To use an old surfer axiom, Las Vegas in the 1970’s was riding a glorious, beautiful wave that never seems to come again. Las Vegas was on a wild ride, and even today, with a little imagination you can see the high water mark on the Strip.
There’s another old axiom always repeated about the 1960’s, “If you can remember the 60’s, you weren’t there”. I made up an axiom for the 1970’s, “If you were still alive after the ‘70’s, you weren’t there”. The 1970’s were the 1960’s on steroids, more of everything, science, sex, drugs, music, politics, war, everything. Las Vegas was no exception, the decade started with the building of the largest hotel & casino in the world, The MGM Grand.
The beginning of the decade saw The Bonanza destroyed to build The MGM Grand, it opened in 1973, (now, Bally’s), followed in 1975 by The Marina Hotel and Casino, (now, The New MGM Grand). In 1977, The Silverbird opened as a remodeled Thunderbird, followed in 1979 by The Imperial Palace as a remodeled Flamingo Capri, The Barbary Coast (now, Bills) and Vegas World (now, Stratosphere).
For Las Vegas, the ‘70’s were the best of times, major expansion everywhere, The Strip, housing, roads, schools, everything got bigger. Elvis, Streisand, Sinatra, the biggest of the big performed and everyone was getting rich. In 1970’s Vegas had a hot hand, the town was on top of the world. It all started in the late 40’s, the dice always came up 7-11, or as they say, “Winner, Winner, pay the Line.” No other place in the world could the average ‘Joe’ with a small amount of money, stay, play, and be treated like a King. It was the very best vacation bargain in the world. In the 70’s the age of the population of Las Vegas was relatively young. Las Vegas was the biggest disco party in America, and from all their tips, this age group had tons of cash in their pockets. Unlike today, Vegas had very few nightclubs in the hotels or topless joints; locals hung out at the discos and hot spots around town.
The best action was at the two top discos; The Brewery and Paul Anka’s Jubilation, both places were crazy wild fun, filled with “Wine, Women & Song” and if that wasn’t enough, there were Prostitutes at the tables, and Cocaine on the tables. The party continued until dawn, some hotel lounge acts didn’t start until 1:00 am in the morning. What a Town!!!
To live or visit Las Vegas in the ‘70’s was to be on a different planet. There was such happiness and freedom in Vegas not found anywhere in the country. All High-Desert communities are bizarre and unconventional, but Las Vegas had in all, you could strike sparks everywhere. The town was small, with a light-handed local government, low taxes, and a well-behaved, young, prosperous population. Even the state government had a “live & let live” attitude; Carson City overlooked the shenanigans in Las Vegas, as long as the money rolled in. For Las Vegas, the Stars were in perfect alignment; it was a wonderful city a mellow, cool, and a very happy atmosphere.
Despite America having problems with Vietnam, Watergate, and worldwide adversity, nothing fazed Vegas. However, as the decade wore on, Mob influence, always a big part in the building Las Vegas, began to turn ugly and unproductive. ‘Wise Guys’ the likes of Moe Dalitz, Morris Shenker, and Joe Torries all were alleged to have mob ties, but as good businessmen, they helped build Vegas. By 1971 the mob’s dark side showed up in the form of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, Tony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, and their main minions Herbie Bitzstein, Frank Cullotta. These guys settled in fast, Tony The Ant somehow got the gift-shop concession in the Circus Circus Casino, Lefty Rosenthal, became the unofficial boss of the Stardust Hotel & Casino. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade, Lefty, The Ant, and their boys (The hole in the wall gang) had caused enough murders and mayhem they would be hounded out of town. At the time, one young guy cut his teeth tangling with Lefty, as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission he denied Rosenthal a license to work at the Stardust. The young guy today, United States Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Just like anything successful, everyone wants a piece of the action; in 1977, on the second try, voters approved casino gaming in Atlantic City. With all the growth of casinos, now on two coasts, it became increasing difficult for both, the straight, and Mob joints, to find good help. About the same time, Vegas had a deluge of small-time operators, who just wanted to just skim the fat off the top. A hundred hookers a night lined The Strip, not that this was all bad, many of them were the best-dressed women in Las Vegas. Walking down the Strip was an educational experience; I learned most prostitutes prefer Trojan Condoms.
After the MGM, many of the new hotels in the late ‘70’s were small time joints or old motels remodeled. Las Vegas started showing her age, the construction in Las Vegas was very poor, and many of The Strip hotels were falling apart. Wise Guys could run the hotels, but they were lousy builders. Most of all, after the opening of The MGM Grand in 1973 the forward momentum stopped, the city seemed to rest on its laurels.
By 1979 the country was wrestling with high interest rates, high gas prices, Iran hostages, and a looming recession that would last for five years. Add to it, the Big Stars, the Big Hotels, were all getting old, and now the East Coast people could gamble in Atlantic City. Multiply all this by lots of bad wise guys, hundreds of hookers, tons of drugs, no new ideas, and no money from the union pension funds for reinvestment. Las Vegas, the city of lights was heading down a long dark tunnel, and there was no light at the end.
No more 7-11’s, Ace, Duece, Vegas craps out. By the end of the decade nobody could have dreamed the ideas of three small time operators; a young guy from The Golden Nugget, and two old guys, one from Sam’s Town, and one from Fortune Coin, would eventually save Las Vegas.
Who and what were the ideas of these three small-time operators? What would eventually save Las Vegas, and make it the hottest place in the world?
The guys, Steve Wynn, Sam Boyd, and Si Redd.
Their Dreams and Ideas, next time,
“Vegas, The Come Back Kid”