Skip PBS navigation bar, and jump to content.
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

spacer above content
Film Description

Boulder Club, Las Vegas. 1930s. This story's too good to stay in Vegas.

Well-heeled mobsters, glamorous showgirls, fantastical mega-casinos, dazzling neon displays -- it's the world's most famous monument to reckless abandon and unbridled excess. From a dusty railroad town in the middle of nowhere, Las Vegas has grown into one of the world's premier tourist destinations. Once shunned as "Sin City" and considered beyond the pale of respectable society, it is now the epicenter of mainstream leisure, attracting more visitors than the holy city of Mecca.

American Experience steps into the world of bright lights and back-room deals to illuminate what makes Las Vegas perhaps the most American city in the country. From filmmaker Stephen Ives (Seabiscuit, Reporting America at War) and Emmy Award-winning writer Michelle Ferrari (Seabiscuit), Las Vegas: An Unconventional History has been named the official documentary of the city's year-long centennial celebration. A companion book of the same title is being published in November by Bulfinch Press.

Although glitz and glamour define the Las Vegas that more than 37 million tourists flock to each year, the city sprawls well beyond the Strip and draws new residents at a head-spinning pace. Ives and his team document how this once remote and exotic desert outpost transformed itself into the fastest-growing city in the United States -- a place where tens of thousands of jobs are created each year, sixty new streets are named each month, and an average of more than a thousand prospective residents arrive each week. Among its many monikers, Las Vegas can add City of Opportunity for its unmatched job prospects and booming real estate market.

While there is life beyond the Strip, Las Vegas will always be best known as a place of escape. From its incarnation as the favorite nightspot for the men who built the Hoover Dam, to its most recent re-invention as a post-modern desert fantasyland, the city has made its living by anticipating the desires of its visitors and then catering to them. "Las Vegas is a city that understands better than any other what Americans want most when they run away from home," says director Ives.

Peopled with unlikely heroes and villains, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History looks at the figures who shaped the Las Vegas we know today, from icons like Bugsy Siegel and the Rat Pack to less well-known characters drawn to this desert fantasyland in search of the American dream. The film also explores the forces that have always kept the city a few paces ahead of mainstream America: Las Vegas was the first city to legalize gambling; one of the first cities to dissolve the color line; the first and only city to make atomic testing a tourist attraction; and perhaps the only city whose dazzling main street can be seen from outer space.

The documentary features interviews with resort entrepreneurs Steve and Elaine Wynn, media mogul Brian Greenspun, local columnist John L. Smith, and writers Marc Cooper and Nick Pileggi. It also includes profiles of ten modern-day Las Vegans, who together provide a complex look at life in the nation's fastest-growing city.

"There's something about Las Vegas that has captured the imagination of the world," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "Gambling towns have been around for ages. But Las Vegas stands alone in its grandeur, its magnetism, its garishness. It's a city, and an experience, that -- for better or for worse -- could exist only in America."

Las Vegas: An Unconventional History documents the often surprising, endlessly entertaining history of America's most outrageous playground.

Film Credits

page created on 7.11.05 back to top
Site Navigation


Las Vegas: An Unconventional History American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: