The newest casino in Vegas was a 40-foot trailer in a vacant lot. Inside, gamblers in shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps fed quarters into video-poker machines. Outside, weeds sprouted through the sun-scorched pavement of a forlorn stretch of Bonanza Road near Three Star Auto Body and Didn’tDoIt Bail Bonds. A banner strapped to the trailer announced that this was the “Site of the Famous Moulin Rouge Casino!”
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That was the point: Due to one of myriad quirks of Nevada law, some form of gambling must occur here every two years or the owners lose their gaming license. This desolate city block had practically no value except as the site of a hotel-casino that closed more than 50 years ago. And so, last June, workers carried 16 bulky video-poker machines into what locals called a “pop-up casino,” where eight hours of gambling generated a total take of less than $100. Then the workers carted the machines away, padlocked the trailer and left the site of the famous Moulin Rouge to its singing, dancing, wining, dining, hip-shaking, history-making ghosts.
Stan Armstrong, a 56-year-old documentary filmmaker who grew up near the site of the old Moulin Rouge, sees the place as a briefly gleaming facet of the city’s past. “It’s mostly forgotten, even by people who live here, but the Rouge mattered,” he says. “To understand why, you need to know how much this town has changed in 60 years.”
Las Vegas wasn’t much more than a Sin Village in the early 1950s. With a population of 24,000, one twenty-fourth its current total, the city was smaller than Allentown, Pennsylvania, or South Bend, Indiana, and so remote that the Army tested atom bombs an hour’s drive away. Guests on the upper floors of hotels like Binion’s Horseshoe watched the mushroom clouds.
Downstairs, cowboy-hatted Benny Binion, a mobster and convicted murderer from Dallas, lured gamblers to “Glitter Gulch” with a brand-new casino featuring velvet wallpaper and carpeted floors—a step up from the traditional stucco and sawdust. A few miles to the southwest, mobster Bugsy Siegel’s venerable 1946 Flamingo lit up the Strip, as did the Desert Inn, the Sahara and the Sands, all built between 1950 and 1952, all serving prosperous postwar customers who were, not coincidentally, all white.
The town’s black residents occupied a 3.5-square-mile area called the Westside, where dirt streets ran past tents, shanties and outhouses. Jim Crow laws enforced their second-class status. Negroes, as they were printably called, could work at Strip and Glitter Gulch hotels and casinos only as cooks, maids, janitors and porters—“back of the house” jobs that kept their profiles and wages low. Black entertainers were better paid but no more welcome in the front of the house. When Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald headlined on the Strip, they slipped in through stage doors or kitchen doors and left the same way after taking their bows. Unable to rent rooms at whites-only hotels, they retreated to boarding houses on the Westside. Famous or not, they couldn’t try on clothes at white-owned stores. “If you tried something on, they made you buy it,” one Westsider recalls. Another local tells of the day Sammy Davis Jr. took a dip in a whites-only swimming pool at the New Frontier. “Afterward, the manager drained the pool.”
Cole learned his lesson the night a Strip doorman turned him away. “But that’s Nat King Cole,” his white companion said.
“I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christ,” said the doorman. “He’s a n-----, and he stays out.”
Lena Horne was the exception who proved the rule. A favorite of Bugsy Siegel, the gorgeous torch singer was allowed to stay at the Flamingo as long as she steered clear of the casino, restaurants and other public areas. When she checked out, her bedsheets and towels were burned.
In the early ’50s, Josephine Baker, the Missouri-born singer, actress and exotic dancer who achieved worldwide fame for her performances in Paris, appeared at El Rancho on the Strip. As an international sex symbol (Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”), the “Creole Goddess” had the power to bend rules in Vegas. Her contract stipulated that black people could buy tickets to her show. As Walter Winchell reported in his New York Daily Mirror gossip column, Baker “won’t appear anywhere members of her race are not admitted.” When El Rancho kept black ticket-buyers out, Baker sat on the stage doing nothing. “I’m not going to entertain,” she said. “I’m going to sit right here until they make up their minds what they want to do.”