Thursday, October 19, 2017

Memories of the Moulin Rouge: Ruby Amie-Pilot reflects on her role in a legendary venue

March 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Feature

BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD

Ruby Amie-Pilot was there from the beginning and worked in the Deauville Room coffee shop, the only restuarant in the hotel.

As Las Vegas’ first integrated hotel and casino property, the historic Moulin Rouge instantly became an integral part of Nevada history when it opened in 1955. As quickly as it captured the imagination of people across the United States, however, it also became a source of great mystery when it closed, unceremoniously, after just six months in operation. One of the people who was there from the beginning was Ruby Amie-Pilot, who worked in the Deauville Room coffee shop on the property. She recently sat down with Las Vegas Black Image to share her memories.

Describe your experiences at the historic Moulin Rouge hotel and casino.
I worked in the Deauville Room from the time the hotel opened in 1955 to the time it closed six months later. The coffee shop was the only restaurant in the hotel, and we shared a kitchen with staff who would prepare the dinners for the dinner shows.

How did you come to work at the Moulin Rouge?
Well, I was just entering the workforce, and the Moulin Rouge (owners), along with the local NAACP, was asking people in the black community to fill out applications. So, I applied and got the job to work in the coffee shop. I had to go through training and be fitted for my uniform.

Where are you originally from and when did you come to Las Vegas?
I am originally from Karnack, Texas, where the former first lady Lady Bird Johnson was born. I arrived in Las Vegas in 1952.

Describe opening night at the Moulin Rouge.
It was very overwhelming, with people by the thousands waiting at the front door to enter the Moulin Rouge. It was the talk of the town — and many celebrities, such as Joe Lewis, were there. Sammy Davis Jr. came over later that night from the Desert Inn hotel and casino on the Strip, where he was performing.

What kind of person was Joe Lewis?
He was just a regular person. What he used to order at the coffee shop was not extraordinary. He would just order the food that we served. He seemed to enjoy the food.

What was one of your most memorable times at the Moulin Rouge?
One memory that really stands out in my mind was when there was a flood from a rainstorm, and the underpass at Bonanza and Charleston was flooded, and people were stuck on the historic westside — because at that time, the drainage system was so bad. So, the Moulin Rouge was packed, and people were eating and gambling and have a great time. Many of the employees at the Moulin Rouge had their cars parked in the back of the hotel, and had to get their cars towed because of the rain and mud.

What is the biggest misconception about the Moulin Rouge hotel and casino?
The biggest misconception that I feel is very misleading is that the Moulin Rouge closed because of lack of funding. Any business that has closed because of lack of funding has a hard time paying their employees — and we were always paid on time. There was never a time when we missed a paycheck.

Why do you feel the Moulin Rouge closed after just six months?
After the shows on the Las Vegas Strip would close, all of the Strip entertainers would come over to the Moulin Rouge, and it was known as an after-hours spot. There would be all kinds of entertainers who would get onstage at the Moulin Rouge, and start performing or playing their instruments. The white and black entertainers would have a great time performing together at the Moulin Rouge. The white performers were very comfortable at the Moulin Rouge, and the coffee shop was very busy.

The day that the Moulin Rouge closed, what happened?
We were all ready to work with our uniforms on, and the showroom was about to start the show, with the lady dancers in the wings, waiting to go on stage. The food in the kitchen was piping hot, and ready to be served. There was a hotel representative that came into the coffee shop, and told us that there would be no business tonight because the hotel was closing down right now because of a lack of participation and funding. We were all shocked, and it was a very sad day for all of us. The first question that came to my mind was, “What could have happened?” I didn’t know the total workings of the hotel, but you really couldn’t imagine a place as busy as the Moulin Rouge closing. Some of us automatically suspected that the hotel owners might have been involved with skimming money from the hotel, or doing something illegal that caused the Moulin Rouge to fold.

Do you think that it was a combination of reasons that the Moulin Rouge closed, like a lack of operational funding and being an economic threat to hotels on the Strip?
Personally, I think it had more to do with being a competitor to the Strip properties. People would leave the strip to come over to the Moulin Rouge to see the show, eat and enjoy the entertainment and after-hours jam sessions. The Moulin Rouge was initially embraced by the Las Vegas Strip properties in an era of segregation. They looked at it as a hotel and casino that African-Americans would frequent instead of coming to Strip. It was such as unexpected, huge success that entertained both black and white people together — and pulled money away from Strip hotels.

What role did women play at the Moulin Rouge?
Women worked in the capacity of dancers, waitresses, and bus girls. We were all in awe when it closed down. There was no real explanation for it. I just felt like, “Who can we go to? Why is this happening to us?” We all knew that it was a smashing success for Las Vegas, and that there was something else going on.

Did the local media cover it, or did they just breeze over the news?
I do think that the local media breezed over it and I don’t think that the truth was ever really told. That is still the mystery of the Moulin Rouge.

How did the closing of the Moulin Rouge affect other businesses on historic Jackson Avenue?
When the Moulin Rouge opened in 1955, it ignited an interest in the local businesses on Jackson Avenue, which was flourishing. I remember a time I walked into The Cotton Club on Jackson Avenue, and Cab Calloway was there gambling. Jackson Avenue continued to be successful with establishments such as: The Brown Derby, Town Tavern, Cotton Club, the Louisiana Club, and the Cove that became the Carver House after the Moulin Rouge closed. I think our fight to desegregate the Las Vegas Strip, in many ways, made Jackson Avenue suffer and led to businesses closing down.

Did the local NAACP conduct an investigation?
Well, they did, but at that time I think they didn’t get very far. But after the closing of the Moulin Rouge, the NAACP became even stronger as an organization, and new people started to get involved — like (the noted) black attorney Charles Keller. Members of the NAACP became very close, and we began to fight even harder for the rights of people to go wherever they wanted. Remember, at that time, black people couldn’t go into the Strip hotel properties, and also there were not jobs given to us on the Las Vegas Strip. We really fought hard to break down the barriers.

African-Americans were very unified then?
Yes, we were unified. The majority of black people in Las Vegas at that time were all members of the NAACP, and there was unity in the community among the residents. When we would have our meetings, we would have to have them in the largest church we could find to accommodate all the members.

What did you do after the closing of the Moulin Rouge?
The NAACP was very active, pressuring local department stores to employ black people, and I became the first full-time black salesperson at Sears on Main Street. Ms. Barbara Kirkland also worked at Sears on weekends, because she was a teacher during the week. I remember the NAACP planned a big protest to take place during the Floyd Patterson fight at the Convention Center once, to take advantage of the mass media exposure. We were making signs and posters to march in front of the Convention Center, but we had a leak in our camp — which proved to work in our favor, because Las Vegas’ white leadership came to us and asked us not to picket at the fight. They promised us the world.

What has been your biggest joy about the Las Vegas black community and your biggest disappointment to date?
My greatest joy was when we were able to break down barriers of segregation here in Las Vegas. But, at that time, it was the “Mississippi of the West” — and we fought to break that barrier down, and basically it started with the NAACP. The NAACP was adamant about doing something about how black people were treated in Las Vegas. My greatest disappointment is that I think we have regressed. There seems to be a lack of cooperation among blacks to try to make things better for all. We have become so complacent and comfortable with the “I have mine, you better get yours” mentality. Never recognizing that the opportunities we have in Las Vegas as black people are here because of the blood, sweat and tears of many of us who were here in the beginning.

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