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Moulin Rouge: Past, Present, Future

moulin_rouge2.jpg

Las Vegas News Bureau
Moulin Rouge, June 1, 1955

If you follow the news, you've probably heard of the Moulin Rouge. 

And no, not the movie or the Paris cabaret it's based on, but rather Las Vegas' first racially integrated hotel and casino.

It opened in 1955 in the historically black Westside, and drew both black and white patrons.

Entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong performed there, and though it had no trouble drawing a crowd, it closed within six months of opening. 

Attempts to save it have failed, but 60 years later there are still new offers on the table. Is the timing finally right? 

Present

Rubble at the Moulin Rouge site Feb. 2016/Photo credit: Fred Wasser

Recently, it looked like an $8 million sale of the property was in place, but that was blocked by a judge.

Nicole Raz with the Las Vegas Review-Journal has been following the efforts to re-develop the hotel-casino. She explained why a judge was involved in the first place.

“Moulin Rouge Holdings LLC was the most recent group to put down an $8 million offer on the site, but because the property is in receivership, a judge has to approve a sale to a buyer,” she said.

Support comes from

However, Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez said that because of infighting between the owners of Moulin Rouge Holdings LLC the sale would be blocked.

Raz said the kind of disputes that derailed this latest deal have been a consistent problem with other efforts to re-develop the property.

“Between 1955 and 2000, there is a host of reasons why redevelopment efforts failed,” she said. She said the list included everything from institutionalized racism to lack of leadership to difficulty getting gaming and liquor licenses. 

Moulin Rouge circa 2006/flickr

She said between 2004 and 2012 was the most promising time for redevelopment; however, like many developments during that time, the recession took a heavy toll. 

A series of fires, one in 2003 and another in 2009, had damaged the hotel. 

May 2009/Associated Press

Past

Moulin Rouge circa 1955/Las Vegas News Bureau

While all that is of left of the casino is the iconic sign, a few buildings and some rubble, the Moulin Rouge was once a glittering example of the potential of Las Vegas.

It was the first integrated casino in the city. It opened in 1955. A time when even the most famous people in Hollywood, from Nat King Cole to Sammy Davis Jr., couldn't stay on the Las Vegas Strip simply because of the color of their skin.

Claytee White, historian and director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries, told KNPR's State of Nevada that the casino was more than a symbol for the people of Las Vegas' Westside.

“There is mystique there. This was the first integrated upscale nightclub casino,” she said, “It is the first time that African-Americans can enjoy a place that rivals the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Stardust in their own neighborhood.”

She said the casino was born out of the growing economic power of the area and African-Americans in general. At the same time the Moulin Rouge was opening, the first middle class black neighborhood was being built and a lively business district was booming. 

“I think that when the owners of the Moulin Rouge saw that kind of flow of money, that kind of revenue," she said "I think that’s why the Moulin Rouge was constructed.”

Unfortunately, the casino was open for just six months. White said the owners went into bankruptcy in part because of a downturn in the economy. She explained that at the time other properties in Las Vegas were also suffering, but wealthier and white casino owners helped prop up those resorts. They did not help the owners of the Moulin Rouge.

While White would love to see the old casino revived, she's not sure it can happen. 

“There is a mystique there but the area has changed drastically," she said, "and as much as I would like to see a Moulin Rouge again, I’m not sure that’s possible.” 

She said the area around what is left of the old building is more industrialized than it once was, and she doubts people would want to dress up to go to dinner or a nightclub there. 

Moving it or the name some place else presents its own problems, she said. The location is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“So we would lose that designation if we moved it any place else," White said, "so all of that history at that location. That’s the problem.”

Future

So what will be the future of Moulin Rouge?

Katherine Duncan is the founder and president of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce. She said she became interested in learning about the Moulin Rouge when she put together an African-American cultural tour of Las Vegas and didn't include the site.

"I left the Moulin Rouge off the tour, not knowing its history," she said, "Until I had my hand slapped by some of the dignitaries on the tour bus."

She started researching the casino and working to re-develop it.

“It is probably the most significant Civil Rights monument we have west of the Mississippi and it is just not recognized for that,” Duncan said.

But efforts in the '90s to remake the site didn't pan out. That failure hasn't dampened Duncan's enthusiasm for the property. In fact, her vision is now expanded beyond its borders.

“If we limit our planning to just those 5.44 acres of the Moulin Rouge site, it’s very difficult to plan,” she said. “We’re looking at an entire redevelopment for the whole Westside district.”

Duncan and her group have been working with land owners, business owners, residents, churches and the city of Las Vegas to create a plan for the area.

Her vision and the vision of the people involved in those conversations - which she likes to call "the promised land" - is ambitious. Duncan believes it starts with transportation, followed by restaurants, community centers, African-American cultural centers and at the heart of it all is the Moulin Rouge.

Duncan said the city has a plan ready to go when developers want to come in and break ground.  

Guests

Nicole Raz, reporter, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Claytee White, director, Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries; Katherine Duncan, founder and president, Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce.

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