An All Too Brief History of the Modern Las Vegas

I’ve been to New York and I’ve been to Hollywood. The former might have the world’s most distinctive skyline and the latter might have all the glitz and glamour of the movie industry, even if you have to be an actual movie star to experience that glitz and glamour (seriously, it’s not great when you’re poor). But I’ve also been to Las Vegas, and this is the most batshit of all. There is probably nowhere else in the world quite like Las Vegas (I haven’t been everywhere in the world). It’s hot, far too hot, but then, maybe I shouldn’t have gone there in August. There is no time there. Like, there are no clocks anywhere. At all. It’s true that sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s bright, and in other places this would signify the change from day to night and so on. In Vegas, though, it could be the other way around? Maybe darkness signifies the daytime… or the time that most people are awake and more highly energised? Or maybe there is no difference? It’s not that it matters, they don’t really need the separation of night and day… no one is doing any farming or anything. It is an amazing place though, and you can have fun there, and you can ruin yourself there.


The First Casinos and the Mafia

Casino, Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro -
Some mafia men in their casino. Image source.

It’s home to many of the world’s most iconic casino resorts whose very names conjure up images of glamour, movie scenes and fortunes won and lost on the spin of a roulette wheel.


But long before the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and the MGM Grand were even conceived, the very first casino in Vegas was thought to be the Red Rooster. It opened in 1931 when the State of Nevada first passed a law permitting gambling and, within a few years, the city began to gain its unwelcome reputation for being run by organised crime. I say “unwelcome” but then, would the city be quite as interesting if it didn’t have that connection? When you’re in a casino, don’t you kind of want it to be owned by an Andy Garcia type? Would you feel as cool sitting at the Blackjack table with your sunglasses on if the place was owned by a Matthew Perry type? I reckon, for you to really appreciate the moment while you’re on your stag, you need to feel like the seat you’re sitting on belongs to Walter White as opposed to Hal Wilkerson.


More and more casinos began to open on ‘The Strip’, including The Flamingo, owned by the mobster Bugsy Siegel  who allegedly spent over $6 million in 1946 creating a level of luxury never seen before in Vegas. I did the maths on that, it’s equal to 67 bajillion dollars in today’s money.


The 50s and 60s saw more and more Mob money being used to create casinos including the Sahara, The Sands, The New Frontier and The Riviera. Fortunately, later in the 60s some of the biggest corporations in the States (probably Google, Apple, Facebook, those kinds of things) moved in to Las Vegas funding major developments and gradually edging the more undesirable (desirable? cool?) elements out. This was led by the reclusive Howard Hughes (Leonardo diCaprio), the business tycoon who not only invested $300 million of his money in Vegas hotels but who also checked in to one of them, The Desert Inn, and decided never to leave.


City-like Casinos and Pop Stars

Celine Dion, Las Vegas, pop -
Queen of Pop, Celine Dion. Image source

This transformation of the city led by big business also led to a move to diversify away from being just a gambling destination to a more general entertainment centre, one of the casinos even installed a rollercoaster because that topped the list when the execs discussed what ‘general entertainment’ meant. Also all the hotel rooms have TVs in them. This was also reflected in the kinds of hotels that were built. For example, where else in the world can you see ancient Egypt, Paris and Venice on the same day? Other than Europe and North Africa, of course. You can buy yourself a private jet. Get up early in Paris. Pop down to Venice for brunch, and then hop over to Cairo for your dinner. And you’ll probably spend less that you would in Vegas.


When you think of the entertainment-era Vegas, the first performers who spring to mind are probably Elvis or Liberace and it was the huge names like these that started to bring a whole new type of visitor to the Strip. I think Britney Spears might be doing a residency there at the moment, so the quality is the same. When I was there it was Celine Dion and Jerry Seinfeld. Suffice to say, as much I wanted to go, I could not afford it. Hopefully I’ll see Celine some other time in the future.


The residencies are really good because loads of fans can get a ticket to see their heroes. And then they can go to the casino and win back the money for the ticket and the flight. Simple. It works perfectly. The longest ever of these residencies has been by Donny and Marie Osmond who have notched up over 2,500 performances since 2005. Which, yes, I agree with you, might be too many.


More of the Same


Some people have suggested that the rise of online gambling could spell trouble for the casinos of Las Vegas, leading it to rely more and more heavily on other aspects of its appeal for visitors. More Britney, bitch? Elvis hologram? World Sandcastle Championships?


Regardless of online gambling, being at the casino and seeing the dealer’s face when you win is the best thing ever. (It’s not, they don’t care. Unless Andy Garcia has their name on his ‘list’).


Featured Image Source.