The truth of racism’s shameful blight on Las Vegas history is bad enough. No embellishment is necessary.
Yet, according to memes and articles posted regularly to social media and the internet, the entire swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel was once drained and cleaned because African-American entertainer Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toe into it.
The incident is said to have taken place in April 1953, back when all of Las Vegas was segregated. Dandridge’s act is described as a protest that angered racist hotel execs, who felt that a Black person’s toe dirtied water in some way.
Dandridge – who was about to become the first African-American actress nominated for a best actress Oscar (for the 1954 movie Carmel Jones) – was singing at the Last Frontier in her own lounge act at the time. According to the 1999 HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the entertainer accessed the pool during her historic stay as its “first Negro guest.”
Though the pool-draining story seems like something that could have happened during such a bigoted era, no credible evidence suggests that it ever did. In fact, it’s highly likely that it didn’t.
First of all, 1953 seems early for Dandridge to have been welcomed to stay at the Last Frontier. Back then, people of color couldn’t stay, gamble, or dine in any Las Vegas casino hotels. This was true even of admired Black headliners. Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr. all had to slip in through stage and kitchen doors to perform, and leave the same way after taking their bows.
Entertainers of color were forced to book rooms at boarding houses on Las Vegas’ Westside, the historic African-American community five miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip. The most renown was run by entrepreneur Genevieve Harrison, whose Harrison House is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to several sources, the most legitimate being Smithsonian Magazine, the only early exception to this rule was made for Lena Horne – and only once. This story alleges that Horne was only allowed to stay at the Flamingo after issuing a gutsy ultimatum to mobster owner Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: either she be allowed to stay there or he would have to find a new grand-opening headliner. So, for three nights just after Christmas 1946, Siegel hid Horne out in an isolated cabana, ordered her not to enter the casino, and had the maids burn her bedsheets and towels upon her departure.
It wasn’t until the Moulin Rouge – Las Vegas’ first fully integrated casino hotel – opened on the Westside on May 24, 1955 that the town’s racist mindset began changing. The Moulin Rouge immediately entered Hollywood gossip columns as the hottest nightclub in town – a cultural Valhalla where one could rub elbows with Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Rosemary Clooney, and witness impromptu late-night jam sessions featuring singers Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland, and Billie Holiday.
A taste of how far we’ve come as a society is provided by this sentence about the Moulin Rouge, published by Variety in 1955: “This unusual spot continues to pull in the gambling sect, who are not alarmed in the least about rubbing elbows and dice in mixed racial company.”
No First-Hand Account
An even bigger hole in the pool-draining story is that Dandridge – who died of an antidepressant overdose in September 1965 at age 42 – never once mentioned it while she was alive. Though her autobiography is frequently cited as a source for the story, Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy (which was compiled from taped interviews by author Earl Conrad and published in 1970) does not mention it at all.
In fact, the pool-draining story does not appear in a single book, newspaper, or magazine until 1999, 34 years after Dandridge’s death. That’s when it was detailed in the biography, Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Portrait of Hollywood’s First Black Film Star, by her former manager, Earl Mills. This was the book adapted for the HBO biopic starring Halle Berry as Dandridge in a Golden Globe-winning performance, which is how the pool-draining scene burned itself into the world’s consciousness as fact.
Casting even more doubt are several alternate versions of the pool-draining story that have circulated over the decades, each naming a different Black Vegas entertainer of the day as the alleged pool user. In the second most popular version, it was Sammy Davis, Jr. who dared to swim at the Sands in 1952, prompting its pool’s draining and cleaning. This version of the story appears in both Charles Fleming’s November 1999 Los Angeles Magazine article, “Viva Black Vegas,” and in A&E’s 1999 documentary, The Rat Pack.
Is it possible the same vile act was perpetrated against two African-American singers in Las Vegas? Yes, it’s possible. Except that Davis, like Dandridge, never once publicly mentioned a pool-draining incident during his lifetime – though he did tell a story about being asked to leave a Las Vegas pool in the ’50s – not because of his skin color but because he was drawing a crowd out of the casino and into the pool area. (The anecdote appeared in his 1966 autobiography, Yes I Can.)
Also, Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries, told Casino.org she recalls hearing two other versions of the pool-draining story, claiming it happened to both Horne and Belafonte. (Though not ironclad proof, a story that spreads in different versions – much like in a game of telephone – is suggestive of an urban myth.)
What Draining a Pool Entailed in the 1950s
The Last Frontier pool held about 50,000 gallons of water. In 1953, it would have taken about 24 hours just to drain, then another 50 hours to refill, using a 5/8-inch-diameter hose delivering 17 gallons per minute.
“We know that inferior pool technology in the 1950s would make draining a pool a lengthy and intrusive job – one that would likely make other guests upset,” wrote Elexus Jionde, author of the 2017 book The A-Z Guide to Black Oppression, in a 2018 blog titled “How to Investigate History: The Dorothy Dandridge Pool Incident.”
“We know about other racist incidents involving pools, restaurants, and hotels during the mid-20th century,” Jionde continued. “It could be possible that Earl Mills conflated Dorothy’s life with that of infamous instances of pool racism (like the acid throwing at the Monson Motor Lodge swimming pool).”
In June 1964, James Brock, the manager of that St. Augustine, Fla. motel, poured muriatic acid into a “whites only” pool in order to frighten Black anti-segregation protesters into leaving it.
“Maybe hotel staff threatened to drain the pool if Dorothy tried to swim,” Jionde wrote. “But it is highly unlikely (when weighing the complete lack of primary and secondary evidence) that the pool was drained because of a toe, or even a swim. Instead, it is much more likely that the staff made a dramatic threat, and/or Earl Mills just wanted to add some pizzazz to Dorothy’s life story.”
We’ll leave the final say to Snopes.com. The fact-checking website ascribes its “legend” rating to the Dandridge story. This describes “events so general or lacking in detail that they could have happened to someone, somewhere, at some time, and are therefore unprovable.”
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