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The dancers in the Rouge chorus line brought crowds to their feet with the "Tropi Can Can." (Dee Dee Jasmin / Bryan Haraway)

The Vegas Hotspot That Broke All the Rules

America’s first interracial casino helped end segregation on the Strip and proved that the only color that mattered was green

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What killed the Rouge? Jasmin believes her bosses looted the place. Others blame the owners of established resorts, who may have pressed banks to call in loans to their red-hot competitor. Still others blame mobsters bent on proving that they ran the city; or a mid-’50s glut of new hotels that put downward pressure on prices; or even Westside blacks who didn’t gamble enough. “There’s plenty of murk in Las Vegas history,” says Green, the Southern Nevada professor. “In the end I think four factors sank the Moulin Rouge: bad management, bad location, bad timing and bad luck.”

No other resort would hire the Rouge’s black dancers, dealers and other front-of-the-house workers. Some found jobs as maids or dishwashers on the Strip or in the Gulch. Many more left town. The Rouge would reopen for three days between Christmas and New Year’s in 1956 but stood empty the rest of the year. Elsewhere, the civil rights movement was on the march. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus two months after the Rouge closed, spurring a boycott led by a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr. In Las Vegas, headliner Nat King Cole was barred from staying at the Thunderbird despite a deal that paid him $4,500 a week and provided a free suite for his manager, Mort Ruby. “I had to find Nat a place in the dirtiest hole I had ever seen,” Ruby said, “on the other side of the tracks.” Near the shuttered Moulin Rouge.

Dancer Anna Bailey couldn’t get work. She had backed up Cab Calloway and the Ink Spots in Harlem, danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Los Angeles, but no Vegas show-runner would hire her. One night in the late ’50s, she joined a group of black women going to see Sinatra at the Sands. “A security guard stopped us,” Bailey recalled. No blacks allowed, the guard said. “And Frank Sinatra came and got us at the door. He walked us into the lounge and sat us down at his table. Sammy Davis Jr. had his head down, he was so embarrassed by what happened to us. I was just so proud, walking behind Frank Sinatra and sitting down to his table!”

In March 1960, Westsiders including James McMillan and Charles West, the state’s first black dentist and physician, respectively, demanded a meeting with civic leaders. They threatened a mass march: hundreds of blacks chanting and waving placards on the Strip, demanding their rights, threatening to disrupt business. McMillan and West were probably bluffing. They could have counted on no more than a few dozen marchers. Still the mayor, Oran Gragson, the police chief, the county sheriff, resort industry bosses, the Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun and Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer agreed to meet them—in the coffee shop at the Moulin Rouge. “Everyone had their say. Then the governor said it was right to protest the conduct of the Strip,” recalled a member of McMillan and West’s contingent. “He felt that every man should have an equal opportunity.” Under a pact known as the Moulin Rouge Agreement, official segregation ended at 6 p.m. that day.

Soon Anna Bailey became the first black chorus girl on the Strip.

“Since then we’ve had no racial problems,” says Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I’m joking!” White notes that when Governor Sawyer named former Moulin Rouge emcee Bob Bailey to a state commission investigating racial bias in 1961, “Bob didn’t have to search too hard.” Hotels in the state capital, Carson City, refused to serve blacks, so commissioner Bailey packed box lunches and changed clothes in a men’s room in the Capitol building.

The Rouge stood for another 48 years, serving as a motel, a public-housing apartment complex, and finally a glorified flophouse infested with rats, roaches and drug dealers. It made the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, but by then—and ever since—the corner of Bonanza and H Street seemed cursed. “Developers and preservationists kept trying to save it,” recalls Oscar Goodman, Las Vegas’ mayor from 1999 to 2011. “I must have gone to 17 groundbreakings there. I did more groundbreakings at the Moulin Rouge than anywhere else in the city, but that lot’s still sitting there empty.”

A 2003 arson fire gutted the place, charring a shipment of commemorative T-shirts made by a group that planned to rebuild the hotel. Figuring that the torched tees would make unforgettable souvenirs, the investors sent them to a picture-framing shop to have them mounted under glass. The shop promptly burned down.

Another fire destroyed the remains of the crumbling edifice in 2009. The timing of the incident—less than a week after the Rouge’s famed neon sign was trucked to a museum—had locals retelling an old joke about the mobbed-up lawyer who joins the fire chief at a three-alarm blaze and says, “Chief, the fire’s supposed to be tomorrow.” But the only people who seemed to gain from the last fire on the old lot were the hard hats who bulldozed the ruins.

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