The Truth About Las Vegas
Seven things you only think you know about Sin City.
1. Bugsy Siegel begat Las Vegas.
You’ve seen the movie. A sharp-dressed mobster steps out of a limousine, kicks the Mojave sand with a two-tone wingtip, and has a vision. He can see it, he tells his befuddled driver. Rising from this godforsaken desert hellhole ... a shining, man-made oasis ... a gin-soaked playground for sinners, libertines, and fallen angels. And he will build it, against all odds. And it will be good.
And that man’s name was Benjamin Siegelbaum.
Except … that never happened. The town was already a destination for gamblers and discreet misbehavers when Bugsy Siegel arrived from California in 1945, at the behest of Meyer Lansky. And his job description was not that of starry-eyed visionary. He was there to help run the El Cortez Hotel and Casino, at the corner of Sixth and Fremont in downtown Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, down Highway 91, a publisher and unlucky gambler named Billy Wilkerson was struggling to build his own hotel and casino. He had decided the only way to make money in a casino was to own one. But, post-war shortages and rationing made the procurement of building materials next to impossible, so Wilkerson approached the mob for help. Not surprisingly, the boys were delighted to assist in any way they could. And in May of 1946, Siegel moved in, and Wilkerson was pushed out.
But, Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo, right?
2. Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo.
Yes and no. The project he commandeered–Billy Wilkerson’s unfinished hotel and casino–was the Flamingo, already under construction and already named. That name, often erroneously attributed to Siegel’s girlfriend’s legs and red hair, was reportedly chosen by Wilkerson before Siegel was even involved. Billy Wilkerson liked flamingos.
The rest of the story is well documented. Bugsy’s project went over budget, ultimately failing to make a profit. Siegel failed to provide the Genovese family with a valid ledger and--in spite of Lansky’s initial intervention--he was summarily whacked under suspicion of embezzlement. A true Hollywood ending.
But, he left a legacy in Las Vegas. El Cortez is still in business. And so is the Flamingo–the first casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
3. The Flamingo was the first casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
The third, actually. The first was El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941. The following year the Last Frontier debuted. Soon, the troubled Flamingo completed the trio.
El Rancho Vegas burned to the ground in 1960. The Last Frontier juggled nouns and adjectives on its sign before being demolished in 2007 to make way for one of several stalled construction projects that currently pockmark the Las Vegas landscape.
The Flamingo still stands. None of the original structure survived beyond 1993, and the property has skipped back and forth between corporations and speculators like a roulette ball in play. But the iconic Flamingo sign is as much a part of modern Vegas as the fake Eiffel Tower, the fake Statue of Liberty, and the phony canals of Venice.
4. You can pretend to visit the Eiffel Tower, The Statue of Liberty, and the Canals of Venice without ever leaving Las Vegas.
No. You can’t. Not in Vegas, you can’t. Because these replicas are not in Las Vegas. Neither is that shiny black pyramid with the big light on top. Nor the Bellagio fountains. In fact, none of the Strip properties, except the Stratosphere, are located in the city of Las Vegas. In spite of what it says on the return address of your most recent casino offer, everything from Mandalay Bay to the recently shuttered Sahara is actually located in Paradise Township, Clark County, Nevada. Not Las Vegas.
Before the transformation of the Strip, Vegas meant downtown: The Mint, The Golden Gate, El Cortez, The Horseshoe, The Las Vegas Club and many others. Back then, Las Vegas Boulevard was just Highway 91–the road in and out of town.
In the fifties and sixties, mob money and misappropriated Teamster funds poured into Vegas, and Strip construction exploded. Garish as a gangster’s rumpus room, Las Vegas Boulevard offered more sophisticated gambling and entertainment options to the steady influx of tourists, as well as larger, more enticing properties. Downtown Las Vegas, the original Las Vegas, faded into the background. For decades, the decline was evident and unstoppable. In recent years, in spite of a flagging economy, a number of improvements and renovations have helped mark Downtown Vegas as a viable alternative to the tourist-clogged Las Vegas Strip. But, it’s an uphill struggle, as the neighborhood is also known for $29 rooms, deep-fried Twinkies and penny slots.
5. Penny slots cost a penny.
Penny slots cost a penny if you don’t know what you’re doing. One penny is not representative of the amount wagered; it is the denomination of the machine. The reason for this has more to do with the evolution of the multi-line format than the frugality of the player. As video slots became more popular and the number of virtual reels and paylines increased, it became necessary to lower the denomination of the games to allow non-highrollers to play multiple lines for extended periods of time without exhausting their bankrolls. Casinos are in the business of emptying your pockets, but no one wants it to happen too quickly.
Modern slots can have hundreds of paylines, and with penny denominations, it’s possible to wager as much as five or ten dollars with every virtual pull of the non-existent handle. It is also conceivable, when playing maximum coin, to win thousands of dollars.
Conceivable, but not likely ... because the house always wins. Right?
6. The house always wins.
No. The house usually wins. The house ultimately wins. The house always wins in the long term … but the house does not always win. Players win, all day long. Players beat the house all the time. The key is what happens next. Sometimes these players show Herculean resolve and walk away. Sometimes they win at the just right time, and are forced to walk away … to catch a plane or a show. But mostly, they continue playing. They continue playing until the immutable laws of mathematics and linear chronology catch up with them. And then, the house wins.
But If the house always won, people would stop going to Vegas ... and it would be over.
7. Vegas is over.
Well, times are tough. Nevada, like forty-nine other states, is struggling under the leaden blanket of a toxic economy. In Las Vegas, jobs continue to evaporate and a once record-breaking housing boom is transforming brand new neighborhoods into pre-fab ghost towns. And, the news is always bad. The storied and iconic Sahara has finally been taken off life support, and high-end restaurants continue to fail. Blind and foolhardy speculation has blighted the North Strip with stalled and defunct construction projects. And, if that isn’t bad enough--the Liberace Museum has finally given up the glittery ghost.
Yet, millions of people continue to plan Vegas vacations and count the days prior to departure like children waiting for a fat guy in a rented Santa suit. Why is this?
That’s easy. Vegas will never be over, because in spite of the disdain and embarrassment the town may elicit in the minds of some Americans, the rest of us still celebrate the illusion of Bugsy’s vision. We don’t care that it’s fake. The whole town is fake. And, as reality continues to disappoint, fake will persevere--and the sinners and the libertines and the fallen angels will always have a place the desert to misbehave.