Moulin Rouge (1955-1955)
Moulin Rouge (1955-1955)
Location: Just Off The Strip
900 W. Bonanza Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89106
What’s There Now: Derelict Property
Hotel opens May 14
Hotel closes October (possibly November)
Closed hotel is the site of the meeting that agrees to integrate Las Vegas casinos
Long shuttered casino building engulfed in flames; arson blamed
Sign removed and sent to the Neon Museum
Another fire destroys what is left of the building
Although it was only open for a few months in 1955, the Moulin Rouge is one of the most important hotel casinos to ever operate in Las Vegas. It wasn’t because of anything particularly noteworthy or groundbreaking in the design of the place; it was, after all, just another casino with a showroom, a pool, and some hotel rooms. Compared to some of the grand resorts that had opened on The Strip in the years before it like The Sands and The Sahara, it was relatively small, simple, and completely off the beaten track.
It’s location and the clientele it drew because of it were what made it legendary. Built in the predominantly black West Las Vegas neighborhood, The Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated hotel casino in the city.
Like much of the rest of the nation at the time, Las Vegas was segregated. People of color were not allowed in The Strip or Downtown casinos, restaurants, or hotels – at least not as patrons. African-Americans could work there but not play and were often required to stay out of sight of white patrons when not on the job.
But it wasn’t just the average worker that was affected; famous faces had to deal with the discrimination as well. There are numerous stories of people like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and others performing in the showrooms and then forced to leave by back doors and sleep elsewhere. According to one tale, Lena Horne was allowed to stay at The Flamingo while she was performing there but not only was she not allowed to visit the restaurants or casino, the staff burned the bedding after she checked out.
Sensing a market opportunity, a group of investors led by Los Angeles real estate mogul Alexander Bisno and New York restaurateur Louis Rubin decided to create an interracial, integrated hotel – a first for Las Vegas and a rarity in the United States at the time. They lured heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis to become the hotel’s official greeter by giving him a small ownership stake in the property.
They selected a piece of property just west of Downtown in the heart of the black neighborhood and then spent $3.5 million to build the resort. It featured 110 rooms encircling a courtyard pool; a restaurant overlooking the pool; a small casino; a casino lounge; and a dinner theater showroom called Cafe Rouge. A 60-foot-tall neon Moulin Rouge sign rested atop the main building, designed by Betty Willis, the same person who would design the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign a few years later.
The hotel opened on May 14, 1955 with a splash that rivaled those of the big hotels on The Strip. The Platters were the opening night entertainment along with a tap dancing routine from a then 9-year-old Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice. Joe Louis personally welcomed people at the front door with a handshake and big name celebrities like Tallulah Bankhead and Edward G. Robinson attended.
It was those famous faces that gave the place its immediate notoriety. Since Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t stay and play at the hotels where he was performing on The Strip, he and his Rat Pack buddies like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin came here instead, often jumping up on stage for impromptu, late night jam sessions that would last until dawn. Judy Garland, Harry Belefonte, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday were all on the Moulin Rouge stage at some point and the crowds came with them to catch the shows, generating huge amounts of revenue for the hotel. Its success was even chronicled with a cover of Life Magazine in June of 1955 with a photograph of the Cafe Rouge’s Can Can dancers.
That success may have been a major contributing factor to the hotel’s demise only four months after it opened.
In the 1950s, most of the big casinos on The Strip were run by the mob and they didn’t like competition, especially when it came in the form of a racially integrated business miles (both literally and figuratively) from their sphere of influence. Although nothing has ever been officially documented, there are rumors of intimidation and threats of violence against the Moulin Rouge, its owners, and its staff. Some workers and entertainers from Strip hotels of the era reported having been told they would be fired if they went to the Moulin Rouge after their shifts were over to join the party.
Mismanagement may have also played a factor. There were also rumors of embezzlement, money laundering, and other less-than-savory dealings on the owners’ behalf and many believe that the money was going out the back door as quickly as it was coming in the front.
Regardless of the real reason, the hotel closed without warning in the fall of 1955. The exact date seems to be lost to time and various sources say September, October, or November. Whatever the date, workers showed up for their shifts to find the doors padlocked.
The Moulin Rouge would have one more glory moment. In March of 1960, leaders of the black community met with the city’s mayor, the Governor of Nevada, the police and sheriff chiefs, and local business leaders to discuss integrating Las Vegas hotels and casinos. They symbolic site they chose for the meeting was the coffee shop at the Moulin Rouge. An agreement was reached and signed and segregation legally ended immediately, although of course it would be years before the outward hostility toward minorities would end.
The main building of the hotel would never be opened again but the motel units were converted to low-cost residential apartments. The Moulin Rouge and the neighborhood around it sank into despair.
Throughout the years the hotel changed hands multiple times and each new owner floated grand ideas of restoring or recreating the Moulin Rouge. Money and/or logistics became a problem every time and nothing ever happened, despite the building put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
In 2003 firefighters were summoned to the hotel to respond to a major blaze in the shuttered main casino building. Although it was prevented from spreading to the former motel units, the rest of the Moulin Rouge was gutted. Investigators later determined that the fire was arson and a local Las Vegas man was convicted and sent to jail for the crime.
The building remained an untouched, fire-charred wreck for another six years until concerns about its integrity led to a decision to remove the famed Betty Willis created sign. It was sent to the Neon Museum where it is viewable on their tours.
A week after the sign was removed another fire broke out in the old casino building and it was destroyed. The remains were bulldozed and the residential units were closed. An empty lot surrounded by boarded up old motel buildings are the only things left of the briefly famous Moulin Rouge.