Oct. 21, 2000
The Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first integrated hotel-casino, was a star that shined brightly for five months in 1955 before the supernova abruptly went dark.
When the nearly 89,000- square-foot club at 900 W. Bonanza Road opened in May of that year, it became a magnet for entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte. It was so successful, some say, that the casinos on the Strip were abandoned after midnight because almost everyone — including employees — headed to West Las Vegas.
Unsuccessful attempts have been made by a series of owners over the past 45 years to rekindle the club’s flame, the most persistent among them Sarann Knight Preddy, who, along with her son James Walker and late husband Joe Preddy, had the Moulin Rouge from 1985-97.
Preddy, who has owned a number of nightclubs in her lifetime, and local playwright Dianna Saffold are working on a project to put the story of the Moulin Rouge on stage, as a musical, and then to turn the production into a movie. Saffold is researching and writing the period piece, which she and Preddy plan to debut in the spring. Their goal is to take the show on the road and ultimately to Broadway and Hollywood.
Preddy recently discussed the project, which gained new life when Saffold proposed the stage production as a prelude to a motion picture.
Las Vegas Sun: Why are you working on a play?
Sarann Knight Preddy: I felt we could get it going faster than a movie. We’ve been talking about doing a movie since 1990. I just recently got back to thinking about all the things that need to be told. You never hear about blacks in Las Vegas. I’ve seen the town grow. My father came here to Henderson, when I was a little girl, to work at the magnesium plant. I have seen many things happen and I have this ambition to bring something to the forefront about black people. The play is not going to be a “black thing,” but it will bring to the forefront that there were black people here and black people helped to build this town. All the black entertainers stayed in West Las Vegas. I was a keno writer and had the privilege of meeting all these people. I knew all of them firsthand Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. I knew everybody.
Sun: What was it like for blacks in Las Vegas in those years?
SKP: We moved to Las Vegas in 1942. Racism, from my perspective, was a very different experience from other people’s. I really didn’t feel it was as much as people say it was. There were a lot of places blacks couldn’t frequent on the Strip, but the thing was, we had our own Strip on Jackson Street. Most of us were working. Entertainers were coming down there. Schools weren’t segregated. Churches weren’t segregated. Just a few hotels built out on the Strip were segregated. Jackson Street wasn’t segregated. Blacks owned the nightclubs and they hired blacks to work for them. Whites and blacks both went there.
Sun: Did you go to the Moulin Rouge when it first opened?
SKP: I went there quite a bit. It was during the time I had a nightclub up in Hawthorne, which I had for seven years. I was home almost every weekend and I’d go to the Moulin Rouge. It was such a different thing. It was just as nice as any place on the Strip. It was very glamorous, with the beautiful, exotic dancers — the Watusi Dancers. The food was excellent, I heard they brought the cooks from Paris. It was a beautiful building. People came from everywhere.
It would have done fine if they had left it there and not closed it. Maybe it was just not the right time. Most people don’t understand what it could have done for the whole state.
Sun: Why did it close? SKP: I can’t answer that question for sure. There were only four or five clubs on the Strip at the time, this was ‘55. When it opened, it opened with such a bang. People flocked there. They started a midnight show and it practically closed the Strip. Bartenders, cocktail waitresses, all the entertainers — Tallulah Bankhead, Frank Sinatra — all of them were going over there. The Strip was almost dark after 11 o’clock.
Someone on the Strip got the bug and said the Moulin Rouge needed to be closed down. I was told by one of the owners that had invested in it that he had been asked to close it down and join them on the Strip. I don’t know how much stock to put in that, but everybody working there believed it. There was standing-room only all the time and then everyone was suddenly told don’t come to work.
Sun: Why did you buy the Moulin Rouge?
SKP: After I left Hawthorne and came back to Las Vegas I owned a couple of clubs that were successful, one down on H Street and Owens, and I wanted to move up. I was interested in getting involved in gaming. The Moulin Rouge had been sort of dark and dormant for a long time. No one had ever opened it fully — the hotel opened a while, the bar opened a while. We leased the place at first, but we had to own it before we could get a gaming license. We didn’t have a lot of money so we couldn’t really develop it the way we wanted to. During that time people were not as favorable about getting the club back to where it was the first time.
We tried to gather up support, but we didn’t really have a lot of cooperation from the community or the powers that be. I think some people were throwing up obstacles. There were a lot of false promises. So it just didn’t happen. One day we decided enough was enough, so we let it go.
But people keep telling me we need to do something with the Moulin Rouge. It just won’t go away. I’m always being interviewed about it. People just won’t let it rest. I’ve been encouraged to do this play … and there are other things coming up I hope will be positive, but I’m not at liberty to discuss them right now.
Sun: How far along are you with the stage production?
SKP: We’re in preproduction, looking for financial backing. I will be getting a lot of support from the community. I want this to be a community-based thing. People who were actually here (when the Moulin Rouge opened) will be having some input. This will be the real story, and I think we have a better shot at doing this than someone else.