Anyone that’s ever dabbled with the Sim City gaming franchise can attest to the difficulty in building up a metropolis. Towns can take root across the landscape, forming little bastions amidst the emptiness of the surrounding country for any number of reasons.
To truly grow and become something more than just a spot on the map however, communities need a spark; something that ignites a surge in migration and economic investment. That spark varies from place to place, and is heavily dependent on mitigating circumstances — the City of San Francisco for instance found its spark as a boomtown to support the burgeoning mining industry taking shape in the California gold fields of the mid-nineteenth century. Los Angeles, the cradle of American cinema, owes its meteoric rise in American culture to a colossal feat of engineering (and a hefty dose of illicit political dealings) that basically redirected an entire river system to its doorstep.
In an arid valley in Southern Nevada, organized crime was the cause célèbre around the growth of its little hamlet, a city called Las Vegas.
The identity of the “Wild West” has long endured in American history as a concurrent bastion of liberty and tragedy — a cacophony of material wealth and moral bankruptcy that worked hand-in-hand to mythologize an entire generation of our history. The story of the West is one of excess, in all its guises: to have carved your niche in the rugged wilds, you had to possess either a tremendous strength of character, or lack all moral scruples. The frontier prohibited those occupying the middle-ground; you were either pious and noble in your quest to build a better life for you and yours, or you were indelibly bound to the pursuit of personal wealth and empowerment at all costs, competitors be damned. It is the complexity of our triumphs and our tragedies which make the West uniquely American: a land of both promise and broken dreams simultaneously.
Today, this visage of the mythologized West is largely confined to history books and the odd Western. Modernization has touched almost every corner of the country by now, and the geographic frontiers of America have long-since closed. Yet Las Vegas, with its enticing aura and colorful culture stands distinctively as a hybrid of modern glitz and glam with the insatiable appetites of the Old West. Ironic, considering Las Vegas would not come of age until the post-World War II years. Certainly, few cities share the exciting backstory of Sin City, with its towering casino resorts and… smaller casino resorts. And buffets, Las Vegas has a lot of buffets, some entertainment options too, and a soon-to-be NHL franchise because Gary Bettman loves trolling hockey fans. Yes, “Fabulous Las Vegas” is riding high, but the road has not always been a smooth one. There was even a point in time where it looked as though the spark of Las Vegas might be extinguished, seeing its famous lights and gambling halls disappear under pressure from Washington.
Vegas, of course, had different ideas. Because when “The Man” comes around, you bring out the big guns, and in the 1950s and ‘60s, there were no bigger guns to be found in the desert than the Rat Pack. This week, the Colloquium takes a look back at the Golden Age of Las Vegas, and the forces that helped shape it into the cultural icon it is today. Hold on to your pants.
Episode III: Sin City Blues
The Place: Las Vegas, Nevada | The Time: Circa 1931-1989
Modern-day Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling and entertainment; yet its foundations were less ambitious, surprisingly enough. While gambling and vice was a hallmark of many Western towns, the incorporation of Las Vegas came about primarily with railroad infrastructure in mind. Prior to the expansion of railroads through the southern part of Nevada, the area surrounding what is now Las Vegas was sparsely populated at best. A few enterprising ranchers and Mormon missionaries had attempted at various times to create a community in this basin of the Mojave Desert; before them, Anasazi and Paiute natives had called the area home. Despite its size and prominence today, the area was quite slow to develop, owing to the harshness of its climate. It was not until improvements to the area’s irrigation systems that the Union Pacific Railroad laid tracks through the area, giving rise to the formal incorporation of the town in 1905.
For the next quarter-century, Las Vegas would remain primarily a railroad town, and certainly not a major fixture of the West. That would change dramatically in the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover, largely aloof in his management of the economic crisis during his Presidency, had finally begun to utilize government resources to try and help drag the country out of its economic death spiral. One such measure was the utilization of taxpayer money to fund public works programs in order to put people back to work. To this end, work was expedited on the beginning of a dam along the Colorado River around 30 miles from Las Vegas (the dam had been proposed since the turn of the century, and was formally approved by Congress a full year before the Wall Street Crash of 1929). This got the attention of Cosa Nostra affiliates in places like Chicago and Cleveland, who immediately saw the potential goldmine awaiting them in Vegas.
It all stemmed from a confluence of Las Vegas’s underground gambling community and Prohibition. While the federal government’s crackdown on liquor sales and production are a well-known facet of Prohibition during the 1920s, what is less well-known is its concurrent crackdown on gambling. Vice of all kinds were under assault during the Jazz Age, perhaps because people were just too damn jazzy for Washington’s liking. So when a construction and engineering project on a scale rarely seen is announced, bringing in thousands of workers to makeshift tent cities constructed specifically for the job, said workers need their own infrastructure while working on the project. Italian and Jewish gangsters, working in concert with a weird cabal of Mormon bankers, recognized the lucrative possibility of bringing gambling, liquor, and women to the mostly-male workforce at the Dam.
This represents the birth of Las Vegas as we know it today: organized crime moved in, and began building gambling halls and other establishments to cater to construction workers at what we now call Hoover Dam. Government officials worked to crackdown on these new ventures by prohibiting construction workers from visiting them, which was about as effective a deterrent as abstinence materiel produced by Hustler. Even when construction was completed on the dam in 1936, the ensuing rise of Lake Mead as a tourist attraction helped propel the growth of Las Vegas as a resort community. With ample power from the hydroelectric dam now complete, and new roads being built to provide access to the town, mob money flowed in to help propagate the growth of the gambling scene in Las Vegas. The 1940s saw increased growth as prominent gangsters, bootleggers, and other controversial figures like Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Morris “Moe” Dalitz began building newer, more elaborate casino hotels. With the increased presence of organized crime in Vegas came increased scrutiny from the government.
The Nevada state legislature had already taken steps to legalize gambling as early as 1931, in part because of the concerns over organized crime’s growing influence in the region. Every time the government would attempt to weed out the Mafia’s hold on Las Vegas, the Mafia would respond to the challenge in kind. For instance, though it is considered the central feature of Las Vegas, the famed ‘Las Vegas Strip’ is not actually in Las Vegas-proper. Crime bosses in the city pressured Clark County officials to create unincorporated townships to protect the Strip from annexation by the city, fearing their influence over their casinos. During World War II it was the U.S. Army’s turn to intervene, specifically in putting an end to legal prostitution in the city.
As it turns out, soldiers stationed at what is now known as Nellis Air Force Base were more concerned with deploying ordinance in the brothels of Vegas than they were on the proving grounds outside of town.
Finally, by the 1950s, the situation was reaching a critical mass. Congress had taken up special hearings on the influence of organized crime in America, and there was a very real possibility that federal oversight would crash down around the Vegas gambling scene. With their leaders under federal investigation, and the public scrutinizing the morality of spending money in a town owned wholesale by the Mob, Las Vegas’s casino owners needed an urgent solution that would legitimize their town and take some of the heat off of them. Unbeknownst to them, the answer to their plight would arrive in 1951, packing a versatile voice and eyes so blue, they could have gone toe-to-toe with B.B. King. For in September of that year, the legendary actor-singer Frank Sinatra descended upon Las Vegas for the very first time, and nothing would ever be the same in the town again.
Ol’ Blue Eyes
Born in New Jersey in 1915, Frank Sinatra was already a well-known entity in the entertainment world before he arrived in Las Vegas. In fact, Sinatra had played a major role in developing the phenomenon of the ‘teen idol’, as his earliest work in the 1940s had made him incredibly popular with young women of the era, a career path that other musical acts ranging from the Beatles to Justin Bieber would all ply thereafter. Rising up from relative obscurity playing with small groups in the northeast and Midwest, Sinatra would find success as the lead singer for Tommy Dorsey in Chicago in late-1939, then make the jump as a solo artist to Columbia Records in 1943. His success with Columbia would make him one of the most successful singers of the entire decade, rivaled only by the likes of Bing Crosby and Hank Williams.
By 1951 however, Ol’ Blue Eyes was feeling a bit blue; his star had faded somewhat since the peak of his popularity in the early-1940’s, and a combination of poor album sales and mounting debts led him to take on new gigs in an attempt to raise much-needed money. This brought him right to the laps of casino owners in Las Vegas, who were eager to sign Sinatra to sing at their establishments as a means of promoting themselves as legitimate businesses. After all, someone as famous as Frank Sinatra would never sully himself with criminals, would he? Except for the relatives that he had that were most probably involved with the Mafia back home in New Jersey, but certainly that was all coincidental.
In any event, Frank Sinatra needed the money, and Las Vegas needed Sinatra. He made his first appearance at the famed Desert Inn in September 1951, and would come to dominate the city’s entertainment scene for the next forty-plus years. In Vegas, Sinatra found his own personal playground, living a plush lifestyle while performing in front of eager crowds. The move to Sin City sparked a major turnaround in his career, as increased album sales and memorable acting roles in films like From Here to Eternity once more propelled him to the top of the entertainment world. His star-power increased as some of his entertainer friends began to perform with him in Las Vegas over the next few years, equally as famous in their own right. Dean Martin was a frequent collaborator with Sinatra, and would become a staple of the era. Legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. became a prominent Vegas fixture, joining up with Sinatra in 1959 and becoming a trailblazer in helping fighting racial segregation in Vegas. English actor Peter Lawford and comedian Joey Bishop were also staples of his running group.
They would become known as the Rat Pack, the progenitor of every other “_______ Pack” ensemble sobriquet to follow. Interestingly, they were not the original Rat Pack: that honor belonged to a group centered around Hollywood film great Humphrey Bogart. Today though, the pervasive reach of Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr., Bishop and Lawford has become legendary. Before Wayne Newton, Siegfried & Roy and Cirque de Soleil, there was Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
The Aftermath: Creating a Colossus
The Rat Pack would go on to dominate the Las Vegas scene throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, and would become a major force in American culture. Sinatra and Davis would be particularly vocal in the fight against segregation, becoming lightning rods in the highly-politicized climate of the 1960s. Lawford made in-roads with John F. Kennedy for a time thanks to his marriage to the President’s sister Pat, while Joey Bishop was a major force in television during the 1960s, helping to launch the career of future TV star Regis Philbin while hosting several of his own shows. Bishop was the last surviving member of the Rat Pack when he passed away in 2007, besting his friend Dean Martin, one of the most beloved entertainers in American history by twelve years, and Sinatra by nine.
For his part, Sinatra would continue to perform regularly up until his death in 1998, but he never completely left Las Vegas behind. His presence in Vegas would become the cornerstone of the town’s evolution from a Mafia-run casino town to a bustling resort hub in the Mojave Desert. Las Vegas’s clout grew as the presence of a new star-studded culture blossomed around it. Thanks in part to Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Las Vegas became just as influential in the entertainment business as Los Angeles and New York were, becoming one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world. Every Vegas-themed movie, every major UFC PPV or boxing title fight that emanates from the MGM Grand, every drunken blackjack session at 3 AM, it all traces back to Las Vegas’s escape from federal intervention in the early 1950’s. Without Sinatra and the Rat Pack to bring legitimacy to the town, it is quite probable that Vegas, and with it a significant portion of our modern pop culture, would not exist.
Las Vegas’s criminal elements would continue to reap the rewards of its casinos and entertainment halls for several more decades. By the 1980s though, pressure on crime families back east led to the eventual decline of organized crime’s hold on Las Vegas. In the late-1980s, the only force wealthy enough to displace the Mafia — Wall Street — came knocking. Following in the mold of super-resorts like Caesar’s Palace, the age of the small casino hotels came to a close. Throughout the 1990s, Vegas began to diversify with mega-resorts all along the Strip, with fanciful towers beckoning not only gamblers, but families as well.
Though the Vegas that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. helped to create is now all but erased under the pretense of growth and expansion, the aura of Vegas, and its role as the center of American leisure and personal freedom still exists. A city in the desert without much cause to exist where it does, except for the fact that it’s Vegas, baby. It is unto itself a city of dreams for so many who yearn to walk the Strip, laying money on the tables or in the slots, hoping to strike it rich, to take in the shows, to experience the phenomenon of willingly walking around in a desert, just because Vegas is that cool. All the great American cities have sobriquets; you cannot claim to be memorable without one. From coast to coast, you’ll find a Big Apple, a City of Angels, a Windy City, and a City by the Bay. But there’s only one Sin City, and its existence is equally fascinating and shady, but it is unequivocally unique.
This Week in History at the Colloquium:
On June 5th, 1968, Democratic Presidential nominee and presumptive front-runner Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, California, marking one of the most traumatic episodes in a calamitous year.
On June 6th, 1944, Allied Forces under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower commenced the invasion of Normandy, making a major turning point in World War II.
On June 7th, 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut brought about an end to the state’s attempt to ban certain types of contraceptives, putting birth control in the national discussion on reproductive rights and personal privacy.
On June 8th, 632, the founder of the Islamic religion and its chief prophet, Muhammad dies in the city of Medina after having cultivated what would become one of the largest and most influential religions in world history.
On June 9th, 1934, the famous Disney cartoon character Donald Duck makes his debut in the Silly Symphonies short The Wise Little Hen.
On June 10th, 1922, American actress Judy Garland, famous for playing the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, is born.
On June 11th, 1963, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức immolates himself in the middle of a busy Saigon, touching off a wave of protests that would ultimately lead to the downfall of assassinated South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm in a coup d’état.
So ends another installment of your new favorite history hub. We hope you enjoyed our little soiree into the Golden Age of Vegas; next week, we move from Sin City to the Mushroom Kingdom, as the Colloquium marks the start of E3 2017 with a special look at the story of a century-old Japanese company that had tried selling anything from playing cards to sex hotels before marketing a fat plumber video game character that wound up doing everything. As always, you can reach me on Twitter @biffkensington with questions about today’s column or ideas for future episodes. Until then, enjoy the rest of your week here at the Casual Geekery!