History shows Las Vegas will bounce back better than ever
Las Vegas has always been a go-go city, from its inception keeping the stars onstage, the lounges filled with millions of visitors, and the roulette wheel a-turning. No matter what has happened, it’s always come back, although it wasn’t until recent years that events took a deeper toll.
In its early days, world events had their effect, but as the state was in its infancy, fewer people were affected (Vegas had only 5,000 residents up until the '30s). And often, these events seemed to work to Vegas’ advantage somehow. The first hotel on Fremont Street, the Nevada Hotel (later renamed the Golden Gate), opened in 1906, but gambling was officially banned by 1910; however, in 1911 relaxed divorce laws were instituted. During the next 20 years, Vegas had a low-key illegal gambling scene (and a few mobsters moving in), but by 1931, realizing the realizing the potential for revenue after Boulder Dam (later Hoover Dam) was approved for the state and and workers flooded the Vegas and Boulder City area, gambling was again legalized.
During the ’30s, as the nation went through the Great Depression, Vegas built its rep as a city where gambling was king and divorce was easier than ever (Ria Langham divorced hubby Clark Gable at the end of the decade). Highway 95 opened up another route into Vegas and the Pair-O-Dice motel started the Las Vegas Strip on Highway 91--it would later be the site of the Frontier. When Boulder Dam went online, so did electricity, and Vegas was the first hookup in 1937. Fremont Street started earning its name of Glitter Gulch.
And in the ’40s, things really took off. The El Rancho opened on Highway 91, World War II brought soldiers to newly built military bases all over the state, and support businesses boomed (including the businesses on the infamous Block 16 downtown; prostitution took a nosedive after the U.S. military showed its disapproval of said businesses and the city yanked the liquor and slot machine licenses of saloons there); Nevada added 50,000 residents during the decade. More hotels opened, like the El Cortez on Fremont Street, and on Highway 91, which would become the Strip. The El Rancho opened in 1941, and was the crème de la crème of Vegas hotels at the time, with horseback riding, bungalows, a large swimming pool and a showroom complete with dancers and a live orchestra. Hollywood celebrities were regular Vegas visitors--and piano phenom Liberace played his first show in Vegas in 1944 at the Last Frontier, another swank new hotel that opened in 1942 where the Pair-O-Dice once stood. After WWII ended, the Golden Nugget casino opened downtown (in the '70s, entrepreneur Steve Wynn would start his resort empire here), and the swanky Flamingo fully opened in 1947 with mob backing (Bugsy Siegel's last hurrah).
The '50s were even better—starting with the early part of the decade when atomic testing was visible and Vegas guests held overnight parties to watch the bombs go off. Frank Sinatra made his first Vegas appearance in 1951; Ronald Reagan had a two-week run at the Last Frontier in '54; Minsky’s Follies danced into the city; and hotel after hotel opened in the valley, like the Desert Inn, the Dunes, the Stardust, the Moulin Rouge (the first racially integrated hotel in Vegas), the Hacienda (where Mandalay Bay now stands), and the Tropicana. Liberace commanded $50,000 a week at the new Riviera. Las Vegas began its full life as a convention city when the Convention Center opened in 1959, and famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign" was installed.
Coming to Vegas to party in the ’60s was a status symbol for many as the Rat Pack performed their first show together, and movies like Ocean's Eleven and Viva Las Vegas gave the world a glamorous look at the city. It was a heady decade, with Liberace continuing to draw fans to the Riv, Elvis and Priscilla Presley tying the knot at The Aladdin, and The Beatles playing the Las Vegas Convention Center. Caesars Palace opened and Evel Knievel jumped the fountains there in 1967 (crashing with now-legendary injuries!), inspiring countless little children to become at-home daredevils. It wasn't all good, though--R.J. Parish set off an enormous pile of dynamite in the Orbit Motel, destroying the place and killing himself and five others, including his wife. Siegfried & Roy began making magic and Elvis opened at the International, surpassing Liberace’s salary with a $125,000 per week residency, twice a year.
The ’70s slowed up a little as the entertainers got older and Atlantic City began drawing away gamblers, but one gambling event drew a lot of attention: The World Series of Poker, which continues to this day. Elvis ended his shows at the International and died the year after. But the crowds still flocked to Vegas. It looked rocky in Sin City when the ’80s began, as a pair of deadly hotel fires (at the MGM Grand, and the Las Vegas Hilton) claimed 95 lives and injured hundreds in the first years of the decade. But even those tragic events did not end Vegas’ attraction. Siegfried & Roy opened at the Frontier in 1982, National Finals Rodeo held its first Vegas event in 1985, and Steve Wynn opened a swank new megaresort, The Mirage, in 1989.
Siegfried & Roy moved to The Mirage in 1990 and stayed through the decade. Throughout those years, resort after resort opened its porte cocheres—Luxor, New York-New York, The Stratosphere, Monte Carlo, The Orleans, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Venetian and Paris. In 1993, Cirque Du Soleil opened Mystére at the newly opened Treasure Island, starting out an incredible run of successful shows in Vegas. “O” opened in 1998, and enjoyed the same success that Mystére did. Mr. Las Vegas Wayne Newton celebrated a whopping 25,000 shows, and magician Lance Burton opened at the new Monte Carlo in 1996.
Magician Mac King opened at Harrah's in January of 2000, starting the decade off right. But after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, things looked bleak and for a while. Hotel occupancy fell and hard for quite a while (until almost 2007). But Vegas persevered, and in the years following saw headliners such as Celine Dion draw millions to Vegas’ entertainment scene (she began her first residency, A New Day… in 2003 at Caesars Palace). Bette Midler, Cher and Elton John brought in the faithful. Carrot Top started the laughs going in 2005, and Criss Angel started filming Mindfreak at the Aladdin. Broadway-style shows such as Mamma Mia!, Phantom of the Opera, Jersey Boys and The Lion King spanned the decades into the early 2010s; nightclubs drew huge crowds and DJs earned serious paydays.
And then the housing market crashed, leading to the Great Recession in 2008. Once again, Vegas regrouped and once again rebuilt, drawing back visitors with such entertainers as Terry Fator and Donny & Marie; Dion began her second residency and a third. Nearly 5 million fans ended up seeing her before she retired for good in 2019. These residencies brought the biggest names to Vegas: Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Shania Twain and more. Festivals ruled the day, bringing fans together to enjoy everything from punk to pop and everything in between. The Electric Daisy Carnival held its first Vegas event in 2011, drawing 230,000 attendees.
And then on Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman killed 58 people and injured hundreds more during a country music festival. Vegas reacted in Vegas form: banding together, supporting each other and all the Vegas visitors. Blood drives drew hundreds, giving more than was needed. But tourism dropped a full 4 percent in the first month. And yes, Vegas began its road to recovery again. From 2017 to 2020, residencies included Bruno Mars, Twain, Aerosmith, Billy Idol and many others.
When the COVID-19 crisis caused convention and resort closings, so too went the concerts and live music and live shows. No resort has scheduled anything to be open sooner than April 15, and that remains a tenuous date. But there’s much to look forward to when the curve is flattened and everyone emerges from social distancing and working from home--Vegas will always be the Entertainment Capital of the World.
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