“Lights Out at the Moulin Rouge”
A Novel by Charm Baker
(Based on a true story)
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Thanks to the small bump on the back of April’s head, the events of the past weekend were a hazy blur. Her desire to learn the truth about a sixty-two-year-old mystery had prompted a trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. She went to research details for the novel she was writing. But was it the truth that she found when she got there, or just new revelations that made her question old answers. When the weekend was over and all was said and done, April still wasn’t really sure.
It all started Monday night when April Mae March took an overstuffed manila folder from her bottom desk drawer. She laid it on the desk and sat in her bedroom staring at the folder for the millionth time. That was when it happened. She told herself it was finally time to take action. To convince herself even further, she said the words aloud, as if doing so would make them come true.
“This is it! It’s 2017 and dammit, I’m going to finally write this book!”
She yelled the words loudly and with conviction. Even though it was already February, April still had that feeling she always got at the start of each new year; the one that made her feel like:
Anything is possible and you can do it if you try.
She stood up and did a little dance; suddenly excited about the ideal of writing her first book. She’d been dying to write about the Las Vegas Moulin Rouge from the moment she first heard about it. The 1955 casino had a mysterious and controversial history about the way it went out of business. April’s plan was to base her book on actual events surrounding the casino’s closing.
For years April had known about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the Moulin Rouge. The casino opened and closed all in the same year. A friend’s father had shared the entire story one summer when she was visiting Vegas for the weekend. That was back in 2011, after she had just gotten her journalism degree.
April and her college friend Adam were celebrating their graduation by driving to Las Vegas to visit Adam’s parent. Late that night, April, Adam, and Adam’s parents all sat around on the patio talking and drinking wine. Adam’s father, Mr. Sherman, began to entertain them with stories about old time Vegas. Born and bred in Nevada, Mr. Sherman claimed to know everything worth telling about Las Vegas. His favorite topics were the mob and political corruption. Once he got on the subject, that’s when he happened to mention the Moulin Rouge. He told them an unbelievable story that unfolded before their eyes like something out of a movie. Afterwards, he volunteered his personal opinions.
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“…so naturally us old timers believe the mob was involved when the place shut down. Most locals don’t even dispute that. If anything, people disagree about the reason the mob helped to get it shut down. Of course a lot of people take for granted it was all racially motivated.”
April’s journalistic antennae went up as the story got more and more interesting. She occasionally interrupted to ask him a question.
“Wow! So did the local news back then make it seem like the mob didn’t want the casino to succeed, or did they focus on race as the motive?”
“Well, if you’re talking about the media running stories and calling out the mob, I can’t honestly say that was the case. I mean, come on April. You’re a writer. You know how politics and social climate can end up affecting the news narrative. I think people were reading and hearing what they wanted to hear. Back then, the whole black and white situation was a damn mess. So sure, race was probably a big part of the reason why.”
“Things was a mess then? Hell, things are still a mess thanks to Trump and all this alt right bullshit! He’s got this whole country going ass backwards!”
Adam’s sudden outburst caused a wave of similar comments from the other listeners. Everyone agreed with Adam’s remarks before Mr. Sherman continued his train of thought.
“It’s true that some of the mob guys may have had issues about color, but most of ‘em didn’t give a damn about black and white. What they really cared about was green. Believe me, with a full house every night, the Moulin Rouge really had to be raking it in. I doubt that the wise-guys wanted that kind of competition around.”
April was hanging on Mr. Sherman’s every word. The whole thing was completely intriguing to her.
“What do you mean they didn’t want the competition? Didn’t they usually just ‘put the squeeze’ on whoever or whatever business they wanted in on? Why not just make the Moulin Rouge pay for protection like everybody else?”
Mr. Sherman laughed at April’s obvious television crash course in mob corruption. But Adam was the one to respond. His tone was different from his earlier outburst and he spoke in a joking manner.
“I think somebody’s been doing too much binge watching of “Law and Order.”
She joined in on the laugh at her expense, but she still had a questioning look on her face. She was contemplating what Adam’s father had said.
“Actually son, she’s not entirely wrong. There were plenty of establishments that received regular ‘shake downs’ to cover the cost of staying in business. But there were even casinos on the Strip that were owned by the mob, on paper. So yeah, I’d say they considered the Moulin Rouge as competition. The place was packed every night up until the day it closed and the lights went out!”
“Did you ever go to the Moulin Rouge Mr. Sherman?”
“I sure did sweetie. I went a couple of times before they put the pad locks on the door for good. Of course, I was married to my first wife way back then. I didn’t meet Adam’s mother until a few years later.”
He paused briefly, and for a moment, he was lost in thought.
“Man that place was something else! Wasn’t it Rachel?”
Rachel was Adam’s mother, and Mr. Sherman’s current wife. Even though she’d heard the stories before, she’d been sitting as attentive as the others, quietly listening. Rachel was a short light-skinned black woman with an easy-going disposition. Her husband was Caucasian, which made Adam bi-racial but you couldn’t tell it by looking at him. Hazel’s soft spoken manner was a sharp contrast to the two boisterous and outgoing men in her household. She adored her husband and only son, and she enjoyed entertaining in their comfortable Las Vegas home. Rachel smiled like she was picturing the casino in her mind. She nodded in agreement to what her husband was saying.
“Yeah Sam, it was something alright. About the fanciest place I ever went to back in the day.”
His wife called him by the short version of his middle name, which was Samuel. Even though he was actually Adam Sr., most people just knew him as Sam. Rachel and Sam alternated, each sharing their recollections about visiting the Moulin Rouge. It was hard to miss the glint in both their eyes when they spoke. They were each remembering the splendor of the elegant casino from their vibrant youth.
April always loved the way Mr. Sherman and Rachel got along so well together. Even though they had different personalities, and other obvious differences, they seemed to complement one another well. It was hard to imagine Adam’s father with his first wife, the blond haired, blue-eyed one. She was dead now, but April just couldn’t picture them sitting together and watching the Watusi show at the Moulin Rouge.
That night as Mr. Sherman talked into the wee hours about the Moulin Rouge, everyone listened in fascination. There wasn’t a fact, fallacy, or piece of gossip about the casino that he left out. From time to time, April’s mouth would fly open in astonishment. All the bad breaks that kept befalling the Moulin Rouge were way too convenient for her to believe. She shared her skepticism with the others.
“Seriously though? Fire breaks out on the property just one month before they open. To me, there were just too many reasons to try and stop the opening for that so called accidental fire to be believable!”
Over the years, April fulfilled her writing passion by freelancing online, mostly as a ghost writer. Before finally accepting her current receptionist job, she did clerical work as a Temp, to help supplement her writing income. Even though April never wrote about the Moulin Rouge, she always remained a skeptic about the reason it really closed.
She saved everything she came across that either mentioned or was related to the former Moulin Rouge casino. She managed to accumulate a folder full of stuff and currently had a mountain of notes and printed documents. Whether she found something online or had a new thought on the subject, April made sure the information went into her official “MOULIN ROUGE” folder. She kept it safely tucked away and only took it out occasionally, to glance over the contents. She spent time staring longingly at the words scribbled on the front of the folder, knowing that someday she was destined to write her book.
When April’s roommate Gina came rushing into the bedroom, she found April standing in the middle of the floor dancing to the music in her head. Gina looked slightly puzzled before she spoke in a relieved voice.
“Girl! What the hell you in here yelling about? I thought something was wrong. Are you cracking up or something ‘cause I see you dancing, but I don’t hear no damn music!”
April just laughed and grabbed both Gina’s hands, trying to make her dance to the pretend music. She saw the confused look on Gina’s face and tried to explain what she was feeling.
“Un un baby, I’m not cracking up, I’m cracking down! I’m getting ready to get down to business!”
Gina laughed and played along, joining the party going on in April’s head.
“Okay I’m down. So what we celebrating and what are you cracking down on?”
Dancing her way over to the desk, April grabbed the folder and handed it to Gina. She sat back down in her desk chair and motioned for Gina to sit on the bed. When Gina stopped dancing and sat down, April told her about the trip she planned to take to Vegas. Gina’s eyes instantly lit up with envy. She knew it was way too early in the year for her to take any vacation time. She never had leftover vacation days to carry over into the new year like April. Gina always used hers up. All she could do was be envious because there was no way she could get off work to go to Vegas. April saw the jealous look Gina gave her. Before Gina could start whining about not being able to go, April hurried up and mentioned her research.
“This trip ain’t even about trying to have fun or gamble. I need to finish the research for my book if I’m ever going to start writing it. I mean it Gina! I’m writing this damn thing if it kills me! So I need to go to the libraries and stuff out there. It’s better to do the kind of research I need in person, where everything actually happened.”
“I guess that makes sense, if that’s how you want to do it, but you know me. I’m all about doing things online if I can. Girl, I’d be like, ‘Hey Google’ search for — whatever the fuck you looking for!”
“You fool! You so damn crazy. Actually, I basically got all I can get from the web, but if I go to the Las Vegas libraries, I know for a fact there’s going to be stuff that I didn’t see online. Plus, all I really want to do is check out all those old magazines and news clippings in their periodicals.”
“Yeah. They probably have all kind of shit about Las Vegas in their archives. So when you leaving?”
“Probably Wednesday. I have to make some phone calls tomorrow, about where to go to look at certain documents. Then I’ll have an ideal of how many places I have to visit before I go post up in the libraries.”
“Documents like what?”
“Well, for one thing, I want to get details about the gaming regulations they had back then, and also about the casino’s liquor license. Plus, if I can find information about where they got their supplies, and different stuff like that.”
“Damn girl! You need all that? I thought you said it was going to be a novel. If it’s fiction, do you really have to have all those details?”
“It’s only going to be a novel because no one really knows the truth, but I still want to base it on as many facts as possible.”
“If you say so. So how are you going to get all that information? They just give it to you like that?”
“Basically yeah. Most stuff like that qualifies as ‘a matter of public record’ which means you just have to know where to look for it, and if necessary, submit the right forms.”
“Girl, you really trying to dig that deep into this story? You must be really serious, huh?”
“You know I am. How long have I been telling you I’m going to write this damn book?”
“Ever since we moved in together and you showed me that raggedy-ass folder.”
When her and Gina first moved into their two-bedroom apartment, Gina saw April unpack the folder. It was tattered and bulging from all the contents inside. A thick rubber band was around it to help prevent everything from spilling out. April held on to the folder carefully, as if it were something fragile and she was afraid of breaking it. Gina coaxed it out of her hands and read the words written on the front in black marker.
“What’s MOULIN ROUGE, and why you acting like this raggedy old folder is a new born baby or something?”
April gave her a quick rundown about the 1955 casino, and what she had learned from Adam’s dad. She told Gina how much the story had intrigued, yet baffled her. She noticed how Gina listened with the same wide-eyed wonder that she herself had felt when she first heard about the casino’s history. Gina was incensed when she spoke.
“Are you freaking kidding me? So you mean to tell me that the place that was the first racially integrated casino in Nevada was a raving success, everybody and their mama was flocking to it, but it shut down in less than a year? If that ain’t some bullshit, I don’t know what is!”
Gina felt the very same indignation and disbelief that April had felt years earlier. It was hard to imagine how such a lavish and popular place could really have had such a short life span. April went on telling her about all the video interviews she’d seen online from former casino staff and entertainers. Everyone seemed to share the same disbelief about the bankruptcy and other controversial issues.
“Damn April! That’s a hell of a story. There’s no telling what was going on back then, between all that racial crap, plus all the mob stuff!”
“I know. It’s a trip, huh? That’s why I plan on writing a book about the whole thing. It was really coldblooded how they just swooped in and closed the place down one day.”
“Yep!. I read that The Gaming Casino Board came in and closed down all the games and the cashiers, then they literally escorted people out the doors. It said that people were running around like crazy trying to grab their chips and money in a hurry before getting out of there!”
“Are you serious? That’s some crazy shit!
“You telling me. Every single first-hand account that I read talks about how basically in one day, the casino went from a packed house every night, to empty rooms, pad locks and lights out. Ain’t that something?”
“Girl, it sure is. I see why you want to write a book about it. I can’t believe I never heard nothing about this story. You know I’m usually up on my black history stuff.”
Gina tilted her chin with pride and pretended to brush her shoulders off. April knew Gina was just kidding around, but she was actually right. When it came to black issues, Gina was probably the most “in the know” friend that April had. Among other things, the girl loved to read, which was something that her and April had in common.
Before April pried the folder back out of Gina’s hands that day and put it away, Gina made her promise one thing; that she would start writing the book about the casino before the year was up. April promised she would but didn’t sound very convincing.
“Come on girl! I want to hear you say it! And say it like you mean it!”
“Okay, okay! I mean it! I April Mae March vow that 2017 will be the year I officially start writing my Moulin Rouge book!”
“Good! Now that means that even if you don’t actually finish the book this year, you have to at least start, agreed?”
April appreciated the encouragement that Gina was giving. She was happy when the two of them decided to get a place together. For the most part, they got along really well. April was 26 years old; three years younger than the outspoken woman she’d been splitting rent with for the past six months. The two attractive black women had been good friends for several years. They were both smart, funny, and fairly educated. They looked like they could pass for sisters. In spite of their similar physical appearances, the two were as different as night and day. They were also both very opinionated, but somehow, sharing an apartment together seemed to work out just fine. They were perfectly happy to live and disagree under the same roof.
In spite of her promise, it wasn’t until now that April even looked at the folder again. Ever since the day they moved into the apartment, the folder had remained in the desk drawer untouched.
Gina looked at how happy April looked, now that she was really thinking serious about her longtime dream. She was proud of her and she told her so, before dancing out the door, this time to the music in her own head.
“Well honey, this sounds like it’s going to be a helluva’ book! I am so proud of you already! I just wish I was rolling to Vegas with your ass!”
The folder lay on the bed where Gina left it. April went and stared at the folder and it seemed to beckon her to sit down to examine the contents. She knew she had to go through everything thoroughly before leaving for her trip. She began tackling the job by opening the folder and reading each and every piece of paper and the notes she had scribbled on them. She considered just how complete her research needed to be. Her heart’s desire was to make the book a novel. But so far, the only thing she had ever published was non-fiction. She worried about stepping out of her comfort zone, but after enough pep talks, she talked herself into it.
Hell, the real story is just a mystery anyway, so why not just make it a mystery novel? That way, it doesn’t really matter if I have the complete story or not. I’ll just do like they do with movies that are based on a true story.
Though she always hoped to make the book a novel, she was still driven by her non-fiction writing habits. During the years, she was compelled to keep gathering as many factual details as possible. Thus far, nothing she found ever answered the questions still rattling around in her head.
If the casino really was doing so well, why did it close? How could there be financial problems when the club was packed every night? With so many black stars and celebrities interested in seeing it succeed, why couldn’t other influential people help with the finance problem? Just how big a role did race play in the reason for the casino closing?
With a newfound conviction to start writing the book, she got comfortable on the bed, and went through the folder meticulously. When Gina popped her head in later to say goodnight, April couldn’t believe how long she’d been sitting there trying to organize the material. There was quite a bit of information that she had actually printed or written notes on multiple times. It was all the duplicated documents and notes that helped to make the folder thicker than necessary. She also found a lot of discrepancies in certain facts. That’s when April realized that even though the folder was full, there was still lots of material she still needed about the events. The trip to Las Vegas was definitely needed. She stayed up another two hours and didn’t finally get to bed until sometime after four.
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