Las Vegas - A brief history of Sin City: Part 2
Here it is for you, Part 2 of our Las Vegas History blog feature. As you may remember, we left off in the 40s with WWII in full-swing and Vegas still primarily what we know as "downtown" today:
Considered the first "strip" property, the success of the El Rancho Vegas triggered a small building boom in the late 1940s including construction of several hotel-casinos fronting the two-lane highway leading into Las Vegas from Los Angeles. The stretch of road evolved into what we know today as the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. Early hotels included the Last Frontier, Thunderbird and Club Bingo. The El Rancho Vegas was razed by fire on June 17, 1960 and as time passed, many other first-generation Strip resorts lost their identity through absorption by new owners, demolition, extensive renovation and name changes.
Perhaps most celebrated of the early resorts was the Flamingo Hotel, built by mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a member of the Meyer Lansky crime organization. The Flamingo, with a giant pink neon sign and replicas of pink flamingos on the lawn, opened on New Year’s Eve 1946.
While the El Rancho Vegas and other 1940s resorts followed a western ranch-styled theme, the Flamingo was what Siegel called a “carpet joint.” It was modeled after resort hotels in Miami. Only the Flamingo Hotel name has survived the 1940s era of Las Vegas Strip development. The final end of the Flamingo as Bugsy knew it was announced early in 1993 when Hilton Corp. revealed plans to construct a $104 million tower addition at the Strip resort - the last of a six-tower master plan. The addition opened in the spring of 1995.
Architectural plans included razing the outmoded, motel-style buildings at the rear of the property, dooming the fortress-like “Bugsy Suite” and bullet proof office used by the gangster before his death in 1946. In December 1993, the last remnants of Bugsy Siegel and his residence were destroyed when the hotel bulldozed the Oregon Building that held the suite in which the gangster once lived.
Resort building continued to accelerate in Las Vegas in the 1950s. Wilbur Clark, once a hotel bellman in San Diego, Calif., opened the Desert Inn in 1950. Two years later, Milton Prell opened the Sahara Hotel on the site of the old Club Bingo. The Sands Hotel opened that same year, 1952. In 1955, the Riviera Hotel became the first Strip "high-rise" at nine stories. Previously, Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn had offered guests the highest unobstructed panoramic view of the Las Vegas Valley from the resort’s third-floor Skyroom, a cocktail and dancing haunt of visitors, residents and celebrities.
Other resorts that opened during the building boom begun in the 1950s included the Royal Nevada, Dunes, Hacienda, Tropicana and Stardust hotels on the Strip and the Downtown Fremont Hotel-Casino. In another part of the city, the Moulin Rouge Hotel-Casino opened in 1955 at a time when blacks were not welcomed guests at Strip casinos and black entertainers were required to live off-premise while entertaining Strip audiences. The Moulin Rouge, frequented by all races, was built to accommodate the growing black population.
Joe Louis, the late heavyweight champion of the world, was a Moulin Rouge owner-host. As times and attitudes changed, Louis became a much loved figure at Caesars Palace on the Strip. The Moulin Rouge was declared a national historic site in 1992 when plans for its revival were announced.
City and county community leaders also realized in the 1950s the need for a Las Vegas convention facility. The initial goal was to fill hotel rooms with conventioneers during slack tourist months. A site was chosen one block east of the Las Vegas Strip and a 6,300-seat, silver-domed rotunda with an adjoining 90,000 square foot exhibit hall opened in April 1959 on the site of the current Las Vegas Convention Center. The silver dome was demolished in 1990 to make room for convention center expansion to a 1.6-million square-foot facility of which 1.3 million square feet is exhibit space. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), supported mainly by room tax revenues, is headquartered there and today is a major player in attracting tens of millions of visitors to Las Vegas each year.
Entertainment, along with gambling, built Las Vegas’ reputation as a destination getaway to the world. When the El Rancho Vegas was the only resort on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941, singers, comedians, strippers, instrumentalists, dancers and a wide variety of performers were booked to entertain hotel guests in the resort’s small, intimate showroom. The hotel-casinos that followed copied the successful star format for a number of years.
The Stardust was the first hotel to break with the star policy by debuting a stage spectacular as its main entertainment feature. The resort imported the Lido de Paris from France. It was acclaimed by critics as a more spectacular version than the Paris original and enjoyed a 31-year run at the Stardust Hotel.
The success of Lido encouraged other resorts to adopt a production show policy. The Dunes, which disappeared from the skyline in a fiery, dusty staged implosion in 1993, engaged Minsky’s Follies in 1957, the first time that topless showgirls debuted on the Las Vegas Strip. The Tropicana Hotel bought the American rights to the spectacular Folies Bergere which finally closed last year after an amazing run of nearly 50 years.
During the 50s and 60s, casino lounges also provided continuous entertainment from dusk to dawn at no charge to the customer except the cost of a drink. These lounges, which became major entertainment attractions in their own right, spawned the names of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Alan King, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, the Mary Kaye Trio and many others.
It wasn't just live entertainment that was changing however. Las Vegas gambling styles, games and machines evolved to keep pace with more sophisticated, affluent players. Baccarat appeared in high-roller Strip casinos. Keno writers no longer used black indelible ink brushes to mark tickets. Mechanical slot machines, once affectionately termed “one-armed bandits” became antique collector items in the new age of electronic gaming. Blackjack dealers no longer dealt single decks but switched to “shoes” that held multiple decks. Silver dollars, once the coin of the realm in Nevada, disappeared and were replaced in casinos with silver-dollar-size tokens.*
That's it for part two - look for part three in an upcoming post here at the M Point of View.