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Remembering the Moulin Rouge

A showgirl poses at the Moulin Rouge (COURTESY UNLV SPECIAL COLLECTIONS)
A showgirl poses at the Moulin Rouge (COURTESY UNLV SPECIAL COLLECTIONS)

Flouting the Jim Crow laws that were still in effect at the time, the Moulin Rouge opened in 1955, billed as the nation’s first desegregated resort. Commemorating the 58th anniversary of the progressive casino, the Neon Museum assembled a panel discussion composed of Las Vegas historical scholars, as well as former Moulin Rouge employees, from waitresses to showgirls to costume-makers. Clips from local filmmaker Stan Armstrong’s soon-to-be-released documentary The Misunderstood Legend of the Moulin Rouge were interjected throughout the conversation.

The discussion was the first in a series of talks titled “Times of the Signs, planned by the Neon Museum and geared towards exploring local history through the historic signs in the museum’s collection.

“We had no idea what to expect since it was our first time doing this,” commented Dawn Merrit, public relations manager for the museum. “We had a lot of reservations come in, and a lot of people just showed up to see if they could get in and stood in the back.”

Panel topics ranged from Moulin Rouge’s groundbreaking status as an interracial resort to behind-the-scenes memories and stories.

“This hotel is one of those that caused the Strip to relent from its restrictive policies,” said Claytee D. White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries.

“My mother talked about the energy that the Moulin Rouge exuded,” said Jerushia McDonald-Hylton, community activist and daughter of a Moulin Rouge costume maker. “She talked about what it did for our community, the richness it deposited … the variety, the rainbow of people from our community coming together.”

Panel moderator and CSN history professor Dr. Michael Green brought up opening night, which was May 24, 1955. “Well, number one, you couldn’t get in there,” said former waitress Katherine Joseph. “When they opened those doors, there were such a mass of people. There was nobody on the Strip; they were all at the Moulin Rouge.”

The property's dance captain, Carrie Pollard, also spoke of the migration from the Strip to the new casino-hotel that night. Eventually, entertainers did the same, too. “[Singer] Nat King Cole would come in there all the time. I kept trying to take him home with me,” she said with a wink, setting off peals of laughter and cheers from the crowd. “I’ve always been very adventurous.”

Later, a Q&A turned into a walk down memory lane as older audience members got up to talk about the role they played with the Moulin Rouge, be they accountants or musical entertainment coordinators that brought in acts like The PlattersTap dance master Ivery Wheeler walked to the panel from the audience, insisting on shaking the hands of the women that “made it possible for me to be here,” which he followed with some impromptu dancing.

The anncouncement that former Moulin Rouge co-owner Sarann Knight Preddy, 93, was in the audience elicited cheers. But when asked if the panelists had their facts straight, she cryptically replied, “They got some things right and some things wrong.”

Eventually, conversation turned to why the Moulin Rouge closed suddenly, after only six months of operations. Employees showed up for work only to find a lock and chain on the door. Joseph insisted the property was “too popular and taking too much money from the other casinos, because everyone was at the Moulin Rouge.” She also suggested that subcontractors weren't paid for their work, “so the sheriff came and put a lock on the door." Other stories attribute the closure to mob activities that caused the $3.5 million casino to go bankrupt.

The true reason for the closure of the Moulin Rouge remains a mystery, but today's discussion proves the sociocultural heritage of the iconic casino continues to inspire today.