I first passed through Las Vegas on my way home from World War II in December 1945. Our troop train headed from San Franciso to a Navy base in Maryland. We stopped in the little town for about an hour. With other sailors, I wandered up Fremont Street, past sleazy bars, dumpy motels and three or four small casinos. Some tired-looking Christmas decorations, but not very impressive.
I visited Las Vegas the second time just a few years later. Recalled to Navy active duty in 1951, I served for two more years, was a civilian again and newspaper writer. A college friend was public relations director of the luxurious Sands Hotel, which had opened just a year before.
He offered me a free week as a guest, and when I arrived in Las Vegas, I was amazed by the dramatic changes. Beyond the sleazy downtown, there were many new high-rise luxury resorts going up on the famed Strip.
Anyone familiar with the history of Sin City, and the 1991 movie, “Bugsy”, knows the mega-resort era began as a New York mob enterprise. They used union funds to build the first luxury, multi-story hotel on the Strip, The Flamingo. Bugsy Siegel, a small-time hood and enforcer, took over the task of overseeing the construction and early operation.
Siegel rushed the grand opening date from an original schedule for mid-1947 to the day after Christmas 1946. While celebrities and local VIPs strolled the new property, construction was still continuing all around them. Cost over-runs continued, casino employees stole money, and worse, attendance and income at the hotel were dismal.
Info got back to the mob that Siegel was also pocketing some unauthorized money. Then, just six months after the not-so-grand opening of the Flamingo, hotel manager Bugsy was fired from his job with a bullet through his head.
During the 1950s, along with the Sands, the Flamingo was joined along the Strip by Sahara, Tropicana, Showboat, Riviera and other new casino resorts.
Ownership of the Flamingo has changed hands at least a dozen times over the years, and the hotel building has added wings to include more sleeping rooms and other facilities. It remains the only mega-resort hotel on the Strip from the early building boom of the 1940s and 1950s to retain its original name.
The Sands, where I had my free post-Korean War week in 1953, was torn down in 1996 to make way for the Italian-themed mega-mega-resort, The Venetian. I’ve visited Las Vegas many times since, and always find it welcoming, as long as I’m willing to gamble away my life savings and a bit more.
The 1960s to 1990s saw a boom of new resorts rising skyward on the Strip: Caesars Palace in 1966, the Mirage in 1989, then in the 1990s, MGM Grand, Monte Carlo, Treasure Island, Excalibur, Luxor, Paris, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and New York New York all made their debuts.
The design plans for each were to outdo every other resorts on the Strip. The results included Venice canals, fake Eiffel Tower, fake Statue of Liberty, Egyptian pyramid, erupting volcano, King Arthur combat, ferris wheel and many others.
Since the days of Bugsy Siegel, the Las Vegas mega-resort era has had many ups and downs, reflecting the American economy. Sin City always finds ways to weather the bad days and emerge brighter than ever into a new financial boom. You can bet it will happen again.