Classic Photographs From The Early Days Of Las Vegas
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… until now. Sin City is arguably the best place for anyone looking for a fun vacation. As Nevada’s most populated city, it serves as the leading financial, commercial, and cultural center for the entire state. Vegas is a renowned resort destination that offers something for everyone. Vegas, also known as The Entertainment Capital of the World, features gambling, shopping, fine dining and an incredible nightlife. On top of all this, it has an amazing history, including being the early stomping grounds for celebrities like Elvis Presley and the Rat Pack. Stick around to the end to see them in action.
This article features incredible images that showcase the real estate, culture, society and style of old school Las Vegas, revealing a side of the city that many missed out on but can relive here. Above is a picture of the Copa Girls in the Copa Room, the nightclub of the Sands Hotel. The Copa Girls were showgirls who provided the ultimate show for visitors looking for great variety and spectacle. Alongside these talented women, other performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
What Goes Up…
The city has been through a lot of changes over the years. Many don’t know that the famous Las Vegas strip was in a different location before, located on Fremont Street where the Golden Nugget, the Lucky Strike Club, and the infamously-named Hotel Apache once stood. The area is now enclosed as a pedestrian walkway, but will always epitomize the glitz and glamour of Sin City’s Golden Age. Guests can even take a tour, called the Fremont Street Experience, and get a taste of what life was like in the early days.
But before becoming what it is today, the old Vegas had to fall, both figuratively and literally. Above is an image of The Landmark Tower, or what used to be The Landmark Tower, which was once intended to be the largest structure in the city. Even though it was advertised as such, it never actually got there, potentially due to original owner’s financial and construction issues. That distinction belongs to the Las Vegas International Hotel. The Landmark was eventually purchased by Howard Hughes and contained 400 slot machines and 476 rooms, and was even featured in Martin Scorsese’s mafia film, Casino. It was demolished in 2003.
Vegas is known for gambling and being a bit of a desert oasis, with plenty of pools and even water parks for visitors to stay cool when they’re not enjoying the air conditioned casinos. But why not combine these two attractions into one. Poolside gambling makes perfect sense for Sin City, and guests at the Sands Hotel, circa 1954, can be seen above taking full advantage of this awesome option. The pools also acted as bars and lounge areas, so everyone was happy and comfortable no matter where they decided to spend their time.
In 1958, the Stardust opened and for a while had the largest swimming pool in the entire city, which, along with all of its other amenities, made it a premier destination for tourists. But Vegas is known for having a competitive spirit, so it was only matter of time before another resort outdid them, and then another after that and the cycle continues to this day. No matter whose pool is the biggest, the point is that there are plenty of cool spots for people to escape the city’s over-100 degree temperatures.
Once the heat became too much to bear, guests would flock indoors to catch some of the incredible variety shows Vegas had to offer. One of the most popular featured the showgirls of the Folies Bergére, also known as The Follies, at the Tropicana casino and hotel. The style was rooted in early Paris, France, where the Folies Bergère originated and inspired many like it. The Vegas version opened in 1959 and ran for almost 50 amazing years.
Playing the Slots
In between shows, guests could pass the time by continuing to gamble at any of the city’s premier casinos. Slot machines lined the floor and at peak times there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Above is a picture of showgirl Kim Smith, taken in 1954, playing the slots on her day off. And hopefully her big smile is an sign that she was winning, unlike the woman next to her who doesn’t look as happy.
The Sands Shuttle
As hard as each individual resort tried to give guests everything they could want on their property, it was inevitable that people would want to branch out and see what the rest of the city had to offer. The Sands Hotel, which was around for four decades from 1956 to 1996, decided to stay one step ahead of the competition by offering a shuttle service to patrons who needed a safe and convenient way to get around.
The Desert Inn
Another popular destination that was an integral part of the original Las Vegas was The Desert Inn, whose amazing pool and lounge area can be seen above. It opened in 1950 in Paradise, Nevada, and within a year Frank Sinatra and other famous celebrities began performing there and drawing some much needed attention to the new spot. After a hugely successful half a century, it, like many featured in this article, was demolished, but its memory still stands.
We’ve already seen some of Vegas’s spectacular showgirls, but we haven’t yet been backstage. This is a rare, candid shot of one of the Bluebell Girls in their dressing room, taken all the way back in 1958. In order to be totally ready for their performance, the women had a lot of work to do. Elaborate costumes and makeup not only had to be put on and applied before the show, but during, as well.
After the preparation was complete, the beautiful Bluebell Girls would take the stage at the Stardust Resort and Casino, seen above in 1958, to dazzle onlookers with an extravagant show. This was another showgirl performance that had it roots in France, where many of the Vegas women started out. From the Lido Nightclub in Paris to the bright lights of Sin City, these dancers would entertain from suspended platforms high above guests’ heads.
For those who wanted more danger with their spectacle, the showgirls didn’t always cut it. Thankfully, promotors and producers made sure to offer all kinds of entertainment. Many of these included stunt performers, most notably, Evel Knievel, pictured above in 1967 jumping over the famous fountains at Caesars Palace. The daredevil flew up to 141 feet and, unlike many of his spectacular stunts, didn’t make it. He was in a coma for almost a month.
The Stardust Resort and Casino opened in 1958 and was demolished in 2007. Shortly after it was founded, the defunct nearby Royal Nevada hotel and casino was converted to become part of it. Its famous sign, seen above in all its glory, quickly became one of the symbols of Las Vegas, and it’s easy to see why. It features a panoramic view of the solar system, complete with cosmic rays of neon and electric light bulbs.
The photograph above, which captures yet another one of Sin City’s glitzy dance shows, was taken at the Sands Hotel in December of 1952. Aside from a lot of amazing dance performances, the Sands offered entertainment featuring The Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin. Don’t forget to stay to the end of this article to see several spectacular shots of the iconic crew living it up in old school Vegas.
Las Vegas wouldn’t be complete without its very own mascot. An integral part of the original Sin City strip was Vegas Vic, the giant cigarette-smoking cowboy in front of the appropriately named Pioneer Club, which offered gambling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vegas Vic, also known as Howdy Podner, due to how he would pronounce “partner,” can be seen in most photos of the strip’s iconic logos.
A big part of gambling is getting into a zone. Sometimes this means finding the right machine or table. One of the last things gamblers want to happen once they’re in their desired spot would be to have to get up to get more chips. But the casinos were ready for this, and employed Change Girls to walk the floor and ensure guests could stay right where they wanted to be.
As previously mentioned, one of the original Sin City’s most controversial locations, even more so than a giant cigarette-smoking cowboy, was the unfortunately named Hotel Apache. It was built in 1932, and was the first hotel in Las Vegas to have an escalator. Its brick facade and stained-glass windows attracted visitors who enjoyed the hotel’s lavish bar. And downstairs in the Garden Room, the ladies of the Mesquite Club would hold their meetings.
It’s as much a testament to vintage Vegas as is a disservice to its famous regulars that we’ve made it this far in the article without an image of a celebrity. This just goes to show that Sin City has always had a lot to offer. Seen above is one of the biggest stars of them all, Audrey Hepburn, hanging out with husband Mel Ferrer, Mike Romanoff, and Frank Sinatra in 1956. More like this to come later…
Suite with a Piano
Above is potentially the most perfect example of classic Las Vegas. Every element of vintage style is captured here, from the people to their surroundings, in what is clearly a very powerful promotional photograph. The picture was taken at the Suite with a Piano in Caesars Palace around 1968. Notice the shiny walls and golden accents, bright pink shag carpet, expensive statue and luxurious furniture.
Before old school Las Vegas rose, many complicated real estate deals had to take place. The picture above was taken in the 1950s and shows a plot of barren land that sellers were hoping buyers would pay $3 million to use as a hotel site. As hard as it is to image what the area looked like before it was covered in incredible buildings and bright lights, this image definitely helps capture the calm before the storm.
Once all of the aforementioned real estate deals, and subsequent construction, took place, the main strip of golden era Las Vegas started to form. The picture above shows Sin City after it was just open land, but before it became what it is today. The open expanse reveals the desert backdrop in all its glory and the Dunes Hotel is the only focal point in the foreground, something that would change dramatically in no time.
We’ve seen a lot of Vegas’s showgirls and some of its celebrities, with more to come later, but it’s time to look at one of the men behind the magic. Noel Coward wasn’t just a popular playwright, but also a professional performer, as well. According to Time magazine, Coward exuded an exceptional “sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose, and poise.” His flamboyant and theatrical work was perfect for classic Sin City.
Above is Fremont Street in July of 1959 during the day, before the bright lights lit up the Las Vegas nightlife. It was named in honor of explorer John Charles Frémont and located in the heart of the downtown casino corridor. Fremont Street is, or was, the address for many famous casinos such as Binion’s Horseshoe, Eldorado Club, Fremont Hotel and Casino, Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, Golden Nugget, Four Queens, The Mint, and the Pioneer Club.
One of the first destination spots of early Las Vegas was Ladd’s Resort, which was around during the roaring ’20s and existed 25 years before the city’s first luxury resort would open. This vintage pic goes way back. Ladd’s was a sleepy resort that was peaceful and serene, even providing a live orchestra alongside the pool, where guests, like the ones seen above, could relax and cool off. Check out their classic bathing suits.
Today, Las Vegas’s airport, McCarran International, is a huge hub for visitors. But back in 1959, the McCarran Airfield, seen above, was much smaller. Located five miles south of downtown, the airport was built in 1942 and opened to commercial flights in 1948. Prior to McCarran Airport, the first airport to serve Las Vegas was Anderson Field, which opened in November of 1920.
The Gabor Sisters
As promised, we have a lot of classic celebrities to see. Pictured above is the famous and glamorous Gabor sisters at the Last Frontier Hotel in 1955. They were a trio of beautiful actresses and socialites that originally hailed from Hungary but made names for themselves in Hollywood. Zsa Zsa, the most well known, is on the left, Magda is in the middle, and Eva is on the right.
This amazing aerial shot of vintage Vegas was taken in 1964 and, as seen earlier in the article, captures a time after it began to form, but before it became what it is today. It’s crazy to think that only half a century before this shot Las Vegas was just a small town in the Wild West, and that half a century later it would be considered one of the brightest spots on the entire planet.
Another fantastic celebrity that could be found enjoying everything Vegas had to offer was Brigitte Bardot, who was spotted here walking down the strip with her new husband, wealthy and hip German industrialist Gunther Sachs Von Opel, in 1966. The two flew to Las Vegas and exchanged their vows in a surprise ceremony, proving that Vegas truly is the place for quick nuptials. The city’s wedding industry is another attraction for visitors looking to get hitched fast and cheap.
Countless guests have been married in Las Vegas, which even offers drive-thru marriage options for those who just can’t wait to tie the knot. And this includes more than just your everyday tourist. Plenty of celebrities have also taken advantage of this, like famous actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, seen above on their wedding day on January 29, 1958. Other notable couples to wed there included Betty Grable and bandleader Harry James.
A decade before the previous picture, in 1955, someone snapped an iconic image of the billboard in front of where the Tropicana Hotel would open its doors two years later. Aside from being a premier destination for anyone looking for the best in gambling, shopping and entertainment, this famous site was also featured in television shows and movies including The Godfather, The Godfather: Part Two, and the Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas.
The Golden Nugget
Another iconic Las Vegas landmark was the Golden Nugget, whose sign has already been seen in several photographs throughout this article. It was captured above in 1950 during some sort of street fair, something that was a regular part of the early days of Sin City. The Nugget was originally built in 1946, making it one of the oldest casinos on Fremont Street. It still stands today and is currently the largest casino in the downtown area.
The Cal Neva Lodge
The Cal Neva Lodge in Crystal Bay was a resort and casino the straddled the border between Nevada and California on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The Rat Pack, who will be seen living it up in the final photographs of this article, helped make the Cal Neva Lodge one of Nevada’s coolest casinos in the 1960s after Frank Sinatra purchased the resort alongside Dean Martin and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.
Above is an incredible shot of Lillian Briggs, also known as the Queen of Rock and Roll, in action at the Sands Hotel in 1958. She hit it big in the early 50s as one of the first female rock stars and blew the crowds away when she did shows in Las Vegas. At the dawn of rock ‘n roll, she was the Queen, around the same time the media crowned its King…
As promised, we will now see multiple shots of the iconic Elvis Presley, whose performances were a big part of the Vegas spectacle. The greatness of his shows came from loads of practice, and this is a glimpse into one of those grueling rehearsal sessions. The picture shows Presley practicing with his band in July of 1970 during the first year of his five-year performance contract at the Las Vegas International Hotel.
After the strenuous rehearsal was complete, Elvis would take the stage in front of captivated audiences full of adoring fans. This photo captures him performing at the aforementioned Las Vegas International Hotel in August of 1969. Before the venue signed him for his five-year deal, mentioned earlier, they booked Presley for four weeks for the sum of approximately half a million dollars. Not bad for almost fifty years ago.
When Elvis wasn’t on stage or in rehearsal, he was regularly mobbed by tourists looking for a chance to meet the icon, and maybe even get his autograph. He was snapped above with his fans at the Sahara Hotel. From 1969 to 1976, Elvis played 636 sold out shows at Las Vegas hotels, and is still commonly associated with the city’s early years of becoming a premier destination for the best entertainment in the world.
Elvis wasn’t the only famous performer to define early Las Vegas. The picture above, taken in 1955, shows him with Liberace at the Frontier Hotel. Liberace enjoyed a career spanning four decades of concerts, recordings, television, motion pictures, and endorsements. At the height of his fame, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the world, with established concert residencies in Las Vegas, and an international touring schedule.
And now, behold the celebrity who, arguably more than The King and even Liberace, is synonymous with vintage Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra, the American crooner, was the world’s first pop star. In this picture, Sinatra is surrounded by the famous Copa Girls. He was performing at one of the legendary Las Vegas resorts, the Sands, in 1963. Sinatra put Vegas on the map, and Vegas gave life to Sinatra’s massive career.
The Sultan of Swoon
Frank Sinatra was also known in Vegas as the Sultan of Swoon, and it’s easy to see why. He was snapped above in 1955 at the Dunes Hotel. He helped usher in their opening festivities by arriving at the hotel’s grand debut on May 23, 1955, on the back of a camel. He was the first guest to rub their enormous gold genie’s lamp which read, “Whosoever toucheth me, good fortune shall come.”
The Rat Pack
And Sinatra certainly didn’t define Vegas on his own, because where there was Frank there was also the Rat Pack. To this very day, the Rat Pack embodies true Vegas cool, the kind that oozed from the city throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s. Pictured here from left to right are Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop in the middle of one of their incredible shows.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Above is a classic candid shot of the aforementioned mega-talented singer-actor-dancer Sammy Davis Jr. living it up in vintage Sin City. The Rat Pack member was also noted for his impressions of actors, musicians and other celebrities. When the Rat Pack ruled the roost in Vegas, they were frequenters of the Golden Steer restaurant, Casbar Lounge at the Sahara Hotel, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Atomic Liquors, the city’s oldest bar.
And finally, we end with maybe the most iconic shot of them all. This pic captures Hollywood and Las Vegas royalty seated together at a single table at the Sands Hotel. On the left side of the photo, we see actor Humphrey Bogart, producer Sid Luft, actress Lauren Bacall, actress Judy Garland, and Sands manager Jack Entratter. On the right side of the table is Hollywood restauranteur Mike Romanoff, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Romanoff, actor David Niven and Hjördis Niven.