Las Vegas, (or Sin City) is more popular than ever. According to the Las Vegas Convention And Visitors Authority, over 42 million people visited Las Vegas in 2018. Each year, visitors spend billions on conventions, food, entertainment, hotels and of course, gambling. In 2017 alone, Vegas tourism brought in $22.5 billion in revenue to what was once a sleepy desert town. So, what was it like in Vegas during its early years. Here are vintage Las Vegas photos that capture that era.
As these old Las Vegas photos show, when Las Vegas was founded in 1905, it was little more than a stopover for a railroad that linked Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. It wasn’t until the start of construction on the Hoover Dam (then known as the Boulder Dam) in 1931 that Las Vegas began to emerge as a gambling and entertainment destination. With the help of the mafia, casinos and theaters were quickly built to entertain the thousands of young male workers employed or looking for work on the dam project. The electricity generated from the dam enabled rapid growth for casinos and hotels along Fremont Street, the main gambling hub before the Las Vegas Strip.
On December 26, 1946, Las Vegas changed forever. The first luxury resort on the Strip–The Flamingo Hotel— opened its doors at the total cost of $6 million. The Flamingo actually lost money after it was first opened and fabled gangster Bugsy Siegel was killed in 1947—presumably by the mafia bosses who bankrolled the project.
In spite of early losses, the potential for Las Vegas became clear to many mobsters, lenders and other sources of cash and by 1954, the city had attracted over 8 million visitors and some of the biggest entertainers in the world, including Frank Sinatra.
Soon iconic Las Vegas hotels and casinos would come to light up Las Vegas Boulevard. At the time hotels like the Sands, the Saraha, the New Frontier the Rivera and the Tropicana were the places to be in Las Vegas.
Some would say these vintage years were more glamorous times for Sin City. It was an adults-only playground and wasn’t the kind of place you’d bring the whole family for a vacation. How times have changed! Here’s a look back at the history of Las Vegas through some of its most iconic hotels, casinos and entertainment.
The Las Vegas Strip in 1941
The first resort on what would become the Las Vegas Strip was the El Rancho Vegas which opened in 1941. It had a total of 63 rooms and featured a swimming pool right off the two lane Highway 91.
The hotel was among the first to feature entertainment from some of the biggest stars in the country. This El Rancho Vegas marquee from 1958 presents Milton Berle, known as “Mr. Television” because of his dominance of the TV airwaves during its first decade.
In June of 1960, the main building of the El Rancho Vegas was destroyed by a fire. The main building contained the casino, the Nugget Neil Cocktail lounge, a steak house and the showroom.
The property became the El Rancho Vegas Motor in in 1964 and struggled financially until the property was bought by Howard Hughes in the late 1960s. The Las Vegas Festival Grounds sits on that property today.
Las Vegas In The 1950s
The 1950s introduced a number of iconic casinos to the city thanks to a large influx of cash from the Teamsters Union and among other non-traditional investors. The Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Sands, the Showboat, the Rivera the Fremont, Binion’s Horseshoe and the Tropicana all debuted in the 1950s.
The population of the Las Vegas Valley boomed from just 8,422 in 1940 to over 44,000 in the ’50s. Above ground nuclear tests also began just 65 miles away from the city center which could be seen from most spots on The Strip and downtown.
The Sky Room at the Desert Inn. This top floor lounge was the tallest building on the strip at when it opened in 1950.
The Sahara hotel was the sixth resort to open on the Strip in 1952. The photo below was taken in 1956s while driving by the hotel.
The Desert Inn was purchased by Steve Wynn in the late 1990s and was demolished in 2001. The Wynn and Encore resorts in there today.
An aerial view of highway 91 in the mid-1950s. The Dunes and the Flamingo can be seen at the bottom of the photo.
The Strip 1960s
Here’s an arial view of The Strip in 1964-65. The Flamingo is pictured to the right of the highway.
The Flamingo Hotel in 1964 looking south on the Strip. The Flamingo is the oldest resort operating on The Strip Today.
Ceasars Palace opened on August 5th, 1966 and ushered in a new era of lavish, themed-mega-resorts featuring its famous fountains.
Frank Sinatra started performing at Ceasars Palace in 1967 after a falling out with the Sands Hotel owner Howard Hughes who bought the hotel in the mid 1960s for just $14.9 million.
Stunt performer Evel Knievel jumped the fountains on his motorcycle at Ceasars on December 31 1967–a total of 141 feet which was his longest jump to date. After the jump, ABC bought the rights to the film of the jump. Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur and fractures to his hip, ankles and wrist.
The Legendary Sands Hotel (1952-1996)
The Sands was the 7th resort to open on the Strip in 1952 with a total of 200 rooms along with the casino. Mobsters Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello held shares in the hotel which brought Frank Sinatra to first perform at the hotel in 1953.
The Sands Casino around 1959. Pictured are Copa showgirls, Joan and Jane Ryba.
The Sands became the place to be in Vegas in the early 1960s as the Rat Pack (composed of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) made the world famous Copa Room their performing playground. The classic 1960 movie, Oceans 11 was filmed at the Sands with the group and forever cemented them and the famous hotel as the essence of cool and brought the allure and glamor of Vegas to the masses.
Sands Hotel magazine advertisement featuring Frank Sinatra, 1961
The Sands Hotel in 1967 featuring Sammy Davis Jr. headlining the Copa Room.
The Elvis Years (1969-1976)
Although Elvis first performed in Vegas in 1956 and filmed “Viva Las Vegas” for seven weeks in 1963, it wasn’t until he headlined at The International Hotel in 1969 that Elvis became inextricably associated with the city and its unique entertainment culture.
Elvis sold our a remarkable 837 shows in at the International Hotel (which became the Hilton in 1971) performing for an estimated 2.5 million people. Although the International was Vegas’ largest showroom at the time, it still only held 2,000 seats.
So what did is cost to see the King of Rock n Roll in concert? Tickets to the dinner show, which included steak or lobster were $17.50. There was a midnight show that included drinks but no meal and cost less.
This is a photo of a decidedly-slim and black clad Elvis on opening night of his seven-year Vegas engagement. It had been nine years since his last concert. His first song on July 31, 1969 was the classic, “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis was just 34 years old at the time.
This 8×10 publicity photo for the 1970 film, ELVIS shows just how intimate the showroom of the International hotel was to see a legend like Elvis perform. The King was backed by a 30 piece orchestra, a five man combo and a backing chorus of seven.
Elvis and Priscilla at George Klein’s Wedding in Las Vegas, December 5, 1970. The couple were married at the Aladdin Hotel in 1967.
Downtown Las Vegas
Downtown Las Vegas predates The Strip and is the original site of the town and where gambling in Vegas began legally in 1931. While the influx of construction workers from the nearby Hoover Dam helped the city grow, i was after World War II that the Fremont Street and the surrounding downtown area began to resemble the “Glitter Gulch” we recognize today.
Fremont Street, still relatively ordinary looking in in 1940.
A mushroom cloud in the distance from an atomic bomb test in 1951 as seen from downtown Las Vegas. The above ground tests began at the Nevada test in 1951 and didn’t end until 1963 when the Limited Ban Test Treaty was signed. Although the site is 65 miles northwest from the city residents could clearly see the mushroom clouds in the distance from downtown. Although above ground tests ended in 1963, underground tests continued in the Nevada desert until 1992.
Inside the Golden Nugget casino in 1951.
The Golden Nugget is among the oldest casinos (it opened in 1946) in Las Vegas and is the largest casino in the downtown area with 2,419 hotel rooms.
The Mint hotel on Fremont Street two years after its opening in 1959. The Mint was a staple of downtown Las Vegas for 31 years until it closed in 1988 when it was sold and became part of Binion’s Horseshoe.
Downtown Las Vegas in 1962. Fremont Street between 2nd & 3rd looking west towards 2nd.
The Union Plaza Hotel at the end of Fremont Street in 1971. The 1995 film, Casino was filmed inside the Center Stage Restaurant.
The Beatles Arrive in Vegas
The Fab Four actually did play Las Vegas during their first tour of America in 1964.
They arrived in in Las Vegas at 1:45am just coming in from their last show in San Francisco. Despite the secrecy surrounding their arrival, about 2,000 fans greeted them as they emerged from the chartered plane. They stayed at the Sahara Hotel at the 18th floor penthouse suite.
The Beatles performed two shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center with one performance at 4pm and the next at 9pm the same day. Each show was seen by about 8,000 people.
With Beatlemania at its peak in 1964, the boys couldn’t just go down to the casino and play the slots, so they had a few slot machines brought up to their hotel suite so they could try their luck. The police warned them to stay out of the casinos so as not to attract underage fans who might follow them.