Las Vegas endures as one of those rare places where the mass entertainment vibe of the early 1960s still survives in the United States. Its popularity lasted through the tumult of the latter half of the decade, then fought through the disco era in the 1970s, while battling a reputation as a resting place for has-been acts. Vegas rebounded in the ’80s and ’90s, and re-established itself as the country’s go-to party city for the early 21st century. Yet the reasons that earned the moniker “The Entertainment Capital of the World” seem lost to history today.
Meyer Lansky. The mob accountant worked with gangster Bugsy Siegel to build the Flamingo hotel and casino in the mid 1940s, sparking the rise of a dozen more gambling-themed establishments over the next decade. America’s Post-War affluence sent tourists — and their money — to the Fremont Street hotels, and top-name entertainers followed. Other small cities hoped to compete for the Las Vegas ticket, but Lansky’s entertainment connections in Los Angeles and New York made it a moot point.
Howard Hughes. He didn’t move to Las Vegas until 1966, but his interest in the city started much earlier. The business visionary developed plans to take over the top gaming hotels and move Vegas into a modern, entertainment-focused tourist mecca. Aviator Hughes had dodged death twice while testing aircraft in the 1940s. His adventurous attitude created a new buzz for the one-time wild west outpost.
Elvis Presley. The King’s association with the Entertainment Capital was highlighted by 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas”: race car driver (and helicopter pilot) Elvis enters a grand prix race being held in the city, meets a swimming instructor played by Ann-Margret, and gets a job as a waiter. Several musical-comedic scenes ensue before the climactic race against rival Ceasare Danova, and a sentimental wedding scene at the Little Church of the West.
In addition to the classic theme song, the movie brought the first images of Las Vegas as a wholesome, family-friendly destination, not to mention a diversion for the spring break college crowd.
Ceasar’s Palace. Motel owner Jay Sarno used $35 million in Teamster’s money to construct a landmark mega-hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard in 1962. When it finally opened 4 years later, Ceasar’s Palace boasted the biggest and best of what passed for Vegas entertainment architecture: a 14-story hotel tower, lavish water fountains, and extravagant swimming pools overlooked by statues evoking the greatness of the Roman Empire. Appropriately, Ceasar’s went on to attract the most famous entertainment figures of the decade, from the United States and overseas.
The Rat Pack. The infamous band of entertainment raconteurs actually started in New York during the 1950s. The group brought its act to Nevada and turned into one of Vegas’ must-see attractions during the early 1960s. Part of the intrigue surrounding the performances was not knowing who would show up — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, Corbett Monica, Peter Lawford — whom they would bring along, and what they’d do when they got there. The unpredicability of the Rat Pack further enhanced what would become the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” philosophy.