Las Vegas was a small railroad town when Nevada officially established it in 1905. Five years after its founding, the US census recorded only 800 residents. Yet in the 1950s, it was known as a gambling tourist’s paradise, where visitors could catch a show with celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. between trips to the baccarat tables.
Although the legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931 opened the doors to this transformation, that alone does not tell the whole story of how Las Vegas became a gambling mecca compared to its former rival. , Reno. The story also includes an influx of workers to federal projects in Nevada, a crackdown on illegal gambling in Los Angeles, and the migration of mobs to Vegas.
A former vice-cop helped build a (tax) gambling haven
The legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931 coincided with the start of construction of the Hoover Dam, which brought thousands of workers to Boulder City. On payday, these workers traveled about 25 miles to Las Vegas to gamble on Fremont Street, which was downtown Vegas before the Strip.
“One of the sayings was that the city got very exciting a few days a month,” says Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. During World War II, the opening of a magnesium plant in Henderson, Nevada also attracted a large population of workers seeking weekend recreation.
Yet an influx of gamblers every two weeks was not enough to make Las Vegas a gambling mecca. For that, it needed people experienced in running gambling businesses. Beginning in 1938, these people began moving to Las Vegas when a new Los Angeles mayor cracked down on illegal gambling. One of the most influential was Guy McAfee, an LA vice squad cop who fled California to escape prosecution for running parallel gambling and prostitution rings.
Another major turning point came in 1941, when the first combination hotel and casino, El Rancho Vegas, opened on a stretch of Highway 91 that McAfee later dubbed “The Strip.” The El Rancho Vegas resort was important because it helped make gambling “something you could do on vacation,” says David G. Schwartz, a gambling historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “And it was very successful.”
The resort’s success led others to open casino hotels. Some sprouted on Fremont Street, dubbed “Glitter Gulch” by the Chamber of Commerce in 1946, the same year McAfee opened the Golden Nugget there. Others were built on the Strip, an area outside the city limits where McAfee and other resort owners established the unincorporated township of Paradise, Nevada, as a tax haven.
The gangsters developed business with big nightclub acts
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Around the same time that McAfee and his cronies were building gaming centers and finding ways to avoid taxes, a new group of people began to see the potential for opening their own casinos in Vegas: the mob.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who helped open The Flamingo in 1947 on the Strip, was one of the first major mob figures in the Vegas gambling industry. After Siegel’s murder that year, other Mafia figures began to become involved in the city’s gambling industry.
For organized crime operators, “Las Vegas presented two parallel opportunities,” says Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. The first was that gangsters who ran illegal gambling rings in other cities could make legal money gambling in Las Vegas. Until the 1970s, Nevada was the only state where casino gambling was legal.
“But the parallel concept they came up with was skimming,” he says. It was the illegal practice of hiding the actual amount of money a casino was making. “The main money that was made by the mob [in Vegas] was money that was not taxed, was not accounted for.
During the 1950s, the mob helped bring celebrity acts to Vegas in order to attract more people to the casinos. Because the mobsters ran nightclubs in many major cities, they had ties to artists like the “Rat Pack” (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop), Jerry Lewis , Judy Garland, Liberace and more. Clubs and resorts also competed to have the splashiest showgirl numbers, with lines of women dancing in sync in skimpy costumes, feather boas and elaborate towering headpieces. At the Dunes in 1957, owner Harold Minsky introduced topless showgirls to the entertainment menu, helping to underscore Las Vegas’ image as a “city of sin”.
In addition to celebrities and showgirls, many Las Vegas resorts began using nuclear testing to lure tourists to casinos. The town was located approximately 65 miles from the Nevada Test Site. On the nights before the early morning atomic explosions, the stations held parties that lasted until the visible nuclear explosion at dawn. Celebrations may involve special “Atomic Cocktails” or “Miss Atomic Energy” contests.
READ MORE: Frank Sinatra’s Mafia Ties & Other Secrets From His FBI File
In the corporate age, gaming is no longer center stage
In the mid-1960s and 1970s, ownership of Las Vegas resorts began to change. Howard Hughes bought the Desert Inn in 1967, along with many other properties there. Hughes’ purchases helped drive out some of the mob figures who owned hotels and casinos. The same year Hughes purchased the Desert Inn, Nevada also passed the Corporate Gaming Act, which made it easier for corporations to run casinos. This paved the way for corporations to buy up resorts in Las Vegas, which once again drove the mob landlords away.
Beginning in 1978, when Atlantic City opened its first casino, Las Vegas began to face gambling competition outside of Nevada. As casino gambling became legal in more and more parts of the country, corporate resorts began to offer different types of attractions that weren’t just aimed at attracting people to casinos. .