Thursday, May 29, 2003 | 11:18 a.m.
The Moulin Rouge has been everything from an icon to an eyesore -- and its roller-coaster ride through history may not yet be over.
Five days past the 48th anniversary of the opening of Las Vegas' first integrated casino, flames today destroyed the venerable Bonanza Road structure, including treasures such as its trademark dancing-girl murals and chandeliers stored beside carpeting and other renovation materials inside the building.
But before the embers cooled, the building's owner Bart Maybie, president of CBC Financial Corp., vowed that the Moulin Rouge will rise from the ashes.
"We will rebuild it and we will rebuild it right," Maybie said today. "We are fortunate that the historic sign in front of the place -- the feature that I really like -- has survived."
Maybie, who has owned the property for six years, said plans had been to open a casino, restaurant, 350-room hotel and museum at the site at the end of the year, but that will be delayed at least to the end of 2004 or maybe later. The site will celebrate its 50th anniversary on May 24, 2005.
Dale Scott, chief executive officer of the Moulin Rouge Development Corp., which was set to become co-owners as early as tomorrow, agreed that the Moulin Rouge project will go on.
"Our plans are still to go ahead and rebuild it to its original luster," Scott said. "The investors will be meeting to discuss what our next move will be. This is a very, very sad day for West Las Vegas and the entire community because an historical monument has gone up in flames."
The fire is the latest chapter in a history that ranged from its glory days in the the 1950s, when Strip performers and casino workers would fill the place after their shifts, to years of decay and several failed revival attempts followed by closure in 1997.
The site has been declared a historic Las Vegas landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it also has been described as a dilapidated relic ripe for the wrecking ball.
"We don't know what our losses are because we haven't gotten to go in yet, but we fear the worst," said Katherine Duncan, founder of the Moulin Rouge Museum, which was to be housed in the renovated building. "We may have lost the original dance costumes, a lot of photographs that cannot be replaced, waiters outfits and even original table placemats and silverware."
Duncan, whose group is a nonprofit organization, said a special number has been set up for donations of money or Moulin Rouge memorabilia: 1-866-55ROUGE (1-866-557-6843).
When the Moulin Rouge first opened its doors on May 24, 1955, it featured big-named entertainment, gourmet restaurants and first-class ambience and accommodations. Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was the casino host.
The original owners, Louis Rubin, a restaurateur from New York, and Alexander Bisno, a real estate entrepreneur from Beverly Hills, built a business that was ahead ot its time. The 88,900-square-foot facility boasted having the largest pool, stage and kitchen in the city. The casino walls and the bar were covered with mahogany.
The showroom featured "Tropi-Can-Can" under the tutelage of veteran producer Clarence Robinson. Jazz great Benny Carter conducted the original orchestra, but in the months to come, Lionel Hampton and Les Brown brought in their internationally acclaimed bands.
Black entertainers who were hired to perform but barred from staying at Strip hotels would stop by the Moulin Rouge for late-night jam sessions. Among the stars to perform in those sessions was Dinah Washington.
Two of the late Buck Ram groups, The Platters and The Penguins, had their careers launched at the Moulin Rouge and both had No. 1 hits within two years.
Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte were among the regulars.
Despite doing excellent business -- photos from Life magazine and other publications all show standing-room-only crowds -- the Moulin Rouge closed in October 1955 after just five months.
On March 26, 1960, the Moulin Rouge gained further historic significance as the site of the signing of the agreement that abolished segregation policies on the Strip.
Since then, the property has had several owners, the most notably the late Joe Preddy, his wife Sarann Knight Preddy and her son Joe Walker, who operated the site from 1985 to 1997, and Canadian developer Maybie since 1997.
By the time the Preddys and Walker took over the establishment, it had fallen into such decay that few thought it was possible to revive it.
"I was devastated to hear it had burned," Knight Preddy said. "It had so much potential and so much history there. I think it's a great loss in this commununity. ... I lost my life savings in that place trying to make a go of it."
Other longtime Las Vegans today lamented the loss of the significant building.
"It's a landmark...the chief cornerstone of the black community in Las Vegas," said Rev. Marion Bennett, of the Zion Methodist Church, who came to town 43 years ago.
Rev. Spencer Barrett, president of the recently revived Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP, said the Moulin Rouge "had a lot of history ... it was a place where African-Americans were allowed when they weren't allowed anywhere else."
Both leaders of the Las Vegas Valley's black community hoped the site could be restored and rebuilt, to be set aside as a museum that would help teach others about the role blacks have played in local history.
Former Sen. Richard Bryan, who sits on the board of Preserve Nevada, a group that listed the Moulin Rouge among the 11 most endangered sites, said the Moulin Rouge reminds the generations of people that Las Vegas was called the Mississippi of the West.
"In a community that is as new as Las Vegas, to lose a part of history is particularly difficult."
Jean Bennett, longtime manager of Ram's Platters and other singing groups, said the Platters' first engagement at the Moulin Rouge helped get them noticed by entertainment directors at Strip resorts.
But when they made it to the showroom at the Flamingo, the Platters found a much different atmosphere than the integrated Moulin Rouge, where blacks and whites mixed freely on and off stage.
"They were told not to accept drinks, and when they were off stage we had to sit in the kitchen," Bennett said.
The loss of the Moulin Rouge is "heartbreaking," said Jean Bennett, who has lived less than a mile away in Bonanza Village for more than 35 years and who planned to contribute a great deal of Platters memorabilia to the museum.
Bob Bailey, the master of ceremonies at the Moulin Rouge when it opened, said the original owners patterned the hotel after the jazz clubs of New York.
"We often thought that segregation ended when you entered the Moulin Rouge," Bailey said.
"Opening night was thrilling. We had been thoroughly aware of the fact that this was the first effort to integrate Las Vegas and that Las Vegas was an interracial town. We were very focused on putting on a very good show that night."
Bailey said in the Moulin Rouge blacks stood shoulder to shoulder with whites and the audience at time was 80 percent white.
"It showed that people of all colors could come together in a harmonious fashion without being burdened with discriminatory practices," he said. "I was dismayed this morning when I heard of the fire. It kind of brings an end to an era."
Councilman Lawrence Weekly said that though the heyday of the Moulin Rouge were before his time, the city lost something special.
"It feels like a piece of history is gone now. It's sad to see it go."
Weekly said he would do what he can to help rebuild the property.
"I wouldn't want to open a can of worms with this comment, but all government entities, from the state level on down, especially because this is listed as a historic site, should be involved in trying to restore it. I urge and encourage the entire state of Nevada to participate."
The blaze gutted the dreams of hundreds of people along with the casino, said Stephen Rybar, a Las Vegas private detective who has been part of the campaign to restore and preserve the Moulin Rouge as a museum and cultural center.
"It's really a sad day for the people who have being trying to re-energize that area," Rybar said. "So much money and effort, and in a few hours it's all gone."
Jean Reid Norman, Timothy Pratt, Emily Richmond Judy Odierna and Jennifer Knight contributed to this report.