When black U.S. diplomat and 1950 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche visited Las Vegas during the height of Strip hotel segregation in the 1950s, Desert Inn Managing Director Allard Roen not only got Bunche a room at the resort but also safely escorted him to it.
When Sammy Davis Jr. wanted to play a round of golf on the whites-only Desert Inn golf course, Roen was at his side, defending the iconic black entertainer’s right to be there despite the evil eye from some guests.
When singer Pearl Bailey wanted to leave the Desert Inn showroom for the Flamingo, it was Roen who negotiated with the segregated Flamingo to give Bailey the black chorus line she wanted.
And when it came time to end the black eye of segregation in Las Vegas, Roen helped lead the way by reaching a 1960 accord with a group led by then-local NAACP President James McMillan to allow minorities as guests at the Desert Inn and Stardust. Other local resorts, in time, followed suit.
Allard Frank Roen, who founded the storied La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., in 1965, and who served as director of professional golf’s Tournament of Champions for a record 38 years, died Thursday in Carlsbad. He was 87.
The cause of death was complications of heart disease, his family said.
Services for the Las Vegas resident of 18 years and Carlsbad resident of 41 years are scheduled for noon Wednesday at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego.
Roen had many more accomplishments in Las Vegas before he left for Southern California in the late 1960s. He was part of a development group that built Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall and the Las Vegas Country Club.
Roen also was a founding member and first president of the Nevada Resort Association, a consultant on the development of the School of Hotel Administration at Nevada Southern University (now UNLV) and a member of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board.
“When the Desert Inn was under construction, it was a real mess, so Moe Dalitz brought in my father, who had a college education and could help him negotiate with the unions and construction firms,” said Judy Roen Smith of Las Vegas.
“Later, as the civil rights movement was just beginning, my dad didn’t like it that everyone was not being treated fairly. He saw to it that changes were made and he was not afraid to stand up against the wishes of other hoteliers. He was a visionary.”
In addition to helping tear down the color barrier, Roen put in golf courses at the Desert Inn and Stardust, developed the resorts’ marketing concept and traveled to Paris to negotiate the contract to bring the Lido de Paris show to the Stardust. He spoke fluent French.
In the late 1950s, Roen entered into a partnership with developers Irwin Molasky, Merv Adelson and Dalitz to form Paradise Development, which kicked off a series of projects by building Sunrise Hospital, which opened on Maryland Parkway in December 1958.
“What made Allard a good businessman was his ability to focus — whether it was on golf or business,” said Adelson, who is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Roen’s funeral.
Adelson said Roen’s leadership “set the tone for the resorts that set the tone for Las Vegas trends” of the 1950s and ’60s.
Molasky said Roen “made the Desert Inn the icon of the Strip.”
“Allard was the forerunner of the kind of people who run Las Vegas today — a college graduate who ... brought modern-day efficient business practices to his industry,” Molasky said.
Roen ran the Desert Inn until 1967, when he negotiated with a representative of Howard Hughes to sell the resort to the reclusive billionaire. The main tower of the Desert Inn was imploded in 2001 to make way for Wynn Las Vegas.
An avid golfer, Roen conceived and developed the Tournament of Champions at the Desert Inn, before moving it to the Stardust in 1967 and La Costa in 1969.
Born May 8, 1921, in Cleveland, Roen attended Duke University on a baseball scholarship and graduated in 1943 with a business degree.
He served as a Navy lieutenant during World War II. After the war, he worked as a hotel contractor and builder in Palm Beach, Fla., before moving to Las Vegas in 1949, where he joined Dalitz, Wilbur Clark and others in developing the Desert Inn. When the Desert Inn partners acquired the Stardust, Roen became managing director of both resorts.
At the Stardust, Roen designed the Starlight Theatre, Crystal Showroom and some of the restaurants. The resort last year was demolished to make way for the $4.8 billion Echelon project.
Roen sold the La Costa resort in 1987 but continued to pursue private investments and philanthropic work in his later years.
Roen was a fan of horse racing and owner of thoroughbreds. He was a regular at the Del Mar Race Track in Southern California.
In addition to his daughter, Roen is survived by his wife of 57 years, Evelyn, of Carlsbad, Calif.; three other children, Prisiclla Roen of Las Vegas, Jeffrey Roen of Detroit and Melissa Roen of Cap d’Ail, France; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Donations can be made in Roen’s memory to the Make a Wish Foundation of Las Vegas.