How Vegas cleaned up ... and grew up
February 20, 2019 3:00 AM
by Jack Sheehan
I recently had cause to review some research I did in 1981. Going through those notes — which seemed like they were taken about five years ago — I was shocked to realize how much had changed in Las Vegas in less than four decades.
In that year, among the population of 650,000 Southern Nevadans, a primary concern was whether Runnin’ Rebel basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian could bring the most coveted high school basketball player in the country to UNLV, and return his small school’s team to the Final Four. That was a feat that had sent the entire community into paroxysms of ecstasy just a few years before.
Tark did manage a year earlier to sign Sidney Green, who was then the third-rated prepster in the country, but it would be a few more years before they’d return to the Big Dance.
Because two tragic hotel fires had occurred within weeks in late 1980-early ’81, claiming over 90 lives, it was paramount that all major hotel rooms needed to be retrofitted with overhead sprinkler systems in the rooms.
I witnessed both fires up-close and can’t recall a more sickening feeling than watching hotel occupants in high-level rooms lean out smoke-filled windows screaming for help.
There was a community concern over the number of prostitutes walking the Strip each night. These streetwalkers, who were not to be confused with the high-priced ladies inside the hotels who operated with the full approval of the landlords, had become so brazen that they were soliciting men in the company of their wives and children.
Clark County Sheriff candidate John Moran won his election to office largely based on the promise that he would cleanse the street of hookers.
There was a growing paranoia that with Atlantic City having legalized gambling just three years before, Las Vegas had lost its monopoly and that high-rolling gamblers from the East Coast and larger Midwest cities would opt to play in New Jersey rather than Nevada, and cause our economy to take a major hit.
In hindsight we see that the spread of legalized gambling just provided growth opportunities for Las Vegas’ gaming entrepreneurs, who went from being just plain rich to filthy rich.
Doomsayers were predicting in 1981 that in just five years, with Las Vegas growing at an alarming rate, we would soon be out of water. Many local residents continued to drink water right out of the tap rather than purchase the hot new item: bottled water.
There was concern that with the gradual intrusion of Wall Street into the gaming business, fueled in part by the recent corruption scandal at the Stardust which revealed hidden mob interests, Las Vegas would lose its Raymond Chandler-film noir appeal and be run by faceless bean counters who cared little about personal service and only about the bottom line.
There are still old-timers who swear Las Vegas was a much better town when it was run by the mob. I’m not one of them.
Ronald Reagan had been elected just the year before, and his ultra-conservative attorney general Edwin Meese announced that he was clamping down on nudity and distinctly adult behavior. The thinking in Las Vegas was that we would become a target of new and stricter laws governing advertising and onstage behavior.
Turns out nothing of the sort happened, and if you have ever attended the Adult Video News awards which have been coming here for nearly 20 years, you know that nearly anything goes with those free spirits.
So many other social and cultural changes have occurred since 1981 it’s hard to grasp the changes in our daily behavior. There were no cell phones, no Internet, no Amazon or Hulu with which to binge our lives away. In one quick year from now our city will be home to two major sport franchises, with big-league basketball and baseball not far off.
We have a major performing arts center, and no celebrity considers him or herself above performing here, and the best chefs in the world have either opened restaurants here or are hoping to soon.
I find all these changes exciting and mildly depressing at the same time. Was 1981 really that long ago?
I guess it was.
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