Las Vegas saw ‘ground zero’ in Fabulous Fifties

Apr 10, 2001 10:17 AM

The decade of the 1950s has been labeled "Fabulous," and for good reason. It seems that no matter where you looked, the decade marked a kind of renaissance; or it at least planted the seeds that would blossom into the Coming of Age of the ’60s and ’70s.

It was during the decade that Las Vegas blossomed from a frontier Western town into a Miami modern type of resort. Coupled with the advent of air conditioning, interstate highways and transcontinental travel, Las Vegas was becoming a unique destination. For the gambler, it was like Palm Springs and Palm Beach - only better.

The nine-story Riviera hotel became the first high-rise resort in 1955. It was followed by the 15-story Fremont hotel downtown. Elvis, the Rat Pack and Wayne Newton became regular headliners at The Strip resorts, and lounges featured such household names as Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Alan King and Louis Prima, all for the cost of a cocktail.

Also in the 1950s, the Nevada Proving Ground, 100 miles to the north, would shake Las Vegas’ foundations with its atomic blasts. The atomic era had arrived and, at one point, nuclear tests were conducted on a monthly basis - above ground and in plain view for everyone to watch.

While school children would be herded off the playgrounds during detonations, most residents and tourists took patriotic pride in the eruption of freedom, and set up lawn chairs and watched the eerie glow and mushroom clouds.

Even the casinos got into the act by creating atomic promotions: special menu items, cocktails and even cheesecake photos of showgirls in "mushroom" bathing suits.

While the military was busy north of town, the casinos were spreading south. Gambling was the city’s No. 1 business, and the downtown casinos were evolving into larger hotel resorts on Las Vegas Boulevard ("The Strip") south of town. The famed thoroughfare, also known as the Los Angeles Highway back then, got its name from a former L.A. police captain who bought the Pair-O-Dice Club along the barren stretch in 1938. He said the road reminded him of the Sunset Strip.

By 1960, the city’s population had grown to 65,000. One of the newcomers was Howard Hughes. The eccentric billionaire started buying up casinos, including the Desert Inn (where he lived), Sands, Landmark, Silver Slipper, Castaways and Frontier. Paying top dollar for the properties ($14 million for the Sands and $13 million for the Desert Inn), Hughes sparked an intense round of speculation and opened the door for corporations to get into the gambling business. Such companies as Hilton, Ramada and Holiday Inn, once sensitive about their corporate image, soon became commonplace entrepreneurs in a town that built its reputation as Sin City.

Bally’s gets facelift

Bally’s Las Vegas, the Grand Dame of the Strip that emerged from the devastating fire in 1980, has quietly been upgraded to complement its sister property, Paris Las Vegas.

Since the two are joined at the hip via Le Boulevard, a crossover corridor that links the two properties, officials at Park Place Entertainment Corp. (PPE) realized the necessity of upgrading the facility and began a complete makeover two years ago.

Work began in the Bally’s rooms, which already featured one of the largest standard hotel rooms on the Strip. Each room was brought up to the classic standard expected of the venerable property with contemporary amenities added. Designed by Kovacs & Associates, the design firm responsible for the rooms in Paris Las Vegas, Bally’s hotel rooms now feature a bright and natural look. Maple wood is used extensively for the room furnishings, such as the armoires, nightstand, headboard and dressing table.

Another phase of the renovations upgraded the convention facilities, focusing on the ballroom and events center. A state-of-the-art sound and lighting system also was installed.

More recently, the remodeling efforts concentrated on the 67,000 square foot casino, providing guests with a bright, lively gaming space with 1,750 slots and 100 table games.

Jointly, Bally’s and Paris is one of the largest resorts in the world with 5,700 hotel rooms, 152,000 square feet of gaming space, 17 restaurants, two major showrooms, 320,000 square feet of convention/meeting space, retails shops and full service-health spas.

Commenting on the renovations, Anthony Santo, president of both resorts, said, "Bally’s is considered one of the greatest resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, and this improvement program keeps our resort fresh and competitive."

Lanni, Schaeffer set to speak

Two of the most respected executives in the gaming industry will deliver keynote addresses at the Southern Gaming Summit May 9-10 at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center.

J. Terrence Lanni, chairman and CEO of MGM MIRAGE Inc. (MGG), will speak on "Grace Under Pressure," while Glenn Schaeffer, president and CFO of Mandalay Resort Group, will talk on "A Renaissance Man."

Lanni, regarded by many in the industry as its most articulate spokesman, recently completed a two-year stint as a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission and has been a leader in the industry’s battle to preserve Nevada’s right to accept wagers on NCAA sporting events.

"Terry Lanni is a perfect mixture of intellect, reason, strength, courage, compassion and commitment to the traditional ideas of America," said Bob Faiss of the Las Vegas law firm of Lionel Sawyer, & Collins."

Schaeffer has held his executive positions with Mandalay Resort Group for the past 18 years.

The Summit has lined up speakers on subjects relating to gaming law, gaming operations, gaming technology, and new horizons.