Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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Where I Stand:

The early days of the Moulin Rouge

Bob Bailey reflects a lifetime of black history. His life is also the history of Las Vegas.

I was thinking about the just-concluded Black History Month and couldn’t get away from the name of Bob Bailey, my friend. Actually, Bob was a dear friend of my father, Hank Greenspun. Bob inherited me when my father died.

There are a couple of million people living in Southern Nevada today, and the vast majority probably know precious little about the civil rights struggles of early Las Vegas.

We boast of being the entertainment and tourism capital of the world, but in the early 1950s some of our finest performers were barred from performing on the Strip because they were black, and black tourists and locals were not allowed to step inside Strip casinos — whether to dine, gamble or enjoy a show. This nightmare of racial segregation stained our town.

It took some brave men — community giants — to confront these civil sins.

Two of them were my dad and Bob Bailey, who crossed paths in their shared fight to end what Jim Crow had created in this city.

Their crossroads, and where Las Vegas came of age, was the Moulin Rouge.

The remarkable story of the first integrated hotel in Las Vegas is intrinsic to the fabric of our city. It is where entertainers, tourists and locals came together for food and fun without one bit of concern for the color of anyone’s skin.

Below is a column my father wrote about the impact of the Moulin Rouge and its promise of a better life for those who lived in Las Vegas and who weren’t white.

It describes life in those days, so I reprint it with no apologies.

I am republishing the story with deep thanks to Bob Bailey for being here at the beginning and seeing to the cause of justice throughout his life.

•••

By Hank Greenspun

“A new Nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It was the United States of America that Abe Lincoln was talking about when he uttered these words in the most famous of all speeches, the Gettysburg Address.

That’s why I never use the term “Westside.” It brings an ugly connotation to my mind — a segregated district. I intend to use it today because it will mark the last time it will appear in this newspaper. It becomes necessary sometimes to localize an area for purposes of information to newspaper readers. The city is therefore divided into districts like Huntridge, Biltmore, Crestwood, the Strip and many others.

The “Westside” however, is seldom employed when a white person or address is to be identified. It has been built up by the other newspaper to pinpoint any unsavory news item in which a colored person might be involved, such as “Usual Westside Ruckus Marks City Election.”

That is the Review-Journal’s way of informing the public of a fight between two colored persons. I have never read in Cahlan’s paper of a “usual fracas on the Strip, or on Fremont Street or on First Street,” although fights are just as usual there as on the Westside; no more, no less, inasmuch as people are human beings and will fight when charged up by liquor, regardless of race, creed or color. It seems to be a propensity often employed when an appeal to reason fails, which is usually the case among people who drink excessively — their reason gives way quicker than upon more sober reflection.

Las Vegas has long been a backward town in its attitude toward civil rights and race relations. And a good deal of this can be attributed to the policy of the other newspaper which had been a monopoly here for almost 30 years until the Sun became firmly established.

Slum conditions can be a greater cause of lawlessness than any other single factor, and plain truth demands that it be said of the Westside that it has had more than its fair share of slums through no fault of the people residing there. It had long been the neglected area of our town because its people were not as demanding of their rights as those in other areas.

The past four years has evolved somewhat of a change. Slums are being slowly obliterated, streets are being paved, schools and recreation areas are being modernized. The entire complexion of the area has assumed somewhat of a “new look” topped by the latest addition of an interracial resort hotel which can hold up its end against the finest which has been so far produced on the Strip.

The Moulin Rouge Hotel is a positive, affirmative act toward the belief that all men are created equal. To be told by a colored waiter: “It was my pleasure to serve you and I hope I will soon have this opportunity again,” is something which I have yet to hear elsewhere in all my years in Las Vegas. It gives a person a warm, friendly glow. You walk away feeling like somebody. It brings a new dignity to man.

There are few hotels in Las Vegas that can boast of such championship among their staff. Somehow, I cannot put myself in the frame of mind of “they and we” — the white man and the black man. I thrilled as much to Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship of the world as I did when Jack Dempsey was on top. And who greets me and makes me feel at home in the Moulin Rouge but my longtime idol, Joe Louis.

Sonny Bowell, former star basketball player of the Harlem Globetrotters and general manager of the new hotel, lights up the place with his big, cheery smile for everyone. Popular Jimmy Gay, longtime Las Vegas resident and one of the fastest trackmen in the Southwest Conference, when he ran for Arkansas State University, is another champion member of the staff.

Mercer Ellington, son of the one and only Duke Ellington, writes the musical scores. Benny Carter, one of the great sax players in the country, is the bandleader, and for putting a chorus line together and staging a production, Clarence Robinson has to be “the mostest,” for what he has done with the Moulin Rouge show.

I have seen entertainment of every type, kind and description on Broadway, Las Vegas and Paree. There might have been better shows than the Moulin Rouge, but I can’t recall any this minute and it’s a cinch there were few more lavish or exciting than the dancing of the “Tropi-Can-Can” Revue, the comedy routine of Stump and Stumpey, and the warm singing and friendly personality of the Master of Ceremonies, Bob Bailey. From the men in the light and sound booth at the back of the dining room to every entertainer on the stage, everything about the show is top performance. And it would be criminal negligence if I failed to mention the food served at the Moulin Rouge. There is none finer.

I like the Moulin Rouge Hotel. I like what it stands for. As a citizen of Las Vegas, I appreciated the efforts of the operators and hope they will be most successful.

However, we must be realistic. It is obvious to many people and should be obvious to the Moulin Rouge owners that there are factions in our town, and there is no need to mention names or hotels, who will not stop at efforts to wreck the experiment of the Moulin Rouge. A misleading headline in the Review-Journal, such as appeared this week, would lead the whole world to believe that the hotel was involved in a murder, which was untrue, rotten, scurrilous journalism and an attempt to destroy and wreck an institution, and a test which presently is attracting attention throughout the entire country.

Incidents happen all over the town. Some members of the entertainment world have been caught using narcotics in the past and there have been occurrences of violence and even death, but the details were always played down. The other places seem to get away with a lot, which will not be the case here, particularly if certain interests are dedicated to wrecking the interracial experiment.

I am not prepared yet to suggest that certain embarrassing events might be arranged on purpose, but, if I were an owner of the Moulin Rouge, I wouldn’t overlook the possibility. For instance, teenagers in the casino, juveniles smoking marijuana on the grounds, lawsuits alleging all sorts of horrible things about the hotel.

I think the hotel operators would be wise to screen all employees, particularly those whose line of work might indicate use of narcotics. Maybe I’m just overly suspicious, but I’d rather be cautious and wrong than trusting and out of business.

The Moulin Rouge is not the first in a series of developments which is bringing about eradication of slum conditions, but it is a great forward step in the progress. Beautiful buildings are now replacing shacks all over that area. Other hotels are under construction. Housing developments, wide, paved streets, lawns and gardens will soon dot an area which was formerly choked with dirt and dust. It is time the ugly term “Westside” was replaced with something more fitting the new dignity of the locality.

A new interracial golf club has been formed at the Municipal Course and has adopted the name of Valley View Golf Club, which was the old name of the area now called “Westside.” The maps of the city show the area as the original Las Vegas Townsite, Valley View Addition. I like the name Valley View. It does not have the connotation of “segregation” which just oozes from “Westside.”

In tribute to Las Vegas’ newest and one of its finest resort hotels, the Moulin Rouge, and to all the fine people of that area, I should like to suggest the renaming of the Westside with its original name, Valley View.

It may not be a complete solution to the problem, but it can be an indication of an attempt to curb bigotry and dispel any cockeyed notions of race supremacy which some brutal, stupid people still entertain. And may the day soon come in Las Vegas when the unfairness, the sickening, nauseating sense of superiority that small people assume, and the narrow, closed minds that education cannot reach, will be a thing of the past.

Perhaps “Valley View” will in some small measure, help relieve the choking feeling of frustration that used to well up in the throat of every colored person when he had to read the words: “Usual Ruckus on the Westside.”

Good luck to the Moulin Rouge and to all the good citizens of Valley View.

A new city, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Perhaps?

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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