Las Vegas Strip: The First Boom

Since the late 1980s, the Las Vegas Strip has been in a manic building boom, creating some of the world's largest hotels and giving southern Nevada more than 130,000 hotel rooms. The ongoing boom is the latest in a series of transformations that began in the 1940s and 1950s. The concrete realities of doing business and the marketed image of a resort with illicit overtones have influenced every reincarnation of the Las Vegas Strip.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Strip hotels the world long associated with Las Vegas were built: the El Rancho Vegas, Hotel Last Frontier (later the New Frontier), Flamingo, Thunderbird, Desert Inn, Sahara, Sands, Riviera, Dunes, Hacienda, Tropicana, and Stardust. Between 1946 and 1958, all but two of those hotels opened, and most shared several common characteristics.

The first two, the El Rancho Vegas and Hotel Last Frontier, were western-style low-rises. Their builders were neither gamblers nor casino operators: Thomas Hull owned El Rancho motor hotels in San Bernardino and Fresno; Rupert E. Griffith owned movie theaters throughout the Southwest in addition to the Last Frontier; and his nephew, Bill Moore, who ran the hotel-casino, was an architect. The western resort theme, not the casino image, dominated, and the more conventional financing these owners provided lent an air of respectability to the establishments.

When the original owners sold the western-style resorts, the new owners often were tied to organized crime. No banks would consistently lend Strip operators money due to concerns about their mob connections and the effects on the banks' reputations when depositors learned that they were making loans to casinos. However, in the mid-1950s, two major sources of legitimate funding developed. Bank of Las Vegas manager E. Parry Thomas began lending money, reasoning that since gambling was legal in Nevada, casinos were a legitimate business, and a bank should lend money to the most important business in the city it served. Allen Dorfman, a relative of a onetime Al Capone ally, took over the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund in 1956 and began lending money to Las Vegas casino owners and developers. Until these sources of capital came along, casino building required investors with money up front, and the price was that some of the profits went out the back door to mob financiers.

Whether and whatever they skimmed out of their casinos, these gaming executives with ties to organized crime suffered from a public misperception that they were gun-toting gangsters, not shrewd businessmen who knew how to run a profitable casino and hotel. These early mobsters-turned-casino operators demonstrated their business sense in several ways. One was in transforming the Strip into a suburban casino resort. As historians like Eugene Moehring and David Schwartz have demonstrated, post-World War II Americans sought a vacation experience that offered the comforts they found at home. Las Vegas resorts of the 1940s and 1950s provided shopping, entertainment, spacious rooms, and outdoor activities ranging from boating to horseback riding, a far cry from the saloon-style gambling halls of the Old West and the downtown Las Vegas of the 1930s.

Additionally, land values were lower along Highway 91, as the Strip (or Las Vegas Boulevard South) was known, than they are today, meaning owners with less capital than today's corporations could obtain a great deal of land. This literally expanded the Strip, increasing the number of casinos and creating a permanent cultural presence. In many ways, these casinos were typical of southwestern resorts, complete with ample parking for the customers who drove up Highway 91, but with a significant difference: they offered visitors the chance to gamble legally—to do something unacceptable back home, yet perfectly legal in Nevada. Strip hotel-casinos were temples and templates for postwar, post-industrial society, with the U.S. turning away from blue-collar, heavy industry and toward white-collar, service industry, which Las Vegas and its resorts exemplified.

Most of the "old" Strip is gone. New owners imploded the Thunderbird, Desert Inn, Sands, Dunes, and Hacienda, while expansion and rebuilding have changed the appearance of most of the other original hotels. Casinos are accepted as an integral part of Nevada's economy, and overt associations with organized crime have faded and been replaced by corporate business models. Once again, the Strip has reinvented itself. Nonetheless, there is a continuing nostalgia for the "good old, bad old days," as one Strip publicist of the 1950s and 1960s called them, when food and entertainment were cheaper and the casinos were much smaller than their modern counterparts. But even if those legendary casinos now are just that—legends—they played a key historical role in the development of Las Vegas, the Sunbelt, and the postwar, post-industrial world.

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