05/08/2009 07:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Las Vegas' Moulin Rouge: A Reminder of How Things Have Changed

The history of Las Vegas is quite intriguing. Even though buildings can disappear from the skyline in the blink of an eye through the art and science of implosion, enough remains to pique the curiosity of the individual interested in the past. Take the Moulin Rouge. It wasn't imploded, but it has disappeared.

The Moulin Rouge burned down in Las Vegas on Thursday.

When I interviewed R&B legend Ruth Brown five years ago, she talked about the first time she came to Las Vegas in 1952. She came here to work and spend some time seeing entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat Cole and Pearl Bailey perform. Pretty much all Brown knew about the city came from its nicknames like "Glitter Gulch" and "The Diamond in the Desert." Only, when she was told she couldn't enter the casinos where these performers were playing, she learned another nickname Las Vegas had earned, "The Mississippi of the West."

The black entertainers were quite welcome to play the casinos on The Strip. But otherwise -- to eat, sleep, see shows or gamble -- they were not welcome. Brown said, "It didn't matter how famous you were, you had to stay on the west side of the city, in boarding houses."

Today, of course, that has changed. But the history of that change is bound up with the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated casino. Opened on May 24, 1955 on the west side of Las Vegas, away from The Strip, the hotel/casino was a such a smashing success that by June 20 Moulin Rouge showgirls graced the cover of Life magazine. It's iconic sign was designed by Betty Willis, who also designed the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign you see as you drive into Las Vegas along Las Vegas Blvd. from the south.

Interviewed when Brown was, Bob Bailey, hired as the emcee of the Moulin Rouge shows, recalled, "All the big acts would come there -- Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson. You'd see all the Hollywood people there, too. Frank Sinatra came, Cary Grant -- everyone. After the shows on The Strip were over they'd all came to the Moulin Rouge."

Whatever the reason -- and depending upon whom you ask you get lots of reasons -- by November 1955 the Moulin Rouge was closed and by December it had declared bankruptcy. It passed through several different hands but never recovered the prominence it had when it first opened. However, it was not finished as a force in the local civil rights movement.

Under the threat of a march down The Strip to protest racial discrimination by the casinos there, the governor of Nevada arranged a meeting between leaders of the local black community and the casinos. The upshot of the March 26, 1960 meeting was that The Strip casinos were to be integrated.

That year, too, Bob Bailey recalled, Frank Sinatra emerged as a champion of the civil rights movement. He said, "People like Sammy Davis were still suffering the embarrassment of not being allowed to stay in the hotels where they were appearing. When this happened to Sammy at the Sands, Sinatra turned out to be a right kind of guy. He saw to it that Sammy received the same comforts he received and things began to get better."

But not for the Moulin Rouge.

It was shuttered for decades, stood vacant at times and at other times was used for cheap apartments. In 1992 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- the only site in Nevada on the Register that was related to civil rights -- but, despite sporadic attempts to restore it to its former glory, nothing ever happened.

In 2003 the building was destroyed by arson with only the sign left intact. The next year, the Moulin Rouge Development Corporation announced plans to renovate the site and reopen it. The sign was again lit, but nothing else was completed.

In February of this year a decision was made to demolish the building because it was a "public nuisance." The property was put up for auction on May 5. It failed to sell and went into foreclosure. The next day the Moulin Rouge burned to the ground. That four-alarm blaze is being investigated.

Ruth Brown said it was difficult to reconcile the fable of Las Vegas with the reality she found here in 1952. In the 2004 in an interview at her home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, she said, "Racial issues here have been settled and things are certainly better than they were. All in all, in Las Vegas there's been quite a change. But you know, honey, it was a long, long time coming."

The Moulin Rouge sign was, a few weeks ago, taken down and moved to the Neon Museum for preservation. If you get here, you should drop in and see it.

(Ruth Brown, who died in November 2006, lives on through her music. You can get a taste of it at Soul Patrol.)