The People And Hotels Of The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1956-1973


Lynn Zook

There's a here-today-gone-tomorrow aspect to the hotel business in Las Vegas. Operators are always trying to one-up each other, bringing in the best and brightest bells and whistles.

And if something becomes too outdated? Like an old soldier, it just fades away.

In her book "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1956-1973" Lynn Zook writes about the hotels of our city and the people who created them - and describes what made those same hotels special to our city. 

Discussion Highlights:

What was it about those hotels in the 1950s and '60s that appeals to you?

The Las Vegas Strip I grew up with is very different from the Las Vegas Strip of today. The hotels were smaller. They weren't built out to the curb. There was a lot of interesting architecture from hotel to hotel. It was cocktails. It was glamor -- everybody dressed up to go to a hotel back then. You put on a suit and tie. Women wore elaborate dresses that they wouldn't necessarily wear back home because they're in Las Vegas!

Is this when we start to see the idea of Las Vegas as 'Sin City?'

Yes, very much so. Even though there were a couple of hotels that did appeal to the family crowd. It was an adult playground. It was marketed as an adult playground.

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The book covers 1956 to 1973. You argue that it is a crucial time for the Las Vegas Strip. Is that because that's when it starts to market itself as an escape for adults?

Very much so. The 1950s, the '60s and into the early '70s the hotels that were built: Caesars Palace – there is no apostrophe S in Caesars because every man's a Caesar. It was a luxurious, Bacchanalian playpen, basically. You had wine goddesses in the Bacchanal Room, who would massage your temples or give you neck rub, meanwhile pouring you a glass of wine.

You look back on it now and it seems really sexist but back then it was – oh! We've got to go to Caesars Palace.

What other properties that we might be familiar with that were developed at the same period?

The Tropicana. The Stardust. Circus Circus. The International, which is now the Westgate. The Landmark. The Aladdin. The original MGM Grand, which is now Bally's. The Hacienda.

What is the key difference between those hotels and the hotels that have been built over the past 25 years?

The Las Vegas Strip today is modeled more for the pedestrian. It is a walkers' paradise. Back in the 1960s and '70s, you couldn't walk it the way you can today. Everything is built out to the street. It's overstuffed and you can walk from hotel to hotel.

Back then it was hotel, big expanse of desert, another hotel, another big expanse of desert. It made walking more difficult. It was designed more for the automobile tourists than it was for the walking pedestrians. There were also gas stations and mom-and-pop hotels, like the Galaxy and Desert Rose and the lone Palm. They all had neon signs.

You have a personal connection to this time period: Your mother worked at Caesars Palace?

She was a showroom waitress in Circus Maximus in Caesars Palace. She was there from opening day until she retired. Thanks to her, I got to see some incredible shows.

Caesars Palace has seen so much change around it, but it remains. Why is Caesars different than the Sands or the Hacienda?

I think part of it has to do with branding. Jay Sarno sold Caesars in the late '60s to the Perlmans. They had Lum's Restaurant. They came in and they understood what Sarno had created. They carried on. I think Caesars has been very lucky because each new owner has understood the brand, and kept the brand relevant for each new decade. The only thing that I really miss is the turquoise lighting.  

In this book, you write about all kinds of fascinating Las Vegas characters. One of them was Edwin Lowe. He opened the Tallyho Inn the Strip in 1963, but he is more well known for making money off of a board game.

Edwin Lowe was good friends with a couple who played a game called Yacht's Club. Lowe thought that he could market that into something. He renamed it Yahtzee and made a fortune. What did he decide to do with the fortune? He wanted to open a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip designed after the Tudor landscaping and architecture of England – and he didn't want a casino. It would just be a high-end hotel. This was back in the era of gaming was the number one reason people came to the Las Vegas Strip.

I'm not quite sure how he ever thought that having a hotel with no casino was going to work for him. Unfortunately, it didn't. He ended up selling it to a hotel chain called King's Crown. They at least put a casino in, but they couldn't really make a go of it.

Milton Prell came out of retirement [and bought the hotel]. He had built the Sahara and had gotten it going. It was wildly successful in the late '50s and 1960s. He came out of retirement to build another Moroccan-themed hotel the Aladdin.

The Aladdin hosted a famous wedding.

Elvis Presley decided to get married in Las Vegas. I guess Colonel Tom Parker [Elvis' manager] made arrangements with Milton Prell. He was married in Prell's suit.

At the time, the United Press International's bureau chief was a local reporter by the name of Myram Borders. The night before Myram got a call from a gentleman who said, "I've got a really hot story, but I want to be paid for it." Myram said, "UPI doesn't pay for stories." He was very insistent and she told him to call a couple of big newspapers back east, knowing they would be closed. He called back about half hour later, saying no one was answering the phone.

She said, "We might be able to throw you a little cash. What's your story?" He said, "Elvis is getting married at the Aladdin." And then she asked the guy for his name and he wouldn't give his name. She later said, "I don't know how he ever expected to get paid." She got off the phone with him, got dressed and went down to the Aladdin. She was walking up and down the halls, getting chased by the security guards. At about 7 in the morning, she ran into a Nevada Supreme Court Justice. She asked, "What are you doing here?" He said, "I'm here to marry Elvis." She ran home wrote the story and scooped everybody.

The Aladdin was known for bringing in amazing entertainment.

In the early to mid-70s, the Aladdin built the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts. Finally, rock 'n' roll had a place to perform on the Las Vegas Strip. Up until then, they either had to play the Convention Center rotunda, which the Beatles did, Led Zeppelin did, Iron Butterfly did, or they played the Ice Capades ice chalet over in Commercial Center like the Doors did. They didn't really have anywhere to play. Theater for the Performing Arts changed all that.

The Aladdin seemed to follow the same pattern as other hotels: Questionable money helped build the hotel, and questionable money leads to its downfall. Was that endemic?

Very much so. The Stardust had a front-row seat to that so to speak. The film "Casino" is very much what happened, with Rosenthal and Spilotro and the Stardust. It wasn't just the Stardust. It was up and down the Strip. The Teamsters' Pension fund helped pay for the theater for the performing arts. What happened was the feds and the local government and the U.S. Attorney for Nevada… they all coalesced together to bring an end to the mob in the Las Vegas hotels. The Aladdin got pulled into it, the Tropicana, a few others and especially the Stardust.

Do you see a tug-of-war between the past and the present in Las Vegas, or are we always just full-steam ahead?

We're probably full-steam ahead a little more than we should be, because there is so much history here. Part of the rap Las Vegas gets is [that] it's not really that old of a town. We're 110 years as a community. We don't have 300 years of history like New York does, but our history is still valuable. There are still people alive today who can tell you what it was like growing up here in the '30s, '40s and the '50s. They've got great stories to tell. I think part of it is that Las Vegas for many years was a small community and it wasn't until the '90s that we broke a million residents.

Now, it's growing and growing, and with that comes you have to expand. Also, what comes with that is people don't have a sense of the history of Las Vegas because they're from somewhere else. Where they're from, that has history.

(Editor's note: this interview originally aired August 2017)




Lynn M. Zook, author,  "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1956-1973" and "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1930 to 1955" 




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