Recovering the History of Black Showgirls in Las Vegas

“Black and white negative of cancan dancers onstage in the show room. Anna Bailey smiles for the camera, May 24, 1955. (Courtesy of Nevada State Museum, Jay Florian Mitchell Photo Collection)

Las Vegas has a long and glamorous entertainment history that evokes images of tuxedo clad crooners, female singers in elegant evening gowns, and elaborate production shows featuring showgirls swathed in feathers and rhinestones; however, there is another side to this sparkling history that reflects the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era. Although photographs from the 1950s reveal elegantly-attired patrons in Las Vegas showroom audiences watching entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne, they tell only part of the story. As has been widely documented, Las Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West” in the 1940s-50s for the segregation which ensured (among many things) that resort patrons were predominantly white, and that these same Black entertainers were not allowed to enter the casino via the front door, or even stay as guests in the attached hotel. 

And what of the lines of dancers who kicked their way across the stages behind these headliners? Even dance lines were segregated, and audiences were unlikely to see any dancers or showgirls of color on the Las Vegas Strip during the 1950s. The only real exceptions included those who performed as part of an act with a well-known Black headliner, such as Pearl Bailey, or as part of a large ensemble show like the Cotton Club Revue that featured an all-Black cast. But a unique opportunity arose in 1955 with the opening of Las Vegas’s first integrated Hotel-Casino, The Moulin Rouge. For the first time young Black dancers who tried their luck as Las Vegas performers could gain visibility on a premier stage.

Brooklyn-born Anna Bailey was one of twenty-seven young Black dancers from across the country who arrived in Las Vegas to perform at the newly-constructed Moulin Rouge in March 1955. Met at the airport by a crush of TV cameras and photographers, the dancers were put in limousines and buses, and expected that they would soon arrive at a hotel on the glamorous Las Vegas Strip. They drove past the famous hotels along Las Vegas Boulevard, past Fremont Street, and crossed the railroad tracks into a less developed, and majority-Black, Westside, which overtly represented the city’s racist policies of residential segregation. Their smiles turned to dismay as a familiar sense of disappointment took over.

Bailey’s 1997 oral history interview revealed her initial anxiety: “We passed the Strip…We went past the railroad tracks and we just looked at each [other, thinking], ‘Well here we are again.’ But when we saw the Moulin Rouge, it was so beautiful. … We were thrilled once we got in there.” The hotel scored a major publicity coup when Life Magazine came to town to report on the rampant growth of Las Vegas, and a photo of the Moulin Rouge dancers in their Can Can costumes was featured on the cover.

Celebrated African-American choreographer Clarence Robinson, of Stormy Weather and Cotton Club Revue fame, designed the dazzling dance numbers for the Moulin Rouge. Bailey felt that they worked well together and, as a result of prior collaborations with Robinson, was fortunate to have a “choice spot” in the chorus line – “right smack-dab in the center, in the front,” she said. 

Despite the early promise of the Moulin Rouge and the abundance of stars who frequented its packed showrooms, it would close barely six months later. Its sudden closure was a shock to both the employees and the Westside community who had seen Blacks and whites socialize, gamble, and entertain side by side at the “Rouge” during the resort’s brief tenure. Although the reasons for its closure have never been fully understood, with some citing the hotel management’s financial challenges, and others citing the jealousy of Strip hotel owners who resented how its bustling showroom and casino pulled entertainers and patrons away from the Strip after hours, its closure cast a gloom over a certain part of the Westside community. Both Bailey and her husband Bob, who also worked as an emcee and singer for the production numbers at the Moulin Rouge, were now out of work, as were other hotel employees and dancers. The sadness in the community was palpable. “Everything stopped when the Moulin Rouge closed and that’s what’s so sad about it,” Bailey said. “It’s…like the Westside was just killed.”  Despite Bailey’s sadness, this sentiment may not have been felt as strongly by those in the Westside community who did not have the income or social status to regularly visit the Moulin Rouge. 

Still, Bailey’s husband refused to leave Las Vegas, because he had fallen in love with the city and could see its potential, even if she did not at the time. Although Anna and Bob Bailey were well-aware of the city’s reputation as the “Mississippi of the West” when they moved to Las Vegas, their careers in the entertainment industry initially provided some insulation from the worst forms of discrimination experienced by everyday residents. Alongside others who settled in Las Vegas during the Great Migration, they set down roots in the Westside and bought a house in the Bonanza Village development, even as they traveled for various show business gigs. Tensions over segregation came to a head in 1960 when NAACP leaders threatened to lead a protest on Strip.  In March of that year, local and state government officials, Black leaders, the NAACP and hotel owners came together at the shuttered hotel to hash out the landmark Moulin Rouge Agreement which officially desegregated Strip and Fremont Street casino-hotels, however, it did not bring an end to racism in the audition process or on showroom stages. 

Bailey continued to dance after she left the Moulin Rouge, and would become part of an all African-American touring dance company that would appear at the Dunes Hotel in the late 1950s. She also returned to work with her old friend, singer Pearl Bailey (no relation), during her frequent appearances at the Flamingo Hotel. Bailey remembered Pearl’s determination to integrate her Black dancers into the white dance line. “That was their main line there but she would always bring us in and put us right there in the middle of them.” At a time when many African-American entertainers enjoyed more mainstream popularity because they were light-complexioned, Bailey clearly recalled the singer’s request that “the light girls put on dark make-up…we had to wear “31” [a shade of pancake makeup] from head to toe…because she wanted us to look darker on the stage.” She believed that Pearl wanted them “to look darker, like real African-Americans. Because sometimes the lights would hit you and maybe you did look a little lighter.”  It was a rare attempt at reverse colorism on a Las Vegas stage that likely only succeeded because of the star power behind it. 

Although Bailey was eventually hired into the all-white line at the Flamingo Hotel-Casino in the 1960s, she was disappointed that neither of her auditions for the lavish French production shows (the Lido de Paris at the Stardust Hotel and the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana Hotel) were successful. Asked if racism had played a part in limiting her dance career in Las Vegas, Bailey reflected:

Yes, I think so because when I did go out for auditions… they’d show me the step and I’d go out to do it and they’d stop me before I’m finished.  So in a way I think that maybe if I did have a different color that maybe I could have gotten a job…Because they always said that I was one of the top dancers and my memory was good.  I could always remember the routine.  I never could get past the choreographer.

Interestingly, despite these challenges over her career, Bailey was far more generous when describing her fellow dancers, “show folks,” as family, noting that her talent was the thing that leveled the playing field. “I never really felt any prejudice with anyone that [I] worked with,” she said. “The most [important] thing is talent.”

Anna Bailey was just one of many African-Americans who migrated to Las Vegas in the 1950s, and while her experience as a professional dancer was a rarefied one, she was still subject to some of the same Jim Crow racism that affected other Las Vegas Westside residents. For instance, even as a beautiful and elegantly-dressed professional dancer, she was still refused entry to the Sands Hotel prior to 1960 unless escorted by a sympathetic celebrity such as Frank Sinatra. Her resilience in the face of such indignities, and her determination to continue her work as a professional dancer and reach for the ultimate prize of performing on the Las Vegas Strip show her to be a true trailblazer. To truly recover the history of Black dancers and showgirls, we must contextualize their voices within the broader history of Las Vegas to ensure that we will not only tell their distinctive individual stories but place them in a narrative that conveys the impact of racial discrimination. 

Anna Bailey, 94, still resides in Las Vegas. 

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Su Kim Chung

Su Kim Chung is the Head of Public Services at the UNLV Libraries Special Collections and Archives and Curator of the Entertainment History Collections.

Comments on “Recovering the History of Black Showgirls in Las Vegas

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    This is a terrific story, but it is not surprising as Dr. Chung knows the world of dancers and showgirls in Las Vegas better than anyone else. Love to see more of work.

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    Thank you, I knew nothing of this history. Your essay shows again how much work and how many stories are waiting to be revealed.

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