Why is Las Vegas such a magnet for people?

Oct 23, 2019 3:00 AM

I received so many notes and follow-ups to last week’s column — which my editor preferred to call an “essay” — that it got me thinking more about why Las Vegas is such a magnet for people. 

Dozens wrote to tell me on Facebook or Instagram that years ago they too thought they were coming to town for just a few days or a week, and ended up moving here.

For a writer, the draw is easy to understand: compelling stories are easier to find here than dust in Oklahoma. Whether it’s entertainment or sports or business or growth or crime or just outlandish behavior that has to be witnessed to be believed, there’s no more fertile ground for yarn spinning than here. 

For others I heard from, it was the opportunity to find a good job, with or without years of formal education. For yet others it was the freedom the city offers to shop for groceries at four in the morning, or grab a cocktail nearly anywhere at any time.

Some cities are resistant to change. My hometowns in Washington and Idaho have changed very little in the last 50 years. If you venture to the Strip only on occasion, every time you go your eyes pop with a new structure or attraction you hadn’t heard a thing about.

Here is just a short list of the mind-blowing changes that have occurred in Las Vegas since I arrived in 1975:

• Ours was the only state in the country then with legalized gambling. When Resorts Atlantic City opened in 1978, you would have thought the skies were falling in Nevada. The conventional wisdom was that New Jersey would kidnap all our high-rolling gamblers from the East Coast. Instead, the competition just created more gamblers who eventually had to come to Las Vegas on vacation to see first-hand how the real professionals did it.

• The only sporting activity that drew significant crowds then were the Runnin’ Rebels men’s basketball team. UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian had attracted a talented group of primarily inner-city guys who could score as casually as the Harlem Globetrotters. They averaged 110 points a game at a time when there was no 30-second clock and no three-point shooting line. Had there been, the team would have averaged around 130. 

Other low-level professional sports teams that tried to make it here typically folded in a year or two. Absolutely no one would have predicted or believed that four decades later the city would wildly support two major teams in glamour sports like hockey and football. Now, no one would question that it won’t be long before the NBA and Major League Baseball settle here. 

• In the 70s there were only two certified superstars performing on the Strip: Elvis and Sinatra. Oh sure, there were big names in other venues, but the wrap for most entertainers performing in Las Vegas then was viewed much the same as we view performers in Branson, Missouri today. It meant their careers had peaked and they were fading into the golden years. 

Today, the biggest names in showbiz can’t wait to come here, and not just for a night or limited engagement. Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake — no one is deemed too big or important for Vegas anymore.

• On the bizarre front, with a crime angle, there is a virtual banquet of stories to choose from over the years: the In Cold Blood Killers immortalized by Truman Capote were captured here; corrupt polygamous leader Warren Jeffs was captured here; O.J. Simpson was exonerated for a double murder in California, but sentenced to prison for nine years here for a simple armed burglary charge. (He then moved here upon release.); the 9/11 Muslim hijackers spent several weeks here in the months before they attacked New York and Washington.

And tragically, in a scar we’re all still reeling from, the worst mass murder in American history took place here. It was an unthinkable violation against fun-loving people innocently enjoying an outdoors concert.

Las Vegas in the last half century has transformed itself from a unique, offbeat, quirky, amusing, curious place to a city that is envied by many other well-known metropolises for our relatively controlled growth, our entrepreneurial spirit, and our originality. 

When I think about this long journey I’ve been on, and why and how it happened here, I can’t help smiling.

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