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SARANN KNIGHT PREDDY: Activist puts her mark on Nevada

August 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Feature

As a businesswoman and activist, Sarann Knight Preddy has made her mark on Nevada in a variety of ways.

For many, perhaps her signature accomplishment was the extraordinary attempt to restore a beloved community landmark, with the 1985 purchase of the historic Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino.

“The Moulin Rouge was left desolate for so many years after it closed in 1955, and I heard so many rumors that the man, Leo Fry, who acquired it when it was in bankruptcy, refused to sell it to any black person,” said Preddy. “I have always been one to like a challenge, and I confronted him on the rumor. He indicated that it was not true, and he was open to sell to anyone who had the money to buy it. So, I made a deal with him and leased the Moulin Rouge with an option to buy.”

Bob Bailey, Hannah Brown and Anna Bailey join Sarann Knight Preddy after she was awarded an honorary doctorate by UNLV.

Having already established a solid business reputation in Hawthorne, Nev. — purchasing her first nightclub there, in 1951, for the asking price of $600 — Preddy made history as the first black woman to receive an unrestricted gaming license. “As far as the national records indicate, I was the first African-American female to receive a non-restricted gaming license in the world in the 1950s,” she said. “Gaming was not going on in any other places, other than in Nassau in the Bahamas, but women were not allowed to gamble there.”

The daughter of an entrepreneurial couple — Carl and Hattie Chiles, who, with $7,000 in a money belt, left Oklahoma for Las Vegas in 1942 — Preddy has owned and operated many businesses over the years, including clothing stores and nightclubs. The motivation to become a successful businesswoman had long been instilled in Preddy by her father, who owned a cinder block factory that supplied building blocks for the Moulin Rouge when it was built in the 1950s.

“I remember my first business venture when I was 13 years of age,” recalled Preddy, who was born in 1920. “I sold pig feet for a nickel, and did so well I couldn’t keep enough in stock to sell to my customers.”

There have been decades of speculation about what happened in 1955, when authorities suddenly shut down the Moulin Rouge as customers filled the showroom and dancers waited in the wings to perform onstage. “I was very good friends with Mr. Jimmy Gay, who worked in the Moulin Rouge’s administrative office, and he told me that after the authorities came into the Moulin Rouge and ordered everyone to leave its premises — it took two weeks to remove the cash … that was stored in the building,” Preddy said.

“I knew one of the financial investors, and she told me that when three gentlemen came to Las Vegas … and opened the first all ‘colored’ nightclub (the Moulin Rouge), they didn’t pay any of their bills. I know that the Dunes hotel was angry about the Moulin Rouge taking all of their customers, and at the time all five of the Las Vegas Strip hotel properties had the same complaint. The Dunes hotel even proposed a merger with the Moulin Rouge to capitalize on the great business. So, I believe it closed because the owners didn’t live up to their financial obligations — but more significantly, the Moulin Rouge’s success took business away from the Las Vegas Strip.”

When a 2009 blaze left the Moulin Rouge building in ruins, Preddy was among those who saw the disaster as emblematic of a decline of unity in the community. “When we were all working together in the community, back in the 1950s and ’60s, and had the same mindset for progress, we made a positive difference,” she said. “Today, it saddens me to see so many chiefs in our community and not enough Indians. Nonetheless, I am very optimistic about the future of our community and a new Moulin Rouge.”

In June, the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission approved a plan to demolish the charred remains of the Moulin Rouge. On July 22, crews began clearing the site by tearing down the white tower, a move opposed by some West Las Vegas residents who maintained that its historic value warranted protection from the wrecking ball. 

However, Preddy is not among those especially attached to the structure. “Some people think that the old building of the Moulin Rouge is historic. And that is not true,” she said. “It is the land site that is historic, it can be rebuilt to be competitive with other first-class hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, and still stand as an historic landmark.”

Having recently celebrated her 90th birthday, Preddy is fond of reflecting on the love she has given and received in her eventful life. There is a special place in her heart for her late husband, Joe Preddy, who was a partner in her work on the Moulin Rouge. “He was the love of my life and my whole family loved him,” she said. “I was 15 years older, but it made no difference in our relationship and he supported every idea I had.”

Adding to the many accolades that have been bestowed upon this community icon, Preddy was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — now standing alongside legendary entertainer Diana Ross as the only African-American woman to ever receive the honor from the school. Now, in her 10th decade, she can become accustomed to being introduced as Dr. Sarann Knight Preddy.

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