SAMMY INTEGRATES THE CASINOS
Though African Americans arrived earlier to help build Hoover Dam, their population in greater Las Vegas soared from 180 to over 3,000 between 1941-1944 when a magnesium plant for the Defense Department was built 15 miles southeast in Henderson, NV. Hearing the same call for work, white segregationists migrating from the South brought their notion of social standards. What had previously been modest discrimination changed most downtown clubs to “Whites Only.” Just as casino resorts were being built, potential Black patrons and employees could not set foot on The Strip, while most downtown casinos remained accessible at the margins.
With less tax and more land for growth, hotel or motel casinos on the Strip soon outstripped those downtown. Hollywood and Broadway entertainers followed the big money and the fancy marquees on the Strip. The incomparable Sammy Davis, Jr. and his fellow members of the Will Maston Trio were the first Black performing artists to play on the Strip in 1944 at El Rancho Motel & Casino. Though they helped fill the lounge and casino, even the Trio could not stay as guests.
With money flowing nationwide after WW II, more money found Las Vegas. More casinos opened on the Strip and Downtown. Although there is little indication that African Americans owning property downtown were forced out, they were convinced to sell their property for far less than it would be worth today. Those owners catering to Black patrons, moved just northwest of downtown. In point of fact, four Jewish American-owned, Black-oriented casinos opened on Jackson Street in 1947 (Cotton Club, Ebony Club, Chickadee, and Brown Derby).
Though Black entertainers nicknamed Las Vegas, “Mississippi of the West”, money was still green and bigger on The Strip. So Lena Horne played the Flamingo in 1947, Pearl Bailey played the El Rancho in 1948, Nat King Cole and Katherine Dunham played the El Rancho in 1951, just to name a few. They all stayed as guests in small cottages off the Strip or in West Las Vegas (i.e., across the tracks).
In April 1953, the Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. became the first black artists to headline a show on The Strip for the huge sum of $5,000 per week. In 1954, Frank Sinatra invited Sammy to open his show down at the Sands. The trio was offered $7,500 week to headline at the Frontier on The Strip in November 1954. The Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. became the first African Americans offered complimentary room, board, drinks and access to a casino on The Strip at the Frontier. While recovering from the accident that took one of his eyes in November 1954, the Sands offered him $25,000 week to perform with complimentary Sinatra-like accommodations.
The Moulin Rouge Casino & Hotel opened in the West Las Vegas in May 1955. Owned by Jewish Americans, it began with the premise of catering to African American and European American patrons equally. Moulin Rouge was an immediate hit, drawing Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Eartha Kitt and many more. So hot was its flame that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gregory Peck, Dorothy Lamour, Milton Berle and Jack Benny frequented the place after their gigs or visits on The Strip. Trouble began when management started charging more per drink to African Americans to discourage blue-collar Black patrons. When word of this practice reached enough people, patronage declined. Others retaliated by reporting them to the gaming authorities. The casino soon lost its liquor license and by October 1955 the Moulin Rouge closed. Why would such a successful casino do such an obviously stupid thing to draw repudiation? Though no one has proven it, the Moulin Rouge downfall has the M.O. of mob forces in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the truth surrounding its closure remains a mystery with possible clues buried in the desert.
In 1958, Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer pushed for laws to integrate hotels and casinos. He established the Gaming Control Board to enforce professional management practices and regulations and conduct license background checks. Other than the Sands and Frontier, integration was strongly resisted during the Golden Era of mob-controlled Vegas. Even in the late 1950s, if Ethel Waters or Dorothy Dandridge so much as touched the swimming pool, the entertainer was whisked away, white patrons were evacuated and the pool drained and refilled. But change was as unstoppable as the world’s greatest all-around entertainer.
In 1959, Sammy Davis, Jr. and his fellow "Rat Packers", Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop broke more racial barriers while filming Ocean’s Eleven. Before and after their Copacabana Room shows at the Sands (site of today’s Venetian), the Rat Pack visited crap tables at casinos along The Strip. If a casino resort would not let Sammy in, Sinatra told them we’re not coming in. Given all the press the Rat Pack was generating worldwide before the film’s release, no casino resort wanted to be photographed turning away Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop at the height of their careers. The casinos relented and Sammy became a guest. Sinatra and Sammy also did several Copacabana acts poking fun at segregation. Sinatra, who was loved by, if not connected to the mob, enabled them to get away with it and he convinced many in the Hollywood community to take a similar stand for integration of The Strip. Only God knows how many times Sinatra put in a word that saved Sammy’s hide.
In 1960, federal and state authorities were putting pressure on the mob to clean up their act. The NAACP joined in by sponsoring a successful civil rights event at the Moulin Rouge in March 1960 to desegregate casino resorts and hotels. Their focus was The Strip, since smaller casinos would follow their lead. With the 1960s Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum and publicity, national publications began mentioning Las Vegas segregation in the same breath as Southern segregation. With so much federal, state, media, entertainment and NAACP pressure, even the most ardent casino owners knew it was time to start letting African Americans into controlled areas of the casinos, lounges, restrooms and eventually, dining areas and rooms. By the mid-1960s the Strip and downtown casino resorts and hotels desegregated and African Americans began getting jobs as card dealers. Discrimination in hotels and casinos was officially ended by Nevada statute in 1971.
With racial barriers removed before his death, Las Vegas came to honor him. Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley became the crown princes of Las Vegas entertainment. When Sammy died in May 1990, he was accorded the ultimate Las Vegas tribute – they turned out the lights on The Strip for a minute in his honor. The same royal treatment was accorded Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
Though Robert Johnson of BET actively pursued opening a local casino hotel, Don Barden became the first African American to own a Las Vegas Casino. A Detroit native who earned his fortune in radio, cable TV, casinos and real estate, Barden is well respected for his business acumen. Hopes are high concerning his ability to transform the stodgy Fitzgerald Casino & Hotel downtown into a visitor magnet with soul.