Lubertha Johnson was one of the black ticket-holders that night. “Customers were waiting,” she once recalled. “Finally the management let us in and told us to sit down, and they served us.”
Then came the Moulin Rouge, in 1955, a neon cathedral dedicated to the proposition that the only color that mattered in Vegas was green.
The Rouge, as locals call it, was the brainchild of several white businessmen led by Los Angeles real-estate baron Alexander Bisno and New York restaurateur Louis Rubin. They spent $3.5 million to build what they billed as “America’s First Interracial Hotel.” The time seemed ripe. President Harry Truman had abolished segregation in the U.S. military in 1948. Six years later, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education did the same for public schools.
Bisno, Rubin and their partners integrated their project by giving former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis a small ownership share to serve as the Rouge’s greeter, shaking hands at a front door that was open to all. They hired and trained black waiters, waitresses and blackjack dealers. And while their resort rose on the Westside’s eastern edge, barely dice-rolling distance from Glitter Gulch, they dispatched talent scouts to nightclubs in black neighborhoods all over the country, to find “the loveliest, leggiest ladies of their race” for the chorus line.
Dee Dee Jasmin auditioned at the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles. Only 16, she had danced in Carmen Jones, the 1954 film starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. During her Carmen Jones audition, director Otto Preminger had pointed at her and said, “I vant the girl with the big boobs!” A year later, Moulin Rouge owner Bisno offered the teenager a contract for a mind-boggling $135 a week. Soon she was flying to Las Vegas, where a limousine waited to carry Jasmin and her fellow dancers to work. “We were dressed to the nines in our gloves and high heels,” she recalls, “expecting bright lights.” As the limo rolled past the Flamingo and the Sands, “we were in awe...and then we kept going. Past the Sahara. Past a block full of run-down buildings and derelicts. Across the railroad tracks. I thought, ‘I’ll be damned, it’s in the black part of town.’ Then we pulled up at the Rouge, this great big palace on Bonanza Road, and our spirits lifted.”
On May 24, 1955, opening night, a well-heeled crowd gathered under a 60-foot sign that read “Moulin Rouge” in white neon. Joe Louis shook hundreds of hands. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were playing the New Frontier that week, while Rosemary Clooney and Joey Bishop headlined at the Sands, but for once the real action was on the Westside, where patrons including Belafonte, Tallulah Bankhead and Hollywood tough guy Edward G. Robinson swept into a mahogany-paneled, chandeliered casino. Cigarette girls in frilled dresses and rouge-jacketed waiters served guests looking over the hotel’s palm-lined swimming pool.
In the showroom, emcee Bob Bailey, a cousin of Pearl’s, introduced the Platters, whose hit song “Only You” would soon top the soul and pop charts. Vaudeville comics Stump and Stumpy gave way to the tap-dancing Hines Kids, 11-year-old Maurice and 9-year-old Gregory. But the floor show carried the night. “We knocked ’em out,” says Jasmin, who recalls looking over the footlights at a house that was “jumping. It was wall-to-wall beautiful people, furs and chiffons and satins and all kinds of jewels. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”
The floor show, produced by Clarence Robinson, a veteran of the Cotton Club and the original Moulin Rouge in Paris, featured a dozen male dancers and 23 chorus girls in the most acrobatic production the city had seen. An opening number called “Mambo City” segued into a strobe-lit dance: the original watusi, in which the now-barefoot, grass-skirted chorus line gyrated to a “jungle beat” while a witch doctor juggled a pair of squawking chickens. The watusi would inspire a nationwide dance fad. Robinson’s performers topped it with a high-kicking finale, the “Tropi Can Can,” that brought the first-night crowd to its feet.
“This isn’t the opening of a Las Vegas hotel. It’s history,” proclaimed Joe Louis.