Friday, November 27, 2020

Lighting up the night

October 19, 2020 by  
Filed under Highlights

Lighting up the night

How a historic sign from the Moulin Rouge is conjuring inspiration for a new generation.

BY LIINDA GARISTO

Liinda Garisto

I first learned of the historic Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino in June 2017. I was relocating to Las Vegas to perform in a new show at the Hard Rock Hotel, and was excited to have my sister visit me. Wanting to show her a great time, I took her to the Neon Museum — amd we were both mesmerized by all the retired Las Vegas signs. But the gorgeous Moulin Rouge sign towered over us in the neon boneyard and demanded our attention.

I remember thinking how unique and beautiful “she” was after the curtains closed in her unlit solitude. Not only because of the grand size, but she exuded romance as each letter curved and swerved with delicate purpose. On the Neon Museum tour, it was revealed that the sign was made from the signature of sign designer Betty Willis — who also designed the famed “Welcome to Las Vegas” marquee.

I remember so vividly how very connected I felt in that moment: connected to the time of the Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino and the day it opened on May 24, 1955. I felt “her” giving me permission to shovel my feet in the gravel where she stood, and dance on the stage she rolled out for me. I channeled my years of dance training, and gracefully danced at its footing while my sister snapped a few pictures of me. I felt truly special standing next to it — feeling her spirit and presence. She was saying something to me, and the word was “resilience.”

Learning that the historic Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino was the first integrated hotel in America, I wondered: “What the shows were like?” “Who performed there?” “What did the costumes look like, and are they preserved in a costume house?” Because I would love to visit that museum too!

I have since visited the museum multiple times, but it wasn’t until this past February (with the closing of the Hard Rock Hotel) that I was motivated to look deeper into the history of the Moulin Rouge — and its impact on me and so many others.

I was initially drawn to the historic mystique of the Moulin Rouge Hotel by happenstance. When COVID-19 hit the country, my show, “Magic Mike,” had to close its doors. The whole cast was devastated and I wanted to capture every last moment before the doors officially closed. While taking turns capturing selfies with the Hard Rock Hotel memorabilia, I met a wonderful lady, Esmerelda, who was doing the same thing. She shared great memories at the hotel and saw me perform there as well.

We immediately started to take selfies together and caught the attention of Rachel Aston, a photojournalist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Rachel also got in on the fun and took photos of us candidly enjoying these last minutes in the lobby. I could not stop laughing and crying, as the Hard Rock Hotel was my show home for the last three years. Sure enough, we made the paper the next day. That whole night was a series of happenstance moments, which led me to Rachel’s work on her documentary, “The Moulin Rouge: A Fight for the Westside.”

I was moved to tears, and on a personal mission to find out as much as I could about this revolutionary hotel. I searched Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, looked up local news articles, searched Westside library collections and UNLV online archives. The Nevada State Museum had resources and I looked into interviews, documentaries, publications and anything else to piece it all together. I visited the original site of the Moulin Rouge Hotel on Bonanza Street and just observed the empty lot — trying to envision the hotel from picture references.

I was fortunate enough to connect and meet with Ms. Kimberly Bailey, and read her father Bob Bailey’s book, “Looking Up, Finding my Voice in Las Vegas” — which I highly recommend! I started visiting the Neon Museum weekly this past August. And on one particular Tuesday, I saw Esmerelda there — we were both on the same guided tour. We could not believe we found each other practically six months to the day we met. And to add to the excitement, it was also the same day the Moulin Rouge sign was arranged in its original order and was set to be re-lit.

Needless to say, I was in awe that evening. I could not believe I was witnessing a 65-year-old sign come back to life during my time in Las Vegas — and especially during this pandemic.

“She” looked so beautiful! Even more majestic and profound from the previous week! And to see Esmerelda on the same night too? It could not have happened any differently. Of course, we proceeded to take more selfies, with both the Hard Rock and the Moulin Rouge signs. Interestingly enough, in the Boneyard, the Hard Rock Hotel sign is next to the Moulin Rouge sign.

So I suppose we were all already connected!

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