C. S. I. and the African American West

My television watching usually lags days, weeks, months, sometimes years behind the actual air date of some episodes and series. I’ve only just started catching up on season 9 of the original C. S. I., and adjusting to all the changes in the cast. I recently saw the episode “Young Man With a Horn,” which originally aired in December 2008, and I thought it was particularly interesting not only in its engagement with Las Vegas history but also in its exploration of racial issues within the context of that history.

C. S. I. has with some consistency included African American actors in both starring and guest roles throughout the series, but I’m not sure how often the series has directly addressed African American issues in terms of racial identity or race-related subject matter. “Young Man With a Horn” seems part of a continuing interest in the past few seasons in investigating the history of the American West via the specific history of a Las Vegas past that continues to make itself known in the Las Vegas present. C. S. I. Greg Sanders has been working on a book about Las Vegas history (which has at this point either been published or at least accepted for publication). There have been numerous episodes that have taken place over two timelines, the present and “30 years ago” or “20 years ago” or whenever that important moment in the past might have been.

Coinciding with these investigations of the past has been an equally interesting mining of film and television history through casting of actors and actresses with long and storied careers in the guest starring roles (Faye Dunaway in the 2006 episode “Kiss Kiss, Bye Bye” comes immediately to mind). We see the continuing presence of Las Vegas’s past in these characters, but there also seems to be an archival impulse in casting, a kind of history of film and television woven into the larger narrative of the story.

This episode brings us African American actor Bill Cobbs as Harry Bastille, the “Young Man With the Horn” of the title (the elderly man with the horn in the episode’s present), an actor who has been playing in film and television roles for 30 years. Tippi Hedren (who I’ll always remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) plays Karen Rosenthal. Ralph Waite plays the retired Sheriff Montgomery. Robert Guillaume plays Sonny Bridges, who is part of Montgomery’s poker group, along with Emmy-winning producer and director George Schlatter (Laugh-In, various Frank Sinatra specials, etc.) as himself. That’s quite a guest cast for one episode!

The story revolves around the abandoned casino Le Chateau Rouge, the first integrated casino in Las Vegas. A young black  singer named Layla Wells breaks into the abandoned casino because her grandmother used to perform there. [Note: From this point on, spoilers follow, so if anyone is even more behind than I am in watching this season’s C. S. I., read no further if you want to avoid any plot surprises.]

Layla ends up dead, although the real murder mystery is 50 years in the past, and the death of Layla (which turns out to be accidental) serves primarily as prelude to the investigation of the earlier case, which involves Harry Bastille (who is homeless in the present and living in the casino) and Karen Rosenthal, and the murder of Karen’s husband shortly before Le Chateau Rouge closed forever.

The episode paints a picture of the African American West as a place of both potential opportunity and continued oppression. Le Chateau Rouge represents a pioneering effort, “the first casino where blacks weren’t turned away at the door,” but the primary picture painted of Las Vegas in the 1950s comes through the conversation around the poker table.  As Sonny Bridges comments, “Back then, Las Vegas was known as the Mississippi of the West.” George Schlatter remarks, after reeling off a long list of African American performers, including Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lena Horne, “I booked them all into the big rooms on the strip, but they could not stay at the hotels there. Couldn’t even gamble at the casinos. Had to come in and out through the kitchens.”

As an integrated space, Le Chateau Rouge only lasted 6 months before, as Sanders puts it, “The KC mob didn’t like the east coast boys poaching their pigeons” and thus shut it down.  That, of course, was not the whole story, and neither was it even the murder of Le Chateau Rouge owner Rosenthal that caused the closing. Rather, what was most offensive to the men who ran Las Vegas, according to Karen Rosenthal, was the sexual danger represented by this integrated place. Karen, who killed (arguably in self defense) her husband when he discovered her with Harry Bastille, reveals that that murder was covered up and an innocent man framed for the crime as a means of hiding the true cause of the death, because “A white woman could get away with murder, but she couldn’t love a black man.”

An episode that deals so explicitly with show business, and with the tangled racial politics of show business, seems to suggest a kind of metacommentary on history of television and the racial politics of that medium, but I’ll leave that investigation for another day.


3 Responses to “C. S. I. and the African American West”

  1. bob5540 Says:

    The Chateau Rouge was based on the real hotel/casino Moulin Rouge Hotel, which opened in 1955 as the first racially integrated club in Las Vegas. It, too, lasted only 6 months and went bankrupt. Read the link for more about its history of involved with civil rights.

    Here is the spooky part: The CSI episode was repeated last night (5/9/09). Four days ago, what was left of the Moulin Rouge burned to the ground.

  2. westlitblogger Says:

    Thanks! The Moulin Rouge website is particularly informative about the history of the this first integrated casino/hotel in Las Vegas.

  3. Ronald Kenyon Says:

    I just saw a rerun of this CSI episode. It is eerily reminiscent of the mysterious and unsolved death of the young, rising tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, whose body was found in the desert outside Las Vegas on May 25, 1955. You can read the few details that are known on the Wardell Gray page on allaboutjazz.com.

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