Las Vegas: An Unconventional History
Episode One | Episode Two
Nick Pileggi, Author: Las Vegas is the place where the steam gets let off. It's like a vacation, people can come here and feel they're living a naughtier life.
Marc Cooper, Author: Las Vegas is clockless and in that sense it does throw your whole rhythm off, and I think that that induces a kind of spacelessness, a weightlessness, a placelessness, so that Las Vegas becomes a world unto itself.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: I mean this is after all a city in the desert, so Las Vegas suggests of course that the whole rest of the world is the desert and it is the oasis.
Dina Titus, State Senator: We don't want anything in Las Vegas that upsets the tourist, and if it's a touch of reality that is not pretty then we want to get rid of it. You don't want to come in contact with reality when you're here for fantasy.
Dave Hickey, Art Critic: It's not a deeply introspective culture. It's not about the interior life. There is no gap between the thought and the act. In life it's like, oh, should I do this, should I do this, should, its like (snap)! So that kind of hesitation and contemplation is not really a part of this culture.
Elaine Wynn, Resort Director: Maybe there's some mystical thing about Las Vegas. You know you'd like to think that man governs and dominates all the decisions that make history unfold, but clearly people must have been in the right place at the right time. Now, some could say it's just nature, I say it's luck.
Yvette Dixon, Maid, Bellagio: There's so much more to Vegas than the Strip. And when you get here and see what else they have you won't even come to the Strip. Housekeeping. Hello? When I lived in California I didn't have many opportunities, but here they got so many hotels coming up, stores open up everyday, so you can get a job real easy. Might not be the job you want but it'll be a job until you can get the job you want. My brother moved here, to Las Vegas, so I would come here and visit him, and he said, you should come up here, it's easy to get a house up here and stuff. When you apply for it, you can move into a brand new house. They build it the way you want, you know, the way you want them to, no money down. Not a penny. Now that was for me! I was ready for that. So it's real nice, it's a two bedroom, two bathroom, but right now I'm thinking about getting a bigger house because I have three granddaughters now, so we're going to get a bigger place. It's just like any other town, it has clubs, zoos. You wouldn't think Vegas would have a zoo, but they got a zoo. We never drove around, when we come to Vegas we come straight down the boulevard and we stayed on the Strip and I never got out. But you know once you gamble and lose your money, you go home, what else to stay for? But it's a real town! This is indeed the best move I ever made. I wasn't established in California. I went there in 1970. I never bought a house, I never owned anything, and when you get in your forties you have to own something, you know. So soon as I moved here, I got my jobs, got a new car, got a new truck, got a new house and I've only been here six years. I cleaned up!
David Thomson, Author: I think the hold of this place is it's on the edge and it needs to be. It's always been a place where you look out of your windows and see the sun rise or set on the desert, and know that there are snakes and serpents out there. It's biblical in that way. And if you can imagine the place devoid of all construction you would quickly say well, who on earth would have come here? Because it's not a sensible place to build a city and I think there is still that feeling of kind of really surreal triumph over the elements, you know. Damn those elements. We can beat 'em.
Narrator: A more godforsaken locale could scarcely have been imagined. But in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Southern Nevada's Black Canyon looked to many Americans like paradise.
In just six months, some 42,000 men descended on that desolate spot, desperate to land one of the 5,000 construction jobs on the Boulder Dam -- also known as Hoover Dam -- a massive engineering project that would harness the mighty Colorado River for the benefit of a half dozen states throughout the Southwest.
For four and a half long years, the dam workers would spend their days slaving between walls of stubborn hardrock that was literally too hot to be touched, and their nights penned up in Boulder City, a federal reservation with few of the comforts of home, and all of the same hometown rules -- no gambling, no prostitution, and absolutely no liquor.
They lived for payday. With money in their pockets, they blew out of Boulder City as if it were on fire and headed straight for a dusty little town in the middle of the Mohave called Las Vegas.
There, along a two-block stretch of Fremont Street, the town's main drag, and in the nearby red light district known as Block 16, they encountered one of the greatest concentrations of wide-open vice to be found anywhere in Prohibition America -- a bawdy, brightly-lit cluster of gambling dens and hot-sheet prostitution cribs and saloon after saloon after saloon.
Marc Cooper: They were living in these camps in this unforgiving desert in a state of real lockdown and let's face it, there is absolutely nothing to do. So you had two choices on payday in Boulder City: you could stay back in the camp and not drink and maybe play some cards with your friends and wait for night to come, or you could hit Fremont Street and gamble and drink and party until your check ran out. Now which one would you choose?
Narrator: Founded in 1905 as a railroad town, Las Vegas had enjoyed about a dozen years of prosperity, catering to passengers on layover and supplying the mining camps to the north and south. But its stint as a classic western boomtown had been short-lived.
In 1922, after a national strike idled the line through the town for nearly a month, the railroad moved its repairs shops and laid off hundreds of people. Many businesses went belly-up -- and some observers thought sure the place would wind up a ghost town.
In desperation, local boosters dreamed up wild schemes to keep the town afloat: a county fairground, dude ranches for prospective divorcées, and a nine-hole golf course that lacked only one key component -- grass. But nothing really worked.
In the end, what saved Las Vegas was Nevada's historic tolerance for sin.
Eugene Moehring, Historian: Nevada lacked the resources that other states had; it was so arid that it lacked enough water to develop industries. In 1890, Nevada was the lowest populated state in the union. It had less people than you could fit in Fenway Park in Boston. Some states actually talked about Nevada becoming part of California and abolishing Nevada all together. And so in order to keep people here, and keep the economy going, none of the towns really abolished their frontier vices immediately.
Dave Hickey: Well I mean the history of Nevada, I mean it's just a big desert, you know. It's an eight hour drive with nothing in between here and Reno, I mean it's really nowhere. And its whole tradition is doing illegal stuff. You know, I mean, they do divorces. They do prize fights. They do all this stuff that was banned from Prohibition America. And so this became the way you make money in the desert.
Narrator: But it wasn't until early 1931 that Nevada had truly solidified its reputation as the nation's rogue state. At a time when games of chance were illegal everywhere else in the country -- and diehard gamblers had to play in back alleys and underground clubs -- Nevada lawmakers had taken the scandalous step of legalizing wide-open, casino-style gambling.
Inside of a few months, Las Vegas's Fremont Street was wall-to-wall gambling houses, and penny slot machines had been installed in nearly every gas station and grocery store in town.
David Thomson: This allowed east coast America, academia, Washington, the churches, to say Sodom and Gomorrah, an enormous stain upon Nevada in the eyes of the east, which I think lingers to this day.
Narrator: Legal gambling alone would likely never have brought people to a place as remote as Las Vegas. But with the pleasure-starved residents of Boulder City now just down the road, the desert outpost was about to make a killing.
Curiosity about the Dam boosted business even further. In 1932, some 100,000 people went to gawk at what was fast becoming known as the "eighth wonder of the world," and many paused en route to sample the unique attractions of Las Vegas. By that time, the opportunistic town had long since taken to billing itself as the "Gateway to the Boulder Dam."
Then, in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt came to town -- and within a matter of months, the thousands of dam workers abruptly disappeared. Fremont Street, one observer remembered, was suddenly "as empty as could be found."
Thanks mainly to the Dam, Las Vegans had discovered the immense potential for profit in America's forbidden desires -- but to fully exploit it, they would have to find a way to lure people to the desert. For now, the prospects seemed dim. As one writer put it: "The people were not here yesterday, and [they] will not be here tomorrow."
Marc Cooper: There is a thread that runs through the whole history of this place as it relates to America and American culture. It's a refuge, it's a place that you run to. It's a place that you indulge yourself in. It's a way out of the incredible straight jacket that we find ourselves in, in our highly regimented and regulated lives.
Joe Frehner, Wedding Minister: A lot of people come to Vegas and get married because they start planning a wedding at home and the cost gets out of hand. You might have cousin Charlie come along and say, oh you can't do it that way, you've gotta do it this and then grandma says, well you've gotta do this and they say forget it. They get on an airplane, come to Vegas, and get married.
Wedding Minister: Will you love, honor, respect, and be faithful to him all the days of your life?
Wedding Minister: Marriage is an honorable estate instituted by God in the very beginning of man. It is therefore never to be entered into lightly, but reverently, sincerely, and in the love of God.
Wedding Minister: I've been doing weddings ten years and I have done a little more than thirty-seven thousand. Eighty-six is the most I've done in a day. I did one wedding on stage in a total nude joint. I did a commitment ceremony one night for a man and his motorcycle. I had a lady come in one day, had a couple of attendants with her were all dressed up, she wanted to marry herself.
Wedding Minister: I notice one of you lives in New Orleans and one lives in Metairie.
Woman: Metairie, yeah.
Wedding Minister: Metairie? Are one of you going to move or are you gonna be happy? (laughter)
Man: We're going to move together.
Wedding Minister: The wedding chapels are a business. I think that some of the ministers who do weddings in this town confuse that with a ministry. Now I roll with the punches. Whatever these people want is OK with me.
Wedding Minister: Jergen, do you take Gudren to be your lawful wedded wife?
Translator: (translates the minister's words into German)
Jergen: Yes I do.
Wedding Minister: Gudren, do you take Jergen to be your lawful wedded husband?
Wedding Minister: By the powers vested in me by the state of Nevada, I pronounce you husband and wife.
Wedding Minister: You got a wedding down there? OK, alright, hold on to them I'll be there as quickly as I can. I think marriage is great.
Narrator: The British writer Somerset Maugham once described Monte Carlo, the glamorous gambling resort on the French Riviera, as "a sunny place for shady people." By the early 1940's, the same might have been said of Las Vegas.
The first big wave of so-called "sporting life" characters had arrived back in 1938, after a reform-minded mayor ran them out of Los Angeles. An easy day-trip from the City of Angels, Las Vegas had become the obvious destination for the scores of illegal gambling operators and cardsharps and dirty cops on the lam.
Eugene Moehring: They gravitated to the city because they had the expertise. They knew more than many of the local yokels who were running the small casinos of how to make customers happy, how to give comps, when to do it. And they brought a real expertise in casino management to Las Vegas.
Narrator: Now came one of the more infamous denizens of L.A.'s underworld, a dapper and often volatile mobster by the name of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
A key player in a national crime organization known as the Syndicate, Siegel, at 36, was arguably one of the most crooked entrepreneurs of his time.
He'd spent most of the 1930's in Hollywood, overseeing L.A.'s half-a-million-dollar-a-day bookmaking enterprise and paling around with studio executives and movie stars on the side. But when Nevada became the only state in the Union to legalize the racewire, a service that relayed thoroughbred racing results to off-track bookies across the country, Syndicate boss Meyer Lansky sent Siegel to take over the action in Las Vegas.
Eugene Moehring: Bugsy Siegel was sent up to Las Vegas in 1941 with Moe Sedway to eliminate James Ragan who owned a racewire here that the mob did not control. These guys came here and they created a rival race wire. They charged lower prices and eventually they got rid of Ragan by poisoning him. Once they had eliminated Ragan, it was obvious to Siegel that there were real possibilities here for the mob.
Narrator: Las Vegas was still basically a one-horse town -- a train depot and a row of gaudy gambling joints, surrounded by thousands of acres of undeveloped desert. But there was every reason to believe the place was headed for a spectacular boom.
Two new defense installations had been recently situated on the outskirts of town, which together had brought thousands of people and their payrolls into Las Vegas's orbit. And now that the country was at war, hordes of impatient couples were already stampeding over the border into Nevada, where state law allowed them to tie the knot without waiting for the blood tests required back home.
Since Las Vegas also performed quickie divorces -- and already ranked as one of the country's top spots to dump a spouse -- Siegel figured the casinos on Fremont Street would soon be packed to the rafters.
If the Syndicate wanted to get in on the ground floor, he told Lansky, now was the time.
Over the next several years, with Lanksy's blessing, Siegel sank mob money into a handful of gambling halls on Fremont Street, before buying the El Cortez outright in 1945. The official owner was a front man. Behind him was a roster of investors that read like a Who's Who of organized crime -- men who got their share of the profits from cash skimmed off the top.
Marc Cooper: There's no taxes on a skim and there's no bookkeeping on a skim. It is your up front money. When the mob controlled one of these casinos they had their operatives who would effectively supervise what's called the hard count room. Which is where you count up the money and you knew that if Bob or Joe was the guy who would come in literally with a sack or with a box and pick up some money and walk out the door, well nobody saw anything.
Nick Pileggi: A lot of money came out of those places and, you would know, there were people who had the breakdown of how much, this goes to Chicago, this goes to Milwaukee, this goes here. You knew to the penny where that money was going and who was getting it.
Narrator: The scheme was so simple and so profitable that Siegel was soon pushing the Syndicate to make a more sizable investment, this time in a risky new development roughly three miles from the center of town, on frontage bordering Highway 91, the two-lane road to Los Angeles.
Out there in the barren desert, Siegel told his associates, they could open a place that would be beyond the city limits and the reach of the city slot tax. Better still, there was space enough for a full-fledged resort -- an upscale joint with a casino and a swimming pool and a parking lot. Two sprawling motor inns, the El Rancho Vegas and the Last Frontier, had already been built on that model, and so far, they'd been doing a respectable business.
Now, Siegel's longtime acquaintance Billy Wilkerson, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, was trying to raise money for a third -- a glamorous place like the nightclubs he owned on the Sunset Strip.
Nick Pileggi: Ben Siegel then wound up looking at Vegas and he said the war is over, it's 1945 and '46. America wants to party. Gotta remember the country had been through a horrendous war. America was looking for a good time. He said let's invest money.
Narrator: Siegel's associates ponied up 1.5 million -- enough to buy a two-thirds stake in Wilkerson's project. The plan now, Siegel told a reporter, was to build "the goddamn biggest, fanciest gaming casino and hotel you bastards ever seen in your whole lives." He would call it "The Flamingo."
Nick Pileggi: Before Benny Siegel opened The Flamingo, the look of the casinos in Las Vegas were all cowboy casinos. They were western. There was sawdust on the floor. Benny Siegel comes in, he creates an urban Miami beach hotel in the middle of the desert. Suddenly when you walk into a casino, you're not met by a guy with a cowboy hat and a six shooter and cowboy chaps, no you're met by a guy in a tuxedo, you're met by a guy that looks like Dean Martin.
Narrator: With its swank atmosphere, wall-to-wall carpeting and a new-fangled air cooling system, The Flamingo would eventually become a favorite hot spot for the Hollywood crowd.
But by the time construction was finally completed, in the spring of 1947, Siegel had overrun his budget by four and a half million dollars, and the Syndicate's mood had soured. A few months later, Siegel was gunned down in his girlfriend's Beverly Hills home and Lansky's deputies took over The Flamingo for the Syndicate.
By then, the word on Las Vegas was out, and wise guys from all over the country had already begun decamping to the desert: from Phoenix, Syndicate bookmaker Gus Greenbaum; from Minneapolis, local mob boss and rum-runner Davie Berman; and from Cleveland, the one-time kingpin of the Mayfield Road Gang, Moe Dalitz.
Nick Pileggi: When these guys came here it was like a morality or ethical car wash. You came here, you were cleansed of your sins, you were now legitimate and legal. I didn't care what you did, you got a wash.
John L. Smith, Writer: Las Vegas of fifty years ago was an island, a desert island, an outpost of hedonistic excess, of vice. Everywhere else in America, every four years when the district attorney needed to get reelected, he busted the gambling dens, but here was this island where bad could become good, where illegitimate could become legitimate.
Brian Greenspun, Editor: They came out here and the shackles came off. They could do in the sunshine what they could only do in the shade where they came from. And they said to themselves, I know they said it, this is a place to make our home, this is a place to raise our families.
Narrator: As one resident put it, Las Vegas was now home "to more socially-prominent hoodlums per square foot than any other community in the world."
It was also fast becoming the ideal front for organized crime, as new casinos like the Thunderbird and the Desert Inn sprouted up on Highway 91, and the cash from the skim found its way into the pockets of mobsters as far away as Chicago and Miami.
Nevada authorities could do little about it.
Marc Cooper: Gambling was so stigmatized and was morally impure that the only way you could finance this was with illegal funds. So the gambling interest and the mob interest were intertwined with the establishment. Everybody from the PTA, to the Mormons, to the businessmen, they saw nothing, they heard nothing, and they did nothing and the money was rolling in.
Narrator: For Nevada, it was a devil's bargain. Were it not for its shady citizens, Las Vegas may well have shrunk back into the desert. But a thriving gambling town run by reputed mobsters was not likely to earn much respect in the centers of national power. The question now was not if Washington would come calling, but when.
Dina Titus: A lot of people who settled here had a real frontier mentality. So that attitude of don't regulate me, don't tell me what to do, don't fence me in, especially if you're the federal government still prevails today.
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Steve Werk, Cowboy: When we first moved here you could ride out my back door and ride five hundred miles north and only cross two paved roads. Used to feel like it was pretty wide open, you knew your neighbors, everybody talked to each other. The kids were always out hunting rabbits, hunting coyotes, they would ride clear back to Sheep Mountain, and there are some old Indian caves back there and they'd spend the day and then come home. You didn't have to worry about where they were, who they were with because you knew everybody in the neighborhood. There was only twenty families in the five mile area. It was a rural way of life and we're trying to maintain that in this little block right here, but they're slowly chipping away. If they would have had some kind of planned growth this could have been a good thing, but when you run out of water and you run out of usable land and you start crowding people together just for the sole purpose of making an extra buck instead of trying to develop a quality of life or a type of life that people want then it becomes something entirely different. More and more of my neighbors are moving, more and more people are putting their houses up for sale. Vegas has changed.
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Archival Newsreel: The nation's underworld catches the unwelcome spotlight of publicity as the Senate's Investigation Sub-Committee begins new hearings on crime.
Narrator: For the men who ran Las Vegas, periodic scrapes with the law were a fact of life. So none were particularly alarmed when, in the spring of 1950, the U.S. Senate launched a major investigation into organized crime.
Word had it that the Senate Committee was slated to take testimony from some 800 witnesses in 14 American cities. Not surprisingly, Las Vegas was high on the list.
As the more seasoned players in town saw it, there were a variety of possible outcomes: the Senate hearings could force greater regulation of the casinos or increase the taxes on their profits or even, God forbid, actually shut Las Vegas down.
But many took comfort from the fact that the probe was being headed by Estes Kefauver -- a man whose regular tirades against gambling didn't keep him from chalking up near-perfect attendance at the racetrack.
Archival Newsreel: The Kefauver crime committee meets the press in Washington.
Estes Kefauver: Organized crime does operate on a syndicated basis across state lines in the United States. That is a much bigger, more sinister and a larger operation than we had ever suspected.'
Eugene Moehring: Kefauver was a senator from Tennessee, a Democrat from the Bible Belt. He was an opportunist and he saw bashing Vegas and attacking the mob as a way to perhaps get the Democratic nomination in 1952.
Narrator: Throughout the summer and early fall, the publicity surrounding the nationally televised proceedings forced the closure of illegal gambling dens and other mob-run enterprises across the country.
Las Vegans, meanwhile, awaited their turn with amusement. As one mobster's daughter remembered it: "Privately, my father and his friends joked that the [Committee] would never shut them down. They had never had any respect for politicians since they had made a career of bribing them."
Some in town even saw fit to lay odds on the outcome of the hearings. Almost no one put their money on Kefauver.
The Senate Committee spent hours taking testimony from local witnesses -- and uncovered no hard evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever. The casinos in town were legal and the operators had the full sanction of the state.
In the end, the entire hearing came off as an advertisement for America's unofficial mobster metropolis.
John L. Smith: His intention was to drive these scoundrels underground, to put a little light on them and watch them scatter. Well some of them did scatter, they scattered from the east and from the south, and they came out to Las Vegas.
Marc Cooper: He created a gangster Diaspora. All of the sudden, gangsters, illegal gamblers from bingo parlors and roulette dens, they had nowhere to go, they're feeling the heat. Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel had already gotten a foothold here, Moe Dalitz was already here and they said 'ya know what, we're going to Las Vegas.' So really it was the organized drive to push gambling out of American life that created the biggest gambling center in the world.
Narrator: "I love that man Kefauver," cracked one recent arrival. "When he drove me out of an illegal casino operation in Florida and into a legalized operation in Nevada, he made me a respectable, law-abiding citizen and a millionaire."
Las Vegas had managed to survive the federal government's scrutiny. But it still needed to make its mix of sin and syndicated crime appealing to Main Street, U.S.A.
John L. Smith: Las Vegas has been a place apart, it's been other, it's been outlaw. And it actually fought against that image, that reputation, initially trying to sell itself as, we're just like everyone else, and, boy don't we have a lot of chapels and churches? But this has always been crossroader country.
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Colette Diamond, Real Estate Agent: I was in music for twenty-five years, my family. I'm one of ten, and my family was in show business. We were the Louisiana Family Band. I remember I was really young and we used to travel all the time, we didn't even go to school. We would perform six nights a week and we lived in hotels.
Colette Diamond: It was the way I grew up, and we were all together, we would play cards in the back of the truck and, you know, and we'd sing all the time and that's just how life was. I always wanted a home though.
Colette Diamond: That's how we came to Vegas, we were performing. And then I got into cocktails.
Colette Diamond: I was you know, schlepping cocktails and he was valeting and we would meet at home and he'd say, "OK! We got a hundred and fifty dollars!" And we had a little bucket, I swear to you a little bucket, we'd put it in and we'd kinda cry to each other, how it's kinda tough, you know? So we'd put our money in our bucket and we saved up. Fifteen thousand dollars, just like that.
Colette Diamond: We just did it one drink at a time. So we did that until I came home one day and my daughter had on my cocktail outfit and she says, "Mommy I want to be just like you." So I started real estate school the next day. (to a client) I think this fits right into what we're looking to accomplish. We're trying to change the look of the Las Vegas market. A nice community park, obviously see the gorgeous, incredible mountain views there.
Woman: When was this built Colette?
Colette Diamond: This was built in 2003.
Colette Diamond: We bought our first home, it was out in the boonies, it was fourteen hundred square feet. We sold it, we doubled our money. The next one we did we quadrupled our money and I just kept saying, "I know I can do this!" I see right now I sell million dollar houses to people who ten years ago were just like me. And in this community and this kind of an environment, it's given us that dream. I never could have done this, for us, anyplace else. And music brought us here, and here we are. If somebody would have ever said, my daughter would go to Our Lady of Las Vegas or that on her birth certificate it would say Las Vegas, I never in my wildest dreams would've thought that, cause you think of Sin City. When we first decided to get off the road and raise our baby here I said, "How can we live in Las Vegas, we're raising a little girl?" He says, "You know what, I have a vision that we can have our life here and we can be in it but not of it."
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Archival Newsreel: FALL, 1950. A fierce international war rips through a small country called Korea. Russia has successfully detonated an atomic bomb. Now more than ever before, we need to develop and produce a greater number and variety, and possibly even more powerful atomic weapons. And like all new ideas and weapons, new atomic bombs must first be tested. But where?
Narrator: Just before dawn on January 27th, 1951, a blinding white flash lit up the Las Vegas sky. Minutes later, there was a thundering blast that left a trail of broken glass from Fremont Street clear out to the Strip.
Atomic bomb testing at the Nevada proving facility had begun. Over the next twelve years, 120 nuclear devices -- an average of one every five weeks -- would be detonated above ground in the Mohave desert, just 65 miles from downtown Las Vegas.
"We have glorified gambling, divorces and doubtful pleasures to get our name before the rest of the country," wrote Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun. "Now we can become a part of the most important work carried on by our country today. We have found a reason for our existence as a community."
Dina Titus: Having the atomic testing program here gave us a certain amount of legitimacy. Up until that point we were just a spot in the desert, we were prostitution, we were gambling. Suddenly we were helping to win the Cold War and I think people could grab a hold of that because it was a good thing to do for democracy.
Narrator: At a moment when the word "atomic" was cropping up on signs all over the country, when Boy Scouts were laboring to earn their "atomic energy" merit badges and Hollywood was putting out films about nuclear espionage, Las Vegas had the singular distinction of being the only city in America with a front row seat at ground zero.
In the hands of Las Vegas's publicity machine, the spectre of nuclear annihilation now became spectacle. The Chamber of Commerce put out a series of press releases promoting the explosions as entertainment, churned out up-to-date shot calendars to help tourists schedule their trips and distributed road maps that highlighted the best vantage points around the Test Site.
Casinos, meanwhile, hosted "bomb parties" that culminated with a predawn blast, and offered limousine service to guests hoping to get as close to ground zero as possible.
David Thomson: The bombs went off at dawn, wonderful spectacle, and people would go up to the roofs and they'd watch with glee. It was part of the entertainment, it was definitely part of the show.
Dina Titus: If you think about the mushroom cloud, it's a very powerful, very sexy, very scary concept. And so it fits right in with tourism, risk. You know gambling is all about risk so you take that mushroom cloud and you pin it on a beauty pageant contestant or even some of the casinos would pack picnic lunches for you to go out and watch the mushroom cloud. I would have done it if I'd been here at that time. What could be more exciting than that?
Archival Newsreel: "This is Walter Cronkite and this is Newsman's Nob. Some seventy-five miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, the bomb will be exploded from a tower three-hundred feet high and this time some thousand troops will be in trenches only some two miles from the tower where the atomic device goes off."
Brian Greenspun: My father used to take us as kids. We used to go up to Mount Charleston. And I remember watching these mushroom bombs, and a number of minutes later these particles, these pink particles, would just settle over us, this dust. And that was all radioactive fallout. We all took the government's word that it was safe and the government lied to us.
Narrator: As the decade wore on, there would be pockets of protest -- and in 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty would finally put an end to the atmospheric detonations.
But for now, any misgivings Las Vegans harbored about the bombs were easily brushed aside. The town was growing. Tourism was booming. And every time a radioactive cloud bloomed over the desert, Las Vegas again made the news.
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Dina Titus: Las Vegas succeeds because it has to. When you deal with adversity you've got to be creative, I mean it's brittle and it's brutal, but if you make it, boy there's no stopping you. It's a very American thing. It's that very kind of egalitarian notion, everybody can strike it rich. I think that's one of the things that's appealing, it appeals to that American Dream.
Jodi Wetzel, Showgirl: The lovely thing about Vegas is a dancer can have a long life here. The show Jubilee, it offers job security that you don't usually get in shows in other places. It's been going on for twenty-three years. As long as your body is in shape and you look good, you can hang, you can stay in the show. We've got a lot of dancers that are you know, thirties, forties. Our principal dancer just left last contract, she's fifty-one years old. That's cool, cause I like it, it's nice, easy living out here.
Jodi Wetzel: This is the largest production of its kind in the country, if not the world. It represents all classic Las Vegas. That's Bally's whole theme is, you know, real life, Las Vegas, it's where classic glamorous Las Vegas lives. You know, I just love the show, I thought it was a little campy but it's fun you know, and it's a good show and I think that you know, this is, it has everything people want when they come to Vegas. You know this is what they are expecting, they want the feathers and the rhinestones and, tits and glitz we call it!
Jodi Wetzel: We do six at Bally's and usually about nine to ten hours at Dre's, sleep for maybe three, four hours and get up and do it all again, so for the better part of the last two years I've been working seven days a week. People come here and they come to party, especially in the after hours they tend to get louder and ruder and more demanding. You know I keep my pace but you're still absorbing it, you're still taking it in, you're still being affected by it. I'm definitely getting different extremes of Vegas with the two different jobs. Eventually I'll have to let go of it, it's kind of wearing me down a lot but now I'm just hooked. I'm just hooked on having money in my pocket again. I just struggled so much in New York that I just don't want to go back to that.
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Archival Feature Clip:
Wife: "Do you realize what it would mean if anybody in North Point found out that Mr. Earnest Raff, the president of the bank, was in Las Vegas? Our life has been rich and full, you don't want to ruin our reputation by spending a weekend in a place like that!"
Husband: "No one will know anything about it but us."
Wife: "Alright, I dare anything you dare."
Husband: "Alright, get in! There you are, slide over. Next stop, Las Vegas!"
David Thomson: In the prosperity of the postwar period that notion begins to creep in around the edges and then begins to seep to the center, where people look at each other and say maybe we could have some fun. And everyone says well what do you mean by fun? Las Vegas said to people look, you could come here for a weekend, you can gamble, leave your wife at home, do you understand what I mean by that? And we'll give you a little bit of fun.
Marc Cooper: Las Vegas was perfectly positioned to cash in on the postwar consumerist prosperity boom. I mean think about it. 1950's, the rise of the national highway system, the emergence of motoring as a leisure activity and money. It's ok to have fun, it's ok to seek leisure, it's ok to go on frivolous vacations and it's ok to push the edge.
Narrator: By the mid-1950's, Las Vegas was everywhere Americans looked. A casual flip through any of the country's leading magazines and one was reminded, yet again, that the wanton desert city was the place to be.
At this point, for the average tourist, Las Vegas was not really one city, but two. Downtown on Fremont Street, lately dubbed Glitter Gulch, the rugged, western feel of the old frontier outpost still prevailed and joints like the Horseshoe set the tone.
Owned and operated by Benny Binion, a convicted bootlegger who had killed at least two men back home in Texas, the Horseshoe was the only place in town that would accept any bet a player put on the table -- no matter how high -- and the first to ply to clientele with free booze. "If you wanna get rich," Binion liked to say, "make little people feel like big people."
Marc Cooper: Here was a guy who was a bigger than life, tough talking, pistol packing Texan. But, he instilled the ethic in this city that the customer was number one. It's a cliché, but it's the cliché that has built the most visited place in America.
Narrator: But it was the stretch of Highway 91 on the southern edge of town -- that now most often leapt to mind when Americans thought of Las Vegas. Known as "the Strip," it was fast-becoming what one journalist called "a never-never land of exotic architecture. . . flamboyant signery and frenetic diversion . . . [that is] the heart of this unspiritual Mecca."
Bankrolled almost entirely by the mob, new Strip resorts rose up out of the scrub with dizzying regularity -- first the Sahara and the Sands, then the New Frontier and the Riviera and the Dunes, then the Tropicana and the Stardust. At times, the gala openings were just weeks apart. By the end of the decade, the swath of highway would be so lit up with neon that it was visible from fifty miles away.
David Thomson: What happens is the mob quickly realized that it's an enormously lucrative thing, that there could be many casinos, and they also realized that tourists, they're going to hear about Las Vegas and it's going to be exotic and romantic and glamorous.
Narrator: In the quest for tourist dollars, no gimmick was too bizarre. At the Sands, there was an annual Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest. The New Frontier installed a glass-enclosed chamber at the bottom of its swimming pool, so that guests could enjoy their cocktails with an underwater view. One publicist even toyed with the idea of filling a hotel pool with Jell-O, before a desperate maintenance engineer put a stop to the stunt.
Resort owners touted the Strip as Hollywood's playground, and kept their hotels in the news by offering the press regular access to their stars.
And unlike the bare-bones casinos on Fremont Street, the Strip resorts lured patrons to the tables with an irresistible concoction of luxury and diversion -- posh accommodations, eternally green golf courses, lavish midnight buffets.
But the biggest draw was the shows. Inspired by the Sands, which had been the first to hire a top-flight entertainment director, the new resorts poached managers from the hottest nightclubs on both coasts, and charged them with booking the brightest stars in the country. By the mid-fifties, the Strip marquees boasted what one reporter called "a wider choice of top-banana talent" than could be found even on Broadway.
Suddenly, for the price of a cup of coffee, visitors to Las Vegas could catch the kind of act that they had only seen on the silver screen.
David Thomson: Noel Coward is hired to come here, and the idea that boy, that place, this new place, this upstart place can get Noel Coward, and Dietrich came, and Judy Garland, and you know people who were major showbiz legends came and had smash hits for a lot of money.
Narrator: Nowhere else in America, not even New York, were performers paid so well -- as much as 50,000 dollars for a one-week stand. The stars, in turn, plugged their Vegas gigs every time they appeared on TV. The arrangement was so mutually-beneficial, in fact, that by the mid-1950's, the entertainment industry's newspaper, Variety, found it necessary to station a full-time correspondent in Las Vegas.
As the competition in town mounted and the price of star-studded productions soared, some resorts made skin their headline attraction. With each passing month, costumes in local revues grew skimpier, until finally, in 1957, the dancers at the Dunes appeared on stage topless. "Pretty girls sell," one Las Vegas promoter explained. "You need to do something to get people's attention."
But the entertainment was never more than a sidelight -- "a smart business hype," noted Life magazine, "[that] brings gambling patrons in." Actress Tallulah Bankhead put the matter more baldly: "Dahling," she once said to a reporter, "we're just the highest-paid shills in history."
To the casino owners, it was an investment well worth making. With the odds stacked overwhelmingly in favor of the house, they stood to make a fortune. All they had to do was get people in the door.
Some Americans, at least, proved more than willing to be taken.
Marc Cooper: You came here and just by coming here you were making a statement. You were a little bit gamey; you were a little bit on the edge. And that was a real novel concept in American popular culture. It was the first national permission granted to you to be an adult and to do things that you might not ordinarily do but you wanted to do, and I think that was really kinda the intoxicant that drove Las Vegas.
Narrator: By 1955, Las Vegas was reeling in an estimated seven million visitors a year -- more than the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon combined. Few if any of them ever ventured off the Strip -- the frenetic adult playground that had now given Las Vegas the moniker "Sin City."
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Paul Goldberger: I think this notion that Vegas is a place where the underside of the American psyche could express itself a little more, could come out from under the rock as it were, has been there for a long time. Las Vegas was created as this place in which sort of good people could be bad and yet not lose any points for doing so. That whatever happens here doesn't count.
Randy, Gambling Addict: I gamble on the way to work, I gamble after work. On my way to work if I want some money I wouldn't go to work. Then I go home and lie to my girlfriend that I'd worked overtime and my car broke down or something, I was living quite a lie. My name is Randy, I'm a compulsive gambler, my last bet was June ninth, a famous day.
Bob: I'm Bob and I'm a compulsive gambler.
Chris: My name is Chris and I'm a compulsive gambler.
Woman 1: When I was out there gambling I was just crazy, I mean I would leave my newborn son at home with my twelve year-old at the time and not caring about going home, not caring about anything.
Randy: You can't walk into a Seven Eleven or an AM/PM or anyplace else without there being slots. The grocery stores have slots. Ain't got 'em in McDonald's or Burger King yet, but it'll happen probably. You know I got to the point where I was gambling my whole check and I was borrowing from whoever, family, whoever to cover, cover my butt and I finally ran out of people to borrow from and, well, I didn't want my fiancée to leave me so I guess in a panic you could say, I figured I had no other alternative other than to rob a bank. Ran in there and gave the lady a note and she started handing me money and, went running out of there, I can remember saying excuse me to somebody walking out the door. Doesn't hurt to be a nice bank robber. Right now I'm awaiting sentencing. It seems that it'd be a really scary time, which it is, but I know that the sentencing I'm waiting on could not be as bad as the sentence I was in.
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Narrator: Beyond what one visitor called the "fabulous, extraordinary madhouse" of the Strip in the 1950's, Las Vegas was exploding. Each year, thousands of newcomers flocked to the booming desert city, first doubling, then nearly tripling its population. By the end of the decade, the metropolitan area would be home to more than 127,000 people.
Most tourists never even glimpsed the neighborhoods where all these new residents lived. They likely had no idea that Las Vegas claimed more houses of worship per capita than any other city of equal size, or that growth had so taxed the water distribution systems that sewage effluent was used to keep the golf courses green.
And certainly almost none of the millions who passed through Las Vegas each year had ever been to the Westside -- a sprawling, squalid neighborhood across the railroad tracks from Fremont Street that was home to some 15,000 African-Americans.
Patricia Cunningham, Talk Show Host: West Las Vegas, the west side was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was not unusual to see cars almost bigger than the very houses they were parked in front of. It was the most segregated neighborhood that I had ever witnessed in my life. It was a given if you were African-American, you had to live west of the railroad tracks.
Eugene Moehring: The first significant numbers of African-Americans came to Las Vegas during World War II, to help build and work in the Basic Magnesium factory, a defense plant. There were many white people who hoped that once World War II ended they would leave and go some place else. But the hotel industry, the growing Strip and downtown created lots of low-paying jobs for custodial labor, room maids, waiters and whatever. And so ironically it was the Las Vegas hotel industry that kept African-Americans here.
Narrator: Like virtually every other city in the country, Las Vegas was rigidly segregated. African-Americans were relegated to the lowliest positions in the hotels and casinos, and barred from patronizing most every establishment in Glitter Gulch and on the Strip.
Even the black performers who headlined in town were shunted out of the showrooms when the curtain came down and effectively exiled to the Westside, where dingy rooming house accommodations went for as much as fifteen dollars a night -- roughly fifty percent more than the going-rate for a room on the Strip.
Patricia Cunningham: That was the excitement of Las Vegas. You could go to a lounge show for a two-drink minimum, not only see topnotch entertainment, but you might be sitting next to Frank Sinatra. Those were the kinds of experiences you could have walking through a casino. You never knew who you would run into. That was the thing, after the shows, they went to the lounges. But the African-American entertainers could not do that.
Narration: But in 1955, the color line began to threaten gambling profits. The trouble began with the Moulin Rouge, the city's first integrated resort, which upped the ante in town by adding a third nightly show -- and instantly siphoned off business from the Strip.
Alice Key, Activist: It was a fabulous place. That's where we used to gather and we were joined by a lot of people from this side of town. In fact, everybody was over at the Moulin Rouge; it was a huge success. Every night was packed to jam.
Narrator: Meanwhile, as the struggle for civil rights gained force and momentum in the South, African-American celebrities began to challenge Jim Crow in Las Vegas -- demanding rooms in the hotels where they played and refusing to perform unless black people were allowed in the audience. Strip owners were over a barrel: they could either concede or risk losing some of their biggest attractions. The desire to keep the casinos crowded trumped the color line nearly every time. Then, in early 1960, the local NAACP ratcheted up the pressure.
Alice Key: NAACP called a march on the strip and they notified the resort hotel association, and if they didn't want to see it on national television, they would open their doors.
Brian Greenspun: The hotels don't want this fight, they don't want these headlines all over the country. And this town was run by the hotels. When they said do, it got done.
Narrator: The day before the planned protest, at the Moulin Rouge, members of the NAACP met with the mayor, the governor, and a group of local businessmen. In a matter of hours, they had finalized an agreement to lift the Jim Crow restrictions at every hotel, restaurant, bar, casino, and showroom in Las Vegas.
John L Smith: You know in retrospect people will look back and remember how liberal they were, but in reality back then there were very few whites standing up with blacks. There were folks who believed that blacks were bad for business, but the one thing that the casino bosses have always protected is their bankroll and anything that they see that has threatened it was put aside.
Narrator: It would be more than another decade before the city was fully desegregated, before African-Americans could hold the more lucrative casino positions or make their homes beyond the Westside.
But the Moulin Rouge agreement, as it would come to be known, had underscored an irreducible truth: the color that mattered most in Las Vegas was not black or white, but green.
Marc Cooper: People say that Las Vegas is a town based on fantasy, but I don't think so. I think Las Vegas is in some ways the more honest and most authentic place in America because it gets us down to what much of our relationships are about in any case, which is money, and we don't like to talk about that out in the real world. This is a city where the only currency is currency. It's a place where as long as you have the chips, you are equal to everybody. Nobody cares what your race is, your color, your gender, your sexual orientation, in fact they don't even care if you have a criminal record. Everybody is the same until you're out of money. And then when you're out of money you're just out.
Narrator: By late 1960, Las Vegas was so iconic that Warner Brothers was inspired to set a major motion picture in town, a rollicking saga about a five-million-dollar casino heist gone awry, starring three legendary veterans of the Vegas entertainment scene -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
When shooting on the film wrapped for the day, the trio would make late-night appearances, along with their co-stars Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, in the luxurious Copa Room at the Sands.
They called their act "the Summit." Their fans called them "the Rat Pack." The show was such a hit that it would run on and off for years.
Steve Wynn, Resort Chairman of the Board: We went to the Sands hotel, where every business guy with money on the planet was trying to get through the door. Every swinger and do-da-diddy guy, every sporting life character on the face of the earth was in Las Vegas, taking every room in this small town so they could get a seat at the Rat Pack. And the air in the Sands crackled. Something was happening. The music was playing on the PA system of Sinatra and Dean Martin doing Guys and Dolls and things like that. The charisma, the excitement, the electricity in the building in the afternoon was beyond belief. There is no parallel to it today. The lights go out. The band plays music, and the announcer says "Welcome to the Sands Copa Room," and then without another word the curtain opens and Frank Sinatra walks out, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, with no introduction.
Dave Hickey: They were not nice America, you know, I mean they were just sort of the dead end of cool, they were the dead end of all that jazz scene, they were sort of the embodiment of these big Italian ghettos and Jewish ghettos. I mean they are the emblematic creatures of this culture and they don't, you know, kowtow to no one.
David Thomson: I think that people who came here knew the mob were in control, and Sinatra and the Rat Pack they sort of acted it out, as if to say, you know what's really going on here, don't you? And it was part of the glamour for the ordinary person.
Nick Pileggi: They were urban half-ass wise guys, they played the game, and they were very sharp and dangerous. They drank too much, they played around with different women, everybody knew they were cheating on wives. This was not a Donna Reed film festival. These guys were bad.
Marc Cooper: Everything that Vegas promised it would be and said it would be really was embodied in those handful of weeks when the Rat Pack was here performing every night. What it really was, was a pinnacle of Vegas Cool. No question that that really was the high water mark of Las Vegas. We flippantly refer to Las Vegas now and then as Sin City but that's when Las Vegas was really Sin City.
Narrator: Among the scores of luminaries who the caught the Summit in the winter of 1960 was John F. Kennedy, a young Senator from Massachusetts who had only just recently announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
Kennedy had been coming to Vegas for years -- bewitched by its beautiful women, its whiff of danger, and its promise of a never-ending good time. The city, in turn, had claimed the charismatic candidate as its own.
But once Kennedy reached the White House, his administration would turn on Las Vegas and launch the most sustained attack on the city in its history.
The question then would be whether a place made famous as "Sin City" could survive if it cleaned up its act.
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