SI Vault
Kenneth Rudeen
May 11, 1959
Las Vegas is where the shooters are armed with dice and the wildest call is the stick man's cry. Big, busy, growing, the city's success is rooted in man's age-old refusal to flinch before the odds
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May 11, 1959

Gambling's Adult Western

Las Vegas is where the shooters are armed with dice and the wildest call is the stick man's cry. Big, busy, growing, the city's success is rooted in man's age-old refusal to flinch before the odds

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As a visitor to Las Vegas casts an eye northward along the glittering thoroughfare known as The Strip, he may see, at a service station to his left, a neon sign with this message: FREE ASPIRIN—ASK US ANYTHING. The visitor may not discover until he leaves town that the reverse side of the sign also has a message. It is, FREE ASPIRIN & OUR TENDER SYMPATHY. Thus the proprietor neatly plays on the moods of his prospective customers. Arriving, they are travel-weary, yet eager and hopeful, and the sign hints of inside information about the gambling places which lie so temptingly ahead. Departing, they have no need to ask questions. The majority have played and lost, and they need all the sympathy they can get.

"If you lose at Las Vegas," says the eminent nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis, a man who speaks from experience, "just remember there's more where that went." The mountain-ringed oasis in the badlands of southern Nevada is crowded, prosperous and expanding apace essentially because the ancient human passion for gambling has never been daunted by unfavorable odds.

Needless to say, you can gamble anywhere if you try hard enough. Las Vegas is the particular symbol, the glamour town of American gambling. It is unique. Along with the fascinations of legal craps, twenty-one and roulette (the big three casino games), slot machines and half a dozen other gambling pastimes, Las Vegas week in and week out offers the most lavish concentration of big-name entertainers in the country.

In the last year the town has also begun to cash in on the enormous popularity of Parisian extravaganzas. Legislative opposition—the so-called Bare Bosom Bill—died in committee; the Lido show at the Stardust and La Nouvelle Eve at El Rancho Vegas (sharing billing with Joe E. Lewis) are doing gold-rush business.

No one pretends, however, that the shows pay their own way. They flourish in the luxurious hotels on The Strip for no other reason than that they bring customers into the hotel casinos. As the showgoers flood and ebb through the gaming rooms on the way to and from the twice-nightly performances (three on Saturday), they deposit an alluvium of legal tender in the slot machines and at the tables as surely as the Nile enriches its delta.

On and off The Strip the Nevada gambling "industry," as it is often called, appears to be doing very well indeed. Gross profits reported to the State Tax Commission last year added up to a cool $147.7 million. More than half of this—$83.5 million—was taken in by operators in Clark County, of which Las Vegas is the seat. It is impossible to calculate exactly the total gambling play in Nevada in 1958. A good guess is that the figure approached $750 million. Gambling taxes and fees collected by the state have soared from $1.1 million in 1948 to $7.1 million last year, or about one-fourth of the total state budget.

Las Vegas is bullish about the future, with good reason. The permanent population within the city has more than doubled since World War II, to an estimated 55,000 today; counting suburbs the total rises to about 120,000. The chamber of commerce estimates that 8� million people visited Clark County last year and spent $127 million besides the $83.5 million they paid for the privilege of gambling. An imposing $5.5-million Convention Center opened this year with impressive bookings.

"This thing has got to get bigger," sums up Jack Entratter, president of The Strip's Sands hotel.

No doubt it will. The little miracle of the desert is no longer miraculous. A hundred years ago frontier travelers on the perilous trail from Utah to California rested beside the springs that made a green plot amid sand and sagebrush ( Las Vegas is Spanish for The Meadows). Mormons built a settlement and mined for lead for ammunition in the mountains near by. But the sun-drenched, bone-dry weather—so appealing now to tourists—and the dispiriting landscape frightened off other settlers and commercial venturers for decades. Las Vegas had a whistle-stop population of under 8,000 when a young craps dealer named Wilbur Clark opened the Green Shack in 1938, seven years after Nevada legalized gambling.

"I lost $8,000 in three months," he recalls. "At the time I said anyone coming to this town ought to have his head examined."

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