RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: The Moulin Rouge goes Hollywood!
When the telephone rings for my scheduled interview with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the voice on the other end is out of breath.
Coming from a man as busy as the actor/writer/producer, the breathlessness is not entirely unexpected. For the moment, however, the cause is purely and immediately physiological: He has just alighted a New York City subway train and is walking quickly toward where tickets are sold for productions of Shakespeare in the Park, where he is starring in “A Winter’s Tale.”
I begin the interview by expressing admiration for “Lackawanna Blues,” the semiautobiographical story of his childhood caretaker — a one-man show that was later adapted into a 2005 HBO movie with an ensemble cast. With enthusiasm in his voice, he interrupts that conversation thread: “Wow! There must be over 1,500 people standing in line for tickets for the ‘Winter’s Tale,’ ” he says. “Tonight is the opening night. I am sorry to interrupt. Go right ahead.”
The conversation continues, and it dawns on me that I am not speaking to the no-nonsense police captain he portrays on the ABC series “Castle,” but the real, down-to-earth performer with a passion for finding the truths in all of his characters. “Lackawanna Blues” is the perfect example of this mission: It resonated with countless African-Americans who had either heard stories about loved ones living in rooming houses, or grew up in one themselves.
“When I met Smokey Robinson for the first time in Los Angeles, he ran up to me and said, ‘ ‘‘Lackawanna Blues’’ was my grandmother’s house in Detroit!’ I was so overwhelmed to meet him, and he just wanted to let me know that my movie also connected to his childhood,” Santiago-Hudson recalls. “We all have similar stories as a people, because that is how we survived.”
He adds: “African-Americans’ resilience during segregation … is the glue that held the community together and is threatened today. We don’t know our history. We have become strangers to ourselves because we don’t know who we are. Once we find out who we are, by maintaining and accumulating our history, we will have a new era for black people. This is one of my missions.”
Having earned his college degree in theater with a minor in African-American studies, Santiago-Hudson is confident about where he is headed when he is working. “When you see me in my role as Roy Montgomery in ‘Castle,’ I have my tie on and my shirt buttoned,” he says. “I always have another agenda as an actor. As Montgomery, I always look like I am going somewhere after I finish telling the people what to do. They don’t write that for me — I make that for myself. I have to be whole.”
Writing whole truths about black people is Santiago-Hudson’s obsession. So when he was approached to write a script on the historic Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas, he was amazed that he had not heard about the legendary hotel and casino. “I was hired to write a movie (on a subject) I never knew about,” he says. “The Moulin Rouge … showcased the most beautiful African-American dancers and singers from all over the country. Centrally located in Las Vegas’ black community, it is a hidden gem of a story.”
Yet, the reasons why the Moulin Rouge closed in 1955, after only six months in operation, remain shrouded in mystery. “I did extensive research for the movie,” he says, “and when I learned how wonderful of an entertainment venue it was, that drew not only African-Americans but the masses to its doors and left the Las Vegas Strip hotels empty, I didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to find the answers why.”
It is a special honor to learn that Santiago-Hudson knew of my father, Bob Bailey, who served as master of ceremonies for the Moulin Rouge when it opened.
“The movie was written for Will Smith, and in my research I needed to develop my lead character with flair,” he explains. The (real-life) person that I attached myself to immediately was Bob Bailey. I was attracted to his journey as a Morehouse College man, coming from Cleveland and born in Detroit — where I also have roots.
“Mr. Bailey’s accomplishments with giving back to his community, with a number of training programs for black people to get jobs in the hotels, teaching aspects of the entertainment business, allowing talented African-Americans the chance to showcase their talents on his television show while serving as a civil rights crusader. I knew that he was the man. I made the lead character for the Moulin Rouge movie similar to Mr. Bailey, but not him exactly because I didn’t know him. I also researched Dr. (James B.) McMillan and other people that were integral to Nevada’s civil rights movement. Your dad’s flair is what I needed for Will Smith to be attracted to the movie and the role.”
By Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud