Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2014

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The women who built Las Vegas

They were the Rosie the Riveters of the gaming industry. The glamour that strutted onstage. The grunts who swept and scoured. The glue that cemented diverse racial groups to the Southwest.

They were as much a part of postwar Las Vegas as the gangsters, the gamblers and the good ol' boy politicians.

They were the Las Vegas women who came, who worked, who stayed.

Betty Bunch came to Las Vegas in 1956 from Texas with a theater background and a yen to dance.

Sue Kim came in 1959 with her two sisters from war-torn Korea. The Kim Sisters hit the town like a typhoon.

Rachel Coleman came from Vicksburg, Miss., and found work as a maid -- practically the only employment avenue for black women in Las Vegas.

And Sarann Knight-Preddy began her climb to casino owner by writing keno tickets.

Theirs and other women's roles in local history are being compiled by four UNLV scholars into "Oral Histories of Women in Gaming and Entertainment," a project sponsored by the Nevada Humanities Committee and UNLV's history department.

The group will present two slide lectures in September chronicling its research thus far.

The Las Vegas postwar women were not of the June Cleaver persuasion, says Joanne Goodwin, UNLV assistant professor of history and director of the project.

"We seem to link the role of women in postwar America with domesticity, raising families and moving to the suburbs. But a significant portion of women were involved in wage work."

Las Vegas gave women economic equality, says Joyce Marshall, who's working on her master's degree in history while compiling the oral histories of dancers and showgirls.

"They were not feminists, but they had the best of both worlds. They didn't have the same opportunities in other cities."

Here they made good money, she says, and could always find steady work.

"They were caught up in the love of what they were doing and never thought it would end."

Bunch, a robust redhead who has retained her showgirl glamour, is nostalgic about those days.

"I feel sorry for everybody who was around in the '60s and wasn't a showgirl," she says.

She played revues and danced in "the line" with headline entertainers such as Marlene Dietrich, Ray Bolger, Liberace and George Burns.

"We were pampered. You could hardly buy yourself a sandwich. We wore multithousand-dollar costumes and shoes custom made for our feet. We got to be friends with the finest entertainers in the world."

But they earned such favors.

Showgirls carried heavy, plumed headdresses and costumes. They were forbidden to date and marry and were required to live at the hotels where they worked seven nights a week.

Dancers had to protect themselves constantly, Marshall says.

"Their livelihood depended on their legs. There was no recourse for injury ... no disability insurance, no health insurance, no sick leave."

Bunch remembers when she "went on in 'Bottoms Up' (a revue) in shock after an auto accident."

"I just went into automatic pilot. Later when I saw a picture of myself on stage, I looked like a zombie."

Sue Kim remembers when one sister had jaundice, got out of bed and went on stage.

"No way could you get a substitute. You put up with the pain."

Like Bunch and Kim, many of the women entertainers from the '50s and '60s came to call Las Vegas home, Marshall says.

"The majority of them have established themselves as prominent people in the community."

Like Bunch, some former showgirls have music and film careers. Some are interior designers, some own businesses, some are executives.

Kim, whose husband is a casino vice president, is a real estate agent.

Myoung-ja Lee Kwon took Kim's oral history and is studying the Korean-American community in the Southwest for her Ph.D. dissertation.

She says Kim and her sisters, who were the first Koreans to come to Las Vegas, have been models to other Korean immigrants.

Their mother was a popular Korean songstress, their father a symphony composer who was captured and killed by the North Koreans.

"Our house was burned down," Kim remembers. "My mother asked us to help her out. We formed the Kim Sisters and sang for G.I. troops.

"She told us we had to learn instruments to make our act different from the McGuire Sisters or the Andrew Sisters."

So the girls learned how to play tenor sax, drums, guitar and traditional Korean instruments. They learned ballet and tap dance.

"The producer at the Thunderbird was looking for Oriental acts," Kim recalls. "He came to Korea and saw us."

He signed the sisters for a four-week stint. They came to the United States and never left.

"We ate tuna sandwiches and sent our money home," Kim says.

They worked eight months of the year on the Strip. The rest of the time, they toured the country.

Kim remembers their first American party. It was hosted by Hugh Hefner in Chicago and attended by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

"We walked in and the first thing we saw was a naked woman swimming in a fish tank. We tried to hide behind the door.

"But our manager kept pulling us. 'Come on. You've got to meet everybody.'

"But we would not come out from behind the door."

When they came back to Las Vegas with that image etched in their brains, they wouldn't attend any parties, even those hosted by Elvis Presley.

Eventually, Kim and her sisters acclimated to the social mores of the West. They've since brought more than 50 members of their family to Las Vegas.

Along with the Asian Pacific migration spearheaded by the Kim Sisters was a Southern black migration, notes Claytee White, another of the oral historians on the project also working on her master's degree in history.

During the 1940s and '50s, the migrant Southern women took jobs as maids and food-service workers in hotel-casinos, she says.

Rachel Coleman is among the 20 women she's interviewed.

"I talked to many women who mentioned Rachel to me because Rachel was such a driving influence. She started off as a maid and is now executive housekeeper at the Union Plaza."

Starting in 1957, Coleman worked for hotels on the Strip and downtown. In 1973, she walked into Culinary Workers Local No. 229 and demanded a job as a business agent -- a grievance-solving liaison between workers and hotel management. She was hired.

In 1987, she ran for president of the local and lost. Because the new president wanted new staff, she quit her job as a business agent and went back to housekeeping.

"It's one of those jobs you always go back to," she says. "I just enjoy it."

But oh my, she says, times have changed. For the better.

Once the workers were lumped into a category called "back of the house." Today, Coleman says, they're referred to as "heart of the house."

In the early days, maids were making $6.75 a day. Today, the daily wage is more like $74.

"When I started, maids were only black. Now they are all different races.

"And now they can get promoted from maids to other things they qualify for."

White has found some common historical themes in the housekeeping industry.

After holding jobs at different hotels, most maids ended up staying for many years in hotels where they found a "family atmosphere."

White also learned that, in the 1940s, all hotel maids were black.

"I have no accurate time frame of when Mexican and white women started working as maids."

And she learned that in 1940, 167 black people lived in Las Vegas. By 1955, more than 13,000 lived here.

"Eighty percent of that increase came from the Southern towns of Fordyce, Ark., and Tallulah, La.

"Jobs were here. Women could earn money here."

Sarann Knight-Preddy came to Las Vegas from Eufaula, Okla., in 1942 as a young woman.

Her first "real job" was as a keno writer at the Cotton Club, one of the largest black casinos in Las Vegas. Eventually she "learned all the games": keno, craps, poker, blackjack and also worked in Hawthorne.

She remembers a city ordinance passed in the 1960s that prohibited women from dealing or supervising casino games.

During that period, she worked at Jerry's Nugget in North Las Vegas, which wasn't affected by the ordinance.

In 1980, she ran for Las Vegas City Commission (today called the City Council), losing by 22 votes.

She owned the People's Choice Casino on H Street and Owens Avenue. And 11 years ago, she took over the lease at the Moulin Rouge, the Bonanza Road interracial club that closed in 1955, six months after it opened. Five years ago, she purchased it.

"What she has done is just phenomenal," White says. "She's the only African-American woman with a gaming license in the state."

The racial revelations of the women's history project was serendipitous, says Goodwin.

"The fact that one of us (Kwon) wanted to study the Asian Pacific influence and another (White) wanted to study the African-Americans was pure happenstance -- a beautiful and lucky happenstance because of how rich we are going to make this study."

The project has just completed its first phase, and the oral histories will continue, Goodwin says. She hopes the presentations will inspire other women to come forth with personal narratives.

The histories will be preserved in special collections at UNLV's James R. Dickinson Library.

A treasure, Goodwin believes, because no recent history can compare to Las Vegas'.

"What other place has only 50 years of rapid development and 1 million people?

"Where else are these stories and opportunities?"

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