The black and white marble lobby floor, the 75-foot mural behind the lobby bar, the pink and purple flying saucers—the New Frontier really was new. The Las Vegas resort had swept aside the cowboy dust (and pretty much everything else) of its predecessor, the Last Frontier, and presented its opening-night guests with stratospheric glamour befitting the mid-1950s. But the crowds on April 4, 1955, were really there for the show: Mario Lanza, live in the Venus Room. Lanza—charismatic, tumultuous and brilliant—was coming out of semi-retirement for the gig. The word was that the one-time heartthrob who had battled with his weight—and movie producers—had spent the previous three months in Palm Springs getting into shape for Las Vegas. Like the New Frontier itself, this was a comeback that had to be seen. ¶ An assortment of celebrities and fans, including Lanza’s mother and father, enjoyed the opening musical numbers and Larry Storch’s comedy.
Then a hush settled across the room. The moment had arrived: The famous tenor and movie star Mario Lanza, backed by Garwood Van’s house orchestra, would sing at last. The crowd held its breath, ready for the first strains of “Be My Love.”
For too long, there was silence. Then Jimmy Durante walked onstage to make an announcement: “Mario is too ill to perform.”
The audience was bitterly disappointed—one Lanza superfan who had flown in from Pittsburgh burst into tears—but the show went on. Actor Ray Bulger—Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz—and singer Mindy Carson improvised a show that satisfied most of those in attendance, but it didn’t stem anger at Lanza, who refused to even walk onstage or attend a post-show press conference.
Lanza’s no-show aside, opening night at the New Frontier was regarded as a success. One of the Strip’s first resorts had reinvented itself for the Atomic Age, bigger and better. It whet the appetite for what was to come.
The spring and summer of 1955 promised to be the wildest stretch in the brief history of the Las Vegas Strip. The New Frontier, the Royal Nevada, the Dunes, the Moulin Rouge, the Riviera and the Stardust were all planning to open, nearly doubling the number of hotels on what had until recently been known simply as Highway 91. On the surface, it seemed a reasonable bet: Clark County’s population had ballooned from 16,414 in 1940 to more than 50,000 in 1955. The postwar boom, fueled by what one might call the military-industrial-vacation complex, showed no sign of abating, and for would-be resort developers, the old Highway 91 looked a lot like the promised land.
The 1940s had seen the pioneering arrivals of El Rancho Vegas, the Last Frontier, the Flamingo and the Thunderbird. In the early 1950s, the Desert Inn, Sands and Sahara joined them on the Strip. The resorts had prospered—likely because of the contacts and marketing acumen that operators such as Moe Dalitz and Carl Cohen brought with them—but, on the surface, it looked like opening a successful Las Vegas casino was as easy as tripping and hitting the ground.
By the early 1950s, the Tax Commission—then the casino industry’s governing body—was flooded with proposals for new hotels. In August 1953, the commission deferred acting on four gambling licenses, representing more than $15 million in new investment, pending more information about the projects’ finances—a sensible move. The original names of all four potential properties will be unfamiliar even to Las Vegas history aficionados, although three of the places ultimately opened their doors.
The Casablanca, planned for the Strip and Race Track Road, would be owned by brothers David and Lou Gensburg (who held the land) and a combination of Los Angeles and Miami businessmen, including Harpo and Gummo of the Marx Brothers. The Araby, slated for land across the highway from the Flamingo, was fronted by Rhode Island restaurateur Joseph Sullivan; Al Gottesman, a Floridian who formerly owned a chain of theaters; and Bob Rice, a Beverly Hills costume jewelry dealer. And the Sunrise, slated for north of the Last Frontier, was headed by Los Angeles hotelier Frank Fishman.
Nearby, on the other side of the Strip, a consortium of investors led by developer William J. O’Connor planned to enlarge the existing Desert Spa motel—which was chiefly used to accommodate performers at the Last Frontier—into a full-fledged hotel and casino at a cost of $3.5 million. In February 1954, prolific film actor Pat O’Brien was attached to the project; in return for his regular hosting duties and appearances at the casino, it would be named “Pat O’Brien’s Desert Spa.”
Showing just how speculative the Strip development game has always been, none of these hotels opened under their original names. The Casablanca morphed into the Riviera, and Race Track Road became Riviera Boulevard. The Araby kept its Middle Eastern theme but opened as the Dunes. The Sunrise became the Royal Nevada, and did open, but not with its original owner. And the Desert Spa became an obscure piece of Vegas trivia.
Adding four casinos to a seven-property market in the span of a few months might have seemed like a recipe for disaster, but potential builders, emboldened by the growing tourist trade, clambered aboard. Former gambling boat owner Tony Cornero announced in April 1954 plans for a place called the Stardust, but financing difficulties meant he wouldn’t be anywhere near finished by its scheduled 1955 opening date. (Indeed, he died shooting craps at the Desert Inn while his project was still in hiatus.)
Soon after Cornero announced his plans, the owners of the Last Frontier revealed that they were meeting the new competition head-on. In June 1954, they began work on the New Frontier, a casino, dinner theater and lounge expansion that would replace the Last Frontier’s existing focal point. Built in 1942, the Last Frontier’s main building was ill-adapted to the larger scale of the 1950s Strip. It had severe design limitations—guests had to go outside to get from the casino to the showroom—so, in the spirit of the times, the Little Church of the West wedding chapel was moved out of the way and new construction begun.
The New Frontier would develop into more than an addition; the Last Frontier name would be retired and the entire resort given a Space Age theme after a $2 million renovation and expansion; and the Silver Slipper, which had been an adjunct gambling hall in the Last Frontier Village, would ultimately become a standalone property.
By the summer of 1954, there was a building frenzy on the Strip—and beyond. The Showboat on Boulder Highway was racing toward completion. Downtown, ground was broken for the $5 million, 10-story-tall Fremont. And on Bonanza Road, near the primarily black Westside neighborhood, the Moulin Rouge was announced. This project, owned chiefly by Louis Rubin and Alexander Bisno of Los Angeles, pledged a “cosmopolitan” admission policy—a coded announcement that, in contrast with the segregated resorts and gambling halls of the Strip and Downtown, the Moulin Rouge would be racially integrated.
As 1955 began and work continued on the Stardust, Royal Nevada, Moulin Rouge, Dunes, Riviera, Desert Spa and New Frontier, it became clear that there would be many choices facing Las Vegas visitors that summer—perhaps too many.
No one was deluded enough to think that just opening the doors would guarantee success. So hotel owners turned their focus to the one area where they could make a distinctive impression: entertainment. The Royal Nevada hired 33-year show business veteran Eddie Rio as entertainment director. Rio pledged to bring “legitimate theater” that would rival Broadway to the Royal Nevada’s technically outstanding stage. Rio brought in television and radio veteran Jerry Fielding to conduct the house orchestra and hired away the Sands’ George Tapps as chief show producer and choreographer.
Rio opted for sophistication when positioning his theater, bringing out former Metropolitan Opera star Helen Traubel as the centerpiece of the opening show. Traubel had also previously played nightclubs, including New York’s Copacabana, and, thanks to television exposure, was well known to audiences. Comedian Dave Barry and ballerina Phyllis Ponn rounded out the revue, which was supported by Jerry Fielding’s orchestra and the Coronet Dancers.
Big names all, but there was one little problem: Even after Traubel was announced as the opening attraction, it wasn’t clear that the casino would even open. In February, the Tax Commission decreed that majority partners Frank Fishman, Sam “Game Boy” Miller and Herbert “Pittsy” Manheim were “totally undesirable citizens for Nevada,” and that it would not approve the casino’s application for a gaming license until those three were removed from the organization entirely. Miller and Manheim were, the commission found, well-known illegal gambling operators in Michigan and Florida. Having received its fair share of heat from the anti-gaming Kefauver Committee for allowing gamblers from elsewhere to set up shop in Nevada, the Tax Commission refused to continue granting licenses to those with demonstrated illegal gambling backgrounds.
The Royal Nevada ultimately reorganized and was granted a license in time for an April opening. Meanwhile, other hotels forged ahead. The Riviera planned to win what was becoming a less-than-friendly competition, not through class or mass but by star power: The hotel lured Liberace to be its opening headliner for an unheard-of $50,000-a-week performance fee. The New Frontier matched the Riviera’s ante, paying Lanza $100,000 for a two-week opening engagement.
The Dunes, by contrast, was gunning for sheer volume. Its stage was to be wider than any in town, with enough room for 40 chorus girls, and its dinner theater was the first in Vegas to add balcony seating.
The Moulin Rouge had its own star attraction, unique in Las Vegas and more subversive socially than Liberace: the lack of a color line. Early in 1955, a campaign to bring former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the opening began—clearly, this was not business as usual.
One member of the class of 1955 stumbled as it approached the starting line. Despite publicly announcing a January opening, the Desert Spa failed to get the green light from the Tax Commission, which had deferred definitive action on a casino license for months, citing the unsuitability of various investors and principals. Finally, in March, it granted the Spa a conditional license, but, come the hotel’s scheduled April opening, it was unable to meet those conditions. The Desert Spa never opened its casino, struggling as a hotel and nightclub before collapsing into a bankruptcy from which it never emerged—a visible sign of the increasing commitment of Nevada gaming regulators to maintaining the state’s integrity.
After the New Frontier’s lanza-less opening on April 4, the Royal Nevada was next in line. On April 18, the property held a special sneak preview for the “atomic soldiers” of Camp Desert Rock, who had just completed the Operation Teapot nuclear test. The next night, the Royal opened to civilians.
The resort’s owners were determined to dazzle. In addition to the sophisticated entertainment—which would include Rio’s promised Broadway shows—the Royal Nevada showcased the Dancing Waters, an attraction that had been developed by Hans Hasslach and Harold Steinman, who staged its first demonstration at the West German Industrial Exhibition in West Berlin. The Waters made their American debut in early 1953 at Radio City Music Hall, and now the international sensation had come to the Nevada desert.
A 48-foot mechanism held 4,000 jets, which forced 38 tons of water as high as 50 feet in the air, as the water (lit in various colors) moved in rhythm with the music. Co-creator Hasslach himself came out to work the console at the Royal Nevada.
The Riviera opened the very next day, April 20. Liberace sparkled in the showroom, and the hotel’s nine stories stood out on the mostly two-story Strip. The “New High in the Las Vegas Sky” had been anticipated since groundbreaking; locals took pride in having the state’s tallest building in their backyard, although there didn’t seem much else to set the new casino apart from its competitors.
The Dunes debuted next, on May 23. Its opening show didn’t quite match the New Frontier’s or Riviera’s star power; Al Gottesman, in charge of entertainment, opted for a revue entitled New York—Paris—Paradise starring, in the show’s first stint, dancer Vera-Ellen. With only 194 rooms, the Dunes was smaller than the other properties on the Strip, and its chief owners had no experience with gambling, although they had hired a staff with extensive hotel and restaurant experience.
The Dunes boasted that it had the country’s largest swimming pool, and the 30-foot fiberglass sultan that welcomed new arrivals gave the resort an identity. But that was not enough; the casino struggled immediately, and the public firing of headliner Wally Cox after a disappointing July debut brought the hotel the wrong kind of attention.
The Moulin Rouge, by contrast, opened the following day to good publicity. Eleanor Roosevelt was not, in the end, available to cut the ribbon, so that duty fell to Las Vegas Mayor C.D. Baker. The May 24 opening featured the Tropi Can-Can revue, whose dancers were featured on the cover of Life magazine. Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who owned a small share of the resort, was on hand to greet gamblers.
Entertainment was an attraction at the Moulin Rouge (its lounge featured groups led by jazz all-stars Wild Bill Davis and Ahmad Jamal), but it was the resort’s racially inclusive policies that set it apart. “The owners,” Alan Jarlson declared in the Las Vegas Sun, “are deserving of orchids for the magnificent job they accomplished in introducing a new and pleasant atmosphere to the resort world.”
This was the story that Las Vegas wanted told: progress, social and economic, in the atomic boomtown. Almost immediately, however, it was clear that progress on the latter front would not be as easy as hoped.
The Moulin Rouge has become part of the Las Vegas legend. As a social institution, it was a success; with Strip musicians, including Frank Sinatra, attending the Westside casino’s after-hours jam sessions, it became one of the city’s hottest places. But that did not translate into profits.
From the start, the casino lost money. Whether it was inexperience in running a hotel-casino or just bad circumstances, Bisno and Rubin found themselves unable to meet their mortgage payments. In November, they closed the doors.
Other properties were struggling as well. The Dunes’ owners, eager to cut their losses, leased their new casino to the operators of the Sands, led by Jake Freeman. An attorney for Gottesman, Sullivan, Rice and the other major Dunes investors cited a “persistent losing streak” at the casino as the reason for its financial difficulties, but in fact players were too scarce—having less than 200 rooms severely handicapped the resort—to provide much income for the casino, even if the house had been unlucky.
The Sands hoped to turn around the Dunes’ fortunes by replicating its own success, based in no small part on quality entertainment. Sinatra, riding on a camel, kicked off the “new” Dunes’ three-day Arabian Nights-themed opening celebration in early September. Sands entertainment director Jack Entratter took over booking duties for the Dunes as well, but aside from opening night with Sinatra, he kept the big guns for the Sands; in November, for instance, Billy Gray and Georgia Gibbs headlined the Dunes, while Nat King Cole was the top attraction at the Sands.
Under Sands management, the Dunes wasn’t much improved; the following year, Sands executives declined to renew their lease, and for a time the $5 million resort operated without its casino. It was not until Chicago transportation magnate Jake Gottlieb bought the property and hired fellow Chicago trucking kingpin Major Riddle that the casino found its footing. Riddle added rooms and, in early 1957, brought to the resort Minsky’s Follies, the first show to feature bare-breasted showgirls.
By late August, it was obvious that a problem extended beyond the Dunes and Moulin Rouge. A number of casinos old and new had fired key executives and public relations people, but that did not turn the tide. “Is it just possible,” Magazine Las Vegas gossip columnist Carmen Tempereau wondered, “that we have reached the ultimate in resort hotel [growth]?”
Tempereau noted that “money [was] not as plentiful” as it had been a few years earlier, adding that there were fewer hotels back then. The only solution, she thought, was for all hotels to begin “sincerely” promoting Las Vegas as a city for conventions with 5,000 to 15,000 delegates.
Meanwhile, as the losses mounted, owners became increasingly frantic. In September, eight new investors pumped a half-million dollars into the New Frontier. The Space Age casino turned to technology as well, installing in the Cloud 9 Lounge what it claimed to be the “world’s largest television screen”—a 9-by-12-foot projection set that was used to broadcast Wednesday night boxing matches. “Bigger than life-size and better than ringside,” regularly scheduled events also included Saturday morning broadcasts of East Coast baseball games.
Around this time the Royal Nevada was taken over by a group led by former Sands executive Bill Miller. Miller’s group was no more successful than the original owners, and the end came on New Year’s Day, 1956. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to serve a writ filed by the Culinary union for $3,900 in unpaid wages, setting off a panic among employees, who feared the hotel was being closed. A mass hysteria swept through the casino, as dealers snatched cash and chips from their tables and bartenders swiped bills from their registers. Royal Nevada management, hoping to save something, closed the resort that night.
A month later, Jake Kozloff of the New Frontier announced a lease on the property, but it never operated profitably (as the Sands had attempted with the Dunes, Kozloff tried to run the Royal Nevada as a junior partner to the New Frontier, which was itself having problems). The Royal was ultimately absorbed by the Stardust, and its casino became the Stardust Auditorium.
These economic disasters up and down the Strip were not slowing the pace of construction. In addition to several motels such as El Morocco and La Martinique, the Tropicana, Stardust and Hacienda had all started building or made strides toward groundbreaking in the summer of 1955. If the Strip couldn’t survive with 10 resorts, how could it handle 13?
What’s more, the storm clouds over the Strip were becoming a national story, with The Wall Street Journal running a particularly scathing piece. Then came the cover of the June 20, 1955, issue of Life—the very one with the photo of the Moulin Rouge revue—that bore the foreboding headline: “Las Vegas—Is Boom Overextended?”
Something had to give.
The first local response to national reports of Las Vegas’ decline was denial. Indeed, conditions were not as bad as some reported. Statewide, gaming revenue rose from $94.4 million in fiscal 1955 to $113.1 million the following year—a 20 percent increase. Much of that growth was in Las Vegas.
Still, change was quick in coming. On July 1, the Resort Hotels Association announced that seven of its members would be instituting a $2 minimum cover charge in its dinner theaters—too many guests were enjoying the music without buying anything or gambling once the show was over.
Even before the various financial woes, though, sentiment had been building that the city was missing something: occupied hotel rooms between Sunday and Thursday. The only solution seemed to be conventions. As early as 1949, a convention hall was proposed, but nothing ever came of it.
In 1953, the Chamber of Commerce established a convention bureau, but it was limited in its effectiveness. The city simply did not have the facilities to host major groups, and resort owners flatly refused to book any conventions over the weekend; those rooms were needed for gamblers.
“WHY DRAG OUR FEET?” asked an April 1954 Las Vegas Sun editorial headline, in reference to building a convention hall. “The need is so basic,” the author wrote, “that it should occur to every 10-year-old child.”
To this point, owners of the resort hotels, content with the profits from their casinos, were happy to let someone else bear the burden of building a hall that could accommodate thousands of delegates. That attitude would no longer do; with as many as six new resort hotels opening, there would be a crunch of competition that could doom the town. “The problem of an off-season business slack” is already here, the Sun warned.
Clark County Commissioner George Albright led the charge for a convention hall, a thankless task in 1954. Even before the Dunes opened, Albright and John De Luca, chairman of the chamber’s convention hall committee, were looking with envy at the newly opened Coliseum in Spokane, Washington, declaring that their city deserved a similar convention hall, only larger.
The disappointing summer of 1955—and the promise of even more new resorts to come—put wind in Albright’s sails. After a visit to Las Vegas by Benjamin Moore, the designer of the Spokane convention hall, the chamber approved plans for a convention center that could, at maximum, seat 8,500 delegates. The chamber even found the perfect location: Joe W. Brown’s bankrupt racetrack on Paradise Road.
Meanwhile, Albright kept pushing. He received authorization from the Legislature to assemble a board to run a convention center and tried to find ways to pay for the center that would be acceptable to voters and the resort industry.
Financing the convention center was Albright’s major headache. Voters refused, on principle, to pay a dime to fund a project that would benefit the hotels; the hotels were willing to chip in, but not pay the entire bill; and motel owners, complaining that they would host few conventioneers, had no desire to ante up.
Albright was able to engineer a compromise: The hotels, led by Desert Inn owner Moe Dalitz, would pay a tax of 5 percent of gross room revenues to repay bonds taken out to build the center; motels would contribute 3 percent. The voters, satisfied that they wouldn’t be saddled with the bill, approved a bond measure in March 1956. With additional assessments based on the number of games in operation, Albright successfully got the money he needed for the center.
Construction started the following year and, in 1959, the dome-shaped Convention Center opened with a seemingly limitless 90,000 square feet of exhibit space. Albright, who had by this time resigned his seat on the commission, was named the center’s executive director.
So how did the class of ’55 fare?
- The Desert Spa never opened as a casino; by 1960 it had been converted into a shopping center.
- The New Frontier soared into the Space Age despite money problems; in 1967, after several ownership changes, it was remodeled as the Western-themed (again) Frontier, then was bought by Howard Hughes. It closed in 2007 and was imploded for the never-built Plaza Las Vegas. Today, the land is slated for Alon Las Vegas.
- The Royal Nevada failed and was swallowed by the Stardust; its rooms remained open until that property’s 2006 closure.
- The Riviera struggled but righted itself under Gus Greenbaum and remained a Strip contender until its closure in May.
- The Dunes also struggled, but managed to remain open until 1992, when Steve Wynn bought, closed and demolished it to make way for Bellagio.
- The Moulin Rouge, padlocked after its November 1955 closure, reopened as a hotel in 1956 but operated only sporadically for years. Eventually it was run as an extended-stay motel, until a series of fires in the 2000s made it uninhabitable.
- The Stardust did open—at last—in 1958, and gave Las Vegas some of its most notorious stories (Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino, among others) before being bought by Boyd Gaming in 1985. Boyd closed it in 2006 to make way for the never-built Echelon. The land is now slated for the under-construction Resorts World.
Of the seven resorts that were scheduled to open in 1955, none ended the year with their original ownership and management; two did not open (although the Stardust ultimately did); two closed (almost) before the year was out; and the remaining three—Riviera, Dunes and the New Frontier—became viable casinos but only after significant changes.
The catastrophes of 1955 muddy the story of the 1950s boom, but they actually helped put the city on its path to growth. City leaders learned that casino failures not only were possible, but were almost routine. And the prospect of a greater collapse of the local hospitality economy prodded property owners and voters to finally take action on a convention center.
That convention center—and the convention bureau created to fill it—would evolve into the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which has successfully marketed Las Vegas to the world for more than half a century. That Las Vegas survived both national gambling expansion and the recent recession relatively intact is a testament to two things: the LVCVA’s work in promoting the city as a destination and individual operators keeping the city’s attractions current.
That another expansion of the convention center will soon occupy the site of the Riviera may be fitting: Were it not for the scare that the Riviera and its rivals threw into town in the summer of 1955, there may not have been a convention center at all. In which case Las Vegas would be a very different place today.