prohibition running rum, which he hid using a shrimping business as his cover. After Prohibition, he switched his focus to floating casinos, evading the California law enforcement until an eight day stand off forced The Admiral to retire his fleet and serve time in prison. He survived a murder attempt, being shot four times in the chest. Comero didn’t live to see his casino built. He died while playing Craps in the Desert Inn. The official cause of death was listed as heart attack, but many people believed that he was poisoned.
Comero’s dream was realized by John Factor, the half-brother to Max Factor, Sr. of make up fame. Factor, aka Jake the Barber, was a Prohibition era gangster, affiliated with Chicago Mob. He was known for the stock scam in England (whose victims also may have included members of the royal family) and rigging card tables in Monte Carlo. He also supposedly attempted to bail out Jimmy Hoffa before he disappeared.
Throughout its history, the Stardust was run by men with ties to the Mob. Hyman Goldbaum, Credit Manager, was a career criminal with 14 convictions ranging from assault to grand larceny. An early casino manager, Johnny Drew, was a veteran associate of Al Capone and the Chicago crime syndicate. In the 1960’s the casino was purchased by the Argent Corporation, through loans from The Teamster’s Union, and executives were eventually tried and convicted of siphoning between 7 and 15 million dollars using rigged scales (and was the topic of the book, and movie of the same name, Casino). Even into the 1970’s the hotel was linked to organized crime when owners, Al Sachs and Herb Tobman, were convicted of skimming money and laundering it through the Chicago Syndicate.
Most of the criminal activities went unnoticed by the guests who were enthralled with entertainment and activities available at the resort. The Stardust was the first casino to offer a signature act when Billy Daniels signed a long-term residency contract. Wayne Newton called The Stardust home for 10 years in the 80’s and 90’s, as did George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman offered their slapstick routines on a regular basis and famous tiger trainers, Siegfried and Roy, first took the stage at The Stardust. The final performers to grace the stage were Vegas regulars, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
Resources and for more Information
Anthony Cornero. (2017, October 16). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Cornero
DeMatteo, D. (n.d.). Stardust Resort – 1954-1959 Las Vegas Strip History. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from http://www.lvstriphistory.com/ie/star1955.htm
John Factor (2017, October 8). Retrieved October25, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Factor
The Stardust Resort and Casino. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stardust_Resort_and_Casino
Though these lights have dimmed, they have stories to tell. The signs, with their fading color and missing lights, were witnesses to some of the city’s interesting characters and events who have made Vegas what it is. From the first cafe to infamous gamblers to the fight for civil rights…read on to experience Vegas through these neon signs.
Note on these photos: These photos were taken at the Neon Museum and Boneyard, and around Las Vegas, as there is a push to restore and place many of these neon signs as art around the city. The Neon Museum contains over 200 retired signs from the Las Vegas area. Efforts are being made to restore the signs from the more popular or interesting signs. In Vegas, two companies are primarily responsible for the creation of the neon signs, and these companies rent the signs to the casinos and companies. When a sign is retired, it is brought to this boneyard (it gets its name because the signs are stripped of the neon so it can be re-used on other signs…thus, the signs are stripped to the bone). The Neon Museum is open to the public. For more information, please visit their website: The Neon Museum
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.
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