LAS VEGAS, NV: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1946-1980
The usual consensus is that the “golden age” of Las Vegas occurred between 1946 and 1980, as the desert city became known as the “entertainment capital of the world” and assumed a unique place in the popular imagination. Though the bright lights gave the city a surreal aspect that seemed removed from the prosaic day-to-day concerns of mainstream America, Las Vegas would confront issues similar to those that faced the country as a whole.
Las Vegas’ reputation as a haven for vice go back to its earliest days as an incorporated municipality, the term “sin city” dating back to 1906. Nearby federal projects in the form of the construction camp at Boulder Dam (1931-1936) and the Las Vegas Army Airfield (1925, later Nellis Air Force Base), each with an almost entirely male workforce, were a ready market for gambling (legalized in 1931), liquor (illegal during prohibition) and prostitution, all of which were readily available in the city. Efforts by officials to crack down on or otherwise control vice merely provided an opportunity for organized crime, which arrived in the form of gangs from the East Coast.
There was a nugget of truth to the popular notion that the mob ran Las Vegas. Local government was weak and decentralized, something which left space for organized crime to exert influence. This led to a free-wheeling, almost libertine vibe. For most Americans, the city quickly came to represent a special sort of freedom, a place that seemed built just for a certain notion of leisure that allowed for an escape from the responsibilities and expectations of working life in the United States. By the same token, investors similarly saw opportunity in a place where they could build a business without some of the constraints seen elsewhere, and created a gaudy and ostentatious cityscape.
Beyond gambling (soon rebranded as more respectable “gaming”), entertainment options were generally affordable and accessible, with middle-class people able to see performers like Liberace and Frank Sinatra in the relative intimacy of a lounge. Significantly, these performers were often people past their heyday, and Las Vegas provided an opportunity for them to find new relevance in an era when rock-and-roll was ascendant in the rest of the country. The lounges helped preserve a swaggering, cigarette-smoking notion of cool made obsolete by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.
Segregation was an issue as well, though the city’s unique political dynamics made the struggle play out differently than it did in other places. The mob, largely Jewish and Italian, were at best ambivalent about segregation, and saw it as bad for business. They defied the hidebound elected city leadership, who continued to champion southern-style segregation through the 1950s and 60s. Additionally, entertainers like Frank Sinatra refused to perform at segregated clubs, further pressuring the city to integrate. Segregation was brought down by a series of dramatic protest actions starting through the 1960s and 70s by a coalition that included the NAACP and an increasingly powerful (and integrated) Culinary Workers Union.
In 1980, a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel killed 87 people and injured nearly 700 more. A subsequent inquiry found that the death toll was due in large part to a lack of sprinklers, something that was allowed by city officials. The resulting outrage led to reforms as it became clear that the city’s permissiveness could not continue. By this time, most of the old organized crime figures who once held sway in Las Vegas were no longer in the picture, and federal law enforcement had broken the power of the mobs nationally. Increasingly, the resort industry in Las Vegas would become a well-marketed corporate venture.
-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian