Las Vegas, Nevada, the Gambling and Entertainment Capital of the World, got its meager start as a mere stopover for pioneers. Ironically, it was Mormon missionaries who were among the first inhabitants of what is now Sin City. Though Las Vegas grew thanks to the railroads and the building of the Hoover Dam in 1935, it was the legalization of gambling in 1931 that put Las Vegas onto the path to becoming the city we know today.
Old Las Vegas Strip – Bugsy Siegel
Though casinos opened in Las Vegas as early as 1931, the Strip itself would not host any casinos until the 1940s. El Rancho Vegas was the first casino to be built there, but a fire destroyed the building in 1960, and it was never rebuilt. It was in 1946 that the city’s iconic casino, the Flamingo, was built through the somewhat shady machinations of mobster Bugsy Siegel after the original owner, Hollywood nighclub owner Billy Wilkerson, ran into financial difficulties. Though the casino hosts live flamingos, it was actually named after Seigel’s girlfriend, whose nickname was flamingo. Though the hotel flopped at first, it eventually became a hit, redefining luxury—though not in time to save Siegel from being shot due to accusations of skimming money from the project.
While the Strip grew, the rest of Las Vegas experienced a population boom due mostly to the personnel for the Manhattan Project. Nuclear test “watching parties” were even part of Las Vegas’s draw.
Las Vegas Strip 1950’s
In the 1950s, Las Vegas came to profit off the misfortune of others: Its rapid growth is credited with shutting down other gambling cities at the time, including Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Galveston, Texas. The decade saw growth in many casinos that today are considered small but iconic: The Sahara and The Sands opened in 1952, the Dunes opened in 1955, and the Stardust opened in 1958. The Sahara was host to Louis Prima as well as the last performance of Abbott and Costello together. The Dunes was the first casino on the Strip to offer a topless show—to much uproar—but this was due in a large part to financial struggles. Not surprisingly, the show did well.
Las Vegas Strip 1960’s
The second surge of casinos didn’t occur until the 1960s. This was when the Flamingo was purchased out of Mob influence by Kirk Kerkorian , and the International Hotel, which was also owned by Kerkorian, was built. The International is considered the first “mega resort.” It was during this time in the early 1960s that the the Rat Pack performed on the Las Vegas Strip and filled the casinos with people who wanted to be a part of the entertainment experience. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford were a group of actors and singers who performed impromptu group shows and delighted audiences for years. Most famously, this group filmed the original Ocean’s 11 largely at the Sands. In fact, it was in part to these performers, specifically Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr., that integration was brought to the Strip.
It was in 1966 that Howard Hughes, who now has a street in the city named after him, arrived at the Desert Inn. He spent the latter part of the ‘60s as owner of several casinos, including the Sands. His goal was to give Las Vegas a more clean and classy image. He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the nuclear testing going on in the area. It was during this time, in 1969, that the International Hotel hosted Elvis Presley’s record-breaking run of shows. He played there, on and off, living in a penthouse suite, until 1972. No doubt the star’s popularity contributed to the popularity of Las Vegas as a destination.
Viva Las Vegas Elvis!
Surprisingly, it was only after Elvis’s successful tour that hotel owners and managers realized that entertainment could be a large source of revenue and a tourist draw in its own right. Even though the Rat Pack brought high-rollers and huge audiences into town a few years earlier, the idea of maintaining a high-profile show for several months or years was a foreign concept. Many world-class performers were brought to Vegas during this time to entertain crowds and fill casinos, which is a tradition that has continued to this day.
Several Vegas casinos enjoyed a surge in popularity as more and more entertainers came to the city to perform. For several years, visitors at the Dunes and the Sahara would pack the casino theaters to watch performances from members of the Rat Pack, Liberace, George Burns, Judy Garland, Wayne Newton and many others.
The Desert Inn enjoyed a wave of popularity with its entertainment billing, as audiences flocked to the casino to watch acts by Liberace, Rat Pack members, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Cher, Wayne Newton, Tina Turner, Barry Manilow and others.
Kirk Kerkorian stayed busy with his operations on the Las Vegas Strip for many more years. He purchased land across from the Flamingo in 1962 and later built Caesar’s Palace on that land. Caesar’s Palace opened its doors in 1966. A few years later, in 1973, the original MGM Grand Hotel and Casino opened.
Las Vegas Strip 1980’s – MGM Grand Fire
On November 21, 1980, a fire started at the original MGM Grand that killed 85 people. The fire was found to have originated in a closed and unoccupied restaurant within the casino property and spread throughout the casino. Most of the fatalities were caused by smoke inhalation, which many people did not realize was one of the primary dangers of fires that occurred in buildings. Over 1,000 people escaped to the roof, where they were later rescued by helicopters. The disaster ranks as the third most-deadly hotel fire in modern United States history, and it also ranks as the worst disaster in Nevada history. In 1986, Kirk Kerkorian sold off the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, and it was renamed as Bally’s.
In a continuing effort to make the Las Vegas Strip a family destination known for more than just shows and gambling, a Wet ‘n Wild water park opened on the south side of the Sahara in 1985. However, the park was shuttered in 2004 and was later demolished.
The New Las Vegas Strip – The Mirage and Steve Wynn
When The Mirage opened in 1989, it set a new standard for opulence on the Las Vegas Strip and set off a chain reaction of resort development that turned the Strip into what it is today, more or less. The Mirage was one of the first examples of the new Las Vegas mega-resort that featured unparalleled dining options, entertainment options, gaming options and lodging options. In fact, The Mirage is where the world-famous duo of Siegfried and Roy got their start. The duo performed at The Mirage from 1990 until 2003, when Roy Horn suffered a tragic career-ending injury on stage.
Las Vegas had gained a reputation for being a bit seedy and undesirable in the 1970s, but the opening of The Mirage signaled a complete turnaround and a willingness to spend a significant amount of money to give visitors exactly what they wanted. The man behind the building of The Mirage was Steve Wynn, a developer who would later go on to build other lavish Vegas resorts including Treasure Island, the Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore.
Las Vegas Strip Adds More Entertainment Talent
It was about at this time in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Lance Burton started ramping up his magical career in Las Vegas. Although Burton had performed in shows in Las Vegas that dated back to the early 80s, it wasn’t until 1991 that he wrote and hosted his own show that he performed at the Hacienda Hotel. He signed a 13-year deal, which was the longest deal ever given to a Las Vegas entertainer, to perform regularly at the Monte Carlo in 1994.
Cirque du Soleil became a permanent fixture on the Las Vegas Strip around this time as well. The Cirque du Soleil show “Mystère” premiered at the same time that Treasure Island opened in 1993. Mystère revolutionized the way that Las Vegas stage shows were produced, and it proved to be so popular that several other Cirque du Soleil shows, including “O,” “Zumanity,” “Kà,” “Love,” “Criss Angel’s Believe” and “Viva Elvis,” found homes in casinos.
The building of mega-resorts and the focus on entertainment had an additional effect: The Las Vegas Strip became a top New Year’s Eve destination for people from all over the world.
2000 Las Vegas Strip Goes All Out ‘ “Mega!”
In the late ’90s and the early 2000s, the Las Vegas Strip became even more well-known for its high-end, luxury resort hotels and casinos. The most notable of these properties include the Bellagio, which opened in 1998; The Venetian, which opened in 1999; and Wynn Las Vegas, which opened in 2005. The CityCenter project, which broke ground in 2006, was completed in 2009 and houses residential condominiums, retail shops, casinos and entertainment options. Popular entertainment acts, including Penn and Teller, the Blue Man Group and Celine Dion, have been some of the most recent additions to the long list of outstanding performers that the city has hosted.
This development and focus on entertainment, however, has not been able to keep Las Vegas in the pole position of the highest-grossing gambling centers of the world. In 2006, Macau overtook Las Vegas as the world’s top gambling destination. Still with millions of visitors coming to Las Vegas from around the world to gamble, be entertained and be a part of the city’s history, it’s clear that Las Vegas is still the true Gambling and Entertainment Capital of the World.