I get interesting feedback from readers every time I write about the way Las Vegas “used to be.”
Old-timers like myself will email to say either that I hit the nail on the head in describing the city half a century ago, or that I’m totally full of the stuff horses recycle after they’ve eaten their oats.
To be more accurate, I’m just a semi-old-timer, in that I arrived in late 1975. A genuine old-timer would be men that I’ve penned books about, like banker Parry Thomas, who financed nearly all the gamers who needed a loan in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s; and Fred Gibson, the brilliant chemist and engineer who patented many of the rocket fuels that put NASA shuttles and rockets into space.
Parry was so smooth and so intelligent that he could work financial magic with many of the old-school mob-tainted gamblers who’d settled in Vegas, and be confident that they’d pay back their loans. He was equally adept at nurturing the Ivy League white-collar executives who took over for the bent-noses as the city grew and expanded.
Fred enjoyed telling me how as a nine-year-old boy he enjoyed watching Lake Mead fill up, a year after Hoover Dam had completed construction. And how he was the president of the student body at Las Vegas High School in 1945, when their football team, the Wildcats, made the Guinness Book of World Records for playing an entire nine-game schedule undefeated and without ever being scored upon.
The Clark County population when I limped into town with my golf bag and typewriter and a change of clothes was under 400,000. Today it is 2.2 million and growing like a pimple on prom night. There is no other metropolis in the country that has more than quintupled its population in less than a half century.
For a scribbler who likes to write about any subject that grabs his interest, I don’t believe there’s a better city in the country, or the world, to set down roots.
My semi-old-timer stories go back only as far as the Culinary Union strike that turned the Strip dark in the winter of 1976. Driving up and down Las Vegas Boulevard and seeing our magnificent palaces without lights was apocalyptic. I half-expected to see mutants and zombies stumbling down the street.
In the mid-70s I could go into a popular watering hole on what is now called the east side of town, and on any given night see full-fledged mobsters like Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein, and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro drinking and dining as though they represented the ruling class of the city. And in a strange way, they did.
It doesn’t seem like 35 years ago that I watched the new Las Vegas Stars, our-city’s first AAA baseball franchise, on opening day. Now the team is just months away from christening a new stadium, just walking distance from my house.
While current major celebrities like Bruno Mars or Lady Gaga are lined up to do a one-nighter in T-Mobile, or a longer stint in a showroom, back in the day Las Vegas was considered a graveyard for washed-up comedians and vocalists well past their prime. And yet I enjoyed those performances every bit as much as the superstars of today.
The “then to now” aspect I like most about our city is that we are no longer a running joke about being the capital of decadence or a place lacking culture or a soul. If non-residents poke fun about Las Vegas today, I just pass it off as envy that their hometown hasn’t matured as gracefully as we have.