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Gambling On A Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1930-1955

In her new book, "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1930-1955,"  Lynn Zook writes about the allure of early Las Vegas. She describes an era that, she says, “mainly exists in our collective memory.”


How did Las Vegas change from when your book starts in 1930 to where it ends in 1955?

Basically, in 1930, Highway 91, which is now Las Vegas Boulevard was a two-lane blacktop highway. It was the main, then as now, way to get from Southern California to Las Vegas. Not a lot was out along Highway 91, two nightclubs with restaurants. The Pair a Dice Club and the Red Rooster and that was about it.

Then in 1940, Tommy Hall decided to build the El Rancho Vegas and that was the beginning of the Strip.

As far as architecture, you say the style of the Strip was really down to two big influential architects during this time:

Wayne McAllister designed the El Rancho Vegas. He was the original architect of the Desert Inn but they wanted to go in a different direction and so they hired Hugh Taylor. McAllister was from Southern California and he came back in the 50s and was hired to design the Sands.

He designed the hotel with its original dog legs and the 35-foot sign.

What was so innovative the designs of those hotels?

Part of it is they were built to catch your eye from the highway to get you to pull in and stay. They had big panes of glass out front. You could see the air conditioning. It looked beautiful. It was cool. Get me inside and I’ll register.

El Rancho Vegas/Photo Courtesy: Nevada State Museum-Las Vegas

They had their own style. The El Rancho Vegas harkened back to the Old West. The hotel The Last Frontier was the Old West in modern splendor. The Sands comes along and it is a mid-century modern masterpiece.

Sands in the early 60s/Las Vegas News Agency

Early Las Vegas is surrounded by stories, some true - some not. Tell us about the myth of the El Rancho Vegas and the truth:

The myth is that Tommy Hall’s, the owner, car broke down on the highway and while he was waiting for a tow truck he counted the number of cars that went by and it was very hot outside. So, he decided he would built a resort hotel, the El Rancho Vegas, and he would feature the pool prominently as well and get people in that way.

That’s not true. That’s a myth.

Tommy Hall was a hotel guy from Southern California. He owned a couple of El Rancho hotels and he also ran the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. He was looking to expand into Southern Nevada. He was good friends with a civic booster named Big Jim Cashman. Big Jim really wanted Tommy Hall to build that hotel on Fremont Street because he thought it would be good lure for tourists and big addition for Fremont Street.

But unfortunately, Tommy Hall priced the land both in the county and the city and opted to build it on the corner of Highway 91 and San Francisco Avenue [which is now Sahara Avenue]. Basically, right across the street from the Sahara [which is now the SLS Las Vegas].

What is your favorite time in Las Vegas history?

We arrived in 1961. I got really lucky that my mom moved us out here. I miss it. I understand progress, but there as something magical about the hotels and the neon signs and the entertainment. I do miss it.

If I could back, I would go back and take more pictures.

I would love to go back to the 50s. I would love to see Las Vegas in that post-war era where it was just starting to hit its stride. Because from interviews I’ve done with news bureau photographers and publicity guys and residents, it was a lot of fun then.   

Back in 1951, when Frank Sinatra was at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn you got him and a filet mignon dinner for $6.25. Not a bad deal.  The showrooms were small. They were 200 to 600 seat max. So, if you tipped the maître ’de really well you got to sit down front. You got dinner with it. Or if you went to the late show you got two drinks. So, yeah, it was magic.

You used the word magic. I’m wondering if you think we’ve lost some of that:

Yeah. I understand that Las Vegas is always going to evolve and it’s evolved into what people want from a 21 st Century resort-hotel. It’s not so much now about the gambling and the entertainment as it is about the shopping and the fine dining.

With that comes a whole new set of magic. It’s probably magically for the young people who were my age now that are growing up here are probably seeing it very differently.  

(Editor's note: This interview originally aired November 2016)

Lynn Zook, author of "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1930-1955."

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)
Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.