Deborah Amos: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: Las Vegas - An Unconventional History, produced with the public television program American Experience and director Stephen Ives.
In May 2005, Las Vegas celebrated its 100th birthday.
Marc Cooper: There is no place that better captures the spirit of American culture, for better or for worse, than Las Vegas.
Dina Titus: And it epitomizes what everybody wants, a chance to strike it rich, a chance to make it, a chance to overcome the odds.
Nick Pileggi: People come here and feel they're living a naughtier life.
Man: Las Vegas is a great pace if you don't have any weaknesses. If you have weaknesses this town will punch a hole in them.
Ron Hunter: What kind of moron would want to go to a casino and cash their paycheck?
Amos: I'm Deborah Amos. In the coming hour, Las Vegas - An Unconventional History from American RadioWorks. First this news update.
Amos: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary Las Vegas - An Unconventional History, produced with the PBS program American Experience. I'm Deborah Amos.
Las Vegas marked its centennial in May 2005. The city celebrated with a 65-ton cake. Delivered on seven flatbed trucks, assembled in an airplane hanger, and iced by a legion of volunteers. This was a fitting confection for a city that relishes spectacle and glitz.
At age 100, Las Vegas had many reasons to celebrate. Once a remote desert outpost, Las Vegas is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. With dozens of flourishing hotels, casinos and restaurants, tourism is at an all-time high. It's a place where tens of thousand of jobs are created each year, 60 new streets are named each month, and more than 1,000 new residents move to town each week.
In a city famous not only for spectacle, but sin, Las Vegas also has its share of trouble. Las Vegas ranks near the top of American cities in rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, personal bankruptcy, teen pregnancy and suicide. Despite these problems, journalist Marc Cooper says people are beating a path to Vegas in search of a better life.
Marc Cooper: I think, in many ways, Las Vegas is the most American of cities, and it's a real irony. People used to come to Las Vegas to get away from America. ... And all those jobs and all those careers that people thought were safe and secure in the heartland of the rust belts, etc., have disappeared. ... So, ... history has had a good laugh because Las Vegas turns out to be one of the best places to come to work, and to get a career, and to get a union job and to get a living wage, ... So you actually come to Las Vegas the way you used to come to Detroit.
Over the next hour, with narrator Michael Murphy, we'll visit Las Vegas as it grows from a remote railroad town to a mobster metropolis, and finally to the city today: an adult-themed resort town that nearly two million people call home.
Yvette Dixon: There's so much more to Las Vegas than the Strip. And, once you get here and see what else they have, you won't even come to the Strip.
Michael Murphy: Yvette Dixon is a guest room attendant at Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Cleaning a dozen bathrooms and making 20 beds a day. She has found her own sort of dream here in Las Vegas.
Dixon: But here, they got so many hotels coming up, stores opening up every day. So you can get a job real easy. It might not be the job you want, but it'll be a job until you can get the job you want. You can move into a brand new house, they build it the way you want it, no money down, not a penny! Now that was for me!
Yvette moved here from Los Angeles.
Dixon: This is indeed the best move I ever made. I wasn't established in California, I never bought a house, I never owned anything. So, as soon as I moved here, I got my job, got a new car, got a new truck, got a new house. I only been here six years. I cleaned up!
Across town, another Las Vegas-transplant family is also finding success.
Diamond: We would meet at home and say, "OK, we got $150." And we had a little bucket, I swear to you a little bucket. And we saved up $15,000 just like that.
Colette Diamond and her husband Kenny settled in Las Vegas after a life on the road as musicians. He took a job as a valet. She became a cocktail waitress. With each car parked and each drink served, the couple saved enough tips for a down payment on a small house.
Diamond: So we did that until I came home one day, and my daughter had on my cocktail outfit. She says, "Mom, I want to be just like you." So I started real estate school the next day.
Colette and Kenny rank among the top-selling realtors in Las Vegas.
Diamond: Right now, I sell million dollar houses to people, who ten years ago were just like me. And in this community and in this kind of environment, it's given us that dream. I never could have done this, for us, any place else.
The Diamonds now live in a roomy, 6,000-foot home. The exploding property market in Las Vegas transformed the Diamonds' life, and the city's landscape. The chamber of commerce estimates that a new home is finished every nine hours. At 100 years old, Las Vegas has come a long way.
Las Vegas was founded in 1905 as a railroad town. It enjoyed about a dozen years of prosperity, catering to passengers on layover and supplying mining camps to the north and south. But after a devastating national railroad strike in 1922, some thought Las Vegas would end up a ghost town. Art critic Dave Hickey says what saved Las Vegas was Nevada's tolerance for sin.
Dave Hickey: The history of Nevada, I mean, it's just a big desert. I mean, it's really nowhere. And its whole tradition is doing illegal stuff. Divorces, you know. They do prize fights. They do all this stuff that was banned from Prohibition America. And so this became the way you make money in the desert.
In the midst of the Great Depression, thousands of men traveled west to southern Nevada's Black Canyon - desperate to land one of the 5,000 construction jobs on Boulder Dam, later known as Hoover Dam. For four and a half years, the dam workers spent their days toiling between walls of scorching hard rock, and their nights penned inside Boulder City.
Archival tape: In what had once been an uninhabited, waterless desert, supporting only sparse and inhospitable growth of chapperal and cactus, the beautiful little town of Boulder City was built, within the short space of 15 months to house an army of 5,000 men.
The workers lived for payday. With money in their pockets, they headed for nearby Las Vegas. There, on a two-block stretch of Fremont Street, they found a bawdy, brightly lit cluster of gambling dens and brothels, and saloon after saloon after saloon. Marc Cooper is a journalist who's written extensively about Las Vegas.
Marc Cooper: They were living in these camps in this unforgiving desert in a state of real lockdown. And let's face it, there is absolutely nothing to do. You had two choices on payday in Boulder City. You could stay back in the camp and and not drink, maybe surreptitiously play some cards, and wait for night to come, or you could hit Fremont Street and gamble and drink and party until your check ran out. Now which one would you choose?
In 1931, Nevada solidified its reputation as the nation's rogue state. It legalized wide-open casino style gambling. Within months, new gambling houses and slot machines could be found all over town. But legal gambling alone would likely never have brought people to a place as remote as Las Vegas. Curiosity about the dam also boosted business. In 1932, some 100,000 people went to gawk at what was fast becoming known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
Newsreel: FDR visits the big dam
Roosevelt: We are here to celebrate the completion of the greatest dam in the world.
Ever opportunistic, Las Vegas took to billing itself as the "Gateway to the Boulder Dam," and thanks mainly to dam tourism, Las Vegans discovered the immense potential for profit in America's forbidden desires. The town quickly became a destination for scores of gambling operators, cardsharps and crooked cops on the lam. Mark Cooper says a good number of them came from Los Angeles where reform-minded politicians were cleaning up the town, and which by 1938 was just a day's drive from Las Vegas.
Cooper: Now Los Angeles was a very, very corrupt place with lots of illegal gambling and these kind of do-gooders came into power, around the time of the depression, ... and they drove the gamblers out. And they had no place to go. And it was really Los Angeles gamblers who came to Las Vegas.
Eugene Moehring: They gravitated to the city because they had the expertise.
Eugene Moehring is a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Moehring: They knew more than many of the local yokels who were running the small casinos of how to make customers happy, how to give comps, when to do it. And they brought a real expertise in casino management to Las Vegas.
One of the more infamous underworld figures to come to Las Vegas was a dapper and often volatile mobster named Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Siegel: I have found the answer to the dreams of America.
Actor Warren Beatty played Siegal in the 1991 film "Bugsy."
Siegel: Look, what do people always fantasize about? Sex, romance, money, adventure? I'm building a monument to all of them?
Mobster: What are talking about here, a whorehouse?
Siegel: No, I'm talking about a hotel, I'm talking about Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where gambling is allowed, where everything is allowed. The whole territory is wide open.
Mobster: I think what Ben is saying - it's a good place to trap people in and take their money. Is that what you're getting at here, Benny?
Bugsy Siegel knew that after World War II, Americans were looking for a good time. He began to sink mob money into a handful of gambling halls before finally buying the El Cortez Hotel. The official owner was a front man. Behind him, a roster of investors that read like a "who's who" of organized crime. These men got their share of profits from cash secretly taken out of the casinos, earnings known as "the skim." Journalist, Marc Cooper.
Cooper: There's no taxes on a skim, and there's no book-keeping on a skim. It is your upfront money. When the mob controlled one of these casinos, they had their operatives who would effectively supervise what's called the "hard count room," which is where you count up the money. And you knew that if Bob or Joe or whoever it was, the guy who would come in literally with a sack or a box and pick up some money and put it in a box and walk out the door, well nobody saw anything.
Benny Siegel would soon invest in a new Las Vegas development, one he promised would be, as he said, the "God-damn biggest, fanciest gaming casino and hotel you bastards ever seen your whole lives." He would call it The Flamingo.
Nick Pileggi: Before Benny Siegel opened The Flamingo, the look of casinos in Las Vegas were all cowboy casinos.
Nick Pileggi has written a book and screenplay about mobsters in Las Vegas.
Pileggi: They were western. There was sawdust on the floor. Benny Siegel comes in - he creates an urban Miami Beach hotel in the middle of the desert. Suddenly when you walk into a casino, you're not met by a guy with a cowboy hat and a six shooter and cowboy chaps. No, you're met by a guy in a tuxedo, you're met by a guy who looks like Dean Martin.
With its swank atmosphere, wall-to-wall carpeting and new-fangled air-conditioning system, The Flamingo became a hot new cool spot for the Hollywood crowd. But by the time construction was completed in 1947, Siegel had overspent his budget by four-and-a-half million dollars. The syndicate's mood soured. A few months later, Siegel was shot dead. By then, the word on Las Vegas was out. Crooks and con men from all over the country decamped to the desert. Nick Pileggi.
Pileggi: When these guys came here, it was like a morality or ethical car wash. You came here and you were cleansed of your sins. You were now legitimate and legal. I did not care what you did, you got a wash.
Brian Greenspun: They came out here, and the shackles came off.
Brian Greenspun is editor of the Las Vegas Sun:
Greeenspun: They could do in the sunshine, what they could only do in the shade of where they came from. It was legal. And they said to themselves, I know they said it, "This is a place to make our home, this is a place to raise our families."
As one resident put it, Las Vegas was now home to "more socially prominent hoodlums per square-foot than any other community in the world."
Amos: This is Deborah Amos. Coming up after a short break, atomic bomb testing becomes a tourist attraction in Las Vegas.
You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: Las Vegas - an Unconventional History produced with the PBS program American Experience. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Amos: From American Public Media, this is Las Vegas - An Unconventional History, an American RadioWorks documentary, produced with the PBS program American Experience. I'm Deborah Amos.
Newsreel: Fall, 1950. A fierce international war rips through a small country ... called Korea. Russia has successfully detonated the atomic bomb. ... Now more than ever before, ... we need to produce a greater number and variety, and possibly even more powerful atomic weapons ... new atomic bombs, ... must first be tested. But where?
Amos: At mid-century, Las Vegas seemed far removed from the Cold War gripping the rest of America. With the mob in full control, the city was raking in enormous profits from gambling, an activity outlawed everywhere else in the nation. But Las Vegas was also searching for new paths to respectability. Oddly, it was the Cold War that gave Vegas a lift. Our narrator is Michael Murphy.
Murphy: Just before dawn on January 27, 1951, a white flash lit up the Las Vegas sky. Minutes later, a thundering blast left a trail of broken glass more than a dozen blocks long.
Walter Cronkite: This is Walter Cronkite and this is Newman's Knob, 75 miles from Las Vegas. A bomb will be exploded from a tower 300 feet high. This is first time newsmen are allowed to watch.
Over the next twelve years, 120 nuclear devices, an average of one every five weeks, were detonated above ground at the federal government's Nevada Proving Facility. It was just an hour's drive from downtown Las Vegas. Nevada State Senator Dina Titus says the atomic testing program made Las Vegas seem more legitimate.
Dina Titus: Up until that point, we were just a spot in the desert. We were prostitution. We were gambling. Suddenly, we were helping to win the Cold War and I think people could grab a hold of that because it was a good thing to do for democracy.
As the atomic arms race gathered speed, Las Vegas was the only city in the country with a front row seat to ground zero. Casinos hosted bomb parties that peaked with an early morning blast.
David Thomson: The bombs went off at dawn, and people would go up to the roofs of the casinos ... and they'd watch with glee.
Film critic David Thomson has written about Las Vegas.
Thomson: It was part of the entertainment, it was definitely part of a show. ... And people who came to Vegas wanted there to be a test while they were there. It was something else they could see.
Brian Greenspun: My father was the first newsman accredited to the testing site.
Newspaper editor Brian Greenspun grew up in Las Vegas
Greenspun: He used to take us as kids. We used to go up to Mt. Charleston, and I remember watching these bombs, you know, these mushroom clouds and ... these particles, these pink particles were - it looked pink to me, would just settle over us, this dust. And that was all radioactive, you know, fallout. ... We all took the government's word that it was safe. ... They lied.
Studies show that some people who were near the Nevada test site when bombs blew up may well have developed cancer from the radioactive fallout. In the mid-1950s, though, any misgivings Las Vegas residents may have harbored about the bombs were easily brushed aside. Every time a radioactive cloud bloomed over the desert, Las Vegas again made the news. And like the rest of America back then, the town was growing. Tourism was surging.
Marc Cooper: Las Vegas was perfectly positioned to cash in on the post-war, consumerist prosperity boom.
Journalist, Marc Cooper.
Cooper: I mean, think about it. 1950s, the rise of the national highway system, ... the emergence of motoring as a leisure activity and money. ... It's OK to have fun, it's OK to seek leisure, it's OK to go on frivolous vacations and it's OK to push the edge.
Las Vegas promo film, 1956.
Promo film: Las Vegas, Nevada, the entertainment and fun capital of the world. Where the clock never stops and the doors never close.
By the mid-50s, it seemed Las Vegas was everywhere Americans looked. Magazines and movies beckoned tourists to the licentious desert getaway.
Promo film: This is the city of daytime sun and nighttime fun.
When Americans thought of Las Vegas, what leapt to mind was the neon-lit stretch of Highway 91 at the southern fringe of town. That was the Vegas "Strip." Bankrolled almost entirely by organized crime figures, new Strip resorts rose up out of the scrub with stunning speed; first the Sahara and the Sands, then the New Frontier and the Riviera and the Dunes. David Thomson.
Thomson: Well, what happens is the mob quickly realized that it's an enormously lucrative thing, that there could be many casinos, and they also realized that in the prosperity of the post-war period, ... you can bring tourists. ... They're going to hear about Las Vegas and it's going to be exotic and romantic and glamorous.
Cooper: You came here, and just by coming here, you were making a statement. You were a little bit gamey; you were a little bit on the edge. ... And that was a real novel concept in American popular culture. It was the first permission, the first national permission granted to you to be an adult and to do things that you might not ordinarily do but you wanted to do and I think that was really the intoxicant that really drove Las Vegas.
Beyond the Strip, residential Las Vegas was also exploding. By 1960, the Las Vegas population had soared 400 percent, to more than 125,000. Most tourists never glimpsed the neighborhoods where all these new residents lived.
And certainly almost no tourists had ever been to the Westside - a sprawling, squalid neighborhood across the railroad tracks from Fremont Street, home to some 15,000 African-Americans. Las Vegas radio-host Patricia Cunningham.
Patricia Cunningham: West Las Vegas, the Westside, was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was the most segregated neighborhood that I had ever witnessed in my life. ... It was a given, if you were African-American, you had to live west of the railroad tracks.
Eugene Moehring: The first significant numbers of African-Americans came to Las Vegas during World War II to, to help build and work in the Basic Magnesium factory, a defense plant.
Historian Eugene Moehring.
Moehring: There were many ... white people who hoped that once World War II ended, they would leave and go some place else. But the hotel industry, the growing Strip and downtown created lots of low-paying jobs for custodial labor, room maids, waiters and whatever. And so ... ironically it was the Las Vegas hotel industry that kept African-Americans here.
Segregation was commonplace in mid-century America, and Las Vegas was no different. African-Americans were not only relegated to the lowliest jobs, they were barred from patronizing almost every restaurant, casino and club in town.
Even headlining black performers like Nat King Cole were shunted out of the Las Vegas showrooms when the curtain came down. But by the spring of 1955, a quiet revolt had begun.
As the civil rights struggle gained momentum in the South, African-American celebrities began to challenge segregation on the Las Vegas Strip; demanding rooms in the hotels where they played and refusing to perform unless black people were allowed into the audience. Las Vegas casinos were over a barrel. They could either concede and possibly offend some white patrons, or risk losing some of their most popular black entertainers. In early 1960, the local NAACP ratcheted up the pressure. Alice Key was one of the activists.
Alice Key: The NAACP ... called a march on the Strip and ... they ... notified the hotel, resort hotel association that this was going to happen, and if they didn't want to see it on national television, they would open their doors.
Greenspun: The hotels ... don't want this fight. They don't want these headlines all over the country.
Greenspun: This town ... was run by the hotels. When they said do, it got done.
The day before the planned protest, members of the NAACP met with the mayor, the governor and a group of local businessmen. Within hours, they had agreed to lift the Jim Crow restrictions at every hotel, restaurant, bar, casino and showroom in Las Vegas. Though it would be more than a decade before the city fully desegregated, the color line was fading. Marc Cooper.
Cooper: This is a city where the only currency is currency. ... It's a place where, as long as you have the chips, as long as you have the chips, you are equal to everybody. Nobody cares what your race is, your color, your gender, your sexual orientation, in fact they don't even care if you have a criminal record, everybody is the same until you're out of money. And then when you're out of money, you're just out.
By 1960, Las Vegas was very in. The city was an icon of cool in American culture. Warner Brothers set a major motion picture in town: Ocean's Eleven. It starred three legends of the Vegas stage: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. When shooting for the film wrapped for the day, they performed nightly in the luxurious Copa Room at the Sands.
Frank Sinatra: Do you fall in the street a lot?
Dean Martin: That's the only time I get any rest, Frank.
Sinatra and company called their act "The Summit." Fans called them "The Rat Pack." The show was such a hit, that it would play on and off for years.
Steve Wynn: We went to the Sands hotel, where every business guy with money on the planet was trying to get through the door.
Casino developer Steve Wynn.
Wynn: Every swinger and do-da-diddy guy, every sporting-life character on the face of the earth was in Las Vegas, taking every room in this small town so they could get a seat at The Rat Pack.
And the air in the Sands crackled. Something was happening. The music was playing on the P.A. system of Sinatra and Dean Martin. The charisma, the excitement, the electricity in the building in the afternoon was beyond belief. There is no parallel to it today.
Cooper: Everything that Vegas promised it would be and said it would be really was embodied in those handful of weeks ... when ... The Rat Pack were performing every night. ... So what it really was, was a pinnacle of Vegas Cool.
We flippantly refer to Las Vegas now and then as Sin City, but that's when Las Vegas really was Sin City.
In the fall of 1960, the rise of passenger jet service brought millions of new visitors to Sin City. Suddenly, the Las Vegas mob bosses needed more hotel rooms, and for that, they needed a lot of cash.
Hal Rothman: Mobsters built hotels with what I call, "Shoebox money."
Hal Rothman teaches history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Rothman: They went to each other and said, "I'm building a hotel in Las Vegas. Do you want to buy a share? It's $50,000." The other guy pulls a shoebox from under the bed, opens it up and counts him out $50,000, in cash. It got to the point ... that hotels were too expensive to do that. You simply couldn't get enough guys with $50,000 to build a $12 million hotel. So they needed another source of capital.
One of the city's top mobsters, Moe Dalitz, knew just the guy to tap: his longtime associate, Jimmy Hoffa. As president of the Teamsters Union, Hoffa drew on the retirement savings of nearly 200,000 truckers and longshoreman to finance a spate of hotel expansions in Las Vegas.
More hotel rooms, more guests, more money dropped at the tables and slots, all of it would eventually add up to a dramatic spike in the "skim." That was the secret pile of cash the mob collected in casino counting rooms and then distributed to the network of owners with hidden interests in Las Vegas. John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review Journal.
John L. Smith: It was a town that had the front-end guys, the smiling guys with the wild sport coats and then it had the other folks who came to town and, of course anyone in the lobby on a Friday night might notice that a crew of New York mob guys came in and got all the penthouse suites and they were treated very, very well. Now were they just gambling? Of course not. They were watching their store.
With Teamsters money at their disposal, it looked as though Moe Dalitz and his cronies had found a way to stay on top. And with hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenues at stake, Nevada authorities left them there. Then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert, to the post of U. S. Attorney General. The mob had good reason to fear him. Just a few years earlier, Bobby Kennedy served as chief counsel to a highly-publicized Senate investigation into organized crime where he took on figures like Jimmy Hoffa.
Robert Kennedy: Every place you go, we've checked your telephone records, you're calling every gangster in the United States.
Jimmy Hoffa: Mr. Kennedy, they may be nice people today. You know, you don't give them a chance to prove they're nice.
Kennedy watched in disgust as all but a handful of the nation's leading racketeers got away. The Attorney General vowed to nab those who had eluded the government's grasp. Writer Nick Pileggi says the feds set their sights on Las Vegas.
Nick Pileggi: The FBI and the IRS could never accept the fact that a man ... like ... Moe Dalitz, ... who was illegal in Cleveland, could get on a plane and come here and be legal here. ... You can't have one state where being illegal is legal. It just drove them nuts.
In 1962 and '63, Kennedy's Justice Department, along with the FBI and the IRS, waged an all-out war on Las Vegas, plotting raids, planting illegal wiretaps and searching out mob connections to every casino in town. The Feds uncovered the skim, publicizing what one observer called, "The Mob's Federal Reserve." In the face of relentless scrutiny, Las Vegas' alliance with mobsters had become a liability. Soon, an unlikely character would help dissolve that alliance.
Newsreel: Howard Hughes and his helicopter company.
Billionaire Howard Hughes checked into the Desert Inn in 1966, seeking tax shelter for his riches and refuge from the press. Cloistered round-the-clock, Hughes began collecting Strip hotels and casinos like postage stamps. Nick Pileggi says that for Las Vegas mobsters, Hughes's buying spree couldn't have come at a better time.
Pileggi: The guys who created Vegas, ... the original guys, ... were powerful and rich, but they could never cash out. ... They could not walk away from that profit. ... They were now in their 60s and 70s. They want to leave some money to their grandkids and their families and ... Howard Hughes comes in with his accountants and ... they could finally get rid of it. They could cash out.
Hughes was precisely what Las Vegas needed, a national hero with a clean-cut image that could redeem the city from the stigma of organized crime. John L. Smith.
Smith: I think Howard Hughes played an enormous role in the evolution of Las Vegas. His man, Bob Maheu, says that Howard Hughes didn't make the new Las Vegas, but he got it ready. ... By bringing a brand name that was not Murder Inc. into Las Vegas, Howard Hughes helped separate the community from its past.
Howard Hughes moved on from Las Vegas in 1970 and Corporate America moved in. Hotel chains like Ramada and Hilton took Hughes's lead and started buying up casinos. Once Wall Street came to Sodom and Gomorrah, there was little reason for Las Vegas to put up with the mob.
Over the next several years, Nevada authorities forced a half-dozen Las Vegas casinos to cut their ties to organized crime. By the mid-1980s, the last of the mobsters were gone from Las Vegas, but as corporate casinos took root, the buzzing energy of the old Sin City waned, and its nightclub cool grew tepid.
Smith: You know, we're talking about a community that had become out of step with what people thought was hip.
When things ... got punk, Las Vegas pulled up its polyester leisure suit and went, "Gee whiz fellas, you want to hit the blackjack table?"
However dowdy or corny or tame Las Vegas seemed, it was still the only big city in America where a person could legally sit down at a blackjack table and throw his life savings away. But in May 1978, even that distinction disappeared.
With millions of people living less than a gas tank away, Atlantic City easily won out against the cross-country airplane ride to Vegas. That competition, along with a national recession, sapped Las Vegas's drawing power. By 1980, Las Vegas was in the throes of a full-fledged identity crisis.
Amos: I'm Deborah Amos. You're listening to Las Vegas - An Unconventional History from American RadioWorks.
Coming up: Sin City reinvents itself once again, as tourist town and home town.
Ron Hunter: When I was a young man growing up here, the ... mindset was basically, "If you live in Las Vegas, why would you gamble?" ... But now, in modern Las Vegas culture, that is seen as very appropriate.
Las Vegas - An Unconventional History is a production of American RadioWorks and the PBS program American Experience. To find out more about this and other documentaries, go to our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can download the program, sign up for our e-mail newsletter and find out how to order a CD of this program.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Amos: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Las Vegas - An Unconventional History, produced with the PBS program, American Experience. I'm Deborah Amos.
In the early 1980s, Las Vegas was on a losing streak. Following two tragic hotel fires and a prolonged construction slump, it looked like the city's spectacular rise had hit the limit. But by the end of the decade, Vegas was back on its game.
Steve Wynn: Las Vegas is probably the greatest example on the planet, including New York City, of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, violent, hand-to-hand, commercial combat.
There may be no person more responsible for the current chapter in Las Vegas history than casino resort developer Steve Wynn.
Wynn: Here in this city, the players are lined up along the Rialto out there, teeth bared, lips curled back, fist clenched, saying, "Stay in my place. Don't go in that one."
In the final segment of our program, we look at the winners and losers in the new Las Vegas. Our narrator is Michael Murphy.
Murphy: On November 26, 1996, the 700-room Sands Hotel, once the heart of Vegas cool, was planted, laced with dynamite and blown up.
Out of the rubble rose a 6,000-room, Venetian-themed resort. Between 1989 and 2005, many of Las Vegas's other landmark hotels - the Dunes and Desert Inn, the Hacienda, were leveled, making way for what would come to be known as "the new Las Vegas." The transformation of the Las Vegas skyline began in 1989, with Steve Wynn's Mirage. People once mocked Wynn's ambition to open a world class resort. But Wynn promised the Mirage would become the Sin City-equivalent of Disneyland.
Steve Wynn was right. Within weeks of its opening, the Mirage surpassed Hoover Dam as Nevada's leading tourist attraction. The Mirage was the largest resort casino in the world. But it wasn't just the size of Wynn's Mirage that captured attention. It was the resort's exuberant celebration of spectacle. A 20,000-gallon marine tank, a tropical rainforest and a volcano five stories high that spews steam and flames.
Las Vegas newspaper editor Brian Greenspun.
Greenspun: Steve came and realized that if you build it, and you build it better and you create a little demand where maybe there wasn't demand, everyone will want to get into it and everyone will pay more to enjoy it.
The Mirage made Las Vegas new again. And it did so just in time. Fierce competition for gambling dollars erupted across America. By 1994, there were lotteries in 37 states and legal casinos in 23. At decade's end, the most profitable casinos were no longer found on the Las Vegas Strip, but on Indian reservations all around the country. To survive as a tourist destination, Las Vegas had to up the ante.
Bryant Gumble: Is your decision to blow up the Dunes, is it part of a larger effort to do away with the old Las Vegas and reshape Vegas as something else?
The Today Show's Bryant Gumble spoke with Steve Wynn.
Wynn: It's part of Las Vegas doing what everybody else in the entertainment business is doing in the world today, and that is keeping up with the changing tastes of the public. Everybody has become more and more highly expectant. And things that would have gotten a wow or a jazzed ten years ago, draw a yawn today.
In the 1990s, new casino hotel attractions seemed to materialize overnight: the pyramid shaped Luxor, the pirate-themed Treasure Island and the Venetian Hotel with its canals and singing gondoliers.
By 2001, Las Vegas had eclipsed the holy city of Mecca as the most visited place on earth. All those tourist dollars helped set off a wave of housing construction as people moved to the city to find work. State Senator Dina Titus says Las Vegas must now learn how to feed the booming tourist industry, while reigning in suburban sprawl.
Titus: Growth is good for many reasons. It brings a lot of jobs, it brings diversity, it brings excitement, it brings money, but there are also downsides to that, of course. You know the tail begins to wag the dog, and the number of people outweigh the infrastructure that serves them. And so you get more traffic, you get more crime, you get bad air.
Steve Werk: When we first moved here, you could ride out my back door and ride 500 miles north and only come across two paved roads.
Steve Werk has lived in Las Vegas since 1977. He moved here to produce a rodeo show for television.
Werk: It used to feel pretty wide open, you knew your neighbors, everybody talked to each other. ... There was only 20 families in a five-mile area. It was a rural way of life. We're trying to maintain that in this little block here. But they're slowly chipping away at it.
The problem is, Werk says, those in charge of city planning have hardly done any.
Werk: They could've had some kind of planned growth and it would have been a good thing. But when you run out of water and when you run out of usable land and you start crowding people together just to make an extra buck instead of creating a type of life that people want, then it becomes entirely different.
Growth means more water consumption, more pollution, more concrete and asphalt. But growth also means more things not automatically associated with Las Vegas, like more schools.
Mary Ann Ward: Usually, if I'm on an airplane and somebody asks me what I do and I say I'm a principal in Las Vegas, they say there are no schools in Las Vegas. And I say, well, we're the fifth largest school district in the U.S.
Mary Ann Ward is principal of the Dean Petersen Elementary school.
Ward: We're not able to open schools fast enough to handle the number of kids coming into the city. Last year, there were 12, this year ten to 11. Next year, there may be up to 18 new schools.
There is a lot of student turnover at Petersen Elementary. Some children have attended four different schools in the same year, making it hard to offer them consistent instruction. Darla Richards teaches at Petersen Elementary. She says that living in a city that's throwing one non-stop party can also take its toll.
Darla Richards: I think a huge impact that a 24-hour city has on students is that when they go home from school, nobody's there because they're working. They're busy with other responsibilities, so students often don't spend much time doing homework.
Still, parents like Colette and Kenny Diamond raise children who thrive, just like any other place in America. Today, their daughter Chanel is trying out the training wheels on her bike.
Colette Diamond: If somebody would've ever said that our daughter would go to Las Vegas schools or that on her birth certificate would say Las Vegas, you never think that because you think Sin City.
Colette Diamond got her start in Las Vegas as a cocktail waitress.
Diamond: When we first decided to get off the road and live in Las Vegas, we asked how can we raise our little girl in Las Vegas. He said, "I have a vision of us making it here. We can be in it, but not of it."
Some people struggle to capture that vision. Many Las Vegas residents seldom go to the Strip. But increasingly, the Strip is coming to them, as casinos rise up in local neighborhoods, and video gambling machines multiply in gas stations, convenience stores, even laundromats. For some people, this is a big problem.
Randy: I gamble on the way to work and after work. On my way to work, if I won some money, I wouldn't go to work.
Randy has spent about 20 years working construction in Las Vegas. As he threads through city traffic, he describes a downward spiral.
Randy: Then I'd go home to my girlfriend and tell her that I was working overtime or that my car broke down. I was living quite a lie, you know.
Randy sought help from psychologist Ron Hunter of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. Hunter leads support groups for people addicted to gambling.
Ron Hunter: When I was a young man growing up here, the cultural mindset was basically, "If you live in Las Vegas, why would you gamble? How silly is that? That's for tourists, and the house has the edge. What kind of moron would want to go to a casino and cash their paycheck?" But now in modern Las Vegas culture, that is seen as very appropriate.
Hunter says Randy is part of a new generation of compulsive gamblers.
Hunter: When I opened this program in '86, ... I had a bunch of cigar-smoking, diamond-ring wearing, $100-bill-throwing characters from a play. I don't see those guys much anymore. What I see is machine players. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of women that are soliciting treatment, and the overwhelming game of choice for problem gamblers is video-based.
According to Hunter, the women and men addicted to video gambling machines aren't exactly having fun.
Hunter: They don't go to Disneyland, they go to "anesthesia land" ... because some folks are able to disassociate at such a level when they are playing that the world goes away, they'll gamble through a fire, not because they have a death wish, but because they don't know they are in a room full of smoke.
Experts say gambling is like alcohol. Most people can enjoy it in moderation. But for a small percentage of people, it takes over their lives.
Randy: I got to the point where I was gambling my whole check. ... Eventually, I ran out of people I could borrow money from. I didn't want my fiancée to leave me so I decided to rob a bank. I went in and handed the teller a note. She started handing me money when I ran out of there, I remember saying, "Excuse me," to somebody walking out the door. It doesn't hurt to be a nice bank robber.
After the robbery, Randy was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Randy says the sentence he serves in jail will be better than the one he served as a compulsive gambler.
Critics say the state of Nevada and the Las Vegas gambling industry have spent far too little to help problem gamblers like Randy. This underscores the challenge for the new Las Vegas. How much will the city cater to the millions of tourists who come here every year, and how much will it try to improve life for all the people who now call Las Vegas home?
Cooper: What Las Vegas needs or doesn't need as a city depends on whether you live here or not.
Journalist Marc Cooper.
Cooper: If you don't live here, then you don't need much more than the Las Vegas Strip, do you? You could literally pare away the rest of Las Vegas and 95 percent of the tourists wouldn't care and wouldn't notice. Now, the other million and a half people who live here, that's a different story.
Some people call Las Vegas the ultimate American city, a place that invented itself out of nowhere and constantly remakes itself in a frank and relentless quest for money. The city has obliterated social taboos and blown up architectural landmarks all to stay competitive. In this way, some say Las Vegas best captures the American dream. But to others, the city represents the worst of American values. It could be both. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger:
Paul Goldberger: You know, for me, the insane, brazen, wildness of the whole thing is always very exhilarating when I first get there. ... And then, because it is sort of superficial, and it is without real substance behind it, it wears thin very quickly. ... It's kind of as if you were force fed chocolate mousse - something like that. First taste is really good. ... But then there comes a time when you actually want some nutrition.
Smith: I think there will always be a part of the American psyche and soul that is very much Las Vegas.
Journalist John L. Smith.
Smith: I think our country is headed more toward Las Vegas than away from it. But I think the people who run the town will always make sure that we're out ahead banging the right drums and shaking the right tambourines to make this a wilder place than the nation as a whole.
Amos: Las Vegas - An Unconventional History was originally produced by Insignia Films for American Experience, which airs Monday nights on PBS. The film was directed by Stephen Ives and produced with Amanda Pollak, written by Michelle Ferrari. Series Producer, Sharon Grimberg, and Executive Producer, Mark Samels. The music was composed by Joel Goodman. The narrator: Michael Murphy.
This program was adapted for radio by Mary Beth Kirschner, Kate Ellis, Michael Montgomery and Stephen Smith, with help from Bryant Switsky and Elizabeth Tannen. Thanks to radio station KNPR in Las Vegas. I'm Deborah Amos.
Funding for the American Experience program, Las Vegas - An Unconventional History was provided by The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual, The Scotts Company and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
To find out more about Las Vegas - An Unconventional History, and to hear this program again, visit out website: Americanradioworks.org.
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