Las Vegas Sun

October 30, 2014

He tore down LV’s racial barriers

Strip jobs for blacks grew out of Davis’ efforts

Las Vegans who knew and loved Sammy Davis Jr. grieved for him Wednesday, unanimous in the opinion that he helped shape the city's success and praising his private generosity that benefited many.

They also remembered him as king of the Strip, reigning at the Sands Hotel two decades ago when celebrities converged for his impromptu late night cutups in the casino lounge after his regular showroom performances.

Bob Bailey, longtime Las Vegas black community leader and former singer with the Count Basie band, said Davis was instrumental in getting Strip hotel-casinos to open "front end" employment to blacks starting around 1960. Until then, balcks could only work in menial hotel jobs not visible to the public.

To break the ice, Davis convinced then-Sands owner Jack Entratter to open front desk bellmen, showroom waiter, waitress and even chorus dancer jobs to blacks, Bailey recalled.

Among the first to benefit from the expanded employment opportunities was Leonard Mason, now a successful building contractor and black community spokesman. Mason began as a bellman at the Sands, while local dancer Diane Day won a job with the Playmates dance group in the Sands Lounge. Day is now retired.

Bailey recalled that when Davis first appeared in Las Vegas in the 1940s at the post El Ranch Vegas, he, like other black entertainers, could not room or dine there.

He and other black entertainers were forced to commute to the Strip from a rooming house called "Miss Harris" at G and Madison streets, Bailey said.

Davis was singularly responsible for turning around the Strip's Jim Crow attitude by convincing hotel owners for whom he performed, and others with whom he became friendly, that it was immoral as well as unprofitable for them to hold back employment opportunities for blacks, Bailey said.

Al Benedict, currently president of the Sands, former president of the MGM Grand and a high ranking Strip casino executive for four decades, confirmed that Davis was a strong influence in ending racial discrimination.

"He was a great friend of Las Vegas in that way as well as a great entertainer," Benedict said. "I'm very sorry to hear of his passing. I knew him very well from the Last Frontier in the early 1950s."

Davis also bestowed generous cash gifts anonymously on poor and underprivileged blacks in Las Vegas who came to his attention because he wanted to hear about them.

There are numerous stories of Davis sending gifts of cash and food to local families who never knew the source, and of speaking for others with hotel owners to win them needed jobs, also anonymously.

Entertainer Jerry Lewis, a Las Vegas resident who had a close personal relationship with him, was shaken by the star's death.

"I'm heartbroken. The world is a lot less now...than when he was here," Lewis said in a brief statement.

Entertainer Lola Falana, also a Las Vegas resident and longtime personal friend, said "When Sammy left this world, the world lost a heartbeat, a joy. He will be in my prayers every day. He had a heart as tender as a little child."

Dave Burton, singer and clarinetist who starred in the Sands lounge when Davis led the well-known Rat Pack parties there, said his memories of that time will remain vivid.

"Sammy made it the gathering spot of the world from late night until 7 or 8 in the morning. The man lived a full life. He did everything it is possible for a human being to do. He was one of a kind," Burton said.

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