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Historic casino faces challenges

WEEKEND EDITION

May 28 - 30, 2005

The facade and distinctive script-lettered marquee of the Moulin Rouge is all that remains of the landmark that stands as both an icon of Las Vegas' civil rights progress and a crumbling monument to West Las Vegas' economic failures.

The 50th anniversary of the opening of the Moulin Rouge passed on Tuesday with little fanfare. There long has been talk of restoring the city's historic first integrated casino to its former glory, but so far no brick-and-mortar progress has been seen.

On May 29, 2003, an arson fire destroyed all but the neon sign and front wall of the historic building at 900 W. Bonanza Road.

The resort's current owner, the Moulin Rouge Development Corp., continues to predict there will be a groundbreaking this fall for a $200 million Moulin Rouge resort that will be built in three phases. The projected completion date for the first phase is 2006, with the other two phases completed by 2008.

"The vision is still intact," Chauncey Moore, one of the project's principals, said of the plans that were announced in January 2004 for a 500-room hotel, 40,000-square-foot casino and a 500-seat showroom. "We are strongly committed to making the Moulin Rouge rise from the ashes."

Local historians say that although the Moulin Rouge's heyday lasted less than half a year during its first year of operation, its historical significance in Las Vegas and to America's civil rights movement remains indelible.

"In its brief time in operation it committed the town to a form of integration that was not common in the rest of the nation at that time," UNLV history department Chairman Hal Rothman said.

David Millman, a historian at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society at Lorenzi Park, said the Moulin Rouge's importance was as "a beacon of integration. Its lasting legacy was not the actual hotel, but rather the idea. Its existence guaranteed that things were going to change in racial policies in Las Vegas."

When the Moulin Rouge closed for what would be the final time in 1997, it was a shell of its former self -- virtually a large snack shop with a bar.

The building that in 1992 was put on the National Register of Historic Places once featured slot machines and blackjack and roulette tables. But it lost its gaming license in 1994.

The resort's 110-room hotel was converted into low-rent apartment housing. Those and other apartments around the site now number more than 350 and provide the income that is keeping alive the dream of rebuilding the resort.

The Moulin Rouge is in what has long been one of Las Vegas' poorest areas.

Sarann Preddy, who co-owned the Moulin Rouge from 1985 to 1997 and has supported subsequent owners in their revival efforts, called the land around her property "the forsaken part of town" in a Nov. 18, 1996, Sun story.

In the 1950s, conditions were so bad in West Las Vegas some homes were mere shacks with no water, sewage system or electricity. Laws of the time prohibited blacks from living anywhere else in town.

Despite such economic woes in the area around the Moulin Rouge, the resort began with much promise when Beverly Hills, Calif., real estate entrepreneur Alex Bisno and New York restaurateur Louis Rubin built it for $7 million.

At the time, blacks were barred from being guests in Strip hotels. The Moulin Rouge quickly became a late-night hot spot when Strip performers, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., frequented the resort after their shows to party and gamble all night with a throng of people of all races.

Black showgirls performed on a stage amid a backdrop of walls featuring mahogany wood trim and Toulouse Lautrec-style murals of black French cancan dancers. Former world heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis was the chief casino greeter for the 88,900-square-foot facility.

The showroom featured "Tropi-Can-Can" under the tutelage of veteran producer Clarence Robinson. Jazz great Benny Carter conducted the original orchestra. Later, Lionel Hampton and Les Brown brought in their bands.

But five months after its opening, the Moulin Rouge closed its doors and its owners filed for bankruptcy. It has long been debated how such a jumping joint, stacked to the rafters every night with paying customers and Strip celebrities, could fail so quickly.

"There are two theories," Millman said. "One is that it was undercapitalized and mismanaged. The other is that the white casino owners tried to put it out of business by preventing their employees and entertainers from going there after hours.

"I think there is a little truth in both of those theories."

Millman said Las Vegas, in 1955, was going through a period of economic slowdown and a number of gaming properties were hit hard by it.

"The Dunes closed at the end of 1955 and had to be leased by the Sands to reopen and keep going, and The Royal Nevada was in trouble all year and had to get help from the New Frontier," Millman said.

"But no one helped the Moulin Rouge, which gives some credence to the theory white casino owners wanted it to go away."

Still, Millman says, he has never seen "any real hard evidence" the white casino owners tried to stop their stars from going to the Moulin Rouge after hours. It might be true, he said, or it might just be an urban legend.

A reopened Moulin Rouge nearly five years after its meteoric first run again played a roll in the civil rights movement. In March 1960, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and community leaders met at the Moulin Rouge to broker a deal with white casino owners to end segregation practices on the Strip.

Desegregation, however, did not help the Moulin Rouge. Ironically, it not only cost the Moulin Rouge much of its customer base, but also helped put out of business nearly all of the black-owned nightclub casinos along Jackson Street -- the one area of West Las Vegas where the economy had been booming.

A string of subsequent owners of the Moulin Rouge failed to revive it.

In 1997, Canadian businessman Bart Maybie, president of CBC Financial Corp., bought the rundown property in the high-crime area for $3 million and sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring it.

At the time, the original chandeliers were still hanging in the main casino, where Maybie envisioned 165 slot machines and eight gaming tables, as well as a restaurant, 350-room hotel and museum.

Then came the fire that injured three people and caused an estimated $12 million in damage.

In February 2004, Fred Ball, one of two men who authorities said was responsible for setting the fire, was sentenced by a federal judge to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay $5.6 million in restitution.

Ball, then 45, and John Antwan Caver, then 29, were originally charged with arson and conspiracy charges by Clark County. But those charges were dropped when federal authorities took over prosecution of the case. To date, no federal charges have been filed against Caver.

Meanwhile, the debate continues over whether a new Moulin Rouge at the same location will do any better than the original.

Much of the Moulin Rouge's potential success might lie in its colorful past.

"We have to embrace the historical significance of the Moulin Rouge," Moore said. "We should not forget history because it provides the substance of what we are today.

"I believe the frontage and the sign surviving the fire sent a strong message that the Moulin Rouge was meant to be here."

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