Wisdom Watch: Alice Key
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: portraying the late salsero, Hector Lavoe. A new film about his life is angering some fans who argue it doesn't do justice to him or the music he helped popularize. We'll talk about who he was and his place in music.
But first, Las Vegas is known as a place of bright lights. We're heading out there later this week, where we'll broadcast from the National Association of Black Journalists Convention. So that caused us to wonder what Vegas was like for African-Americans back in the day?
We discovered that for some, it was also known as the Mississippi of the West. At one time, blacks were not allowed to perform at or even enter the casinos. Alice Key, who's living Las Vegas for over 50 years, helped to integrate Las Vegas casinos, and even hosted the first African-American television in the state. I caught up with her at her home for a unique Wisdom Watch conversation, and it seems that she had a very colorful life. She went from being a chorus girl in the first - I'm sorry - in the famous Cotton Club in Culver City, to being a journalist. I asked her how she got to be a dancer at the Cotton Club, and if she had a pretty costume.
Ms. ALICE KEY (Former Dancer): Well, actually, I had just - I was going to UCLA, which is now city college. It was - before, it was in Westwood. We're talking about like 1929 and 1930. And my mother was a manager of a place on Central Avenue, and I was stopping in there to see her. And the producer of Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City saw me, and he was with his partner, Aurora Greely(ph), and they parked the car and came and invited me to come to work at the Cotton Club because I had red hair, and I guess I must have been pretty. And I told them I couldn't work, and I was shocked of the idea of being in show business. But anyway, they talked me into it, and I went to work at the Cotton Club and didn't know how to dance, but they gave me private dancing lessons at home.
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. They must have really wanted you to dance.
Ms. KEY: And then all the stars from all over the nation came to work at the Cotton Club, and Duke Ellington's band was one of them. And they wanted new faces in the chorus, and so Duke recommended me - Duke Ellington. And they sent for me, and I took two girls with me from California.
MARTIN: Was it scandalous, though, to be a dancer at that time?
Ms. KEY: Yeah. And I really loved show business. I was a chorus girl, but I love the show people and I love the applause. And we got a lot of work in motion pictures because - in fact, Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, all the stars and the directors and producers hung out there. And they would see us and say, I think I'll put a nightclub act in my picture, my new picture and give you all a job. And they'd put cots on the set so we could sleep during the day. And we slept most of the time. I've worked for Cecil B. DeMille, and he didn't even see us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KEY: So this director would come to see the show and put us in his movie, and we never did shoot the movie. We just slept.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. Tell me about being a chorus girl. What was that like? You're actually telling me it seems kind of boring. A lot of time spent sitting around.
Ms. KEY: You know, we were like family because it was during the era when there was segregation and rank discrimination. And we kind of stuck with each other, stars and chorus girls and all because there was no lack of discrimination, so we just hung out together.
MARTIN: What was it like there for African-Americans back then? What was it like?
Ms. KEY: We - civil rights activists knew that we was good as anybody else. The idea was to make it acceptable to others that we were as good as they were.
MARTIN: What steps did you take to help integrate the casinos? Is it right, that black folks weren't really welcome in the casinos? Is that right?
Ms. KEY: Only if these - the star was someone you knew and invited you to come and you were their guest, but a black person couldn't walk into a coffee shop and get a cup of coffee.
MARTIN: Really? So when did you start to see things change?
Ms. KEY: Well, when we came here, you couldn't work anywhere on the strip or in the downtown casinos and hotels except as a maid or a janitor. And the NAACP effectively changed all that. We got people at the front desk and we got people - dealers. We got black dealers in all the casinos. So all this happened. I think Ohio was the state, the first state, to pass the public accommodation law, and California was second or third. But discrimination was rank in Las Vegas. It was just - it was really - deserved the title of Mississippi of the West.
MARTIN: How did you all get those things changed? What did you do? Was it voter registration drives? Was it sit-ins?
Ms. KEYS: No. We just went door-to-door and registered people, and we'd take - we'd keep the table - folding chair and table in the back of our cars and go to the markets on weekends and register people to vote. We insisted that they go to the polls, but they would say, well, I'll wait till my husband comes home. They said, no. We got someone with me, they'll stay in your house and - watch your house or your children until your husband gets home, then we'll come back and get him to vote.
MARTIN: Now, you worked - as we said, you started out as a dancer and then you moved into journalism and then you had a television show. How did that come about?
Ms. KEYS: Well, when I came to Las Vegas, a black man, a casino owner here, took me to meet Hank Greenspun in his office at the Las Vegas Sun. I told him that I that wanted to do a television show, and he gave me the time. He owned Channel 8, which is the CBS affiliate here. And at the time, it probably was the - no, it wasn't. There was another television show, but there wasn't a lot of television and radio shows here at that time.
MARTIN: What did you talk about on your show?
Ms. KEYS: Well, it was a variety show. This is a perfect place to do a show, because you have all the stars on the show. We had Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels - all the then stars on the show. And it was not a show where we talked about what was happening. We just introduced the artists and let them talk about where they were working in places, but they couldn't - unless they invited people to come, blacks couldn't come. But we did not make it a point to use the show to foster our views.
MARTIN: So of all of the various adventures you've had, which of those roles did you think you enjoyed the most?
Ms. KEYS: Well, you know, I enjoy - I'm 96 years old, and I enjoy being a senior citizen. And I'm the oldest tenant in the building where I live. I'm the oldest member of my church. I'm the oldest of my friends still living. I enjoyed every phase of my life. I loved being a chorus girl. I didn't like writing so much, but it was a good cause and it opened doors for me, and I got a chance to say what I felt.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. KEYS: I enjoyed talking to you, Michel. Maybe I'll see you when you come out next time.
MARTIN: I sure hope so.
Ms. KEYS: Okay, dear.
Ms. KEYS: Bye-bye.
Ms. Alice Key, a former entertainer, journalist and civil rights activist, joined us from her home in Las Vegas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.