The Moulin Rouge: A Symbol of Las Vegas' Civil Rights Struggle
The Moulin Rouge was the first racially-integrated hotel and casino in Las Vegas. It was located three miles from the Las Vegas Strip in the city’s Westside district. Although the casino was open for only six months, to this day it continues to represent the promise of racial integration in Las Vegas.
The Moulin Rouge was opened in 1955 amidst a civil rights battle in Las Vegas. The city’s black residents insisted that Las Vegas officials pass a civil rights ordinance which would allow African Americans to dine, gamble, and stay at Strip hotels. The city’s practice of segregation, which began in the 1930s, had earned it the moniker “The Mississippi of the West.” While Las Vegas hotels and casinos employed black employees in behind-the-scenes jobs, the workers who dealt with the public, like dealers and servers, were all white. The most visible African Americans employed by the hotels were entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. Even though their names appeared on hotel marquees, black performers were not permitted in the front door and were required to stay in boarding houses in city’s Westside, the neighborhood where Las Vegas’s black population was restricted. A group of white investors led by Will Max Schwartz saw the business potential of an integrated hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was recruited to serve as the Moulin Rouge’s spokesman and purported co-owner.
From its opening night on May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge attracted a mixed clientele of black and white patrons. Celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich all made their way to the Moulin Rouge during its short period of operation. The reason why the Moulin Rouge was such a magnet for performers was because it was the only hotel where black and white entertainers could socialize with one another in Las Vegas. Strip hotels attempted to ban its headliners from visiting the Moulin Rouge. White performers such as Tallulah Bankhead were issued ultimatums, but most refused to comply. Black entertainers who graced the Moulin Rouge’s showroom include Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Gregory Hines, and the Platters. The Moulin Rouge also offered employment opportunities for residents of the Westside. Black Las Vegans found employment as dealers, cocktail waitresses, bartenders, security guards, and managers.
The Moulin Rouge, named after the famed Parisian cabaret, had 110 rooms, a swimming pool, a 60-foot-high neon Eiffel Tower and a neon sign designed by Betty Willis in the googie style emblematic of the 1950s. The most popular attraction at the Moulin Rouge was its marquee number, a colorful African-themed late night show called The Tropi Can Can which featured Las Vegas’s only all-black chorus line. In June 1955, showgirls from the Moulin Rouge even made the cover of Life magazine.
In November 1955, financial mismanagement forced the Moulin Rouge’s closure. By December, the hotel had filed for bankruptcy. Although it was only open for six months, the Moulin Rouge offered its guests a brief glimpse of what a racially-integrated Las Vegas resort looked like.
In 1960, black Las Vegans, inspired by the wave of civil rights activism sweeping across the country, threatened to march on the Las Vegas Strip unless the city took action to end segregation. A march would not only block access to the Strip, but also embarrass the city and damage its tourism industry. In March 1960, days before the planned march, the still-shuttered Moulin Rouge served as the venue for a meeting which included NAACP branch president Dr. James McMillan, Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer, and the city’s powerful gaming executives. At the meeting, mediated by Las Vegas Sun editor Hank Greenspun, casino bosses agreed to end their discriminatory policies and allow African Americans to patronize their establishments.
In the decades since the Moulin Rouge’s initial closure, a number of different owners have attempted to re-open it and restore the hotel to its former glory. The building fell victim to an arsonist in 2003. In 2010 city officials declared the hotel’s decorative tower a risk to public safety and had it torn down. Despite its long period of dormancy, the Moulin Rouge remains an enduring symbol of racial integration and Las Vegas’s civil rights struggle.