For an all too brief time, the Moulin Rouge was an integrated oasis in a segregated Las Vegas.
As much an ideal as a hotel, Las Vegas’ first interracial resort was so novel that it made the cover of Life magazine, granting it the imprimatur of mainstream pop culture cool.
It drew entertainers, black and white, off of the Strip to West Las Vegas, the predominantly black neighborhood north of downtown, where guests might see Sinatra and Davis jamming after hours while Benny and Belafonte watched in the audience.
It catered to an interracial crowd in which black and white patrons gambled and watched shows side by side and where black entertainers played to mixed audiences during a time when even black headliners at Strip resorts were forced to room elsewhere.
Then, as quickly as it came, the Moulin Rouge was gone, reduced ultimately to a decrepit, rundown facade along West Bonanza Road.
On Thursday, the life and times of the Moulin Rouge will be explored during a panel discussion sponsored by the Neon Museum.
The event — which commemorates the 58th anniversary of the Moulin Rouge’s opening — will begin at 6 p.m. at the museum, 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and a meet-and-greet for Neon Museum members begins at 5 p.m.
Panel members will include Las Vegas filmmaker Stan Armstrong, who will screen portions of his documentary, “The Misunderstood Legend of the Las Vegas Moulin Rouge,” and Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Moderating will be College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green.
The program is the first in a Neon Museum series called “Times of the Signs,” which will explore local history through the historic signs in the museum’s collection, says Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum.
When it opened on May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge was billed as the country’s first major interracial hotel. Why does Armstrong — who grew up in West Las Vegas — consider the Moulin Rouge misunderstood?
Because, he says, so many people assume that the Moulin Rouge was “this bright, shining palace that went on for years and years.”
In truth, the Moulin Rouge was open for only about six months, closing in November 1955 for reasons that are still murky.
However, when the Moulin Rouge opened, there was “definitely a need for it,” Armstrong says.
After World War II, African-Americans came to Las Vegas from East, West and all points in between to seek jobs and start new lives.
“Las Vegas was becoming a boomtown,” Armstrong says. “We were going from post-World War II and coming into the Atomic Age, the Eisenhower age.”
But it also still was the age of Jim Crow, which made the opening of an interracial Las Vegas resort — one that aimed to be “a Cotton Club in the middle of the desert” — big news, Armstrong says.
Consider, he adds, that the same year the Moulin Rouge opened, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.
Designed to rival anything on the Strip, the Moulin Rouge attracted to Las Vegas top black entertainers from across the country, Armstrong says, and “you had a group of African-American showgirls who came in from all parts of America.”
Green notes that the Moulin Rouge brought to Las Vegas people who remained here even after the Moulin Rouge closed and who would, themselves, help to change the community. “There are people here whose presence we owe to that one brief, shining moment” of the Moulin Rouge’s heyday, he says.
Then, in November 1955, the Moulin Rouge unexpectedly and suddenly closed. Green says several theories have been advanced about why.
One holds that “the mob forced it to close,” he says. “I’m not saying that’s not true. A lot of people in the casinos were either mobsters or certainly had to deal with the mob. Why would professional casino operators at the Moulin Rouge be different?”
Another theory holds that the Moulin Rouge was pressured by Strip casino operators who saw customers, and their own entertainers, leave their properties after their last shows to head to the Moulin Rouge.
The notion is that the Moulin Rouge’s popularity as a hip late-night spot was taking money away from them, Armstrong says, adding that managers on the Strip warned their showgirls that they’d be fired immediately if seen at the Moulin Rouge.
Then, Armstrong says, “a lot of people have said they feel racial prejudice closed the place down.”
Interracial couples weren’t an uncommon sight at the Moulin Rouge, even though Nevada still had miscegenation laws on the books, Armstrong says. “So in 1955 if the sheriff wanted to go in and see mixed couples, he could have the place closed down.”
Armstrong’s own theory is that the owners of the Moulin Rouge — all of whom were white, save for boxer Joe Louis, who was given an ownership stake and served as the Moulin Rouge’s greeter — used the Moulin Rouge mostly as a steppingstone for other, more mainstream, business ventures.
Green suspects it came down to a combination of factors, including poor management — and, he says, maybe too much money heading out of the back door — the resort’s off-the-beaten-path location and its opening at a time of overbuilding on the Strip,
Then, Green adds, “I think it may well be that there were other things going on we may not know about.”
Ultimately, changing times might have done in the Moulin Rouge anyway. Armstrong suspects that the Moulin Rouge “probably would have done well for at least four or five years,” but that, “eventually, integration would have killed the place.”
He also suspects that the resort’s “very premature closing” is the very thing that has made it such a legend.
In the end, Green says, the Moulin Rouge’s value may lie more in symbolism than anything that can be recorded on a balance sheet.
“For one brief, shining moment, it was kind of an interracial Camelot,” he says. “It was short-lived, but the possibilities that it spoke to were so important. The idea that here were white and black customers and black and white entertainers and, guess what? They were able to be together.”
Fittingly, the Moulin Rouge’s sign — now preserved in the Neon Museum’s collection — was, in its own way, groundbreaking.
The sign, which survived several fires at the Moulin Rouge, was designed by Betty Willis, who also designed the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign at the southern end of the Strip.
“This is the ’50s,” Kelly notes, “when the field was completely dominated by men.”
The Neon Museum’s new “Times of the Signs” series can employ the museum’s 150-plus collection of historic signs as a means of bringing history alive, Kelly says.
Signs are “an incredibly wonderful and rich way to talk about Las Vegas history and innovations in sign design,” she says.
Signs “embody so many things. They are historical artifacts. They are art objects, They engage history and architecture, and they engage graphic design and advertising. They’re really just a wealth of stories and history.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.