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

Las Vegas: An Unconventional History

Episode One | Episode Two

Narrator: At mid-century, Las Vegas was by far the strangest city in America -- a city built in the middle of the desert, where the main commercial district was comprised not of offices or banks, but hotels, where businesses operated 24 hours a day, raking in enormous profits from gambling -- an activity outlawed everywhere else in the nation and where many of the leading citizens were neither politicians nor priests but convicted criminals and professional racketeers -- men with longstanding ties to the mob.

Founded as a railroad town back in 1905, Las Vegas had made its mark as a place of illicit desire, a refuge from the laws and values that held sway in the rest of the country.

But now, as social revolution swept the old rules aside, the forbidden allure of Sin City would begin to fade -- and Las Vegas would lose its way.

Amazingly, when it rose again, the city would no longer be at the fringes of American life, but at its very heart.

Marc Cooper, Author: Each period in our history has some city that embodies the spirit of America. Whether it was Boston at the time of the American Revolution, or New York City at the times of the great immigration to America. And now in our culture that is marinated in electronic entertainment, where there is this kind of immediate appeal to the senses, to immediate satisfaction, to immediate experience, to sensation over thought, to the present over the past or the future, Las Vegas is the city of the Eternal Now. There is no place that better captures the spirit of the American culture, for better and for worse, than Las Vegas.

John L. Smith, Writer: You can explore many of the deadly sins here, but none more so than greed. In America the ultimate expression of capitalism is greed is good. Las Vegas shows you that greed is at least fun.

Marc Cooper: Las Vegas was based on the commercialization of all your desires. No desire is taboo its only a question of how much does it cost?

Elaine Wynn, Resort Director: It's the feeling that you're so far removed from people that want to tell you what to do that it just feels free.

David Thomson, Author: It is the licensing of fantasy. There is that opportunity or the illusion of the opportunity that you can change everything.

Steve Wynn, Resort Chairman of the Board: Secrets mean nothing. This is not Wall Street, that operates on an imbalance of information. Here's a place where if you've got a good idea you've got to shout it out.

Dave Hickey, Art Critic: It's the whole kind of oasis effect. It is this thing in the desert. It has no rational reason to exist. The wastefulness of it is very sexy.

Brian Averna : So we're here to build the world's largest birthday cake, a hundred and thirty thousand pounds of cake and frosting.

Woman 1: Happy birthday Las Vegas! At midnight we officially turn a hundred. Good morning everybody we turn a hundred years old officially in ten minutes.

Brian Averna : OK, my name is Brian Averna, I'm one of the corporate executive chefs of Sarah Lee. We provided the cake and the frosting tonight. We have sixty tables with two volunteers per table doing nothing but frosting. They're just going to stand there as if they're making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and that'll happen for the next twelve hours. This is a big community event, but it's also a pretty serious undertaking. Look at these people, its one o'clock in the morning, you know its Vegas, so one o'clock doesn't mean anything. There's kids here, there's families that are here. What a great way to be involved in the centennial.

Woman 2It's just nice to see the community pulling together. This is awesome, it's been a long time since we've all pulled together to do something like this.

Woman 3: It's fourth generation Las Vegas.

Brian Averna: There's a hundred and thirty thousand eggs in the cake batter alone. There's twenty-four thousand pounds of flour, thirty-six thousand cups of sugar. I know that if you added all the calories together we'd be around twenty three million calories for the whole cake. We've got seven hours and we'll probably do it in six hours and fifty-nine minutes. Can you do a quick fix on this before it collapses on us?

Woman 4: We have to get it done by two o'clock, is it the time? We have a deadline!

Woman 5: Pick it up a notch people, let's go, forty-five minutes! Can we do it?

Oscar Goodman, Mayor: People have been asking me, why such a big birthday cake? Well, you're only a hundred once, a hundred years old, and to have anything less than that would be very un-Las Vegas. This has to be the biggest, the best, the greatest, the most exciting, and that's what Vegas is, this is symbolic of us.

Brian Averna: I think we went over by several thousand pounds, we went a little heavy on the frosting.

Woman: Perfect piece look, that's way too much!

Oscar Goodman: Now we have this perfect birthday cake, the biggest party, the greatest party, for the greatest city in the history of the world.

Narrator: In 1960, Las Vegas enjoyed a national reputation as America's unofficial mobster metropolis. No other place in America boasted such a rogue's gallery of city fathers. And perhaps none had more clout than Moe Dalitz, a man sometimes known as "Mr. Las Vegas."

The onetime kingpin of Cleveland's bootleg whiskey racket, former operator of illegal gambling dens in Ohio and Kentucky, and a reputed player in the national crime organization known as "the Syndicate," Dalitz possessed a pedigree tailor-made for a place like Las Vegas.

At a time when no legitimate enterprise in America would have invested a dime in a casino, Dalitz had sunk some of his dirty money into a controlling stake in the Desert Inn, one of the very first mob-operated resorts to be built out on Highway 91, the road that ran southwest to Los Angeles.

Other mobsters followed, and together they transformed the desolate desert highway into the famed Las Vegas Strip -- the self-proclaimed "entertainment capital of the world," the premiere gambling center of the western hemisphere, and the undisputed hub of the place known to Americans as Sin City.

"It's as though you walk through a veil," said one local, "you become a nonconformist. You enter an adult fairyland where a dollar is not a dollar, and five dollars is a chip."

Thanks to Dalitz and his associates, what once had been a remote western outpost now drew some eight million visitors a year.

Brian Greenspun, Editor: Remember, Las Vegas would not be here today but for these guys. Without Moe and those guys there would have been no money, there would have been no expertise. You know you could have all the money in the world, but if you don't know how to run the place, you get taken. And you know they knew how to look for the guys who were going to take them. They knew how to deal with the guys who were going to take them. And they dealt a little differently than the people today who are worried about constitutional rights and all that other kind of stuff. They, they dealt in their own way.

Narrator: Over the years, Dalitz had also proved a committed city builder- spearheading countless civic projects and contributing thousands to local charities.

As a journalist would later put it: "In Cleveland, Moe Dalitz was a bootlegger; but in Las Vegas, he stands as an elder statesman. . .".

John L. Smith: If Las Vegas has a forefather, in my opinion, the key player is Dalitz. He was a sharp operator and a tremendous guy with a pencil. I mean he was a great accountant. He had diversified business, he understood at an early age that it couldn't always be about bootlegging and gambling. You have to diversify. Dalitz was spreading out, was buying real estate, was getting into other businesses. Now were all the businesses legitimate? No, I don't think so, but the bottom line was is that Dalitz was well ahead of the curve.

Narrator: Now, in the fall of 1960, Dalitz was looking to capitalize on what promised to be the city's biggest boom yet.

That September, United Airlines had introduced non-stop jetliner service to Las Vegas, slashing travel time from the east coast in half and instantly making Sin City accessible to millions of Americans who otherwise would never have made the trip.

Suddenly, Dalitz needed more hotel rooms -- and for that, he needed cash.

Nick Pileggi, Author: Las Vegas gets so popular, gets so big, that the original people who put it together could no longer put it together, they didn't have the money to make it expand the way it wanted to expand. The men from Cleveland, the men from New York, they don't have that kind of money.

Hal Rothman, Historian: Mobsters built hotels with what I call shoebox money. They went to each other and said, 'I'm building a hotel in Las Vegas, do you want to buy a share? It's $50,000. The other guy pulls a shoebox from under the bed, opens it up and counts him out $50,000, cash. It got to the point that hotels were too expensive to do that. You simply couldn't get enough guys with $50,000 to build a 12 million dollar hotel. So they needed another source of capital.

Narrator: Dalitz knew just the person to tap: his longtime associate, Jimmy Hoffa, President of the notoriously corrupt Teamsters Union.

The previous year, Dalitz had convinced Hoffa to invest the union's pension funds in a new hospital for Las Vegas. Now, he urged the union leader to make similar investments on the Strip. "If Moe told [the Teamsters] to make the loan," said one observer, "they made the loan."

Over the next several years, Hoffa would draw on the pooled retirement savings of nearly 200,000 union truckers and longshoreman to finance a spate of hotel expansion projects, including a nine-story addition at the Desert Inn. Teamsters money would also underwrite construction of a Greco-Roman-themed resort called Caesars Palace -- purposely spelled without an apostrophe to signal that the place belonged not to a single Caesar, but to anyone who wanted to spend a weekend living like a Roman emperor.

More hotel rooms, more guests, more money dropped at the tables and slots -- all of it would eventually add up to a dramatic spike in the "skim," the undeclared and untaxed earnings that were collected in the counting rooms and then distributed among the scores of "connected" owners who held hidden interests in Las Vegas.

Nick Pileggi: Every city had its own guys and that's the way they did it, you could see where the money came, for each of those casinos. The Dunes was Saint Louis. The Desert Inn was Cleveland. Stardust was Chicago.

John L. Smith: It was a town that had the...the front end guys, the smiling guys with the, with the wild sport coats and then it had the other folks who came to town and of course anyone in the lobby on a Friday night might notice that a crew of New York mob guys came in and got all the penthouse suites and that were...they were treated very, very well. Now were they just gambling, of course not, they were, they were watching their store.

Narrator: With Teamsters money at their disposal, it looked as though Dalitz and his underworld cronies had found a way to stay on top. And with hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenues at stake, Nevada authorities left them there. "We have no gangsters here," a state assemblyman insisted. "We have qualified businessmen who are in a recognized industry -- gaming."

Then, in early 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby to the post of U. S. Attorney General. "A shudder went through [Nevada,]" one reporter remembered, at the prospect that "the new administration might crack down on hoodlums."

Las Vegans had good reason to fear Robert F. Kennedy. Just a few years earlier, Kennedy had served as chief counsel to a highly-publicized Senate investigation into the alleged links between crime syndicates and American labor unions, and he had watched in disgust as all but a handful of the nation's most audacious racketeers got away. His loathing for Jimmy Hoffa, in particular, had since become legendary.

Nick Pileggi: Kennedy felt that unions had to be protecting people, not exploiting them. So I think he emotionally responded to that. The teamsters union was very strongly influenced by wise guys from different cities. The influence that the mob guys had over that pension fund was enormous, and I think that outraged Kennedy.

Narrator: Now, as Attorney General, he vowed to collar those who had so far eluded the government's grasp. Organized crime syndicates, he told his staff, had become an "insidious rot. . . infesting the nation's innermost core." And the putrid source was the casinos of Las Vegas -- or as one Justice Department aide called them, the Syndicate's "federal reserve."

Nick Pileggi: The FBI and the IRS could never accept the fact that a man like Moe Dalitz who was illegal in Cleveland, could get on a plane in Cleveland, come to Las Vegas, and be legal. The FBI and the federal government, the US Attorneys office, they felt there was something wrong with that. You can't have one state where being illegal is legal. It just drove them nuts.

Narrator: Over the next two years, Kennedy's Justice Department, together with the FBI and the IRS, waged an all-out war on Las Vegas -- plotting raids, planting illegal wiretaps, and scrutinizing the financial records of every casino in town. By 1963, they had succeeded where every other federal investigation of Sin City had failed -- and had managed to publicly expose the skim.

John L. Smith: A lot of facts came out that linked the casino ownership to the five families of New York, to Chicago, to Cleveland, Kansas City, and other places. And the proof of history has shown that they indeed were taking money out of the casinos.

Narrator: For Las Vegas, it was a public relations disaster. All across the country, newspapers ran story after story about the pilfering of casino profits, estimated to be at least ten million annually. A book-length exposÚ called The Green Felt Jungle blasted the nation's pleasure capital for its corruption-- and became a runaway bestseller overnight.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department handed out indictments like penny candy -- hauling in some 600 organized crime figures in 1963 alone. Eventually, Jimmy Hoffa would find himself headed for the penitentiary with a jury tampering conviction on his head, and Moe Dalitz would be battling charges of tax evasion.

To some longtime residents of Las Vegas, "the boys," as Dalitz and his friends were known, may well have seemed beneficent city fathers. But in the face of relentless government scrutiny, the city's alliance with mobsters was also fast becoming a liability.

Josh Kennedy: Watching TV for about a year it all seems Vegas, Vegas, Vegas, I just wanted to come out here, become a blackjack dealer. I was waiting tables back home, got tired of it. So I decided to come out here to be a dealer, make a bunch of money. Image in my head was just that everyone was getting rich real quick. I came out here I thought I was going to be a millionaire within my first ten minutes of me coming into Vegas. They hype it up so much on TV that you know, you can't help but come out here. It's a challenge, I don't know anybody out here. Back home I knew a lot of people, I could get a job real easily. Out here I had to actually use my resources, my skills to get a job. I got a job at O'Shea's, which is a breaking house for new dealers coming straight out of school. My shift is eight o'clock at night till four in the morning. I don't mind, cause I'm making money. I mean, it's not even really considered a job. I mean it is, but I don't break a sweat, I don't do anything, sit there and make sure everyone's playing alright, keep track of the money that's right there and that's pretty much it. Vegas is unique. It's different than every other city. It's like it's own little country. Laws here are so slack, it's not like anywhere else in the United States. You come out here you can be a totally different person, you don't have to be who you were back home. It's a transit town, so you meet someone, you see them for two days, if that, and they're gone. You don't ever see them again. It's why I kind of like it. I'm trying to go move back home sometime, next couple years, start a business. I don't want to be out in Vegas all my life, I mean I like the town but you can easily get trapped inside of Vegas, do all the things that you're not supposed to do. Stay focused and then leave. Just takin' Vegas like Vegas takes everyone else.

Narrator: In the early hours of Thanksgiving morning 1966, a private train rattled into a desolate crossing in North Las Vegas. From the trailing car emerged one of the wealthiest men in the world -- the legendary billionaire recluse, Howard Robard Hughes.

In his youth, Hughes had been a full-fledged American celebrity: the dashing movie producer whose exploits had provided endless fodder for gossip columns, the record-breaking aviator who had been honored with a hero's ticker tape parade.

But though only a few people knew it, that man was long gone. Plagued by chronic back pain and hopelessly addicted to narcotics, Hughes had spent much of the last three years in near-total seclusion, his mind careening between rationality and full-blown dementia.

Now, he had come to Las Vegas, his old stomping ground, seeking tax shelter for his riches and refuge from the hounding attention of the press. Accompanied by a phalanx of beefy Mormon caretakers, he took up residence at Moe Dalitz's place, the famed Desert Inn, where an old acquaintance, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, had reserved the entire eighth and ninth floors for his personal use.

One week passed. Then two. But to Dalitz's dismay, Hughes and his entourage showed no signs of moving on.

Brian Greenspun: Never gambled and his aides were all Mormon, so they didn't gamble and they didn't drink and they didn't tip, because know they didn't need any of the services. So it was a, it was a bust for the hotel. So around Christmas time Moe called my dad and said, you got to get this no good bum out of here, because my high rollers are coming in, I need those suites. And in the middle of that negotiation back and forth, over a period of a few days, either my dad or someone said well why don't you just buy the hotel?

Narrator: Hughes's bid for the Desert Inn could not have come at better time.

Although the Cold War defense boom had boosted employment at nearby Nellis Air Force Base and the sprawling atomic test site to the north of town, and Las Vegas's annual tourist tally was holding steady, the furor over the mob had begun to slow the city's roll.

Hughes was precisely what Las Vegas needed: a well-respected entrepreneur with one of the biggest bankrolls on the planet and an image that could instantly redeem the city from the stigma of organized crime.

Seizing the opportunity, Governor Paul Laxalt urged the Gaming Control Board to approve Hughes's license application -- in spite of the fact that he had failed to appear in person, had declined to submit to a financial background check, and had refused to be photographed or fingerprinted as required by Nevada law.

John L. Smith: It's not too bold a statement to say that if he did not own the governor's office during the Laxalt administration, he certainly leased it. He got favors that no one else got, and he was a guy with a past that probably should have been scrutinized, but his presence was so important that it superceded a background check.

Narrator: On April Fools Day, 1967, official title to the Desert Inn passed from Moe Dalitz and his partners to Howard Hughes.

"I have decided this once and for all," Hughes declared in a memo to his aides. "I want to acquire even more hotels and . . . make Las Vegas as trustworthy and respectable as the New York Stock Exchange."

Cloistered round-the-clock in his makeshift headquarters, the eccentric billionaire now began to collect Strip hotels and casinos as if they were snow globes or stamps: the Frontier and the Sands and the Castaways; the Silver Slipper, a small casino across from the Desert Inn, whose revolving marquee-topper reportedly disturbed his sleep; and the massive Landmark Hotel, which officially opened in July 1969.

Archival Newsclip: Despite Hughes' reputation for shelling out without stepping out, many of his guests are still hoping for even a glimpse of their elusive host. But they won't find that billion dollar baby in this five and ten cent store.

Elaine Wynn: He was the wizard of Oz. Ya never saw the man, ya never heard the man. Ya saw his minions and you weren't even sure if they saw the man. And it was a very weird, weird deal. What you felt was his money.

Nick Pileggi: The guys who created Las Vegas, the originals, they were powerful and rich, but they could never cash out, they could not walk away from that profit. They were now in their sixties and seventies, they want to leave some money to their grandkids and their families. Howard Hughes comes in with his accountants and they could finally get rid of it, they could cash out.

Governor Paul Laxalt, archival footage: Hughes has by buying out certain hotels retired some of our more dubious characters, for which we're very grateful.

Narrator: To the outside world, it looked as though all of the mobsters were gone -- but that was just another bit of Las Vegas's dazzling sleight of hand.

Since no one in Hughes's organization had any idea how to run a gambling operation, they had kept most of the mobbed-up managers in place. Under their direction, the skim had continued just as before -- only now Hughes was being defrauded along with the IRS. In casino parlance, it was known as "cleaning out the sucker."

By the time the extent of the plunder was finally made clear, Hughes's buying spree had hit a snag. Barred from further purchases by a pending anti-trust suit and rapidly descending into madness, Hughes had his aides spirit him away from Las Vegas on Thanksgiving 1970, exactly four years to the day after his arrival.

Governor Paul Laxalt, archival footage: Mr. Hughes is on a delayed vacation, it's been delayed for fourteen months and he decided he was entitled to this vacation after four years in the ninth floor of the Desert Inn.

Man: We have personal confirmation from Mr. Hughes, personal confirmation he's going to return to Nevada because he's become a very valued and respected citizen of this state.

Narrator: Although many of his properties in town would remain in his company's possession for years to come, Hughes never did return. But his brief, bizarre sojourn had nevertheless changed Las Vegas forever.

Man, archival footage: We needed a man like Mr. Hughes. We've had some very bad unfavorable national publicity. Since coming here our national publicity has been far more favorable. He's given us what we deem to be almost instant respectability.

John L. Smith: I think Howard Hughes played an enormous role in the evolution of Las Vegas. Uh, his man, Bob Maheu, says that Howard Hughes didn't make the new Las Vegas, but he got it ready. By bringing a brand name that was not Murder Inc. into Las Vegas, Howard Hughes helped separate the community from its past.

Cookie Citro, House Mom: Vegas used to be mobsters, money and movie stars. It's not like it used to be. Now, its corporate, it's a kiddy land. Everyone comes with their hundred-dollar bills, with their shorts and gym shoes and T-shirts and they bring their children and they go on roller-coasters on top of the casinos. I came to Vegas in 1975, the disco days, the wonderful days, and you know, I wish I could turn back the hands of time, I really do. When I first got here I was a cocktail waitress and now I deal a lot of the games. Not all of them, but most of them. But it's not a very good job anymore like it used to be. A friend of mine works in the VIP room at the strip-tease and they needed another house-mom, so I says, I'm willing. I'm the den mother. A lot of the girls are detached from their families. Some girls' families don't even know that they work there, that they're dancers. A lot of them say that they're cocktail waitresses somewhere. You know, I cook for them, that's one of the biggest things. They come in and when they see me their faces light up, they go, "ooh food!"

Cookie Citro: They're not there to be touched and fondled, most of the girls. They're dancers, they're not prostitutes. There are some that do their own little thing, but on the whole there's a lot of good girls. There are codes in the striptease and in all the strip places, you cannot do grinding, you cannot let touching of any body parts. Vice comes in to check periodically. If they see something the girl gets ticketed, the manager gets ticketed. They actually have to go to court, it's like a ticket.

Girl 1: Now I can climb the pole barefoot, no problem.

Girl 2: Oh yeah, I can too, definitely.

Girl 1: It took me like a year to be able to do that.

Girl 2: It's a year, I tell everybody, it takes, it takes a year to learn how to dance. I mean just even know how to move your hips and how to be sex-, how to look sex-, how to walk in these shoes sexy? They had to tell me, one foot, you gotta put one foot right in front of the other one they tell me, and that's how you learn how to walk.

Girl 1: I didn't know any of that.

Girl 2: And now I'm addicted, I love it. It's bad, it's like a drug, it is. Stripping is like a drug, it's addicting.

Girl 1: Every time I try to find another job I always come back, always.

Girl 2: Oh yeah ,them eight dollar an hour jobs?

Girl 1: You get your paycheck and you're like, I made this in one night, I made more than this in one night. Four or five photo-ops for two weeks and that's all I get?

Girl 2: I know!

Cookie Citro: I have seen girls fall into the drugs, into the alcoholism, um, they're more interested in that, a lot of their money goes towards that, and you know what? Your heart goes out to them almost. You know, you want to know sometimes, what makes them go in that direction, what happens that they can't follow a straight line. I worry about most of them, I really do.

Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: You know for me, the insane, brazen, wildness of the whole thing is always very exhilarating when I first get there, and then because it is sort of superficial, and it is without real substance behind it, it wears thin very quickly. It's kind of as if you were force fed chocolate mousse. First taste is really good, but then there comes a time when you actually want some nutrition.

Narrator: By the late 1960's, the primly conservative values of post-war America were folding faster than a poker player with a busted hand. Over the previous decade, the nation had been assailed by protests and assassinations and government lies, and millions of Americans were now turning their backs on the status quo. In Sin City, the turmoil barely registered.

Paul Goldberger: The 60's were about serious things and Las Vegas was about escaping from serious things. And Las Vegas was much less on the map in the 60's. I don't think it's that Las Vegas was too busy to pay attention to the 60's, I think it was that the 60's were too busy to pay attention to Las Vegas. And so it kind of just went chugging along.

Narrator: Of course, the times were changing in Las Vegas too -- but they were headed in the opposite direction.

In the rest of America, the goal was to get rid of the establishment. In Las Vegas, the establishment had only just arrived -- in the form of corporations, like Ramada and Hilton, who had finally decided to take Howard Hughes's lead and cash in on the lucrative casino business.

Marc Cooper: The cultural revolution kicked the doors open, inadvertently, for the mainstreaming of gambling in a culture where Lenny Bruce and Richard Prior replaced Bob Hope and George Burns. Then you have a cultural opening and people who make money off of culture say, hmm maybe gambling and floor shows, and even stuff that has a kind of sexual connotation to it, maybe we could put that on our commercial agenda. Maybe we can invest in that and people aren't gonna go running away with their hands over their eyes.

Elaine Wynn: The positive for Las Vegas was we finally were getting access to capital. It had been not the case here until the age of Howard Hughes and slightly thereafter. So there was very, again another liberating move to be in Nevada at that time, because all of a sudden doors were opening.

Narrator: Now that Wall Street had come to Sodom and Gomorrah, there was no longer any reason to put up with the mob -- or their questionable business practices.

Archival Newsreel, Dan Rather: The Justice Department today announced the indictment of fifteen men, some said to be members of organized crime for skimming more than two million dollars from casinos in Las Vegas over nine years.

Narrator: Over the next several years, Nevada authorities would investigate a half-dozen Las Vegas casinos, and, working in concert with the U. S. Justice Department and the IRS, forcibly sever their ties to organized crime. By the mid-eighties, the last of the mobsters would be gone from the scene, and the keys to Sin City would have passed into the hands of corporate America.

Patricia Cunningham, Talk show host: You'll find many people who will tell you when they look back, they liked Las Vegas better when the mob ran the city. People felt like agreements were always kept, a man's word was sacred. You knew where you stood. If you didn't cross them, they didn't cross you.

John L. Smith: Las Vegas, we have to remember, was a smaller place. It was a place where you could walk in to a casino and people really could know your name. When people say was Las Vegas better when the mob ran it? You know, it was smaller, you know, I mean it was a small town and now Las Vegas is a big place and that's the place where corporations work.

Narrator: For more than two decades, Sin City had made the visitor number one. Now, that exalted position belonged to the stockholders -- and Las Vegas's corporate managers were hell-bent on maximizing their returns.

Elaine Wynn: During the seventies we entered into an era of corporate Las Vegas. Anathema to Las Vegas. Now the bean counters are running the places. They are making it dry and dreary and they have no imagination, and what happened to all of the inspirational people? Because now all they care about is the bottom line.

Narrator: The nearly 30,000 members of the local Culinary Union -- the bellhops and maids, dishwashers, waiters and cooks -- were the first to feel the squeeze.

In the face of layoffs and steadily eroding benefits, the Culinary struggled mightily to hold its ground. 1976 saw the first major city-wide strike in the union local's history.

Archival Clip, Protestor: If it lasted a few days a lot of heads are going to get hurt, cause people are broke.

Narrator: After sixteen days, management grudgingly agreed to a wage increase and a no-lockout clause. But in retaliation for the heavy financial losses incurred during the strike, hundreds of union members lost their jobs.

Dina Titus, State Senator: People don't want to come where they have to cross a picket line, or they don't want to be reminded of reality when they're in a place like Las Vegas that's based on fantasy. And people who are picketing, that's about as real life as you can get.

Narrator: Returning visitors immediately discerned a difference in the newly- corporate Las Vegas.

The once world-class service was now notably sub-par. Worse still, the buzzing energy of the old Sin City seemed strangely muted. Glitzy had given way to bland. And the one-time pinnacle of nightclub cool had somehow become the last plateau on the downward slope to cultural obscurity, a place where the most cutting edge entertainment was Elvis Presley's astonishing comeback at the International Hotel.

John L. Smith: We're talking about a community that had become out of step with what people thought was hip. When things got punk, Las Vegas pulled up its polyester leisure suit and went, gee whiz fellas you want to hit the blackjack table?

Narrator: However dowdy or sleazy or tame Las Vegas may have seemed to visitors, it was still the only big city in America, outside of Reno, where a person could legally sit down at a blackjack table and throw his life savings away. But now, even that distinction disappeared.

Archival Newsreel, Cronkite On Atlantic City: The monopoly Nevada has enjoyed since 1931 as the only state to have legalized casino gambling ended today at 10am when the wheels spun, the cards dropped and the dice rolled in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Narrator: With some 37 million people living less than a gas tank away, Atlantic City easily won out against the four-and-half-hour airplane ride into the heart of the Mohave. Before long, the New Jersey resort's eleven casinos would be drawing more than twice as many annual visitors as Las Vegas.

Competition, combined with a national recession that slowed tourism everywhere, sapped Las Vegas's drawing power. By 1980, visitation was down and Sin City was in the throes of a full-fledged identity crisis.

The losing streak only continued. In November, the seven-year-old MGM Grand, a 26-story Hollywood-themed resort that had once drawn rapt attention as the largest hotel in the free world, made headlines yet again: this time as the site of a disastrous blaze in which 85 people died, and some 700 others were injured. Three months later, the Las Vegas Hilton also went up in flames, cutting short the lives of eight hotel guests.

John L. Smith: The fires were an international news story that had a tremendous negative impact on Las Vegas. That gave people a reason to doubt whether we had our game together, whether, whether we could be a modern city or whether we weren't just some kind of island or backwater.

Narrator: Finally, in 1983, TWA cancelled its non-stop service between Las Vegas and New York.

With a total metropolitan population now of more than 450,000 people and an annual tourist tally that still topped ten million, Las Vegas was in no danger of disappearing. But it was tempting to conclude that its spectacular rise had reached a natural limit. Like an aging showgirl, Sin City seemed an unlikely candidate for a second act.

Those who were inclined to count the city out, however, didn't know a thing about Las Vegas.

Brian Greenspun: Whether it's gambling, you know, on the tables or in the slot machines, or whether it is this opportunity to start over, to better yourself different from where you came from, everybody's looking for that next chance in life. And I think Las Vegas offers it; a chance to do something different, a chance to do something better, a chance, period.

Kelly Pettyjohn: I was with my baby's dad and one month he decided to fall apart, which left us with an eviction, so I thought I could come out here. My son's godfather lived out here, so why not give it a try? Our lives fell apart in California. I was living from friend to friend week after week. When this hardship took place and we lived out here we lived with my son's godfather, there was fourteen people in a three bedroom apartment upstairs. It was OK for the first couple of days but after a while it started playing on everybody's nerves. That's why I reached out for shelters, places that I could get help.

Woman: Two primary goals that we focus on have to do with your desire to find full time work and permanent housing. OK, you have already applied for tenant. How about food stamps?

Kelly Pettyjohn: She said to call her back tomorrow morning.

Woman: So they have given you your card, your food card?

Kelly Pettyjohn: Yeah, I got the Nevada Quest card. Why out here in Vegas do you need all these cards to have a job; a health card, a tenant card, a service card...

Woman: Many jobs in town are connected with casinos and people handle money and alcohol and things like that, and so in order to do that they need to do background checks on people.

Kelly Pettyjohn: OK, 'cause even to work at McDonalds you need some kind of card.

Woman: Yeah, it's not a user-friendly town when it comes to, you know, people being able to just come to town and get a job.

Woman: The most important thing for us is that you're not on the street and if you continue to find people that would take you in that doesn't last for very long. We get about two hundred calls a month.

Kelly Pettyjohn: I came out here thinking a job was just going to fall into my lap. You see on TV everybody's smiling, everybody's got a job, everybody' seems like it works out. You come from California, you come out here, thinking you're going to find a better life, a better way. It's not exactly what it's cut out to be. I guess I was na´ve.

Steve Wynn: Las Vegas is probably the greatest example on the planet including New York City of twenty-four hour, seven day a week, violent hand-to-hand commercial combat. Here in this city, the players are lined up along the Rialto out there, teeth bared, lips curled back, fist clenched saying stay in my place don't go in that one. Look at what I've got for you, isn't this great. Carnival midway, step right up. See the girl turn into a gorilla. See the chicken dance. Come in here.

Narrator: In 1988, after a fifteen-year construction slump, a highly anticipated new resort called the Mirage began to rise up on the Strip.

Not since Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo nearly half a century before had a Las Vegas hotel-casino generated quite so much buzz. Local curiosity had been mounting ever since the man behind the project, longtime Las Vegas resident and casino owner Steve Wynn, had gone public with his somewhat mysterious plans.

"They don't need another casino in Las Vegas," Wynn had told one writer, "but they sure as hell could use a major attraction." The Mirage, he promised, would be the Sin City-equivalent of Disneyland.

The business that had built Las Vegas and fueled its growth for more than half a century was about to be turned on its head.

Marc Cooper: Historically, within the internal organization of a resort, the casino was king, and the showrooms, the rooms, the bars, they existed merely as appendages to the casino, didn't matter if they made a profit or not. They were the lure to get people into the casino. Well Steve Wynn changed all that. Much to the detriment of the tourists' pocket book. What that meant, was that while it would cost the tourists a lot more because the day of the twenty dollar a night room was gone and the free meals were being fazed out, he upgraded the level of luxury to a point where a middle class person could come to Las Vegas, and feel like he really was a millionaire.

Archival Newsreel On The Mirage Grand Opening: "Pounding the pavement took on new meaning today, especially at the Mirage Hotel where thousands of feet jockeyed for space to see the new play land."

Narrator: 100,000 people had been expected to show up for the resort's grand opening in November 1989; 200,000 actually came. Inside of a few weeks, the Mirage surpassed Hoover Dam as the leading tourist attraction in Nevada.

With three separate wings, twenty-nine stories and a total of three million square feet, the Mirage was the largest resort casino on the face of the earth -- a complex so sprawling that it resembled not a resort but a city. So many service workers were needed to run the place -- some four thousand in all -- that Wynn had had to cut an historic deal with the Culinary Union just to open his doors.

But it wasn't the size of the Mirage that really captured attention, it was the resort's exuberant celebration of sheer, stupefying spectacle -- a 20,000 gallon marine tank, stocked with pygmy sharks, stingrays and trigger fish; an ecologically-authentic tropical rainforest; and a fifty-four-foot man-made volcano that periodically spewed steam and flames into the night sky.

Dave Hickey: He understood that how it looked is important. I would say the most admirable thing about all of Steve's projects is they really do detail. You know they really do detail. The volcano in front of the Mirage is there because when they were setting it up, they were doing time motion studies on how long did it take you to get your car on the busiest night of the year? So twenty minutes to get your car, right? But if the volcano's going off every fifteen minutes, you're not waiting for your car, you're hoping your car won't get here until the volcano goes off. See this is very refined service economy thinking.

Narrator: Even the entertainment broke the mold. There was no run-of-the-mill headline act here, no second-rate celebrity backed by a row of scantily-clad dancers. Instead, the Mirage showroom featured a pair of flamboyant German illusionists named Siegfried and Roy, their hand-raised pride of white tigers and a twice-nightly, jaw-dropping magic show that would play to sold-out houses for years to come.

Brian Greenspun: Steve came and he realized that if you build it and you build it better and you create a little demand where maybe there wasn't demand, make it a little harder to get into, everyone will want to get into it and everyone will pay more to enjoy it. And he built these fantasy lands for adults. You know with these volcanoes and, and the Siegfried and Roy show, and you know porpoises and everything that people would just love to be part of. Did they pay more for it? Sure, they were willing to pay more for it, he understood that. Give them something they can't get anywhere else.

Narrator: The Mirage had miraculously made Las Vegas new again -- and it had done so just in time.

By the 1990's, any residual stigma that still clung to gambling in America had dropped away. As early as 1994, there were lotteries in 37 states, legal casinos in 23, and nearly the same percentage of the gross national product was spent on gambling as on groceries. At decades' end, the most profitable casinos in the world would be located not on the Strip, but on Indian reservations all around the country.

The implications of the trend were not lost on Las Vegas's resort owners -- entrepreneurs like Bill Bennett and Kirk Kerkorian who had spent years building bigger and better casinos. To survive as a tourist destination now, Sin City would have to up the ante.

John L. Smith: The Mirage opened a lot of the financial doors for Las Vegas casinos. What it did also was spark a kind of "Grapes of Wrath" attraction about Las Vegas. That there were these people who needed the work were starting to come out here not only from south of the border, not only from California, but from all over and they were coming here, not simply because of the Mirage, because Las Vegas was growing again.

Natalie Rodriguez, the Culinary Training Academy: Kevin is finishing bussing this table, sorting his china. Myra's setting up, she's covering everything so the food stays hot. Here we have our main kitchen, this is where you'll be putting in orders.

The Culinary Training Academy's original design was to fill a labor need in the market. We trained people entry level, job specific, for this industry.

Uh-uh, uh-uh, that's going to go in the dirty dishes.

In Las Vegas, you can embark upon a career as a food server, which anywhere else in the country is not considered a good job. You can provide very well for your family in these positions that in other places are not considered good jobs.

Pull the tray back behind his head, there we go. May I? May I? Clockwise, OK, clockwise, clockwise.

We train people, the technical skills, how to carry a tray, how to say, "may I take your plate?" as opposed to, "are you done?" You know, how to correctly pour a cup of coffee so that it, it comes within a quarter inch of the top.

You've got to announce: "Coffee?" Coffee and pour.

Our industry demands a level of customer service, of guest service, that is so high that a large part of what we do in addition to the technical skills is train people on focused eye contact, how to relax, how to smile, how to communicate with the guest.

Do you put the butter on the French toast? Do you put the syrup on the French toast? Do you put the powdered sugar on the French toast? Yes, sprinkle the powdered sugar on the French toast.

My goal when I send people out into the industry is that they communicate to the guest that each and every guest is important, not just to me, but that they're important to my hotel, to my restaurant, to my city. We are driven by tourism and if the guest stops coming back, we stop having employment.

The only difference between a plain omelet and scrambled eggs is shape.

The guest service that should be communicated is that each and every guest is valuable, that you're valuable, that you're appreciated, that you're a wanted part of our day. You are the reason that we're here.

Dina Titus: Las Vegas is well-known for reinventing itself. We're very good at adapting. I mean how else could we have survived out here in the middle of this desert with nothing else around. Who would ever imagine it would become what it is today? So we reinvent ourselves to accommodate whatever comes along.

Bryant Gumble, archival footage: In just about fifteen hours, this building, the once grand Dunes Hotel and Casino, will be demolished in what's billed as America's most spectacular architectural implosion ever. Your decision to blow up the Dunes, is it part of a larger effort to do away with the old Las Vegas and reshape Vegas as something else?

Steve Wynn: It's part of Las Vegas doing what everybody else in the entertainment business is doing in the world today, and that is keeping up with the changing tastes of the public. Everybody has become more and more highly expectant and things that would have gotten a wow or a jazz ten years ago draw a yawn today and if Las Vegas doesn't move along like the movie industry and everything else, Las Vegas is not going to be the exciting place it has been in the past, and it is, as you can see. It's moving along.

Narrator: Between 1989 and 2005, many of the city's most iconic landmarks -- the Dunes and Sands, the Hacienda and even the Desert Inn -- would be leveled, making way for what would come to be known as "the New Las Vegas."

David Thomson: I think there's an impulse in the construction and reconstruction of the city that is very much something that comes from Hollywood sound studios, whereby you build a set, and Friday you finish with it, Monday you want a new set. And the European sense of construction and the Eastern American sense of construction is that you build for the centuries. And in the west, but particularly in Las Vegas and Hollywood, I think, there is this notion that you build for what you want now.

Paul Goldberger: Las Vegas is a place built on the idea of escape, and if you believe you're about escape, then you can't be hemmed in by anything, including your own past. So I think Las Vegas treats its past the way it wants its visitors to treat their pasts, in effect, to forget them and to just have a good time.

Dave Hickey: Well I mean Vegas has done for architecture what, you know, what Renaissance painting did for painting. It rendered it mobile and ephemeral. I mean, you know. If it doesn't work here, it goes away. You know if you build it and it doesn't work, it goes away. Buildings, nothing is presumed to be permanent.

Narrator: They seemed to materialize almost overnight, like the outsize LEGO creations of an unnaturally large child: the four-thousand-room, Knights of the Roundtable-inspired Excalibur, outfitted with cartoonish turrets, towers and spires. . . and the pyramid-shaped Luxor, home to the world's largest atrium and a 40-billion-candlepower spotlight that astronauts reported as clearly visible from space. . .

The pirate-themed Treasure Island, where a rousing maritime extravaganza was performed six times nightly on a 65-foot-deep man-made lagoon fronting the hotel. . . and the new MGM Grand, a massive hotel-casino-entertainment complex that drew as many as 10,000 visitors a day.

These would soon be followed by dazzlingly elaborate replicas of New York City and Paris, Lake Como and Venice. In the end, there would be more hotel rooms on the corner of Flamingo Road and the Strip than in the entire city of San Francisco.

Dave Hickey: Everything here is here to be seen, there's nothing here to be looked at. The architecture is not self-conscious about being architecture. It just doesn't suffer from Edifice Rex. You know when I first came here, you know I had some friend from New York was here and they said, looking at the Luxor and he said, well this is just a joke. And I just had to say, well you get it don't you? Do you think no one, you think everybody else thinks it's a real pyramid? Of course it's a [expletive] fake pyramid.

Hal Rothman: What Las Vegas does is make you feel special by not threatening you, by affirming who you are. If you walk into the Paris and you say, 'bonjour,' to somebody and they say, 'bonjour,' and you say, 'comment tallez vous,' and they say, 'My name's Eric, and I'm from Orange County, and that's all the French I know.' The difference between Venice and the Venetian is it's cleaner, it's a little bit less noisy, and it has all the amenities. So it takes the world the way it is, and makes it the way you would have it if you were in charge.

John L. Smith: I think Las Vegas has done a great job of selling itself as acceptable mainstream experiences. It's interesting, a generation ago people defined Las Vegas in very moralistic terms. I mean there were those who liked it because it was kind of cool and exciting, and then there were a whole lot of folks who cast aspersions on it.

David Thomson: I think everybody in the world feels they ought to try to get here just to see what it's like, and a lot of people if you were to say to them, what's your definition of the great life, would say without irony, without hesitation, "Well, a great weekend in Las Vegas." That's got the lot. That's the package.

Narrator: By 1999, Las Vegas was drawing some 37 million tourists annually, from all over the world, eclipsing even the holy city of Mecca as the most visited place on the planet.

Paul Goldberger: At a time when cities are forced by certain economic and cultural pressures to look more and more alike, when it's getting harder and harder to figure out what differentiates Dallas from Atlanta say, Las Vegas is one American city that still feels distinct. But reality will force it in another direction because as cities grow, they inevitably change. It is in fact becoming a more traditional city, more like other places. But it can't admit that to the world or it won't be Las Vegas.

Mary Ann Ward: Well usually if I'm on an airplane and they ask me what I do in Las Vegas and I tell them I'm a principal they say, oh there's not schools in Las Vegas, and I have to say well, we are the fifth largest school district in the United States. We are not able to open schools fast enough to handle the amount of children that are coming into our city. Last year they opened I believe twelve, I think this year its anywhere between ten and eleven, and I know that they've said that next year they might be up to eighteen new schools open. But there's also a lot of turnover and that makes stability for children and instructional programs more difficult I think.

Darla Richards: I started this school year with twenty-seven students and probably eighteen of them were here from day one and are still here today. The rest of them are all new and several have moved on. Sometimes children, we'll get new students who have been in four schools already in one year. So, that's difficult as a teacher, you feel for those children that there's not more stability for them.

Darla Richards: OK, today for journal we're writing about what you would do if everyone in your family forgot your birthday, everyone.

Darla Richards: I think a huge impact that a twenty-four hour city has on the children is in a lot of cases they go home after school and no one is there because that's when their parents are working. That impacts what I try to do with them primarily with homework. They go home and they have a lot of other responsibilities, they're watching younger siblings and so homework doesn't always take a priority. Jobs that are available here in Vegas are often decent paying jobs that one can acquire without very much education at all, and therefore I think education in the valley is not really high priority. And especially children when they get to high school, they know that they can go get a job valeting cars like Uncle Bill and make a decent living without finishing high school. I try to do what I can and I promote education with them. I often ask them, you know, who thinks they want to go to college and many hands are raised, so if we can just keep instilling that importance of education as they go through schooling, we'll reach a few of them.

Narrator: By the dawn of the 21st century, the phenomenal success of the New Las Vegas had transformed what was once a remote and exotic desert outpost into the fastest-growing city in the United States -- a place where tens of thousands of jobs were created each year, and sixty new streets named each month, and an average of more than a thousand prospective residents moved into town each week.

Improbably, the city that had long been a refuge from mainstream America had become, all at once, the last best place in the country to find it.

Marc Cooper: I think in many ways Las Vegas is the most American of cities, and it's a real irony. People used to come to Las Vegas to get away from America. And all those jobs and all those careers that people thought were safe and secure in the heartland of the rust belts etcetera have disappeared. So history has had a good laugh because Las Vegas turns out to be one of the best places to come to work, and to get a career, and to get a union job and to get a living wage, so you actually come to Las Vegas the way you used to come to Detroit.

Dina Titus: You know we've had the fastest growing senior population, school age population, Hispanic population, Asian population, fastest growing city, fastest growing small town, and fastest growing rural community. That's a lot of fastest. Growth is good for many reasons. It brings lots of jobs, it brings diversity, it brings excitement, it brings money. But there are also downsides to that, of course, you know the tail begins to wag the dog. And the number of people outweigh the infrastructure that serves them and so you get more traffic, you get more crime, you get bad air.

Patricia Cunningham: The mindset is to get it quick, get it now, at any cost, with absolutely no regard for consequences. There's an awful lot of waste. And when you hear about the issues with water and homelessness and a lack of parent involvement in schools it makes you stop and ask, where are the priorities?

John L. Smith: There isn't a lot of sympathy in Las Vegas. We can talk about how many philanthropists we have here, on the Strip and downtown in the casino business, but the fact is this is a very tough community. We don't give more than most communities do. It's kind of the old libertarian ethic of the west, I mean you are pretty much on your own. If you're looking for a well knitted social net, you're not going to find it here.

Brian Greenspun: There is a reckoning coming, I'm not smart enough to know the answer, I certainly know the question. But we're going to have to come up with an answer, a balance if you will between how much we are going to pay or be willing to pay to make this a grand and glorious place to live for people, so that we can continue to make it a grand and glorious place for people to come visit. We've never had that problem before, it is coming to a head.

Marc Cooper: What Las Vegas needs or doesn't need as a city depends on whether you live here or not. If you don't live here, then you don't need much more than the Las Vegas strip, do you? You could literally pare away the rest of Las Vegas and ninety-five percent of the tourists wouldn't care and wouldn't notice. Now the other million and a half people who live here, that's a different story.

Patricia Cunningham: I think Las Vegas always finds a way to succeed because I think people are eternal optimists. I think people need to believe that there has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you just haven't found it yet. And Las Vegas encourages you to come here and see if you can find it.

Dave Hickey: It's just promise, you know, and it has to do with the idea that you don't bet on the past. You know, you bet on the future. There is a kind of structural optimism built into gambling cultures. I mean it's not like stupid optimism, like everything's going to be all right, but it's sort of practical optimism like whatever happens, I can handicap it. And that's just part of the culture. I mean, you can't have gambling without optimism.

John L. Smith: I think there will always be a part of the American psyche and soul that is very much Las Vegas. Our country is headed more toward Las Vegas than away from it. But I think the people who run the town will always make sure that we're out ahead, banging the right drums, and shaking the right tambourines to make this a wilder place than the nation as a whole.

Episode One | Episode Two

page created on 11.17.05 back to top
Site Navigation

Las Vegas: An Unconventional History American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: