Las Vegas Sun

December 11, 2023


How Vegas became a city like no other

Mix mobsters, visionaries and stars with desert, add decades



Clockwise from left: Atomic testing: This aboveground nuclear explosion in 1957 was one of 100 set off in the desert 65 miles north of downtown Las Vegas at the test site, which opened in 1951 and eventually employed a total of more than 100,000 people. Gaming: Gamblers play roulette at the Apache Casino on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas during the 1930s. Nevada relegalized gambling in 1931, paving the way for the development of modern Las Vegas, after outlawing it in 1910. Hoover Dam: Built in the 1930s, the dam created Lake Mead, the source of 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply. Along with the nearby Grand Canyon, the dam is a major tourist attraction, with many choosing to see it from the air. Personalities: Peter Lawford, from left, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop — the Rat Pack — perform in January 1960 at the Sands. People flew to Las Vegas from all over the world to see their act.

For what was for so long a small town, Las Vegas always has been about big things.

The gangsters and the gaming pioneers were larger than life.

The entertainers were the biggest and the brightest of stars.

Even the bombs were huge, as towering mushroom clouds from aboveground atomic testing in the 1950s were as iconic as the flickering neon and the stretch of skyscraper resorts that would become the signatures of this desert oasis.

That colorful past and its rich characters are captured in a new presentation on the Las Vegas Sun Web site, the History of Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada featuring videos, interactive maps, a documentary film series and historical photos and stories.

On the site you can learn about gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, whose legend has become far more myth than fact, and a string of mobsters who, though they put the city on the map, long held a stranglehold on the lucrative gaming industry.

You can follow the lives of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and megaresort icons Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian, who legitimized gambling as a national passion and made Las Vegas a mainstream Wall Street investment opportunity.

You can watch and listen to stories about Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley, who along with the 99-cent shrimp cocktail, loose slots and a chance to win money on a toss of the dice has kept the rest of America coming back to Las Vegas for three quarters of a century.

And if you look past the glitz of the Strip and gaming, you can consider the major Southern Nevada government facilities that have played a significant role on a national and world stage, from Hoover Dam to Nellis Air Force Base to the Nevada Test Site.

The history of Las Vegas indeed is the history of big things, big personalities and big events that tell a colorful tale of a city rich in magnetism and long on spectacle.

The Mobsters

Las Vegas folk lore has credited mobster Bugsy Siegel as the city’s visionary leader. But Las Vegas historians, including the late Frank Wright, spent decades trying to debunk that misconception.

Siegel stole the under-construction Flamingo hotel from Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson, who had run short on construction funds and needed the mob’s financial assistance to finish the place. Siegel had grown up in poverty in Brooklyn and quickly learned that crime was an easy way to make a buck. As a teenager, he hooked up with fellow thug Meyer Lansky, who would go on to become a major figure in American organized crime.

Siegel was a bootlegger and a killer, earning the confidence of New York crime bosses, who sent him to Los Angeles in 1937 to set up West Coast gambling operations and to Las Vegas four years later to establish a race wire for legal horse betting parlors.

Siegel soon got his hands on the Flamingo and told his mob superiors the resort could be completed for $1 million. But Siegel mismanaged construction, causing costs to swell to $6 million.

The Flamingo opened the day after Christmas in 1946 during a downpour. People stayed away, including many of Siegel’s Hollywood celebrity friends. The resort and casino dipped another $300,000 into the red after just two weeks of operation.

His mob-buddy investors grew angry. At a meeting in Havana, mob bosses agreed to have Siegel killed. His boyhood chum Lansky reportedly voted with those who wanted Siegel dead and reluctantly gave the orders to make it happen.

He was gunned down on June 20, 1947, in the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. The slaying remains unsolved.

Lansky continued to wield significant influence over Las Vegas until his death in 1983.

The mob skimmed revenue from local casinos until the FBI cracked down on its racketeering operations in the early 1980s and, for all intent and purposes, eradicated organized crime’s influence from local resorts.

Gamers and Resorts

In 1931, barely more than 5,000 people lived in Las Vegas. Today, 2 million people call Clark County home. That population boom has been tied directly to the phenomenal growth of gaming. The Wide Open Gambling Bill of 1931 relegalized gaming, which had been outlawed in 1910, and laid the cornerstone upon which Las Vegas’ economy was built, transforming the sleepy railroad watering stop into an international city and popular tourist destination.

Soon after the bill’s passage, casinos popped up in Las Vegas, with the first being the Meadows in May 1931. Eleven years later, the Strip was born on barren, dusty Highway 91 with the erection of the El Rancho.

The next three decades saw the rise of the Strip’s signature casinos: the Last Frontier, Flamingo, Desert Inn, Riviera, Sands, Dunes, Sahara, Circus Circus and Caesars Palace.

And in the 1990s some of them started falling. The Sands, Dunes, Landmark, Hacienda, and recently the Stardust and New Frontier, were imploded to make way for larger and fancier resorts.

In 1969, billionaire Kerkorian built the International Hotel, now the Las Vegas Hilton. In the early 1990s, Kerkorian opened the $1 billion MGM Grand, then the world’s largest hotel.

In the late 1980s, the megaresort era was ushered in by Wynn opening the Mirage, followed by the Treasure Island and the $1.7 billion Bellagio. The fabled Desert Inn was closed after Wynn purchased it and imploded it in 2004 to make room for Wynn Las Vegas.

And though Kerkorian and Wynn can rightfully take their places among the pantheon of legendary Las Vegas builders including the Desert Inn’s Wilbur Clark, Caesars Palace’s Jay Sarno and the Sahara’s Del Webb, one name stands out above them all: Howard Hughes.

In the late 1960s, Hughes acquired major casinos, including the Desert Inn, Frontier and Sands, as tax shelters to offset the windfall he had received for selling a major airline.

Without fanfare, Hughes came into town on Thanksgiving night in 1966, and, whether he intended to or not, proceeded to give birth to the corporate age of Las Vegas gaming.

Over a four-year period, he bought not only resorts but vacant lots along the Strip and vast holdings in Northwest Las Vegas upon which Summerlin would spring up — a real estate empire then estimated at $300 million.

Hughes, who withdrew into a world of movies on television, drugs and an obsession with germs, left abruptly on Thanksgiving Eve 1970 by private jet to the Bahamas. He never returned to Las Vegas. He died on April 5, 1976, on a plane flying from Mexico to Houston.

The Entertainers

In 1960, the landscape of Las Vegas was changing. The El Rancho and its trademark windmill burned to the ground and a troupe of tuxedoed headliners calling themselves the Rat Pack debuted at the famed Sands’ Copa Room.

Led by singer Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack included singers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., comedian Joey Bishop and actor Peter Lawford. Sands patrons paid $5.95 per person to see the booze-swilling quintet perform — and that included two drinks and dinner.

They had vaulted Las Vegas into the spotlight as the Entertainment Capital of the World and, for the next several decades, would perform as individual headliners in major Las Vegas showrooms. When Sinatra died in 1998, the Strip lights were dimmed in tribute.

The Rat Pack paved the way for other major acts that would follow on Vegas stages, including flamboyant pianist Liberace, the Beatles, Wayne Newton and illusionists Siegfried & Roy.

Elvis Presley received lukewarm reviews from Las Vegas showgoers when he debuted at the New Frontier as a swivel-hipped, 21-year-old rock ’n’ roller in 1956. But when he returned to the International (later Las Vegas Hilton) on July 26, 1969, he was a smash hit.

When Presley performed in Las Vegas at $15 a ticket — that also included two drinks and dinner — one of every two visitors to town saw his sold-out shows.

In all, an estimated 2.5 million people saw Presley perform at the International/Hilton through his last engagement on Dec. 12, 1976. He died on Aug. 16, 1977, at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn.

Since then, scores of Elvis impersonators have performed at venues throughout Las Vegas, including as licensed ministers at wedding chapels and as Flying Elvi parachuting from planes.

The Sites

Las Vegas, surrounded by wide-open desert and federal lands, also has been of strategic importance to the U.S. government.

In the early 1930s, the Boulder, now Hoover, Dam was built in Southern Nevada to help bring the nation out of the Great Depression by providing hundreds of jobs for engineers and able-bodied laborers.

The concrete gravity-arch dam has since provided the region with significant protection from floodwaters, has generated more than 4 billion kilowatt-hours of affordable electricity annually and has long been a major supplier of farm irrigation and drinking water.

Shortly after the start of World War II, the government opened the Army’s Las Vegas gunnery school on land that in 1952 would become Nellis Air Force Base.

Today that military installation is home to key international military exercises and the Thunderbirds Air Force demonstration squadron.

But few facilities have been of as vital importance to Las Vegas’ economy — and the nation’s security — as the Nevada Test Site.

It opened in 1951, 65 miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas, as the nation’s aboveground nuclear weapons testing center and became the site of 100 aboveground detonations. Over the next five decades, more than 100,000 people were employed there.

In 1963, the United States and Soviet Union signed a treaty that required the superpowers to conduct all nuclear experiments underground. Underground testing ended in September 1992.

Today the Test Site continues to have vital national importance as a remote location for chemical tests and training for homeland security.

Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this story.