Las Vegas Sun

July 18, 2019

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5-minute expert:

A look at Las Vegas through the years

Las Vegas became a town in 1905. During the early part of the 20th century, it was little more than a dusty village in an alluvial valley, named after the green meadows that were fed by naturally flowing springs.

World War II spurred a population boom, and the rough-and-tumble town became a place to escape and have fun.

Here is a look at the past eight decades and the people who lived, worked and played here.


1940 population: Las Vegas: 8,422

Notable: The 1940s saw the expansion of the hotel-casino concept, where new facilities included pools, restaurants, coffee shops, gardens and parks in addition to a casino. Before, hotels were simple, western bunk-houses with a casino in the lobby.

• El Rancho Vegas and El Cortez open in 1941. Last Frontier opens in 1942.

• Alamo Airport becomes McCarran Field.

• The Flamingo opens in December 1946.

• Liberace debuts in November 1944.

• Popular performers at the time include Jimmy Durante, Martin and Lewis, and the Mills Brothers.

• In 1942, actor Clark Gable stayed at El Rancho Vegas after his wife, actress Carole Lombard, had been killed in a plane crash. He came to town to claim the body and spent the weekend pacing his room.


1950 population: 24,624 (+192.4%)

Notable: By 1955, nearly 8 million people visit Las Vegas every year. In 1956, the 12-story Fremont Hotel opens downtown, becoming the area’s tallest building, but more resorts continue to open on the Strip. UNLV holds its first classes in 1957.

• Desert Inn opens in April 1950.

• Las Vegas Morning Sun begins publishing in July 1950.

• Moulin Rouge, the area’s first integrated hotel, opens in 1955.

• Also open for business: Desert Inn, Sands, Dunes, New Frontier, Sahara, Hacienda, Stardust and Tropicana

• Performers in town include Nat King Cole and Red Skelton. Frank Sinatra makes his first performance at the Desert Inn. Elvis makes his infamous (and not entirely successful) debut at New Frontier.


1960 population: 64,405 (+161.6%)

Notable: The Limited Test Ban Treaty in October 1963 bans above-ground nuclear tests, which means tourists strolling the nighttime streets of Las Vegas no longer see the glow of an atomic fireball in the sky.

• Ten major hotels open on the Strip and Fremont Street.

• Wayne Newton’s first show opens in 1963 at the Flamingo.

Viva Las Vegas is released in 1964.

• Howard Hughes arrives in a two-car private train over Thanksgiving 1966.

• Siegfried and Roy open in 1967 at Tropicana.

• Aladdin opens with 400 rooms.

• Rat Pack performs for the first time in 1960, at Sands.


1970 population: 125,787 (+95.3%)

Notable: After 837 sold-out shows in Las Vegas dating to 1969, Elvis performs his final engagement at the Hilton in December 1976. In 1974, gambling is legalized in Atlantic City, N.J., providing Las Vegas’ first real U.S. competition.

• Howard Hughes leaves Las Vegas in 1970 after becoming Nevada’s largest private employer, largest casino owner and largest property owner. He dies in 1976.

• Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes out in 1971 and explores a whole new side of the city.

• Liberace earns $125,000 per week in 1975, making him Las Vegas’ top-drawing performer. He opens his museum in 1979. (It closes in 2010, but might reopen.)

• One-dollar slot machines cause a sensation in casinos. National hotel corporations begin opening hotel-casinos, thanks to the Corporate Gaming Law passed in 1969.

• The King dies in Memphis in 1977.


1980 population: 164,674 (+30.9%)

Notable: A dark event starts the decade, when the MGM Grand hotel catches fire in November 1980. Although the fire doesn’t rise above the second floor, smoke fills the hotel. Eighty-seven people die and 700 more are injured.

• Vegas experiences a slowdown in gambling due to Atlantic City legalizing gambling in 1974. The first legal casino to open on the East Coast is Resorts International in 1978.

• “Hello Dere!” Marty Allen and Rossi perform at the Maxim Hotel. Rooms are $29.50.

• Wayland and Madame perform in “One of a Kind” at the D.I.


• Mickey Finn plays at the Landmark Hotel for $7.95 per person.

• Thanksgiving dinner at the Circus Circus costs $4.95.

• Holiday Inn Galley Restaurant: $1.17 breakfast anytime, $2.47 lunch buffet.

• Mirage opens in 1989 and changes guests’ expectations. It’s the first major Strip hotel built since the early 1970s.


1990 population: 258,295 (+56.9%) Notable: The 1990s could go down as the most active construction decade in Las Vegas. One sensational megahotel after another open, and each tries to out-theme the other. Pirates, King Tuts and Venetian gondolas populate the Strip.

• UNLV wins the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1990.

• Implosions: The Dunes and its iconic 180-foot sign comes down • in 1993. The Landmark falls in 1995; Sands in 1996.

• During Jan Jones’ reign as mayor (’91-’99), hotel capacity explodes from 70,000 hotel rooms to more than 130,000, and tourist volume more than doubles, from 15 million to 35 million visitors.

• Fremont Street Experience is completed in 1995.

• Stage shows became complex presentations including Cirque du Soleil’s “Nouvelle Experience.”

• By 1999, the Las Vegas Valley’s population is more than 1.3 million residents.


2000 population: 478,434 (+85.2%)

Notable: In November 2007, the New Frontier is imploded. While not as infamous as other stalwarts from the Rat Pack glory days, it was where Elvis made his Las Vegas debut in 1956, when he received a cool reception from the slightly older crowd than he was used to.

• Siegfried and Roy’s run of 30,000 shows ends in 2003 when Roy Horn is mauled by a tiger.

• Implosions: El Rancho in 2000, Desert Inn in 2001, Boardwalk in 2006, Bourbon Street in 2006, Castaways in 2006, New Frontier in 2007 and Stardust in 2007.

• After leveling the Desert Inn, Steve Wynn builds his first eponymous hotel in 2005.

• Resorts expand and usher in a new era of luxury. CityCenter, a concentrated mega-resort on 76 acres, opens in 2009 adding 4,800 hotel rooms.

• Economic implosion of 2007-08 devastates Las Vegas. Unemployment in Nevada eventually tops 14 percent.


2010 population: 583,756 (+22.0%)

Notable: The 2010s bring the opening of a new megaresort, the Cosmopolitan, and face-lifts and renamings of older properties. Imperial Palace becomes the Quad (then the Linq), Fitzgerald’s becomes the D, and Terribles becomes Silver Sevens, among other new names.

• PAWN STARS: In 2009, a TV show debuted on the History Channel chronicling the life and times of three generations of pawn brokers. By the early 2010s, Pawn Stars was a runaway hit, making the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop a tourist draw in Las Vegas.

• PAN STARS: Celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay open high-end eateries all over town. Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Giada De Laurentiis and Nobu Matsuhisa are just a few of the culinary gods to reign.

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