Las Vegas Sun - History

October 16, 2021

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Bill that transformed a city


The bartender and patrons of this early Las Vegas saloon appear unconcerned with the two burros at the bar in this 1905 photo titled Launch slideshow »

A piece of Nevada legislation with a name of big dreams and high expectations, "The Wide Open Gambling Bill of 1931," was the cornerstone on which Las Vegas’ modern economy was built.

Upon that footing, gambling became a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry that transformed Las Vegas from a sleepy Union Pacific Railroad watering stop into an international city that is the most visited place on Earth.

Gambling was first legalized in Nevada in 1869 when the Legislature overrode a governor’s veto. Gambling became popular in mining camps and towns in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

During Las Vegas' early years, gambling was confined to one area of the city, Blocks 16 and 17 just off Fremont Street, where houses of prostitution were also tolerated.

But pressure from churches, educational leaders, women’s groups and reformists forced the state to outlaw gambling in 1910. Despite the ban, many Nevada saloons continued to offer gambling in their backrooms.

With the arrival of the Roaring ’20s, attitudes were swinging back toward legalizing gambling in the state.

In 1925 a bill was introduced at the Legislature to legalize gambling but overwhelmingly failed in the Assembly. The 1927 Legislature considered a similar bill that passed the Assembly comfortably but lost in the Senate by a single vote.

It took a northwest Nevada wrangler to finally rope in the votes needed. In 1931, freshman Assemblyman Phil Tobin, then a 29-year-old cowboy from Humboldt County, decided to take a shot with his gambling bill.

Despite opposition from moralists, the measure passed the Assembly 24-11 and the Senate 13-3. Gov. Fred Balzar quickly signed the measure and gambling once again was legal in what was then the nation’s least populous state.

Tobin earned the moniker “father of modern Nevada gambling” for his efforts, although he came to regret some things that happened because of his legislation. In an interview late in his life, Tobin said he did not envision gaming in certain types of businesses.

“I don’t think it’s right allowing these one-armed bandits in every supermarket … and restaurant in the state,” he said.

Soon after passage of the bill to legalize gambling, casinos were popping up in Las Vegas, with the first being the Meadows in May 1931, east of Charleston Boulevard and Fremont Street.

The Strip began with the opening of the Last Frontier and El Rancho Vegas during World War II. The Flamingo opened after the war.

The 1950s brought in more casinos, including the Sands, Desert Inn and Riviera. Caesars Palace and Circus Circus opened in the 1960s.

The early games of chance in casinos included faro and monte — card games that are no longer played in Nevada casinos. (In faro, players wagered on the rank and sequence of cards pulled from the dealer’s box. Monte was a card game played without the 8s, 9s and 10s in a deck of 40 cards.)

Through the 1950s and ’60s, table games were at the forefront of gaming, including craps, blackjack, roulette, poker and baccarat.

But with the onset of multicoin, electrical and video games in the 1970s, slots began taking over in popularity and today are the top gambling attraction for most visitors.

In the late 1980s the megaresort era was ushered in with the opening of the Mirage, forever changing the skyline of the Strip.

Venerable older Strip casinos including the Sands, Dunes and Desert Inn were imploded to make way for larger resorts with more convention space, thousands of hotel rooms and huge casinos.

Noted Gamers

Here, in alphabetical order, are some of the key casino operators who helped build Las Vegas (* denotes deceased):

WILLIAM BENNETT* — Developed modern gaming marketing techniques that made Circus Circus properties the envy of Wall Street investors and later owned the Sahara. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1990.

BENNY BINION* — Opened the Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas in 1951 and innovated gambling by raising craps limits to $5,000 and starting the World Series of Poker in 1970. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1990. Son Jack Binion, also a gamer of note, enshrined in the AGA Hall of Fame in 2004.

SAM BOYD* — Built Sam’s Town in southeast Las Vegas, paving the way for neighborhood casino gambling and oversaw a casino empire that included the Fremont, California and Stardust. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1991. Son William Boyd, also a noted gamer, enshrined in the AGA Hall of Fame in 1993.

WILBUR CLARK* — Developed the Desert Inn and operated it at a time when it was considered the most luxurious resort on the Strip.

MOE DALITZ* — Helped finance completion of the Desert Inn and also oversaw the Stardust in its earliest days before building the Sundance (today’s Fitzgeralds) in the late 1970s.

RALPH ENGELSTAD* — Built the Imperial Palace, where he long displayed his huge antique auto collection.

MEL EXBER* — Owned the downtown Las Vegas Club and became a leader in the sports gaming industry by posting early betting lines and creating innovative sports wagering opportunities.

FRANK FERTITTA JR. — Purchased the off-Strip Bingo Palace and turned it into the Palace Station, which became the flagship of the Stations Casinos empire that includes the Texas Station, Red Rock Resort and Sunset Stations. His sons, Frank III and Lorenzo, took over the company in 1993.

JACKIE GAUGHAN — At one time owned 11 gaming properties including the Plaza Hotel and El Cortez downtown. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1990. Son Michael Gaughan also developed several casinos, including the Gold Coast and the Orleans.

E.W. GRIFFITH* — A Texas hotel magnate who purchased 35 acres along Highway 91 (now Las Vegas Boulevard) for $35,000 and built on it the western-themed Last Frontier, which opened on Oct. 30, 1942.

J. KELL HOUSSELS SR.* — Ran the Tropicana and was instrumental in the growth of the Las Vegas Club, Showboat and El Cortez. His son J. Kell Houssels Jr. also became a noted gaming figure who was enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1998.

HOWARD HUGHES* — Acquired in the 1960s major casinos including the Desert Inn and Sands as tax shelters to offset the windfall he received for selling his airline. He also at one time owned the Frontier, Castaways and Landmark.

BELDON KATLEMAN* — Bought El Rancho Vegas in the mid-1940s and renovated and expanded it through the 1950s. Started the popular Las Vegas trend of using entertainment to promote the casino, signing such headliners as Joe E. Lewis for his showroom.

KIRK KERKORIAN — Built the MGM Grand and International Hotel, which now is the Las Vegas Hilton. Sold the original MGM to Bally’s and built the modern MGM Grand farther south on the Strip. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1991.

DON LAUGHLIN — Built the Riverside casino on the shores of the Colorado River in the Southern Nevada gaming boomtown to which he gave his name. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1991.

CLIFFORD PERLMAN — Along with brother Stewart in the 1980s turned Caesars Palace into one of the most successful gaming operations in Las Vegas history. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2007.

MILTON PRELL* — Operated the Club Bingo and built the Sahara on the same site before opening the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood) in 1966.

MAJOR RIDDLE* — Operated the Dunes, built the Silver Nugget in North Las Vegas and turned the old Thunderbird into the Silverbird in the 1970s.

JAY SARNO* — Helped build Caesars Palace and later built Circus Circus. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 1989.

DEL WEBB* — Bought the Sahara, built the old Mint, operated the Thunderbird and ran casinos at Lake Tahoe, Reno, Laughlin and Atlantic City. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2000.

CLAUDINE WILLIAMS — With husband Selby opened the Holiday Casino on the Strip on July 2, 1973, and continued to run it after he died in 1977. Remained a top executive with the resort after it became Harrah’s. First woman enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame, in 1992.

STEVE WYNN — As chairman of the Golden Nugget, he ushered in the megaresort age by building the Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio, then sold them and built the Wynn Las Vegas, where the Desert Inn once stood. Enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2006.

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