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She broke racial barriers as a Vegas showgirl. At 97, she’s still dancing.


LAS VEGAS — On a Sunday afternoon this month in North Las Vegas, Anna Bailey could be found at the back of the Aliante Casino, Hotel and Spa’s theater rehearsing her moves. Bailey, a dancer who has had a pioneering and historic career, had emerged from a half-century retirement to perform in a revival of “Follies.” Although you would never have guessed by watching her that the 97-year-old had not performed since the 1970s. She broke racial barriers as a Vegas showgirl. At 97, she’s still dancing. Anna Bailey was the first Black woman to integrate an all-White chorus line on the Strip — and helped transform the city during the struggle for civil rights Bailey was one of the original showgirls at the Moulin Rouge, which, when it opened in 1955, was the first racially integrated hotel-casino not only in Las Vegas, but also in the nation. She was also the first Black woman to perform in an otherwise all-White chorus line on the Strip. On this day at the Aliante, she was like any other dancer, marking her steps, striking various poses: She lifted her chin, pointed her toe and balletically extended her arm; then she tilted her head back and dramatically spread her hand in front of her forehead like a fan. Along with 11 other former Vegas dancers, Bailey would play the small role of “legendary showgirl” in two group numbers. “Follies,” the sprawling, beloved Stephen Sondheim musical that premiered on Broadway in April 1971, is a bittersweet melodrama about aging showgirls who reunite at their former haunt, the Weismann Theater (a fictionalized Ziegfeld Theatre), on the eve of its demolition. Bailey, a slim, elegant woman with arrow-straight posture, finished her routine and sat down to watch the other actors block out their scenes. “I have to concentrate, and I have to rehearse,” she told me, as strains of “Live, Laugh, Love” floated through the theater. “We didn’t do it for about two or three days, and when you get to be a senior, it’s gone.” Her fluid movements and sporty attire — a black baseball cap and loose pants with a racing stripe down each leg — gave Bailey the aura of someone two decades younger. “God bless everybody, because people always ask me, ‘What did you do?’ I really didn’t do anything but just live, day by day,” she said. “I never did overdo it. I don’t smoke. Occasionally, I do like a cocktail,” she added with a mischievous grin. “Especially a rum and Coke.” Bailey said she had hesitated to commit to “Follies” because she has a touch of arthritis in her right knee: “I think it’s just aging,” she said with a shrug. “I’m one of the oldest girls here.” She also stopped driving last year, at 96. But her children (John R. Bailey, a local attorney, and Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud, co-publisher of Las Vegas Black Image magazine) persuaded her to take the leap. “You never get over being a ham,” she explained. “When they put the lights on, I got the stage and the audience — it’s why my family encouraged me.” Bailey marveled that the producers from Metropolis Theatricals, the nonprofit theater company that staged the limited-run production, had found her. “I’m just sitting in my living room, and I got a phone call one day,” she said, “I think maybe they Googled or something.” One of Bailey’s most charming qualities is how down-to-earth she is, especially considering that she’s an important figure in Las Vegas history, as was her late husband, William H. “Bob” Bailey, an entertainer who became a local television personality and prominent civil rights activist. She was part of the landmark opening of the Moulin Rouge, where performers and patrons of all races could dance and socialize together for the first time in a deeply segregated Las Vegas; she also participated in the desegregation of the Strip when she was hired to perform alongside White dancers at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Indeed, her long and storied life is a lens through which one can view the struggle for civil rights in Las Vegas. “She is there for this pivotal moment in history,” said Claytee D. White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Libraries. “She comes in the ’50s, when big changes are taking place in the city — the Strip is growing up and you have the first integrated hotel. She witnessed everything from that period through the 1960s, when integration takes place, to the 1970s, when the consent decree is signed, giving Blacks jobs on the Las Vegas Strip. She is the first Black dancer at a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. She sees the whole evolution of the city.” The next afternoon after the rehearsal, Bailey sat on a white leather couch in her peaceful, light-filled home in a planned waterfront community in Las Vegas, reminiscing about her early days as a dancer. Born in Savannah, Ga., in 1926, she was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn from the time she was a year old. As a young teen, while studying at the celebrated Mary Bruce School of Dance in Harlem — she would take the train from Brooklyn to 125th Street for tap lessons several times a week — there was a strike at the Apollo Theater, and the students were asked to fill in. “I guess we crossed the line,” Bailey said. “All we thought about was working at the Apollo.” It would be her big break: She began dancing for Larry Steele, the impresario known for his all-Black revues, and Clarence Robinson, the choreographer known for his work at New York’s legendary Cotton Club and on the 1943 movie musical “Stormy Weather.” Bailey arrived in Las Vegas in March 1955 — 28 and full of excitement for her new gig. There was so much buzz around the imminent opening of the Moulin Rouge that she and the 27 other young women who had been hired to perform there were met at the airport by a crush of photographers. Bailey had assumed that the new hotel-casino was on the Strip, but the dancers were put in limousines and buses and ferried past the legendary hotel-casinos, under an overpass and over the railroad tracks, before arriving at a venue three miles away, on the outskirts of the majority-Black neighborhood now known as the Historic Westside. She was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of “the Rouge,” as she calls it, but the experience was nonetheless disorienting. “New York was the most liberal, diverse place,” Bailey said. “So, when I came here, it was like culture shock. … I thought the town was way behind the times.” On the Strip and in most other parts of Las Vegas, Jim Crow restrictions were in full, shameful effect: Black people weren’t allowed to patronize the city’s hotels, restaurants, theaters or clothing stores. Bailey recalls being forbidden to eat in a particular hot dog spot on Fremont Street: “We could go in there and buy it, but we had to eat outside.” Even famous entertainers could not dine, swim, stay or gamble at the casino-hotels where they performed. “Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Mathis — all the greats — they go in through the back doors of the casinos,” said White, the oral historian. “They cannot eat in the casinos. They go through the kitchen to get to the stage. They cannot gamble. If someone comes to town powerful enough, maybe they’ll say, ‘Okay, Sammy can sit at the table over in the corner with this person.’ But that is rare.” Bailey remembers being turned away by a security guard when she and three other dancers tried to enter the Sands. “We were getting ready to step down into the casino and he stopped us,” she said. “But you know who saved us? Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra saw us and came and got us and took us to their table. They were so upset, they were hitting on the table.” Sinatra famously threatened to end his popular show at the Sands unless Davis was allowed to stay there with the rest of the Rat Pack. Although the Moulin Rouge opened with much fanfare — standing room only, celebrity patrons, the cover of Life magazine — it would close in six months. “We went there, and the padlock was on the door,” Bailey said. “And that’s how we found out. We had no idea.” Although the reasons for the closure remain murky, with some historians citing financial mismanagement, debts and eventual bankruptcy, Bailey believes the casino was shut down because its 2:30 a.m. show, which no other casinos had, was taking business from the Mafia-owned, White-only casinos on the Strip. Still, in its short existence, the Moulin Rouge laid the groundwork for desegregation in Las Vegas. Five years later, in March 1960, Bob Bailey was among a group of civil rights leaders, hotel owners and government officials who met at the defunct venue — a symbolic choice — and signed the “Moulin Rouge Agreement,” which lifted Jim Crow restrictions and integrated the city. It was around this time that Bailey was hired by the entertainer Pearl Bailey (no relation) to perform at the Flamingo. Pearl placed her “right there in the middle,” as Bailey puts it, of the White performers, making her the first Black dancer to integrate a chorus line on the Strip. “I never had any problems with the other girls,” she said. “We were all so glad to be working.” Her husband, meanwhile, a Renaissance man of sorts, hosted some popular television shows, worked as Pearl Bailey’s road manager and, in 1962, was appointed by Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer (D) as chairman of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission. The Baileys also opened a lounge called Sugar Hill in 1964; for 25 years, it was a popular after-hours hangout. The pair were a power couple long before anyone used the term, and Bailey’s home is filled with memorabilia from their 63 years together. “I really miss him,” she said, showing me a book of photos from Bob’s memorial in 2014. “That’s the only way we had strength, was being together,” she said, as she flipped through the pages. “Follies,” she added, has been a gift in the long wake of his death: “It gives me some sort of purpose.” The following week, as I watched the final performance at the Aliante, I realized that this was true not just for Bailey, but for all the former showgirls in the musical, many of whom danced in the Folies Bergère, the glittering, feathered spectacular that ran for 49 years at the recently shuttered Tropicana casino. “Follies” is about the past, about regrets, about the ineluctable passage of time. It’s about entertainers in midlife and the razing of an old theatrical venue, both of which Las Vegas, with its retired showgirls and controversial penchant for imploding its historic casinos, knows well. The women glide across the stage — they are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, with Bailey the oldest by only a few years — seemingly blooming with renewed vigor, like plants that have turned toward the sun. Clearly, the muscles have a memory, but the spirit remembers, as well. After the show, Bailey stands at the front of the theater beaming. A few fans ask for her autograph. “I think this will maybe be my last gig,” she told me, “but I’ll see what the future brings. I don’t know what might happen tomorrow.” She broke racial barriers as a Vegas showgirl. At 97, she’s still dancing. Just now She broke racial barriers as a Vegas showgirl. At 97, she’s still dancing. 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