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Gillis helped bust color barrier in Las Vegas, accidentally

Time passes, memories fade, and it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in Las Vegas.

Ruth Gillis will tell you her memory remains pretty good. The singer and actress lit up lounges at the Sands in the ’50s and Caesars Palace in the ’60s and landed minor roles in movies as varied as “East of Eden,” “Vegas Vacation” and “Casino.” With her high energy and impeccable comic timing, she remains one vivacious babe.

Gillis witnessed some of the most important changes in the evolution of Las Vegas entertainment. And in a million years she couldn’t forget the night she accidentally struck a blow for civil rights.

She didn’t set out to make a bold statement in an era of surreal segregation in Las Vegas, where African-American entertainers could star in lounges and showrooms but had to enter and exit through kitchens and side doors. And the thought of catering to them as customers was all but unheard of.

Gillis just wanted to take a girlfriend to see a show at the Flamingo.

In the fabulous ’50s, she was a hot number from Chicago with opera training and a smashing figure. She swapped showgirl plumage for three and four late-night sets in the lounge at the Sands. She fronted a Latin combo and alternated in the lounge with jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. They forged a friendship during breaks and after hours, and Gillis also got to know Pearl Bailey, who headlined at the Flamingo.

“One night Ella said, ‘Ruth, would you take me over to see Pearl Bailey?’ ” Gillis recalled recently. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go with you.’ That’s what I thought she meant. I didn’t have a clue there was anything more to it.”

Gillis called Flamingo casino publicity maven Abe Schiller to arrange for tickets, and he gladly complied.

“He said, ‘Yeah, come on by. And walk through the front door.’ I didn’t fully realize what he was saying at the time. Like I said, I was naïve. I didn’t know about segregation and all that. I didn’t look at people that way.”

With comp tickets waiting for them, Gillis and Fitzgerald strolled into the Flamingo and across the casino floor to the showroom entrance.

“Ella and I go into the Flamingo arm in arm, get to the showroom, and have beautiful seats,” she said. “The tab was picked up. Pearl got on the stage and said, ‘I’d love to introduce one of my dearest friends, Ella Fitzgerald, and also a wonderful girl singer Ruth Gillis.’ Well, that was the highlight of my life. Pearl Bailey introduced me with Ella Fitzgerald.”

A gifted actress and singer, Bailey was a consummate performer. She would later risk her lucrative Las Vegas gig by insisting the dancers in her show include women of color.

When the show was over and it was time to leave, Fitzgerald and Gillis exited the showroom and once again crossed the casino floor.

“We walked back out through the front door,” Gillis said. “Ella turned to me and said, ‘I’m your friend for life.’ I thought I already was her friend for life, so I asked her why. She said, ‘You took me through the front door.’

“I hadn’t realized until then that black people were not allowed to enter through the front door.”

It wasn’t until several years later that the Strip showroom color line was officially broken in the city that had earned its ugly reputation as “the Mississippi of the West.”

Ruth Gillis wasn’t a civil rights activist. She was a lounge singer chasing dreams of her own.

But the night she stepped out with Ella Fitzgerald and through the front door of the Flamingo, she provided a reminder that some people don’t need the spotlight to shine.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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