It’s an inspiration to know we have caring people in this world who want to make a difference. If we are not at war with another nation, we are at war with its people and each other. This has been going on since time began. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, color was an issue between whites and blacks. Las Vegas was not different than the rest of the nation. With the NAACP Civil Rights movement, The Strip casinos soon gave way to integration in their hotels. However, prior to the civil rights movement many performers at that time were affected by the segregation of black entertainers.
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Entertainers Affected by Racism in Las Vegas
Lena Horne was black listed during the 1950’s for her political standing. She helped break the color line in Las Vegas when it was known as the “Mississippi of the West”. She performed at the Sands Copa Room and refused to drive across to the Westside of town for a boarding house room. She was frustrated with racism, and she saw it as a world-wide challenge. Born to a prominent black society family, her grandmother entered her into the NAACP at a young age.
Luis Armstrong performed at the Moulin Rouge and was well aware of where the blacks stood as the underdog and fought for their rights.
The Bailey family of Pearl Bailey was the first family radio station performers in Las Vegas in the 1950’s. Bob Bailey was chairman of the Equal Rights Commission in 1961. He had been with Count Basie before he went into radio.
Sammy Davis, Jr. dealt with racial prejudice early on and encountered this while serving in the Army as well as throughout his singing career. He and Elvis were to work together on a movie and Sammy was passed over. Elvis later said casting was racially motivated. In 1944 Sammy performed with the Will Matson Trio at the El Rancho, but due to his color, was not permitted to stay at the Motel.
Johnny Ray had a grand performance at the Moulin Rouge with his hit song “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”. It was noted that he was one of the best performers to have ever performed there.
B. B. King was invited to perform for the Grand Opening of the refurbished Moulin Rouge after its first fire. Later he opened a club called “The Blues Club” in Las Vegas.
Moulin Rouge Las Vegas
The Moulin Rouge was opened in Las Vegas on May 24, 1955. Located at 900 W. Bonanza Road, the Moulin Rouge was the first Casino in the United States that was not racially segregated. Most of the other Hotel and Casinos in Las Vegas refused service to the blacks and they were not allowed to eat or entertain at the Hotels they performed in. At the Moulin Rouge they were
accepted as guests.
Many of the famous black and white entertainers of the 50’s and 60’s frequented the Moulin Rouge as headliners. Among these was the famous “Rat Pack” Bunch: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Comedians like Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and George Burns were also invited to perform. Often when one of the members of the Rat Pack was scheduled to give a performance the rest of the pack would show up for an impromptu show. This caused much excitement among the audiences. People would come pouring in from all over. Las Vegas, sometimes sleeping in the lobby or in their cars if rooms were not available.
Six months later the Moulin Rouge closed. It was thought that the Mob was charging the blue collar African American worker double the price for their drinks, and could have assisted in the closure. In 2004 a fire gutted the Moulin Rouge and in 1992 it was named as a historical landmark. It seems racism is undercover but will always remain. We all work to keep our civil rights alive and the day is here now to work and live together to keep the “dream” alive.
By Michelle Frese & Shautief Toennings
Photo Rendering by UNLV Las Vegas Library, Special Collections
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