I’ve often wondered how Las Vegas came to be Las Vegas. What attracted all those casino magnates to the city? What prompted the glitz and the glamour?Vegas was born in the early 1900s, and in 1911, Nevada was the place to go for a quickie divorce. If you lived there for six weeks, you were eligible for one. These short-term, divorce-seeking, residents holed up at dude ranches, forerunners to the Strip’s hotels. Who’d have thought?
In 1931, construction on the Hoover Dam brought an influx of workers and a boom to the local economy. And with all that money floating around, it was time to legalise gambling. The first few motels/casinos that opened had a distinctive western theme, like the El Rancho on Highway 91 which opened in 1941. This was followed by the El Cortez Hotel – the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1942, the Last Frontier.
The glitz and the glamour didn’t arrive until St Stephen’s Day in 1946 – the day after Christmas, when Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened. Supposedly named after his girlfriend Virginia Hill (she had long legs that reminded him of a flamingo), the hotel was a flop; it closed for three months to regroup and reopened in March 1947. I’d love to know what they learned in that time. Whatever it was, it worked. The hotel turned a profit in its first month and is still going today.
But all this was happening in the desert – and it wasn’t until Siegel was murdered that the press came to see what was going on in the sand. Liberace made his debut there in 1944, Frank Sinatra arrived in 1951, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I first visited Vegas back in 1991 – and then I was enthralled. It was smaller then, more manageable. Action concentrated on the strip – the old strip. You had your plastic bucket to collect your quarters from the slots. You could spend a dollar or two on the roulette tables, or eke out your rent money playing blackjack. A breakfast of steak and eggs might set you back a fin. Waitresses were plentiful and the drinks, although watered down, kept coming. People dressed up to gamble.
Fast forward twenty-two years and the scene is a lot different. No more coins from the slots – now you get an electronic receipt you can cash in. Minimum bets are $5, show tickets start at $200, and a poolside chair will set you back $30. And yet the place is heaving. Air-conditioned walkways link the hotels so there is no need to walk the streets. Hundreds of young women in Vegas for hen parties queue up to see the Australian Chippendales. Hundreds more married women in their 40s and 50s escaping the humdrum of domesticity for a weekend, put on their glad rags and take to the town. Loud jocks and golf-shirted weekday dads walk around with jugs of beer – looking cool. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
At night, it all looks great. But in the sober light of day, you see that the marble isn’t marble. The brick isn’t brick. The statues aren’t granite. It’s all fake, a front; there’s nothing real about it. I love to gamble and previous trips to Vegas and Tahoe and Biloxi saw many a happy hour at the tables. But this time around, something had changed. Just as I no longer felt the need to have my cards read in Madrid, my half-hearted attempt at the slots soon gave way to lethargy. I simply wasn’t interested.
This week, as temperatures in Budapest tip 40, I’m writing the last of a series of posts on my US road-trip. It was an amazing few weeks. I caught up with old friends and made new ones. I revisited places I’d been to before and discovered others I’d never heard of. With plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of life as we ate up mile after mile of asphalt, the trip gave me time to think. To evaluate. To see how I’ve changed. To remember what matters. For this I’m truly thankful.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52