Emcee Bailey said simply, “That show was a popper!”
Within a month, the Moulin Rouge dancers were doing the “Tropi Can Can” on the cover of Life magazine. Life’s feature story forecast a starry future for “this most modern hostelry.” Cary Grant, Bob Hope, the Dorsey Brothers and Rosemary Clooney dropped in to see what the fuss was about. Variety reported, “This unusual spot continues to pull in the gambling sect, who are not alarmed in the least about rubbing elbows and dice in mixed racial company.”
Rather than the riots some pundits had predicted, everyone got along. A black visitor from the South marveled at seeing interracial couples in the casino at a time when dozens of states, including Nevada, still had miscegenation laws on the books. “Where I come from,” he said, “that’d get you lynched.” Along with eye-popping entertainment, the frisson of racial mixing attracted sellout crowds and Hollywood royalty. Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Milton Berle, Dorothy Lamour, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, George Burns and Gracie Allen all came to the Rouge.
One night the dancers were undressing backstage when someone said, “Get your clothes on—it’s Frank!” Frank Sinatra, the biggest star of all, barged in to say how much he loved the show.
The Moulin Rouge’s luster gained wattage when Sinatra fell under its spell. A night owl who joked that Las Vegas had only one flaw—“There’s nothing to do between 8 and 9 a.m.”—he’d light out for the Rouge after his midnight show at the Sands or Sahara, along with an entourage that at various times included Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and a disconcerted 70-year-old gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. As usual, Sinatra’s timing was perfect. The resort’s managers, sensing an opportunity in the predawn hours, began staging a third nightly show beginning at 2:30. That show spurred a series of jam sessions that some say were never equaled in Vegas or anywhere else.
After the third show a relaxed, appreciative Sinatra might join Cole, Louis Armstrong or Dinah Washington on the showroom stage. They’d sing a song or two, and invite other performers to join them: Belafonte, Davis, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, taking turns or singing together, with no cameras or tape recorders rolling. “Imagine it—the great talents of the time, white and black, jamming and winging it at a time when black entertainers couldn’t set foot in the lounges on the Strip,” says Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. “Where else was there ever a scene to match that?” When they’d finally worn themselves out, the stars would stub out their last cigarettes and roll east on Bonanza as the sun rose over Glitter Gulch.
Not everyone loved the new action on the Westside. “The Strip’s casino owners couldn’t help noticing the money they were losing to the Moulin Rouge,” Green says. The owners and managers of Strip resorts wanted their customers to gamble after midnight shows, not decamp to the Westside. They gave their showgirls free drinks to stick around after hours, to motivate the gamblers, but as the spring of 1955 boiled into 100-degree summer days, many of the Strip’s white showgirls followed late-night crowds to the Rouge, leaving their home casinos half-empty. Word came down from executive offices on the Strip: Showgirls seen leaving for the Moulin Rouge would be fired. “So they hid in the back seats of cars,” dancer Dee Dee Jasmin recalls, “and partied with us behind the scenes, eating soul food, singing and dancing.”
The Strip remained segregated, but the sea change the Rouge represented was beginning to dissolve racial barriers. In 1955, for the first time, Sammy Davis Jr. was allowed to bring his stepmother and grandmother to see his show in the Venus Room at the New Frontier (where Elvis Presley would make his Las Vegas debut a few months later, singing his number-one hit “Heartbreak Hotel”). Rouge regulars Sinatra and Davis joked onstage about Sammy’s racial situation. “What would happen if some of those ‘priests’ in white robes started chasing you at 60 miles an hour?” Frank asked. “What would you do?” And Sammy answered, “Seventy.”
Belafonte chose that same transformative year, 1955, to integrate the swimming pool at the Riviera. He didn’t ask permission, he just jumped. According to his biographer Arnold Shaw, Belafonte splashed around, watching for security guards, “expecting all hell to break loose.” But nobody shouted or emptied the pool. White guests hurried to their rooms—but only to fetch their cameras. “Before long, mothers and fathers were asking Harry to pose with their youngsters for pictures.”
The Moulin Rouge sold out three shows a night through the summer and early fall. Then, on a crystalline October day in 1955, dancers, waiters, blackjack dealers and cigarette girls reporting to work found padlocks on the doors. America’s only integrated hotel-casino closed after four and a half months in operation. “We were out of work and out of luck,” recalls Jasmin, who says she saw some of the club’s owners leaving with bags of money from the counting room.