Black entertainers in Las Vegas see purpose in 'ability to turn our pain into humor'

Black performers integrated the "Mississippi of the West."

Anna Bailey, the first Black showgirl on the Las Vegas strip, was in huge demand in the 1960s, but she couldn't even walk in the front doors at some of the same casinos where she performed.

The Moulin Rouge, which opened in May of 1955, was the first casino Bailey worked when she moved to Las Vegas from New York. It was built in the majority Black West Side of Las Vegas so the hotel and casino could be integrated and it was the first racially integrated casino-resort in the country.

PHOTO: Comedian George Wallace is interviewed by ABC News.
Comedian George Wallace is interviewed by ABC News.
ABC News

ABC News looks back at the history of Black entertainers in Las Vegas with "Soul of a Nation Presents: 'Black in Vegas' which premieres Wednesday, Feb. 1, 10/9c on ABC and the following day on Hulu.

"Those owners are not civil rights people," Claytee White, Director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries, said. "Those owners are good businessmen and they know that the African American community has money."

The Moulin Rouge closed just six months in October 1955 after it opened and outstanding debts and bankruptcy could have been the reasons, according to UNLV gaming historian David G. Schwartz. However, some believe institutional racism played a role and it was forced to close because it drew crowds away from segregated casinos.

"It was a threat to the segregated hotels in Las Vegas," Jawn Murray, pop culture commentator and executive producer of the daytime talk show "SHERRI," said. "Black entertainers and Black workers in Vegas were brought back to the reality that the Mississippi of the West existed again, and the fight was now on again. And it wasn't going to be an easy fight."

According to Bailey, the whole show production at the Moulin Rouge left Las Vegas, but she and her husband, production singer Bob Bailey, stayed in Las Vegas. Bailey then began to integrate shows on the strip for the first time.

"Every time Pearl Bailey was in town at the Flamingo, I was always with her," Bailey said. "When other shows came in, I didn't even have to audition because they knew me from working at the other hotels. So, I would just come in."

Black comedians didn't have it easy at the beginning either as some of the earliest Black comedy routines in the country needed to be done in blackface.

"Minstrel shows were created to almost make white people feel comfortable with Black people being on stage," Murray said. "We saw comics go from being the butt of the joke and getting away from the minstrel act and really then tell jokes using societal issues, the struggles of the time."

Comedians like Dick Gregory brought a fresh, new take to Black comedy in Las Vegas and around the country.

PHOTO: Comedienne Luenell is interviewed by ABC News.
Comedienne Luenell is interviewed by ABC News.
ABC News

Gregory staged hunger strikes and protests, and he used his comedy as a gateway to present his stance against injustices in America, according to Murray.

"The ability to turn our pain into humor," Luenell Campbell, a comedian known mononymously as Luenell and has a residency on the Strip, said. "To be able to look at racism or sexism and everything, and laugh at it, instead of just going completely ballistic, is a coping mechanism."

"I enjoy being the catalyst for people to forget their problems," Luenell said. "Being able to be the person who can make them throw their head back and laugh and just release endorphins into the world."

Comedian George Wallace, who also has a residency in Las Vegas, sees his comedy as "healing for the soul" and says that's why people call him Dr. Wallace. He believes comedy's power to help the audience feel good is why there are more comedians in the world today.

PHOTO: Showgirl dancers onstage at the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas on opening night, dated May 24, 1955.
Showgirl dancers onstage at the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas on opening night, dated May 24, 1955.
Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas

"When I started it was only 50 comedians making money in the world," Wallace said. "Now there's 50 on every block."

Luenell thinks that comedy also has the power to heal the comedian.

Comedians like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx also headlined shows in Las Vegas in the 1960s and 1970s, helping to pave the way for Black comedians who would come after them.

"I thank God for Sammy Davis Jr., I thank God for Redd Foxx and Lena Horne, all of the people that worked here," Wallace said. "All those years paving a way for me to come in and work a stage at The Flamingo."

"I think that they would be happy that there was someone who was carrying on the trail that they blazed," Luenell said. "And I think that they would see a little bit of some of themselves in me, you know, because I'd take a little bit from the legends."

ABC News' Kara Thomas contributed to this report.