Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2019

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Entertainer, activist Bob Bailey making a difference

Bob Bailey remembers a Las Vegas very different than it is today, when the city wasn't divided by congested freeways and trendy neighborhoods, but by skin color.

A former crooner who toured with the legendary Count Basie and his orchestra, Bailey says during those years on the road, he was exposed to racial discrimination in all parts of the country.

But the situation in Las Vegas was especially troubling. During the late '50s and through much of the '60s, "this was a very segregated town," he explains.

In the days before the civil rights movement, popular black entertainers would wow packed Strip showrooms but weren't allowed to stay or relax in the hotels.

"Whites and blacks, who normally in other cities would meet and have plenty of fun, here they couldn't do that unless they would come to the black areas."

So they congregated on the western side of town, packing into the high-energy but short-lived Moulin Rouge hotel-casino.

During the six months its doors were open in 1955, "the Rouge" was the place to be. And Bailey was there, emceeing the nightly "Tropicana Review" variety show to standing-room-only crowds.

"The west side area, when I came here, was really jumpin', and when the Moulin Rouge was open, it was really something: nice restaurants, nice bars, gambling operations, just everything," he says.

And in Bailey, the community had a local celebrity.

Between performances at the club, he was producing "Talk of the Town," a weekly variety television show that ran for about six months.

It was hosted by Alice Key, a former dancer who performed at New York's famous Cotton Club and went on to become Nevada's deputy labor commissioner. It sported a stellar guest list: Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat "King" Cole and Milton Berle.

The program, which aired on KLAS Channel 8, was the first show in the country created by an entirely black cast and crew, though Key contends "it was not recognized as such" by the industry or viewers.

"It was a pioneer element and it was a first. We had a forum where we could present people and ... where we could present our thoughts," she adds. Bailey "knew what was happening (in the black community) and he knew how to present it."

The irony of it all, Bailey says, was "here you've got a time when people didn't want black people to come in their restaurants, but they allowed me into their home."

Maybe that's why "there was no place you could put on a show like this but Las Vegas, where you could get these stars for nothing," he says.

A man of firsts

The show was one of several firsts Bailey has seen in a lifetime spent in entertainment, business and politics.

While juggling the TV and Rouge shows, he also hosted a radio show on KENO, making him the city's first black disc jockey.

Former Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev., remembers Bailey's on-air stint well.

He and his high school buddies (including Manny Cortez, executive director of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) hung out at the station back then. "We used to listen to him play the records and talk to him," he says.

Bailey left the airwaves briefly when he was "drafted" in the early '60s to go on the road with his cousin, the late songstress Pearl Bailey, to manage her show.

Upon his return two years later, he served as a news/weatherman/movie host on Channel 8, and later KSHO Channel 13, besides hosting a live radio show from the lobby of the Carver House, a West Las Vegas hotel.

But by the early '70s, "I had reached the pinnacle of what I could make in television, so I either had to move on or move out," he says.

All business

Enter Bob Bailey, businessman. He had opened his own hot spot, a nightclub called Sugar Hill, in '65.

The hip place, at Lexington Street and Miller Avenue (not far from Bailey Drive, named after Bob several decades ago), soon became a hangout for black and white entertainers alike, all guests of honor at its Saturday night barbecue bashes.

"Naturally people would come out to see the stars. It was very successful," he says. He owned Sugar Hill for 26 years -- until the area was overrun by gangs. "It was just something I couldn't be a part of."

He had also purchased the Golden West Shopping Center (which later became Nucleus Plaza) shortly after it was damaged by fire in 1968, during the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

After securing a $35,000 loan (which, at the time, Bailey says, was the largest amount ever lent to a black in Nevada), he refurbished most of the center and built the Pan Afro Auditorium in it.

The place, with the capacity to hold more than 8,000 people, was used as everything from a meeting hall to an entertainment venue, where the likes of Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and Ray Charles played.

"At that time it was very difficult for blacks to get any of the (local) halls," he explains. "Everything that was here was in hotels and they just did not want you to come into the hotels."

But when funding ran out two years later and banks refused to loan him the money he needed to finish remodeling, Bailey lost the center. It's since been divided into several stores and rented out.

"I just said, 'Well, I fought the civil rights wars and now I've got to fight the economic wars."'

Civil rights

Bailey had been fighting for civil rights all along, though, having been appointed the first chairman of Nevada's Equal Rights Commission in '62.

He was appointed to the position, on what began as an investigatory commission, by the late former Gov. Grant Sawyer, who had "a totally new vision" of racial equality for the state, he says.

He had met Sawyer two years prior and, because of his influence in West Las Vegas, was "encouraged" to support the democrat.

"He just got to you, his principles, the kind of future projections socially, economically that were part of his platform."

So taken was Bailey that he ditched the Republican party and became a Democrat ("I had to in order to support him") and pounded the pavement alongside Sawyer on his campaign route.

One of his promises was to develop the commission, designed "to identify whether or not there was any discrimination in the state of Nevada," Bailey recalls.

"In the meantime," he adds, "there wasn't a place (blacks) could live or eat dinner in Carson City or here." He and his staff began conducting statewide hearings, subpoenaing casino owners and others to testify on charges of discriminatory practices.

That's when things got nasty.

"I was warned that if I didn't stop subpoenaing, that I may end up dead," he says. "They would drive by the house and throw a brick or something ... and I wouldn't know if it was a bomb or what it was."

He's still not saying who "they" are, "but I've got ideas." Back then, "I really couldn't care less. I said, 'If I've got to go, I'll go this way.'"

The committee did succeed, however, in opening up employment opportunities for blacks and other minorities around the state.

"We have to remember that while every group has been subjected at one point in history to this kind of discrimination, it always takes more than that group of people to get out of that condition," he explains.

"There were some good people in this town that were very faithful to basically what was right and they fought underneath ... to make this country what it should be."

Helping hand

A decade later, Bailey became the president of the Nevada Economic Development Co. (NEDCO), a business that helped struggling minority-owned businesses with management, finding finances and developing business relationships.

He points to his 19 years at NEDCO with pride. "If you can help someone and make a living out of it, that to me is the perfect equation.

"Nothing takes the place of driving by a successful business and knowing that you helped that person get started, and you see them grow, and you see their kids go to college."

Like John Edmond, who has owned Nucleus Plaza since 1980.

Besides helping him obtain the financing he needed to purchase the center, Bailey "kind of took me by the hand and actually gave me a little history of the property and some ideas on what I should try to bring it up to the potential it should be," Edmond says.

"You can see that all of what he's tried to do over the years has been in trying to serve the community."

NEDCO was good preparation for Bailey's next job, in 1990, as director of the U.S. Department of Commerce's minority business-development program.

The first black presidential appointee in Nevada (Bilbray and Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., supported the nomination), Bailey spent four years overseeing the operations and budgets of about 200 national agencies, taking several trips to Third World countries to set up manufacturing and trade partnerships.

Working within system

A staunch Republican, yes, but a politician? No way. Bailey considers himself a businessman through and through.

"I have learned to work within the political system," he says, "and if you're going to be in the economic thrust of this country ... you have to know how to move in the political system."

He's trying to pass on that knowledge to a usually silent demographic -- black Republicans -- via the Black Republican Roundtable he founded in Las Vegas two years ago.

The goal of the organization is two-fold: To develop black Republican candidates and to engage the party itself to make sure the interests of blacks are represented.

"I felt I owed something back to the party and I owed something to my people," he says.

Don't know many black Republicans? Bailey's not surprised. "One of the things that has emerged over the last 40 years is that most minorities, especially black people, have become a one-party group of people," he says.

"We've got plenty of black Republicans, but they're afraid to come out of the closet. In some instances, conservatism cloaks racism. As a result, blacks fear that they will be categorized in that same philosophy of thought of the extreme right wing."

So the Roundtable is working, especially with young people, to dispel the misconceptions and "at least provide them with sufficient information to where they can make an intelligent choice when it's time" to vote.

And when it's time to get into business.

Bailey's latest focus is on two companies he's founded, New Ventures Inc. and New Ventures Capital Development Co., which, like NEDCO, come to the technical and financial aid of struggling minority businesses.

"Our people have been more labor people," he says. "Daddy said, 'Get yourself a good job,' he didn't say 'Get yourself a good business,' so they need that kind of resource relationship in getting into business.

"There's still some racism in the system, there's no question about that, but there's still opportunity along with the racism to be a successful business in Las Vegas today. The old thought about having to do business in a black area, that's over now."

Thanks, in part, to the tireless efforts of Bailey.

"Whenever you come through some of the things that I have seen," he says, "... you know things can work very well if everybody puts their shoulder to the same wheel."