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Norman E. Hill -
Las Vegas History
From Bawdy Frontier Mining Town to Bawdy, Glamorous, Entertainment+ Mecca
by Norman E. Hill
From 8,000 population according to the 1940 Census to almost 600,000 (1.95 million metropolitan) population today, Las Vegas still carries the image of “bawdy”—but in the best sense of the word. Today, there are lots of conventional businesses in Las Vegas, such as healthcare, service processing, and others. The image remains, though, of glamour, glitz, and sexiness.
Las Vegas started as a mining town and stop along transcontinental railroads. Similar to all mining towns, it developed a bawdy reputation. In the 1920s, as did so much of the nation, Las Vegas thumbed its nose at Prohibition. This attitude cost the town some revenue when the Hoover Dam project for harnessing the Colorado River was about to begin. The federal government wanted one town to serve as official residence for the upcoming large array of dam workers. President Hoover sent a trusted aide to see if Las Vegas provided a sufficiently moral climate (whatever that meant) for workers. Although town officials tried to cover up its more blatantly illegal establishments, the aide saw through the ruse. Instead, a special new city, closer to the dam site itself, was constructed for workers.
During the 1930s, Las Vegas suffered through the Depression, along with the rest
of the country.
Slot machines were available, but didn’t help the economy much. Today, a line in a great Broadway musical, set in the 30s, “Crazy for You,” goes, “Who in his right mind would come to Nevada to gamble?” It draws a laugh today, but wouldn’t have been considered funny back then.
In the late 1940s, the Sands Hotel inaugurated on a lavish scale, a combined hotel/casino/entertainment
Unfortunately, the conspicuous owner was a psycho mobster, Bugsy Siegel. After Siegel was gunned down, other mob bosses built new, equally luxurious hotel and casino packages. With general nationwide prosperity, people from all over the country were attracted to the luxury available in the new, booming Las Vegas. They overlooked unfavorable gambling odds and flocked to the slots and tables.
Top entertainers became regular features, to go along with gambling. Frank Sinatra, known for his mob connections, frequently performed there, especially at the Sands. He gave sage advice to several of the hotels, to keep decorations and surroundings in lavish, but still good, taste. As a reward, he received a 10% ownership in several casinos. Along with pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and others, this group, known as the Rat Pack, packed in the theaters whenever they were all in town.
The mob was never known for racial good will. But Sinatra was credited with desegregating the hotels, so that black entertainers could stay where they worked. Even with such a concession, the mob was considered to have skimmed off massive amounts of casino cash, tax free.
Throughout most of the 1950s, mob bosses maintained a low profile.
City and state officials comforted themselves that mobsters and henchmen were “guests” of Nevada locals. But one boss, Salvatore (Sam) Giancana, blatantly violated this protocol. He became visible in town, carried on with entertainers at the establishments, and took a prominent singer as his mistress. With the new decade, Giancana claimed to have clout with the new Kennedy administration.
If the mob did have influence in Washington, the Kennedys soon worked to reverse it. They started 24 hour surveillance of Giancana. IRS agents began to investigate tax fraud at casinos. Although the mob did have influence in Las Vegas and state administrations, the Kennedy Democratic machine was also powerful. In the face of negative publicity, Sinatra was forced to give up his 10% ownership in several casinos.
Despite this intrigue, Las Vegas continued to flourish. Nicknames such as “Lost Wages” were used affectionately to describe the scene. Then in 1966, a new influence changed Las Vegas, even while not threatening its prosperity. Howard Hughes, the eccentric, reclusive billionaire, started buying up hotels and casinos. Probably, mob owners, feeling the heat from federal investigators, thought this was a good time to sell. Hughes is widely credited with bringing fundamental change to any evil tint in the Las Vegas image, even while leaving its gambling and glitz intact.
Hughes remained active in the city (no longer a town) for four years. After his death in 1975, new entrepreneurs bought up many of his properties. Some older hotels, such as the Sands, were torn down and newer, even more magnificent hotels and casinos took their place.
But then, Las Vegas faced a new phenomenon, that of competition. Atlantic City, New
Jersey, legalized gambling and built new hotels, casinos, and theaters to rival those
Also, on Native American reservations, comparable casinos started to be built. One tribe, the Catawbas of South Carolina, said that, for moral reasons, they would only allow bingo games on their land. But most tribes had no hesitation over starting full-
Such competition lowered Las Vegas growth rates, but general prosperity for the hotels and casinos continued. At some point, probably in the late 90s, the city tried to change its image from traditional glitz and sexiness to family orientation. Advertising started to stress family activities and facilities. This radical difference didn’t seem to work very well. As an alternative, with the new century, Las Vegas tried to combine its appeal across the board, to glitz, sexiness, and also family activities.
In the serious recession of 2008, Las Vegas’ economy was hit hard, as were all leisure-
Recovery has been slow, but all its hotels and casinos, such as the new Venetian and Palazzo, look as attractive and well-
One fan of the city is the very popular comedienne and author, and Las Vegas resident, Rita Rudner. In her novel, “Turning the Tables,” her salute is thanks to Las Vegas, “For being so silly and so good to me.” Overall, Las Vegas should retain its title of “Bawdy, glamorous, entertainment+ mecca.”