Las Vegas lets its darker roots show

America's trend-setting casino resort has flirted with several transformations during its 100-year history, but today, reports David Usborne, Glitter Gulch is back to its old saucy self
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The Independent US

Las Vegas has a dirty secret. The neon city in the desert that for decades has lured visitors with the promise of gambling, high-kicking showgirls and no-rules naughtiness was first settled by Mormons from Salt Lake City in 1855. Fortunately for the town's reputation, however, the missionaries didn't stay long.

Las Vegas has a dirty secret. The neon city in the desert that for decades has lured visitors with the promise of gambling, high-kicking showgirls and no-rules naughtiness was first settled by Mormons from Salt Lake City in 1855. Fortunately for the town's reputation, however, the missionaries didn't stay long.

If you look hard enough, you will find a small section of wall of the original Mormon fort and mission in the old downtown. But no one will encourage you in your quest. This year, Las Vegas has declared itself merely 100 years young and the theme of its centenary is hardly religious respectability. After flirting in the 1990s with transforming itself into a family destination, with theme parks and rides for the kids, America's capital of whirlwind weddings and DIY divorces has rediscovered its old saucy self. Its latest tourist slogan says it all: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!"

The return of sin, if it really ever disappeared, is noticeable everywhere. Last weekend, the city was host to the annual porn video awards in the five-star Venetian Hotel. The pirate-ship battle outside the Treasure Island Hotel has been renamed "Sirens", and the crew of one of the galleons is now female (and scantily clad).

The theme park that briefly blossomed behind the massive MGM Hotel closed down recently and even the city's much ballyhooed attempt to embrace high art has taken a hedonistic turn. True, the extension of the Guggenheim Museum, also in the Venetian, is showing works by Lautrec, Rodin and Picasso, but the theme of the works is reflected in the exhibition's title: The Pursuit of Pleasure.

"As much as the city has changed, some things stay the same," noted Stacy Allsbrook, a native of Las Vegas charged with planning a full year of centennial celebrations, including the world's biggest birthday cake and a huge outdoor concert with big-name performers (she won't say who) on the 4 July holiday. After all, she adds, "we have some very interesting roots, some real famous roots and some real infamous roots."

There is no need to elaborate. The celebrities of the Las Vegas timeline are well known: Elvis wed here, the rat-pack - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr et al - entertained here, and so did Liberace. Howard Hughes hid in his Desert Inn suite here. And, of course, the mob ploughed its ill-gotten gains into Vegas, providing the cash for the first glitzy casinos after the Second World War.

The official story of the centenary goes like this: on 15 May 1905, bidders gathered in a dusty spot that is now the old downtown for an auction of 110 acres beside the newly opened Los Angeles-Salt Lake City railway. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre, and Las Vegas - the meadows - was born. "It was the beginning of the city as we really know it," conceded Michael Green, professor of history at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

And Las Vegas grew and grew. Throughout the century of its life, it has shown a doubling of its population with every 10-year census and continues on the same trend today, remaining the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States. Never mind that it is in the desert, has little water (the town steals its supplies from northern Nevada and neighbouring Arizona.) The lure of the neon never dies.

The boom years, however, really began with the construction of nearby Boulder Dam, later renamed the Hoover Dam, in 1931. The huge project brought in workers and tourists, eager to witness progress on what was already being dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. But what to do after they had seen it? Take a chance in Las Vegas, because that was also the year that Nevada legalised gambling.

Fast-forward to a day in early 1946 when the legendary Mafia boss Meyer Lansky drove into town from Los Angeles (then a 12-hour drive, reduced to four hours by interstate today) with his friend Bugsy Siegel. Lansky was reputedly unimpressed and wanted to go straight home. But Siegel saw gold and persuaded the boss to fund construction of a new casino hotel, the likes of which the town had never seen before.

Las Vegas was the death of Siegel; he was assassinated on the orders of the mob boss Lucky Luciano for allegedly allowing his girlfriend, Virginia Hills, to skim cash from the construction project. But, after a disastrous opening in 1946, Siegel's resort began to flourish. It was called the Flamingo. (Today's Hilton Flamingo is not the same building.) The endless cycle of demolishing the old and building the new along the strip had begun - and it has gone on ever since.

Almost until the mid-Eighties, Las Vegas was, according to Professor Green, essentially controlled by the Mafia. Legalised gambling provided a convenient cover for moving hot money around. It was managed by Jewish tycoons from the East Coast. "They used to say the city was run with Italian muscle and Jewish money," Professor Green said.

It is a history that inevitably gave Las Vegas a shady sheen. As a reputation, it may not have been entirely fair, says Professor Green, whose own father dealt at the tables at the still-standing Stardust, but was by no means a gangster. "Undoubtedly, there were cases of people turning up dead in the desert. But to think of them all as thugs would be wrong." All the while, Las Vegas was establishing itself as a Mecca not just for gambling but for entertainment too. In 1955, the Riviera Casino shocked everyone by paying $50,000 to a man with quick fingers on the ivories and a taste for rhinestone and outrageous costumes. He was Liberace.

In 1961 came the so-called Summit in the Desert, when for a few weeks Sammy Davis Jnr, Dean, Frank and the rest shared the same stage at the Desert Inn. All of Hollywood came to see them, including Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. Even John F Kennedy couldn't stay away. The Rat Pack, as the performers became known, put Vegas on the entertainment map.

When Hughes came down in the early Sixties, buying the Sands, the Desert Inn and the Frontier, the days of the mob began to wane. Eccentric though he was, Hughes was a major industrialist and brought with him a measure of respectability. Perhaps more important still, however, was a change in the gaming laws in 1969 that allowed corporations to invest in the casinos for the first time. The mob might have had money, but not as much as Wall Street.

A name less known internationally but crucial to the development of today's Las Vegas is Steve Wynn, the Donald Trump of the West. It was Wynn who told the other casino owners in the mid-Sixties that their resorts were simply too small. They laughed, until he built the Mirage Hotel, which established the era of ever-bigger entertainment complexes the length of the strip. The Mirage, with its white-tiger gardens and periodically erupting ersatz volcano, is still there, of course, even though Wynn no longer owns it. Five years ago, he built the over-the-top Bellagio, though that has changed hands now too. Today, he is three months away from opening yet another resort, simply called The Wynn, which promises to be the most luxurious and expensive hotel the city has seen.

"He'll change the face of Vegas all over again," remarked Ms Allsbrook, predicting that The Wynn, a silken crescent of golden glass, will provoke another boom of casino-building on the strip. "We don't let things stand still for very long."

This never-ending cycle of reinvention makes celebrating a centenary a little tricky. Many of the landmarks that have etched Las Vegas in American contemporary history are long gone, dynamited to make way for the new. The Desert Inn has vanished, as has the wedding chapel at the Aladdin where Presley married Priscilla.

What is a history buff to do? The downtown area still offers glimpses of the old casino style, when the Wild West was the theme. You could sample the city's longest-standing hotel, the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. Built in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada and renamed in 1955, it has a new façade but many of the wood fixtures remain. Or you could spend an evening at the 45-year-old Folies Bergères show at the Tropicana, an old Las Vegas showgirl extravaganza. Be quick, though. Word is that the Tropicana is next in line for the demolition crews. Better still, visit the two open lots close to downtown known as the Boneyard. Here you will find disused neon signage, a jumble of broken metal and a giant, high-heeled shoe that once revolved atop the marquee of the old Silver Slipper. Anywhere else they would have built a museum for this stuff. But Las Vegas hasn't time.

This is a town that has always been less about museums and more about marketing. It turned family in the Nineties because it felt it had to. The baby-boomers were raising teenagers and the political buzz was family values. And legal gambling was proliferating all across the 52 states, so Las Vegas needed new ways to compete.

It has worked hard to develop other ways to raise revenue. Gambling is no longer the biggest earner here. Competing for the prize is entertainment, first-class restaurants from around the world, and a booming convention trade. But without gambling, Vegas wouldn't be Vegas.

"This was always a Disneyland for adults," said Eve Quillin, an author and columnist who has lived here for more than 30 years. "We used to have more churches than casinos, but people don't come here to go to church." Ask tourism officials, meanwhile, about the city's family hiccup of a few years ago and they almost deny that it ever happened.

Maybe Las Vegas has come to understand that its best card is the "infamous roots". Family values have hardly vanished from George Bush's America, but if this town wants to set itself apart from the competition, it is obvious which way it means to go. That Las Vegas is already different, no one can argue with. Which other city would even contemplate hosting a porn awards show?

"There was a long time when Vegas was trying to shed its skin - without losing all of its skin," said Professor Green. But the journey towards respectability only got so far. Look around today and you will quickly see that its old skin is now truly back. And happy birthday to that.

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