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February 01, 2013

NEVADA YESTERDAYS: William R. Wilkerson, part 1


The 1940's in Las Vegas shared some Hollywood history. Here's Senator Richard Bryan with Nevada Yesterdays:

Red ScareA lot of commentators think of Las Vegas as the crossroads of the universe.  At some point, everybody and everything will have something to do with the city.  If you want proof that it’s a small world, here it is.

Recently, The Hollywood Reporter, an entertainment publication, reported in great detail on its role in creating the blacklist.  In the late 1940s and 1950s, the United States went through a red scare.  Americans were concerned about the spread of communism.  After World War II, the Soviet Union had taken over most of eastern Europe.  In 1949, communists took control of China and the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb.  Stories of spies and communist infiltration filled the air and the airwaves.  Various parts of the entertainment industry barred suspected communists from performing or appearing.

The Hollywood Reporter was at the center of things.  On July 29, 1946, its founder and publisher ran a column that listed eleven Hollywood screenwriters as communist sympathizers.  Their number included Howard Koch, who co-wrote Casablanca, and Ring Lardner, Junior, the son of the famous writer.  The Hollywood Reporter went on to warn about the threat posed by communism.  The formal blacklist came to Hollywood in November 1947, after the Hollywood Ten refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Later, they served prison sentences for contempt of Congress.  Others testified that communists posed a major threat in Hollywood.  The committee heard that from Walt Disney and Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan.  Among those attacking the House committee were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Ronald ReaganAlready, you can see some Nevada and Las Vegas connections.  Consider Disney.  We tend to forget that the fantasies and themes promoted by the Strip owe just a bit to Disneyland … no wonder Las Vegas has been called an adult Disneyland.  Ronald Reagan’s ties to Nevada are obvious, and not just because he once headlined at the Hotel Last Frontier.  When he was governor of California, he became a close friend of Nevada’s governor at the time, Paul Laxalt, who went on to chair his presidential campaigns.

Bogart and Bacall aren’t known for their politics, but they had a connection to Las Vegas.  They hosted parties and carousing at their home in Holmby Hills, and apparently, one time, Bacall called them a rat pack.  The name has stuck through history.  After Bogart’s death, Frank Sinatra became the group’s leader.  Their performances at the Sands and the film Oceans Eleven became the stuff of legend.

Billy WilkersonBut it gets even more interesting.  That Hollywood Reporter column may have triggered the movie industry’s involvement in rooting out communists.  The red scare would have happened anyway, and so might have Hollywood’s connection to it.  But the publisher who wrote the column was named William R. Wilkerson, better known as Billy.  He may have been one of the most important men in the history of Nevada, if you think about it.  Apparently, he had the idea and put up the original money to build the Flamingo.  When he wrote the first column about communists, he had given up control of the property to one of his partners, Benjamin Siegel.  Was that all tied somehow to the anti-communist crusade?  We’ll explore that, and other aspects of how all of these threads tie together, next time.

More on News 88.9 KNPR
6/21/02: Bugsy at the Beginning
3/11/11: Ronald Reagan: Part I
3/25/11: Ronald Reagan: Part II
12/19/12: Who's The Greatest Las Vegas Headliner?

See discussion rules.


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