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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

The Entertainers

Showgirls in the Jubilee with head dresses. Courtesy: Knepp Productions

As Las Vegas has changed, so too, has the way it entertains. In the 30s clubs on Boulder Highway had nightclub acts. When Thomas Hull built the El Rancho Vegas Hotel-Casino in 1941 on what would later be known as "the Strip," it offered continuous entertainment. The goal was to lure guests from the excitement of Fremont Street to the relatively desolate Strip, and keep them in the resort to gamble. El Rancho Vegas' format was successful, and it was joined by several more hotel-casinos on the Strip. Ben "Bugsy" Siegel with his Hollywood connections attracted the most glamorous celebrities of the day to his Flamingo Hotel. It was the beginning of a longstanding association between Las Vegas and Hollywood.

Going Topless
In the 1950s, showgirls became the unofficial icon of Las Vegas. As the Strip developed, the competition became fierce. Every resort on the Strip had its own line of showgirls, who opened and closed for headlining celebrities. Elaborate productions, dubbed the "Las Vegas-style review," were developed, featuring chorus girls with outrageously large headdresses. Resorts began hawking twice-nightly shows, each hoping to be more spectacular than the other. Harold Minsky and Donn Arden created two of the biggest showgirl productions. In 1957 Jack Entratter at the Sands Hotel with his enormous entertainment budget was knocking out all the competition. Harold Minsky fought back with shock value. He had his showgirl revue Minsky's Follies appear on stage at the Desert Inn topless. Donn Arden followed with The Lido de Paris which took the topless showgirls of Minsky's Follies and incorporated them into a large stage production at the Stardust. The Lido was wildly successful, and ran for 31 years.

Baiting the Gamblers
The Stardust was one of the first Strip resorts to feature a large show as their main event, and the Lido's success prompted other hotels to create large productions. Jack Entratter's Sands Hotel became famous for its chorus line of Copa Girls. Entratter, notorious for the costs of his productions, set the bar for other establishments on the Strip. The productions and salaries at the Sands and the Dunes grew with each show. All the while, the entertainment was focused on bringing people in to gamble. The entertainment side of casinos was viewed as bait. The resorts provided free entertainment that would last all night, encouraging guests to do the same. As Life magazine described all of the shows, it was a "smart business hype that brings gambling patrons in."

The 1950s explosion of resorts on the Strip also brought an entertainment bonanza of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Jimmy Durante, and Abbott and Costello. Ronald Reagan, resuscitating a lagging film career, appeared on the Strip. The "King of the Strip," Wayne Newton, began his Las Vegas appearances at the age of 15 in 1959. At this time, The Rat Pack was in its heyday, and Las Vegas became known as the "Entertainment Capital" of the country. As one journalist remarked, "the wayfarer arriving in Las Vegas during any given week has a wider choice of top-banana talent than the average New Yorker."

On the Decline
In the late 1960s, Las Vegas was still a pretty hot town for performers: Ann Margaret was a regular and all the big comics performed there, but after 1970, it started to fall away. The town was suffering from bad press involving the skim of casino profits by members of the Syndicate. Many of the entertainers who had once brought crowds had died or were no longer performing. Las Vegas' growth stalled, and it became known for its rather tacky entertainment. Las Vegas was seen as the place where has-been entertainers made their last attempt to revive their careers.

"Vegas Elvis"
One such entertainer was Elvis Presley. When Kirk Kerkorian completed his International Hotel in 1969, he asked Presley to be the exclusive act in the International's showroom. Presley, who had performed publicly only once in eleven years, and whose mediocre-at-best film career was flagging, agreed to Kerkorian's offer. Opening on July 26, 1969, Presley soon debuted his now trademark "Vegas Elvis" act, dressed in a sequined white jumpsuit and accompanied by more than 50 musicians, including an orchestra and two gospel choirs. Between 1969 and 1977, Elvis played Las Vegas exclusively at the International, in total for 837 shows, for a price of $125,000 per week. At the end of Elvis' first month, the International's showroom had earned more than $2 million. In what was a milestone in Las Vegas history, for the first time a hotel acknowledged it had made money off of its entertainment. What had once been created as a scheme to get people to gamble now was an industry in itself.

Family Vacation Destination
As corporations took control of Las Vegas, productions and headlining acts were no longer considered bait to lure gamblers, but seen as sources of profit themselves. When Steve Wynn opened his Mirage hotel, he created a sensation with the concept of complete entertainment. His featured magic act of Siegfried and Roy was a big hit. The pair's production quickly became a national sensation, and helped the Mirage become the most visited tourist attraction in Nevada. Over the course of the 1990s, the resort owners of Las Vegas continued to develop their attractions, positing their city as a family vacation destination, providing amusement and water parks.

Total Entertainment
Today, Las Vegas offers headlining music, comedy, hypnosis, magic and Las Vegas-review style acts. Originating when casino owners used shows to lure customers in for the gambling, over time, Las Vegas' entertainment acts lend credence to Las Vegas' title as the "Entertainment Capital of the world."

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