Las Vegas Nevada in the late 50s

On another thread Temporary_Name requested:

“But I really want to know what Vegas was like in 1960? It couldn’t have still been a sleepy cow town, but it was significantly smaller than it is now. Was it just five casinos on the strip? Was there a downtown? (I know that big cowboy wasn’t there then because I saw it everyday in front of the Round-Up Drive in on Thomas Road and 68th Street in South Scottsdale where I saw Bambi in my footie pajamas.) Would you see the Rat Pack on the streets, or at least Dino at the golf course? In 1960 was it already full of lights and “glamour”?”

I can provide what I recall of my impressions. I lived there from May 1955 through May of 1957. I was an enlisted electronics technician on the flight simulator at Nellis AFB. The base was WW2 left overs. Our flight simulator was housed in a building designed to train B17 bombardiers. We wore dosimetry badges to measure radiation from the atom bomb tests. The Thunderbird demo team was based at Nellis. The base Chaplain had them awaken the troops on Sunday morning with a sonic boom. I do remember that part. The guy flew straight down the flight line a hundred feet from my barracks.

Vegas was a mining town. Glitter Gulch (Fremont) was It’s center. That’s where the serious gambling took place. Old timers liked the Lucky Strike Club or Binions (with the big cowboy). Tourists preferred the Golden Nugget. Glitter Gulch was about three blocks of Fremont, with the railroad station (now the Mint) at one end and Bascoms Dollar Dinners at the other. Across from the Nugget was the Fremont Hotel. At 10 stories, the tallest building in Nevada. On top was AM radio station KENO broadcasting with 500 Watts.

Binion had a million dollars on display at the entrance to the club. The local high school wanted to use it on their parade float. Binion didn’t want to disturb his display so he loaned them another million for the float.

In the 50s Vegas was striving to compete with Reno for identity. The strip was overbuilt for the time. The Flamingo, Tropicana and Dunes were way out in the desert with empty parking lots. The Dunes had license problems. The Showboat was better positioned on the Boulder highway, but that too was out of town. There were residential areas behind the Sands and Desert Inn, but they were pretty thin. Three or four blocks and you were in sand and creosote.

Just a couple of side notes - the casinos were segregated and (unrelated) we were not allowed to enter in uniform.

There was heavy competition to get people in to the strip hotels. Without massive tourism they were drawing on a small population of modest means. So, there was lot’s of free food and good entertainment in the lounges. The 10 PM shows were a one drink minimum or maybe a $2 cover charge. But, every time I went to see Sinatra he was unwell and I got Joey Bishop. The best cheap entertainment was Old Frontier Village and the Silver Slipper Casino. Hank Henry was the resident low brow comedian.

Frankie Lane, Louie Prima and Elvis all played the lounges, but I do not remember that celebrities were visible outside of performances. The exception was the Moulin Rouge out on Mt. Charleston highway, just after you went under the rail road tracks. It was black owned and not segregated. Lot’s of entertainers went there after hours to relax and perform ad hoc.

The Moulin Rouge was a major controversy at the time. It was very successful but was closed by the sheriffs department after six months or so. That would make an interesting movie.

I passed through Vegas in 1946 and again in 1951. It was just a railroad station and some greasy spoon cafes with gas pumps. By 1955, money was being pumped in to create competition with Reno. My parents moved near there in the 60s so I visited frequently and saw the place explode to where I get lost leaving the airport. It was an interesting time.

From an archaeological viewpoint - it will make a great ruin.

What was the situation with air conditioning?
I assume that the major casinos were cooled, but what about the hotel rooms?

I remember reading once that air conditioning was a major reason for the development of Vegas and its attractveness to tourists…

All the new hotels had air conditioning by the fifties. And it was a major draw. On base we had swamp coolers for the troops and air conditioning for the equipment.

At the time we had a different perspective. Standing in the lunch line in 115 degree heat was normal. Entering an air conditioned building was novel.

Boy is that an understatement!
I am not sure if Las Vegas was where they invented imploding buildings, but by the late sixties or early seventies it seemed like they were doing exciting demolitions on the news every other month. The guys I worked for who were part of building the original Vegas Hotel/Casinos told some questionable stories and from a very self-centered point of view.

I was told the original Tropicana had very low ceilings throughout the gambling area and it created a very oppressive atmosphere. I determined that those who were not architectural designers might not have noticed that detail at all – but upon reflection I decided that might have been a purposeful design. I have known a few gamblers (and I saw The Sting) and it seems intimate, smoke filled rooms created urgency. I am sure the owners of those first casinos didn’t want some guy looking up and seeing the swimming pool or any other distractions. The low ceilings might have been designed to keep them focused on the table.

The other thing they both agreed about was that Mr. Siegel was VERY superstitious! He would not allow any decor that included birds or even feathers. Birds are (or were then) seen as bad luck to gamblers and he would not tolerate them. One of the guys did this impression of him with New York accent: I said NO Booyds! Boyds is bad luck!" But there are just a few feathers in the background of the wallpaper so . . “I said, boyds is bad luck – feathers is boyds and boyds is bad luck so feathers is bad luck- now tear it out and put up something that won’t scare off the spenders.” That does not seem to square with a place where one of the most famous buildings is ‘The Flamingo’ but they claimed it as irrefutable fact.

Your description of Las Vegas then closely matches Chuck Yeager’s description of what eventually became Edwards Air Force Base just before then (believe it was Muroc Field at that time); hot, sparse, mostly desert, etc. Do you remember an Italian Col. who was a leader of The Thunderbirds? Named Magglioni or Magioti or something like that, he was buddies with my father – well let’s retract that, he was an acquaintance of my father’s. I thought he was very funny, he gave my father a framed signed picture of himself beside his jet with a smile at least a foot wide. The inscription said: “When I grow up I want to be just like you”, he was several years older than my father who was adverse to high flying adventure and did not carry his age particularly well. Funny guy!

It never occurred to me that Reno was direct competition to Las Vegas. When I was a kid, Vegas was a golden shining light to hear the adults talk about it. Reno was where you went to get divorced or be in a bowling tournament. So in the early days they embraced their cowboy, western heritage and were only beginning to imitate exotic foreign locations. They were obviously playing to the North Eastern (NYC) clientele with all the warm climate themed casinos. My parents could not wait to get out of the snow country in Pennsylvania and never thought about going back. It sounds like Vegas had that same appeal (which works better during the winter months).

At the time could you even imagine a Luxor Hotel or anything so decadent as Caesar’s Palace? The whole town sounds so small and you make the strip sound absolutely quaint! By the seventies for sure, Francis Albert’s cousin Ray Sinatra was the musical . . . I don’t recall the title; conductor, maestro, director, coordinator- in any case he was in charge of the music day in and day out at one of the casinos. According to a close friend of his, he had the same complaint about his cousin. Frank tended to miss or be marginally involved in his shows if there was anything more interesting going on anywhere in town. That person (not the Thunderbird guy) also stated that Dean Martin never sang an entire song during any Vegas show if he was the headliner or not. They (the Rat Pack) would go to other people’s show and when announced and spotlighted in the audience – get up and perform. Some celebrity made the newspapers for saying Sinatra hardly ever showed up for his own shows but doesn’t mind coming out to mess up MY show.

The Moulin Rouge story is completely new to me, never heard of it. Does fit the Vegas trend of appropriating another setting and culture to drive in gamblers looking for a theme with their fun. You didn’t say so, but your bare bones description of the sheriff closing it down smacks of wealthy casino owners using local law enforcement to shut down their competition. [Wait, wait, wait! Was Sammy expected to play the Sands – but he couldn’t be in the audience?? We will have to return to this.]

We used to have this place on the East side of Phoenix called the Melody Lounge where various musicians would congregate and accompany each other. After the Arizona Grammy’s most of the nominated acts would be there. They had to stop selling at 2am, but they never closed on those type nights. They might chase out the riff-raff, but David would just give drinks away for free and the party would keep going. That is how I imagine the Moulin Rouge must have been (except in Vegas bars only have to close for a half hour a night I am told.

I was also told the casinos would comp accommodations for Hollywood celebrities if they would be seen exclusively in their casino. It was a common rouse in those days I was also told to have bellboys (or whoever delivered telegraphs) to walk around with a folded slip of paper held conspicuously calling out the name of a celebrity. “Hope, Mr. B. Hope”, or “Telegram for Mr. F. Sinatra.” I believe Johnnie Carson, and Desi and Lucy were often in Vegas even when they were not performing there.

Was Louie Prima VERY famous back then? He really was not on my radar in a major way until they started using his music in GAP ads. But in various biographies I got the idea that the Rat Pack gave him a very wide berth. They had live shows and made movies, released records and appeared on TV-- but I guess Prima drew deeper water (or maybe he had deeper mob connections). By all accounts Elvis adored Frank and especially Dean and spent lots of free time with the families of both men. I have a recording of Elvis in Vegas and he certainly learned the secret of the ninety second or shorter song from Dean. Elvis would have his band make a shortened arrangement and just do one or two verses. Dean would let the orchestra play through for a while before he ever came in, do the hook, then hum half a verse, and the orchestra would fade out. Then Dino would make a joke about how if you wanted the whole song you needed to buy the album which his wife has for sale in the lobby, or that on TV he has cue cards to help him remember the words.

At first, I was surprised service members couldn’t wear their uniforms, but it kind of makes sense. People are there to gamble and drink and who knows what else – a stern face in a uniform is not quite the correct vibe. Plus it seems they were going for an atmosphere of Posh elegance and affluence, not what the military portrayed at that time was it?

We were given the uniform rule during base orientation. I assume it came from the public relations officer and may have had more to do with GIs dropping off after work in fatigues. Nobody questioned it.

I’m sure Thunderbird pilots came through the simulator but I didn’t know any of them. The only guy I recognized was an African American officer with the handle Captain Midnight. That guy was good. He’d barrel roll in on the target.

The Casinos were segregated and black performers could not stay in the hotels or eat in the restaurants. The Moulin Rouge was a major controversy. There was lot’s of propaganda about Orientals being involved and Asian crime syndicates. Lots of sinister stuff. But, it really sounded like the Moulin Rouge was not a member of the gang that ran the strip or the town or the state. Who knows?

The place was very successful and that may have been the problem. The rich and powerful did not want a different ‘strip’ being created west of the tracks. I don’t remember any scandal or investigations. They just closed it down. There may have been issues but I wouldn’t have known. I was preoccupied with my job.

Louie Prima and Keely Smith were popular and they were a great act. The lounge acts really worked the crowd for their money.

Elvis was an unknown. I was hitch hiking back from leave when I saw this huge sign in front to the Frontier Casino. It was Elvis and his Guitar and must have been 30 ft high. I’d never heard of him. Some of the guys went to his lounge show and said it was the closest they ever saw to sexual intercourse with your pants on.

It was a different time and everything (but Elvis) was smaller then. When I was at Williams AFB I took classes at Phoenix City College. We went to Chandler and turned right. No light. Crossed the highway at a light in Mesa/Tempe. A couple of miles later there was a light where we turned left. From there it was a straight shot to City College. Maybe one more light. No traffic and 3or 4 stop lights between Williams AFB and Phoenix City College.

Van Buren was a lightly traveled row of neat little motels. The fanciest one was the ‘Caravan’ or ‘Sahara’ or something like that. Each motel had a theme.

I loved to drive Base Line because it was nothing but cotton fields. No stores, gas stations or houses. And, I could go down through Guadalupe to the magnificent cathedral that was surrounded by desert.

I used to go to the train station where the old timers swapped stories. They had tales of the Butterfield Trail that is still visible south of town.

It was a different time.

Oh yeah, celebrity paging. That was common in the casinos and at the airport.

Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s was The Rat Pack Era. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Shirley MacLaine.

Seeing their shows in person must have been a lot of fun.

Nukes On Parade?

At that time the Rat Pack really wasn’t a thing. The first I heard of it was later in the movies. Sinatra was famous, but Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were minor figures. The Marquees downtown and on the strip displayed the names of all the famous performers. Sinatra et al were just more of the same.

You rarely heard Sinatra or Martin on the radio. The Platters, Elvis, Johnny Ray, Gogi Grant, Teresa Brewer and Tennessee Ernie Ford, were what you tuned in for. Martin, Sinatra, Lewis, Abbot and Costello were at dinner shows for old folks with money.

It was also Nukes on Parade. I was far more aware of the dosimeter I wore than who was at the Sands.

A tidbit on segregation in early Las Vegas casinos.

Black performers did shows in Las Vegas showrooms but they were not allowed to stay in the hotels.

Lena Horne was once found swimming in the pool at the Sands. She was thrown out and the pool was drained and acid washed.

The Rat Pack were the leaders of the group who got that shit changed.

That was probably Dorothy Dandridge.

You make a good point, but those changes came long after I had left Vegas,

I was good friends with a Highway Patrolman who was in the Air Force previously. He told me that every fighter pilot could fire one round from each of six guns at a thousand yards and hit the same target card which was six by six inches. He said the real good ones would only have one big hole where all six projectiles went through. We would go to the air shows at Luke and at Williams Field and he would tell me about the old days.

I thought the uniform rule came from the casinos, now it makes more sense. Thank you for clarifying.

I knew that (segregation) was true before and during the war, but thought by the 60’s things had changed. So sad to hear this was still the law of the land while I was alive. I read a story one time about Nat King Cole having to go around back to the kitchen to get his meal, and then he had to eat in the alley even when he was the headline act. I did not know the title Of Sammy Davis Jr.'s book was about him and his family being denied basic decency until much later in life even though there was a copy in the house and all of the adults had read it. (I know this is not the forum or the thread, but I feel compelled to sarcastically ask: what systemic racism?)

I was sort of hinting that closing the Moulin Rouge sounded like it was because it was too successful. Closing it may have been necessary to save the strip the way you describe it as picking the meat off a not too affluent clientele. Seems like a shame though.

Louie and Keely were married but did this bit where they stepped on each others toes and bantered back and forth as part of the act. Apparently it was well rehearsed and done specifically to give the audience the feeling they were seeing one particular frenzied show that would never be repeated. I guess Mr. Prima was a perfectionist and his band lived in holy terror if they ever missed a single note- the deal seemed to be to look like they were just goofing off while every bit of the act was polished and rehearsed.

In the 1950’s my parents lived in the biggest town between Buffalo New York and Cleveland Ohio where bands like Louie Prima and even a few big bands still played on the weekends. Those acts would often play on a Wednesday night in the old home town just to pay for the travel expenses between higher paying weekend gigs. My folks would tell you those acts were the cream of the crop and gave a full show, even to the rubes in their backwater town, they especially admired Duke Ellington.

I had thought by the time Elvis was appearing in Vegas he was as famous as the president. If people subjected to Las Vegas thought his act was sexy, it is hard to imagine how he survived in the south.

In all reality, it seems like Vegas went from almost nothing to the glitziest place on earth between 1955 and 1975. The ultimate in Western Expansion, years earlier Tombstone was going to be the next great western city and now it is most famous for one event and a cemetery. I guess Hoover Dam guaranteed Las Vegas would never be a forgotten corner of an almost empty state.

That reminds me, one time I drove through Nevada from Vegas to Reno (and now I wish we had access to radiation badges when we did). It was the most deserted place I have ever seen! It was hundreds of miles of barren nothingness – roughly as populated as the moon. At the time I had forgotten about the nuclear testing, but I had an uncle who worked for a company that consulted on large industrial projects. He said they took a group of them out to the Nevada desert to show them a nuclear test that went wrong. There were these huge doors on tracks that were twenty feet tall and had rods about two feet long up and down the height of them with corresponding openings on the other door. The rods were like one millimetre larger than the hole and the doors were blasted shut with conventional explosives just as the nuke was detonated. The explosion was filmed as the doors slammed shut so the engineers could see the first instant before the doors sealed in the radiation. It was a tried and true system, but one time the doors jumped the track and the whole thing failed. They had to wear radiation suits, but he said it was the biggest mess you could imagine. It blew the doors into smithereens and the closest scrap was miles away. All of that to say he told me that there was a D9 Cat with a high drive left near, but in front of the doors. It was found mostly intact many miles away. Many miles (no telling how far away it was the first time he told the story – but it was way outside of possibility by the time I heard the story).

I took blueprint reading classes at that school in the early 1980’s, that was a long drive from Williams Field!! It seemed like a long way from Scottsdale. When I was a kid we had sonic booms all the time. They would rattle the windows and the adults would mutter something about our tax dollars at work. When I was in about fourth or fifth grade, we were on the playground at recess and we watched a plane mishap of some sort. The guy must have been super high, the male teachers kept us out there and we watched for what seemed like an hour as the parachute drifted down . . . and down . . . and down. They watched the plane which was apparently headed west and not a danger to populated areas. It seemed like the pilot was coming down right on top of us, but he landed miles away. I think he was originally close to directly overhead and the winds blew him to the west, but that stuff is really hard to tell. I know we all had sore necks the next day. The next week we started a new series of classes on Newtonian Physics with the whole laws of motion bit which was pretty advanced for our grade. Almost certainly thanks to witnessing a blue suitor demonstrate gravity for us at recess. (Sorry, that was a very long aside after a different very long aside.)

I remember those hotels on Van Buren, they were all still there until twenty years ago (a few remain but those that are still in business have been updated- most of the others are either empty lots or abandoned shells, a very few have been replaced by modern buildings). By then they were mostly rented by the hour to people of less than ideal morals. Oddly, or coincidentally, the other place that had those little themed hotels was the Apache Trail which ran from downtown Tempe to downtown Mesa (and beyond to Apache Junction- hence the name). There was the plainsman which was themed for the rectangle states, and a couple which looked like tee-pees. Even some space themed ones built after the Mercury missions. Pools and air conditioning were prominently advertised. That part of town also became home to nefarious goings on (drugs and prostitution), but I never heard of hourly rentals there.

Very near my home, there was an interment camp for the Japanese, left over from WWII. It was a half round building very similar to where Gomer Pyle lived in the Marine Corp. I was told there were more of them previously and there were floor slabs for more, but I recall there being only two and shortly after that only one. Now they are all gone and it is a car park (this is right across the street from the Scottsdale Elks Club). By the time I was old enough to drive, Baseline Road was surrounded by “Japanese Gardens” There were occasional cotton fields in the off season, but mostly it was acres and acres of ornamental flowers. They sold to local florists and if you pulled in they would give you a good deal on flowers for your sweetest. They were all owned and worked by the descendants of those interned in those camps a generation before.

I have no familiarity with Butterfield Trail at all even though I spent my summers in Gila Bend for four or five years and it passes right by there. I had to look it up once power was restored, big rain storm last night. That reminds me, were you here for a big storm? Most roads would close there would be islands for a day or two until the washes dried out. In the Valley, the Salt River was a dry riverbed most of the time, but once or twice every few years it would flood and there were only two bridges across the river for like a forty or fifty mile stretch. Flood control has been a part of development since the 1980’s here but in the '70’s and especially the 60’s, floods were a normal occurrence. Was Las Vegas that way too, it seems to be very similar terrain?

Thank you for the memories! Please continue to post as many more as you can think of about either location- I love hearing about that era.

Here is a site with lots of vintage photos:

Here is a 1965 aerial photo:

Aerial view of Las Vegas Strip, Early 1965. 
Sands hotel tower can be seen under construction in the upper middle part of the photo. Lower left, the beginnings of Caesars Palace. LV Sun, unknown...

Good link - notice there’s not much town around those hotels.

Yes, the Mt. Charleston highway ran under the rail road tracks and one night a storm filled the underpass with water. Looked like a swimming pool. It was one of those 'sheesh, that never happened before; things. Also, in 1955, we had a pretty good snow. It was beautiful in the Joshua Trees.

Oddly, the strip crosses a wash that now runs underground. Years ago there were lot’s of artesian pools in Vegas and up around Corn Springs. I remember surface water problems with the Flamingo or maybe it was the Tropicana.

The roads north of Vegas lead to some great remote areas. I’ve even seen large herds of wild horses at sunset, just like in the cigarette ads. The Ichthyosaur Monument is probably the most remote place I ever reached on a paved road.

When I close my eyes and remember Vegas, my first recollection is of the silver dollars. The currency of Vegas was silver dollars. You carried them and that’s what you used to pay for gas or lunch or whatever. The second thing that comes to mind is the pending doom of nuclear war. The characteristic drone of B36 engines flying SAC patrols overhead was very audible in the quiet desert. We witnessed the flash of above ground atomic tests and the shock waves of underground tests.

I never heard anyone use the phrase ‘rat pack’ but ‘fall out’ was common place in conversation and humor. The real possibility of nuclear annihilation made the antics of some famous drunks on the strip irrelevant.

Thanks to that site, today I learned that Zsa Zsa Gabor was a heavy metal fan. Check out her gesture in this 1955 photo:

You realize he was pulling your leg so hard you should be walking lopsided, don’t you?

My old man flew fighters at Nellis around this time frame. Mom tells me it was a wasteland. I lived there for a year in the early 80’s, then returned in the early 90’s. The growth between those periods was crazy. Now, the place is simply insane.

Hate that place.

And one picture of The Cal-Neva (only about 500 miles away) from the 80’s. WTF???

My favorite 50s field trips around Vegas were:

The Frenchman Mine on Sunrise mountain. My first wife and I used to explore it with a Coleman Lantern. It was extensive and you’d meet people inside. Gives me the kreeps now! The state dynamited the entrance years ago and now there’s upscale homes with valley views there.

The onyx field behind Henderson. There was a mine there and a lot of float with nice crystals. Some locals set up a wildcat oil rig that drilled there for a while. Then it was surveyed and laid out for development. Everything disappeared.

Muddy Peak south of the Valley of Fire. I’ve been back there many times over the years. There used to be some guys cutting ornamental sandstone to face buildings. It was miserable, isolated work and they just had a shack for shelter. I usually had ice on my truck and they were ecstatic to have some. One of the workers had a Frazer automobile that got stalled and was abandoned in the middle of the road. The few cars that go through there just pulled off the road and went around it creating a new path and causing debris to pile up against the Frazer. In the eighties two men moved some heavy equipment over the road so they could mine rocks for aquariums. They drove straight over the original road compacting the debris. What little was still visible of the Frazer disappeared into the road bed. The area is rich in archaeological sites. I can imagine some future archaeologist delightfully exhuming a crumpled, but well preserved, Frazer automobile from the roadbed. Who knows, in another thousand years it may be in a MacDonalds parking lot.

Gypsum cave was tough to find in the fifties. There were reports about it, but nothing about it’s location. There was a mark on the topo map - on the ground it looked different. We did manage to find it and it was worth the effort. The most interesting part was the campsite of those who excavated it in the 1930s. All kinds of neat trash including most of a model T truck.

Then there was the Searchlight Perlite Mine and the old railroad bed and the Castle Mountains… there was no reason to be bored. We didn’t need the strip.