The oldest casino in Las Vegas was a 40-foot trailer in an empty parking lot. Inside, gamblers in shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps dropped coins into video poker machines. A banner attached to the trailer announced that this was “The site of the famous Moulin Rouge Casino!”.
Due to one of the many quirks of Nevada law, some form of gambling must be held here every two years or the owners lose their gambling license. This abandoned city block had virtually no value except for the fact that it housed a hotel-casino that closed more than 50 years ago.
Stan Armstrong, a 56-year-old documentary filmmaker who grew up near the old Moulin Rouge, sees the site as a fleeting glimmer of the city’s past. “It’s largely forgotten even by people who live here, but Rouge was important,” he says. “To understand why, you have to know how much this city has changed in 60 years.” Similarly, online casino Latvia can be grateful for these past events that built the online casino business of the whole world.
In the early 1950s, Las Vegas was nothing but a village of sin
Downstairs, cowboy hat-wearing Benny Binion, mobster and convicted murderer from Dallas, lured gamblers to Glitter Gulch with a brand new casino with velvet wallpaper and carpeted floors, a step up from the traditional plaster and sawdust. A few miles southwest of the Strip, mobster Bugsy Siegel’s famous 1946 Flamingo lit up, along with the Desert Inn, the Sahara, and the Sands, all built between 1950 and 1952 and catering to a wealthy postwar clientele, who, not surprisingly, were all white.
The city’s black residents occupied a 3.5-square-mile area called the West Side, where dirt streets led past tents, sheds, and outbuildings. Jim Crown laws established their second-class status. Negroes, as they were called, could only work in Strip and Glitter Gulch hotels and casinos as cooks, maids, janitors and doormen, i.e. ‘backstage’ which kept their profile and wages low. Black entertainers were paid better but were not welcome in the front section. When Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald performed on the Strip, they entered through the stage door or the kitchen door and left the same way after their performances.
Unable to rent rooms in whites-only hotels, they went to boarding houses on the West Side. Famous or not, they couldn’t try on clothes in white-owned stores. If they tried something on, they were told to buy it.
Lena Horne was an exception. Bugsy Seagle’s favorite, a glamorous singer, was allowed to stay at the Flamingo, but she was not allowed to visit the casino, restaurants or other public spaces. When she checked out, her bedding and towels were burned.
Rules are subject to change
In the early 1950s, Josephine Baker, the Missouri-born singer, actress and exotic dancer who gained worldwide fame with her performances in Paris, performed at El Rancho on the Strip. As an international sex symbol (Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman he ever saw”), the “Creole goddess” could break the rules of Vegas. Her contract stipulated that tickets to her show could be purchased by black people. As Walter Winchell reported in his New York Daily Mirror gossip column, Baker “will not perform anywhere where members of her race are not admitted.” When El Rancho did not allow black ticket buyers to enter, Baker sat on the stage and did nothing.
Then in 1955 came the Moulin Rouge, a neon cathedral dedicated to the claim that the only color that matters in Vegas is green. The Rouge, as the locals call it, was the brainchild of several white businessmen led by Los Angeles real estate baron Alexander Bisno and New York restaurateur Louis Rubin. They spent $3.5 million to build “America’s first interracial hotel.” President Harry Truman had desegregated the US military in 1948. Six years later, the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education did the same for public schools.
They hired and trained black waiters, waitresses and dealers. And even though their resort was on the east side of the West Side, just yards from Glitter Gulch, they sent talent scouts to nightclubs in black neighborhoods across the country to find “the most beautiful, legendary, and stylish ladies of their race” to play in the chorus.
Dee Dee Jasmin attended the screening at the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles. She was only 16 years old, but she had danced in the 1954 film Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. A year later, Moulin Rouge owner Bisno offered the teenager a contract for the mind-boggling 135 US dollar salary per week. Soon she was flying to Las Vegas, where a limousine was waiting to take Yasmin and her fellow dancers to work.
The brilliance of the Moulin Rouge grew even brighter when Sinatra fell under its spell. He was a night owl who joked that Las Vegas had only one drawback: “There’s nothing to do between eight and nine in the morning,” and after a midnight show at the Sands or the Sahara Hall, he’d head to Rouge with an entourage that at various times included also Sammy Davies Jr., Peter Lorford and 70-year-old gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who was distraught. As usual, Sinatra was perfectly timed. Sensing an opportunity before dawn, resort managers began hosting a third night show that began at 2:30 a.m.
After the third show, a rested and grateful Sinatra joined Coles, Louis Armstrong or Diana Washington on the stage of the show hall. They sang a song or two and invited other performers to join them: Belafonte, Davis, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, singing alternately or together, without cameras or recorders.
Who Killed “Rouge”?
Jasmin believes that her superiors looted it. Others blame the owners of well-known resorts, who may have pressured banks to apply for loans for their red-hot rival. Still others blame mobsters who wanted to prove they ruled the city, or a glut of new hotels in the mid-1950s that put downward pressure on prices, or even blacks in the West End who didn’t gamble enough. The Rouge reopened for three days between Christmas and New Year in 1956, but was empty for the rest of the year.
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