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On A May-December Romance, Part One, Or, Las Vegas, Segregated April 15, 2009

There may be no more recognizable icon of “Retro-Cool” than that photograph of the Rat Pack standing in front of the marquee at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

They’re right there, lined up in front of their own giant names on the marquee: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.

Night after night they would gather with friends such as Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson, and Johnny Carson, to deliver some of the greatest nightclub performances in entertainment history.

Today’s story, however, focuses on what happened after the show: when four of those five could leave the showroom, drink at the bar, gamble at the casino, and go upstairs to their rooms.

In a town sometimes known as the “Mississippi of the West”, however, one of those five performers could not do any of those things.

Our Journey In Two Parts literally crosses over to the “wrong side of the tracks”, tells a story of segregation overcome, and recounts the six-month history of a Las Vegas hotel that has a 55-year history: the Moulin Rouge.

“…We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations…will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

–Justice John Marshall Harlan, from the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

So let’s start with the “literally” part: Las Vegas’ “Westside”, which was the original Vegas townsite, was located across the “Cement Curtain” of railroad tracks from “new” Las Vegas, and it was the only place the black population was allowed to live.

This was not a new situation in Nevada, or unique to Las Vegas: when the Six Companies built what became Hoover Dam in the ‘30s, some say only 30 blacks are estimated to have been employed on the entire project. (Others put the number nearly 50% higher, suggesting 44 out of the workforce of 5000 were black.)

World War II had swollen Las Vegas’ population, and the “new” Vegas—the white Vegas—included the land that would eventually become The Strip. While blacks were allowed to work out of the Westside, beyond that area they could not own property…and they most assuredly could not be guests of the hotels and casinos in which they worked.

In fact, blacks who owned businesses beyond the borders of the Westside were “motivated” to move them there during the ‘40s.

By the early 1950s the Thunderbird, the El Rancho Vegas, and “Bugsy” Siegel’s Flamingo, among others, were drawing big crowds from Los Angeles and points beyond for the floor shows, lounge entertainment, and casino gambling.

With the exception of Josephine Baker’s performance at the El Rancho, blacks were generally not allowed among those crowds; and performers such as Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. were forced to stay in rooming houses or other accommodations on the Westside.

“In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again…the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.”

Sammy Davis, Jr.

At this point, a few words on Rat Pack history (and if you only click on one link in this story, this might be the one…).

Humphrey Bogart was the founder of the first Rat Pack; then called the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack”, after the Los Angeles neighborhood in which he and Lauren Bacall lived following their 1945 marriage. These Rat Packers included Judy Garland, “Swifty” Lazar (still considered one of the most notable agents in Hollywood history), and, eventually, Frank Sinatra.

This members of this group were not “Hollywood Society” types; as a result the Rat Pack spent a lot of its time up in the Holmby Hills…laughing at Hollywood Society over cocktails…making the odd trip to Vegas to spend a night out…and occasionally adjourning to fellow Rat Packers Mike and Gloria Romanoff’s restaurant…where the Hollywood Society types vied to be seen with them.

Upon Bogart’s death in 1957 Sinatra, partly because of his friendship with Bacall, was able to continue the Pack (at one point called “The Clan”; a name that was quickly dropped) with new members (and old friends) Dino, Sammy, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford (Not-Yet-President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law), while still keeping continuity with Bogart’s Rat Pack. (Some might also describe Sinatra and Bacall’s romantic relationship following Bogart’s death as another part of that continuity.)

We’ve come a long way to get to this point, and we have a long way to go—which makes this a perfect “rest stop” between Parts One and Two.

A Barstow, if you will.

Way back at the beginning, we learned that blacks in Las Vegas really were living on the wrong side of the tracks, that separate was in no way equal; and that even if you were Louis Armstrong, or Lena Horne, or Sammy Davis, Jr., you might be allowed to work in white Las Vegas, but you weren’t going to be allowed to eat there, drink there, or sleep there…and you weren’t going to be allowed to gamble your paycheck away there, either.

In the meantime, Las Vegas was attracting entertainers—black and white—who would chafe at these rules. The group that would become the new Rat Pack was going to be at the heart of that change…and in our next installment, we’ll talk about six months of Las Vegas history that ultimately, despite great resistance, forced that change to happen.

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