Las Vegas In It's "Heyday" - Vintage Vegas

Actors from "The Rat Pack Is Back" tribute show.
Actors from "The Rat Pack Is Back" tribute show.
Bugsy Siegel
Bugsy Siegel
Benny Binion
Benny Binion
Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes
Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
1950's Las Vegas
1950's Las Vegas
How times have changed!
How times have changed!
"Showgirls" on the strip
"Showgirls" on the strip
A picture I've named "The Elvi"! :) Two Elvis impersonators on the strip.
A picture I've named "The Elvi"! :) Two Elvis impersonators on the strip.

Going back in time to the days of "The Rat Pack"

We recently received some tickets to see a show at the Rio Hotel, at the Crown Theater, a show called "The Rat Pack Is Back." It was such a GOOD show, and really reminiscent of the way Las Vegas probably was back in it's "Heyday"... back in the 1950s, 1960's, and into the 1970s as well. It's a tribute to the four men who made up "The Rat Pack" - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr. and is really on the caliber of a Broadway musical - these entertainers are that talented!

Seeing this show made me think about and wonder how Las Vegas really WAS back then, back in it's "Heyday." Way back when things were started by guys with connections to "the mob"... guys like Bugsy Siegel, who was known for creating "The Flamingo" hotel and a man from Texas named Benny Binion who created "Binion's Horseshoe Casino". A lot of the hotel's and gambling operations were run by these guys back then, and Las Vegas got a reputation of being a "rough" place, a place you didn't really want to be.

Later, Howard Hughes moved to Las Vegas, and stayed in the "Desert Inn" hotel. The period of time that he was here started the "new" Las Vegas, a time when the city's image was changed from one of being run by mobster's to a more respectable, wholesome image. Howard Hughes was very reclusive, and it was said that since he had been injured in a plane crash years before where just about every bone in his body was broken, he became addicted to painkillers. When he arrived in Vegas, he was on a stretcher, frail and addicted to these drugs, and he stayed enclosed in a room at the Desert Inn for four years. He was extremely wealthy, and soon became Las Vegas' biggest employer, casino owner, property owner, as well as owning mines.

Things changed while Howard Hughes was here, and he was credited with changing Las Vegas' image for the better. After Hughes, corporations moved in, starting the era of "corporate casino's."

Some other important figures in the history of Las Vegas are Herman (Hank) Greenspan, a newspaper man who published positive articles about Las Vegas, and especially about Bugsy Siegel's new hotel, the "Flamingo." Later, he purchased a faltering newspaper that was an offshoot of the "Las Vegas Review Journal."

Another important person was Senator Pat McCarran. McCarran held one of the most powerful position's in Nevada history. He won a senate bid in 1932, and he was referred to as "for the masses, not for the classes." He gained tremendous political power, and in the 1940s he greatly influenced the development of Las Vegas. Even today, the Las Vegas airport is named "Mc Carran Airport" after him.

And we can never forget a female entrepreneur (and in the 1950s, that was a rare thing). Her name is Betty Willis, and she was a "woman in a man's world" back then - the creator of the "Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. This sign has represented Las Vegas since 1959. While a lot of other neon signs have long been taken down and sent to the neon sign graveyard, her's still remains.

Betty Willis attended school in Los Angeles and returned to Las Vegas to work as a commercial artist. The signs diamond shape made it different from all others, and in a nod to Las Vegas' nickname "The Silver State," there are seven silver dollars backing the seven letters of the word "Welcome." When it was finished in 1959, it was sold to Clark County and placed on an island on the southern tip of the strip, where it remains to this day. She also created the sign for the "Moulin Rouge," the first African American hotel in Las Vegas.

Back in those days, there was segregation in Las Vegas, as there was all over the United States, especially in the south. This policy created quite a dilemma for hotel owners. A lot of the most popular artists back then were African American. Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis Jr. among them! They would be ushered out the door as soon as their performance was over, often through the kitchen, and sent to a far less accommodating room, and were often charged up to four times the price of the other rooms.

Sammy Davis Jr. recalled in an interview "In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again...the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage."

In the 1950s, showgirls were the unofficial icons of Las Vegas. Every resort had them, and they were in competition with one another to have the "best" group of showgirls.They starred in what was called "Las Vegas Style Reviews" and wore skimpy outfits with large head pieces. Showgirls were described as "smart business hype that brought in gamblers."

In the 1960s, the "Rat Pack" was in it's heyday. Performing at the Sands hotel to big crowds, the show we attended was meant to be reminiscent of those days. The performers would often have a cigarette and a drink while performing, it was just part of the show back then. A lot of brilliant talent performed on stages back then.

In the late 1960s, a lot of performers had either died or left town, and Las Vegas was suffering from bad press and became known for "tacky entertainment." and then along came Elvis! He performed from 1969 to 1977 in a white sequined jumpsuit and totally changed the belief held by resort owners that their profit came only from gambling. He brought in two million dollars one year! He performed accompanied by more than 50 musicians, exclusively at "The International" hotel. Now that the corporations had taken over, the entertainers were no longer considered to be "bait" to bring gamblers in, they were sources of profit. And to this day, entertainers bring people to the resorts, along with other attractions such as famous restaurants and shopping experiences. And of course, gambling.

When I told people we were moving here, of course we heard the joke about Las Vegas being called "Lost Wages." But, I tried to act like I had never heard it before! I guess it's a GOOD thing that we don't gamble. A person could get in trouble here! Any "gambling" we do is limited to penny slots and not more than $5! What we enjoy is the beautiful year round weather in Las Vegas, and the shows! And so far, it's a wonderful ride!

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Comments 13 comments

marellen 5 years ago

Hi Kathy....interesting and very informative hub. I know the housing market is much better in LV than here in California. It's been to long since I have seen Vegas....I think a trip is in order.


KMattox profile image

KMattox 5 years ago from USA

Hi KathyH

I used to live in Reno. My neighbor had been a Las Vegas show girl during it's gangland era. She hung out with Bugsy Seagle and said she didn't like Al Capone and said he was nothing but a thug! She was quite a jem to have as a neighbor. She told lots of stories of the old days in Vegas. Thanks for an interesting and entertaining hub!


Maddie Ruud profile image

Maddie Ruud 5 years ago from Oakland, CA

I'm really not a fan of the modern Las Vegas, but I sure would have liked to see it back then! Of course, it's easy to be nostalgic when I don't have to worry about the reality of gangsters like Al Capone.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Hi Marellen! Hope you are able to make it to Vegas! I always liked the city, and when my husband told me he got a job here, I didn't mind at all! I looked at it as a new adventure! :)

Wow, KMattox! Now that would have been a fascinating neighbor to have!! Thanks for sharing your story! :)

And so glad you visited too, Maddie! :) It was hard for me to imagine how Vegas was "back then" until I started digging for information, then I had a great time writing this! :)


texasgirlfw profile image

texasgirlfw 5 years ago

It was so great. I did see one rat pack show at the Saraha and it was unforgettable. It was a great time in the history of Vagas even though there was a lot of corrupt people. However, it was soooo exciting to get there at that time. Great Hub, loved it.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Thanks, texasgirlfw! Glad you got to see a great show, too! :) Thanks so much!


Maralexa profile image

Maralexa 5 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

Great hub! Brings back memories of the 60s and 70s. Long gone now, it seems. Hope you will do more of these.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Thanks, Maralexa! That's definitely something I'll think about doing! ;)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I arrived in Vegas the first time the night before the Bicentennial in 1976. No fireworks show I've seen since even comes close to the ones that night and several nights after. I stayed with friends for the rest of the summer, and Vegas still being a "rough" town, for the first two weeks they wouldn't let me leave the house by myself! Then I went to work for a P.I. agency and was exposed to a whole other side of Glitter Gulch. Somehow ended up dating a jeweler who was a fence for the Mob and wanted to take me to a Mafia wedding, but I said "No thanks".

I lived there off and on for a total of three years, and my "local" for most of that time was the back bar at Binion's. Was gone for a year once and when I sat down in my usual seat, the bartender set my usual drink in front of me without being asked. It was just that kind of town back then.

Between the free drinks and practically free food at the casinos, and free lounge shows if you knew where to go or "knew somebody", a fun-filled night out for 2 or 3 people could be had for under $15. Being prudent gamblers, most nights we went home with more than we started with, so the actual cost to us to be wined, dined and entertained was -0-.

This was the in the last days of the Mob's influence, before Corporate America discovered Nevada had no state income tax and began transferring thousands of employees there.

But living in a Mob-controlled town wasn't bad at all if you kept in mind how things worked...i.e. if you didn't bother them, they didn't bother you.

One of their own named "Little Tommy", sent there as punishment for some infraction back in Chicago, never quite grasped the concept of keeping a low profile, and hastened his demise by blowing up the vintage VW of a local newspaper columnist (from the Sun, if memory serves) who wrote something that offended him.

It wasn't so much trashing the car that got the locals up in arms, but that the columnist's custom-made golf clubs were in it when it went "boom". Donations began pouring in to replace the clubs, plus a movement was started to run Little Tommy out of town. Instead, he was called back to Chicago for a "talk", never to be seen again until about six months later when a farmer's plow unearthed what was left of him in a field in southern Illinois. (No sign of Jimmy Hoffa, though.)

Unfortunately, I've forgotten most of the old timers' stories I was told about the days when several acres of the desert that would become The Strip could be had for pennies. In 1976, I did check out the price of a parcel for sale near the Sahara for my former boss back home who dabbled in real estate.

Somebody apparently knew Vegas wouldn't be a sleepy little desert town much longer because by then land on the Strip was selling NOT by the acre, but by the *square foot* and the price of that particular parcel was a "mere" $10,000 psf!

Ah, those were the days! ;D


KathyH profile image

KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

I LOVE hearing these stories JamaGenee! Very cool! My Dad was just saying he was here one time years ago and ran into "Flip Wilson"! I hadn't heard his name in YEARS! You've got some GREAT stories! You could write a book! (BIG grin!!)

We've been to Binions, you can get your picture taken there with a million dollars, turned out to be a GREAT picture!! :) We're pretty prudent gamblers,too. Only put $5 at a time in the penny slots! ;) And we look at it as an entertainment expense, because we know most of the time we'll never see it again! ha!! Thanks for your GREAT insight!!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Thanks for reminding me of the photos with a million $$! Had one, but don't know what happened to it. Lost in a move probably.

As for running into celebs, when I was plain clothes security at a high-end dept store in the Meadows mall, a celeb-rich environment, we *had* to treat them the same as non-famous customers. No "Oh, my gawd! You're such-and-such!". No asking for autographs. For instance, Milburn Stone ("Doc Adams" from Gunsmoke) followed me around one day while his wife was trying on dresses. (They supposedly kept a houseboat on Lake Mead.) Instead of being able to tell him what a big fan I'd been from childhood, each time I caught him staring and smiling at me, I could only politely smile back and go on. ;D


Leighsue profile image

Leighsue 4 years ago

It was an exciting time in our cultue.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Thanks for stopping by, Leighsue! :) It was an exciting time for sure.

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