As MLK Day passes, a reminder of the gambling ghosts of Vegas past By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports January 21, 2019 at 8:01 pm As short-lived as it was sensational, the Moulin Rouge casino on Bonanza Road long ago gained a mythical status in Las Vegas history. It is almost without exception the first name recalled when the conversation turns to casinos from segregated Las Vegas. With its grand opening in May 1955, the Moulin Rouge made banner headlines and even the cover of Life magazine, and eventually made the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, but what it didn’t make was a profit. If as many people who have enthused about the electrified atmosphere of the casino actually patronized the place, it would still be in business. But the Moulin Rouge long ago became an important symbol of the attempt to desegregate the casino business in Las Vegas. Although it was the biggest and best known, it wasn’t the first club to open in the predominantly black Westside. The clubs started to spring up during World War II. Factory workers who because of racial discrimination weren’t welcome on Fremont Street or the Strip found a place to party, gamble and listen to live music at lively places with names like the Brown Derby, Cotton Club, and Harlem Club. By the time the Moulin Rouge opened, other clubs had been operating more than a decade in a part of Las Vegas few whites ever visited and local news reporters only wrote about from police reports. “Mention Fremont Street or the Las Vegas Strip almost anywhere in the world and people will recognize them instantly,” Las Vegas historian Frank Wright observed in his popular “Nevada Yesterdays” series. “A third Las Vegas street was also widely known for a time, but mainly among entertainers and some local residents. To them, Jackson Street rivaled the other two for the quality of its nightlife.” The late Wright was among the first chroniclers of the history of Jackson Street, which bustled with activity in segregated Las Vegas. “In the mid-1950s, Jackson Street became an alternate center of gambling and first-rate jazz, blues and popular entertainment,” Wright wrote. “A hotel to be called the Moulin Rouge began construction in 1954 and, after some difficulty, opened as the Carver House at D and Jackson. The new Moulin Rouge opened not far away, on Bonanza Road, and stimulated the opening of clubs like the El Morocco and Louisiana.” When a young Sammy Davis Jr. was welcome to wow sold-out audiences on the stage of the El Rancho Vegas and other hotel-casinos but wasn’t welcome to eat in their restaurants or sleep in their rooms, he found a place to stay in West Las Vegas and a chance to try his luck in the El Morocco and other clubs. Published accounts note that the El Morocco opened as a bar with slot machines in 1945. In a historical blog post on Spinettisgaming.com, Jeffrey Stafford wrote, “In this era of segregation, when businesses on the African-American West Side were often lost to the pages of history the El Morocco stood out as one club that although its history was brief was not totally forgotten by the passage of time.” The El Morocco’s fortunes waned after the war, and it may also have been victimized by police attempts to enforce written and unwritten rules in a segregated society. “Although no official reason was given by the police for its closing,” Stafford observes, “it was rumored by many that the Police Commissioner forced the El Morocco Club to close because it was catering to an interracial clientele. Six years after it was first closed, in 1955, the original building was destroyed by a fire.” Las Vegas is like a lot of company towns that dragged its feet on the subject of civil rights. But what made it worse, some would say unforgivable, is the fact so much of the casino industry’s show policy depended on marvelously talented black performers to keep the gambling and tourism machine roaring. Where would Las Vegas be without Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and a pantheon of other performers of color? It’s something worth remembering not just around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but every day. John L. Smith’s new book is “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice.” Contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.