Lady Luck’s Free Phone Call a Vestige of Cheap Vegas

Photo via Dan4th on Flickr.

Photo via Dan4th on Flickr.

I could swear there used to be a place in Vegas where I could make a free long-distance phone call to anywhere in the world, but can’t recall where it was. A little help?

Post-Rat Pack Vegas was heavily driven by bargains—it’s the “cheap Vegas” about which the bargain-conscious reminisce through rose-colored Ray-Ban knockoffs. After all, the 1970s and ’80s were not exactly boom times: For 16 years, no major new resort debuted on the Strip (from 1973’s original MGM Grand to 1989’s Mirage). Meanwhile, Downtown was in the midst of a slow slide into seediness and disrepair.

While some Strip resorts flaunted the amenities of luxury pools, shopping arcades and spas—and could therefore attract gamblers with cheap (even free) rooms, meals and shows—most older casinos lacked those advantages. The result? From the legendary Mr. Sy’s Casino Fun Books to the Horseshoe’s free photo with a million bucks, low-rolling “grind joints” often had to resort to gimmicks to pull the punters.

One of those gimmicks was found Downtown at the Lady Luck. What began as Honest John’s (a fairly typical urban newsstand and cigar shop, except that it also had a gaming license) blossomed after Andrew Tompkins purchased it in 1963. By 1968, Tompkins had grown the business and renamed it Lady Luck. In 1972, he razed the property and built a new resort.

Later in that economically stagnating decade, Tompkins began offering a fun-book coupon that could be redeemed at the Lady Luck for a free two-minute phone call to anywhere in the world. While today’s tech world makes such an offer irrelevant, phone calls were expensive back then and could only be made from landlines. The “Hi mom! I’m in Las Vegas!” gimmick apparently worked: Several Old Vegas blog sites say that lines for that phone call often reached around the block.

Like many of our old-school casino magnates, Tompkins was a genuine community benefactor—an arts lover who, along with his wife, Susan, founded the Las Vegas Philharmonic in 1998. Tompkins died in March 2004, and the Lady Luck (which he sold in 1999) has since been remade as the Downtown Grand. But the Las Vegas Philharmonic is still going strong just a few blocks away at The Smith Center, a wonderful legacy for Tompkins.