Entertainers Recall Segregated Strip

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In the darkness of the abandoned showroom, the old man's eyes wince at what time has stolen. Booths that once held adoring crowds, a stage that was host to famous black entertainers. Dust covers them now, a thick layer creating a haunted, musty smell in the dingy building.

It's hard now to imagine the crowds, the entertainers who made this place — the Moulin Rouge — a hit with blacks and whites in 1955. But Bob Bailey still remembers, still hears the music he helped create.

"It was a window in time. So beautiful, so beautiful," he says almost in a whisper.

History was made here: First, the Moulin Rouge was the only integrated casino during segregation. Later, black leaders called city and state officials to the old showroom to persuade them to desegregate the Las Vegas Strip in 1960.

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"Then it was called the Mississippi of the West," singer Claude Trenier says of the old Las Vegas. "We do our show, then had to go out by the pool. They didn't allow no blacks in the main showroom."

Trenier, 81, his brothers and some friends, known as the Treniers, were one of the first black groups to perform on the Las Vegas Strip.

They came to the Flamingo Hotel in 1948. Trenier, who grew up in Mobile, Ala., knew what to expect. "You just had to take it."

In the '40s and '50s, black performers like the Treniers, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole headlined at casinos on the Strip but were quickly ushered out the back door and forced to stay in west Las Vegas boarding houses.

"You making them a lot of money, but you couldn't go in the hotels," Trenier says, shaking his head.

He remembers singer Dorothy Dandridge dipping her foot in a hotel pool and the hotel then draining the pool. Some performers were forbidden from drinking out of regular glasses; they were given paper cups instead. If they were allowed in the showroom before they performed, groups had to sit in the back "so nobody would know," Trenier says.

He sits on a worn couch in his apartment, the walls adorned with pictures of the Treniers and awards they received. His twin brother and another brother have died, but the group, with different members, still performs.

"I often wonder why they were that way," he says. "I swore then that I'd never be in a position where I was bitter."

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Bailey, 74, was a dashing 28-year-old in 1955. An entertainer in New York, he was recruited to come to segregated Las Vegas and co-produce a show at the new Moulin Rouge on the city's west side, not far from downtown.

In May that year, the first integrated casino opened, becoming an instant magnet for entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte. Many in Las Vegas tell stories of Strip casinos being abandoned after midnight because everyone headed to the Moulin Rouge.

"It was as stylish and upbeat as any of the hotels in town," Bailey says. "What was so great about it was, it was such a first-class operation."

But it was not to last. After six months, the Moulin Rouge closed its doors. Rumors flourish as to why: financial problems, Strip casino owners working to shut it down. It may just have been too soon — an idea before its time.

In 1960, the closed casino became famous again when blacks summoned city and state leaders there and demanded desegregation of the Strip. The state had already legalized interracial marriages, and blacks had been hired for city jobs. But the Strip hadn't changed.

Desegregate or we will march down the Strip, Bailey remembers telling the leaders. They agreed.

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Inside the drafty Moulin Rouge today, graffiti covers the walls, insulation droops from the ceiling, and discarded furniture and rolls of carpet litter the floor. The showroom where Bailey served as master of ceremonies is almost unrecognizable, gutted by time and neglect.

"It breaks my heart when I see what it is and what it could have been," he says. "It hurts my heart."

After his stint at the Moulin Rouge, Bailey went on to become Nevada's first black television personality and used his prominence to encourage social change.

"That six months turned my whole life around," he says.

The city's black community, which fought so hard to integrate the Strip, is now working on a different struggle: getting the casinos that black performers helped build to invest more in black businesses.

MGM Mirage took notice of the complaints from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The company created a corporate diversity department last year to make sure minority contractors and suppliers are considered for jobs.

"We can say we've come a long ways," NAACP chapter president Gene Collins says. "In doing so we want to make sure none of us are left out as we continue to improve on race diversification."

A developer has bought the Moulin Rouge and wants to restore it to its former fame, but there have been buyers before, and many doubt a casino in a run-down section of town near homeless shelters would work today.

"It's a long shot," Bailey says.

Next month, black leaders hope to gather again with city and state officials at the Moulin Rouge to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Strip's desegregation and remember a commitment.

Bailey steps out of the darkness of the showroom and into the rain pelting the pavement of the lonely parking lot.

"There's a million stories in this building," he says.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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