The Las Vegas Nightlife Explosion… of the 1950s
Decades before EDM DJs, “the lushest price war in U.S. entertainment history” sent star salaries skyrocketing during the mob-run casino era
By Janis L. McKay
In the 1950s it became clear that tourism and defense spending would continue to lead to more growth in Las Vegas. “Everybody was building hotels on the Strip, hammering and construction everywhere,” said Susan Berman, who grew up in Las Vegas at the time and wrote about the experience. “Between 1950 and 1958, I watched so many hotels go up… Eastern Jewish and Italian mobsters financed the hotels as usual and installed their own front men.”
By 1951 the Thunderbird Hotel, the Desert Inn, and the Silver Slipper had joined the El Rancho, the New Frontier, and the Flamingo on the Strip. Then a number of new properties were built in quick succession: the Sahara (1952), the Sands (1952), the Royal Nevada (1955), the Riviera (1955), the Dunes (1955), the Hacienda (1956), the Tropicana (1957), and the Stardust (1958), in addition to off-Strip properties such as the Showboat (1954), the Fremont (1956), and the ground-breaking Moulin Rouge (1955).
The mob owners were often the biggest fans of the stars they hired. Like Bugsy Siegel, they loved entertainers, and most entertainers loved working in Las Vegas. “They were great, great audiences,” said comedian Red Buttons. “You’d look forward to working, and the money was enormous. Four weeks in Las Vegas could buy you a Third World country.”
Star salaries continued to climb astronomically as the casinos competed for talent, and the money only got bigger. It was a great time to be a headliner in Las Vegas. The stars had their pick of places to perform during “the lushest price war in U.S. entertainment history.”
Each new hotel-casino owner sought to have high-quality entertainment and hired the best local musicians available for their in-house orchestras. They also hired entertainment directors, dancers, stagehands, costumers, and everyone else needed to put on a first-rate show. The Thunderbird, finished in 1948, opened with entertainer Nat King Cole, though he was not allowed to gamble in the hotel because of his race.
The showroom enjoyed an early period of success, with patrons such as Howard Hughes and Wilbur Clark regularly reserving booths. They witnessed performances by big-name entertainers such as jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who made her Las Vegas debut there in 1949. More celebrities began to come to Las Vegas for the shows, which continued to proliferate.
Wilbur Clark opened the Desert Inn on April 24, 1950, and hired Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, actress Vivian Blaine, and the Donn Arden Dancers to entertain in the Painted Desert Showroom. At that time Las Vegas residents called it “the most brilliant social event in the history of the Strip.” The Carlton Hayes Orchestra was the house band, providing music for the showroom and dancing, and jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong was an early headliner there. This hotel was also the first in Las Vegas to feature Frank Sinatra. The new hotel was dazzling, with a spectacular room for dancing on the third floor called the Sky Room, and individual thermostats to control the air temperature in each guest room.
Like Billy Wilkerson of the Flamingo, Clark was able to finish the Desert Inn only with the help of mob financing, provided by Moe Dalitz and his Cleveland associates. Mob operators who ran the clubs in Cleveland asked Donn Arden, who went on to become one of the most successful producers in Las Vegas, to come to the Desert Inn. “I felt obliged to go. They were ‘the boys’ and they paid well.” Las Vegas was still small enough for the mob owners to maintain a personal management style, in spite of the rapid growth.
“The boys were gentlemen at all times to me and treated me like a Queen,” said singer Rose Marie. “It was like a family. You could go to any of the hotels, and you didn’t pay for anything. If you wanted to go to the bar and get a couple of drinks and they knew you were working the Flamingo, you’d get no check.” Comedian Shecky Greene agreed: “These guys were great. They would protect you, they would take care of you… It was a wonderful bunch of people to work for.”
Most people who worked in the mob-run casinos and hotels were so pleased with their work environment that they turned a blind eye to the mob’s more sinister side. “I worked with a lot of management and this is by no means an apology for the behavior of some of these men in the past, but you didn’t need a contract,” said performer Alan King. “All you had to do was shake hands with one of them and that was solid.” Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds noted, “They didn’t come near you as a woman, you know what I mean? You were like their family. It was a wonderful time, and they were great bosses. I miss that loyalty, that respect. I don’t say I respect how they got the money. It’s none of my business anyway.”
The musicians who worked here during this period felt respected and valued; the mob owners paid them well and treated them well. The high demand for their services was only part of the reason that good musicians in Las Vegas were so appreciated by the moneymen. The mobsters genuinely enjoyed and rewarded real talent, generously sharing the profits generated by the successful new shows.
At first, the practice of changing shows every two weeks continued, and the new competition made it more difficult for talent bookers like Maxine Lewis to find top name entertainers for their showrooms. Lewis looked for talent in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but she learned that audiences “wanted to see stars, not untried acts.” This led the showroom bookers to Hollywood, and the practice of featuring movie stars to draw the customers into their casinos.
The Hollywood stars kept coming and their salaries increased exponentially. In 1953 Marlene Dietrich received the largest paycheck to date for her Las Vegas debut — $30,000 per week. Ronald Reagan made his one and only appearance in Las Vegas at the Last Frontier in 1954. In 1955 Liberace was the opening entertainment for the Riviera, the first high-rise property on the Strip.
“The Riviera was a beautiful, big hotel, and the stage was wonderful. In those days we had a 20-piece orchestra,” said Debbie Reynolds. “You didn’t have the expenses that you have today. The hotel picked up a lot of those costs in those days. But not anymore. That’s changed.”
Bill Willard, the inimitable Las Vegas entertainment writer for Variety, charted the rising costs of entertainment and the difficulty of finding stars for so many showrooms. When the Sands opened in 1952, Willard wrote,
To alleviate the current shortage of top name talent, Entratter [the Sands entertainment director] is planning to keep his attractions in for at least six weeks. This policy, if put into practice, will receive the acid test during summer months when Vegas jumps with heavy tourist traffic and turnover is constant. If the idea works, other hotels may follow suit. Seven plush niteries going full blast 52 weeks and hiring acts practically in wholesale quantities can put a drain on the talent market quickly. The Sands’ scheme should be a boon to many new acts seeking work, and booking for longer span will make the western trek worthwhile. Further, the multi-week pact will hasten the end of monopolistic practices on the part of bonifaces wishing to grab and hold certain big name acts to 18-month ‘no-contracts-elsewhere-on-the-Strip’ ball and chain.”
The rest of the country began to take notice. Historian Larry Gragg wrote, “The arrival of so much talent in Las Vegas attracted the attention of major magazines and newspapers. In 1953, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and Time, among dozens of periodicals, published articles that noted the explosion of celebrities appearing in the showrooms.”
By July of 1953 Willard was able to boast, “Never before in nitery [sic] history has such a high-priced collection of showbiz gems been placed on display in such profusion.” Visitors to Las Vegas that month could see Spike Jones at the Flamingo, Milton Berle at the Sands, Betty Hutton at the Desert Inn, Herb Shriner and the Mary Kaye Trio at the Last Frontier, Gale Storm at the Thunderbird, Vic Damone at the El Rancho, and Red Skelton at the Sahara. A bidding war had transpired for Red Skelton, who was offered a weekly contract of $25,000. Willard also noted, “Low estimate of the combined outlay comes to $160,000 per week, including supporting acts, dance lines, orchs., etc.”
The rest of the country was entranced by all of the hoopla. In 1955 Joe Schoenfeld, an editor of Variety magazine, wrote to Bill Willard, “With Vegas booming constantly from an entertainment standpoint, you are on the ground to get the news of important booking more quickly than anybody. We are very interested in this and we are particularly interested in salaries, provided they are accurate and not blown up by press agents.”
In response, Willard was able to point out that the outlay for entertainment had gone from budgets of $8,000 per week in 1950 to budgets of $30,000 per week by 1955. He wrote, “Some of these terpsichorean epics alone set casinos back $30,000 per week, and outlay for headline talent, although in many instance ballooned by eager-beaver pressagentry [sic], has soared to ridiculous heights in the talent battle.” The population of Las Vegas had also almost doubled since 1950: from 24,626 people to 44,750 by 1955.
The casino owners were not worried about the focus on Las Vegas. According to Willard, “The gambling bosses of Las Vegas pay little attention… Even the guys who are named periodically on lists and who squirmed before the Kefauver Committee seem unconcerned. Inside their bailiwick, which is Nevada and which gives them asylum of a sort, the gambler is made to feel secure. He is a businessman and gambling is big business here.”
To alleviate the pressures of constantly searching for new talent and paying the competitive salaries of the stars, some entertainment directors established long-running shows featuring the house band, dancers, and singers. In 1955 the Dunes was one of the first hotels to do this with its “Magic Carpet Revues.” Another plan put forth by several of the hotel owners was to create one booking agency responsible for hiring all of the entertainment for the Strip. “The claim is, if it works, that bidding for top name acts via big salaries would cease,” said Willard. This did not come about. Star salaries continued to climb, and many of the hotels began featuring the elaborate shows called Las Vegas Spectaculars by the late 1950s.
Some of the largest of these were produced by Donn Arden at the Desert Inn and Harold Minsky at the Dunes. Minsky, part of a family dynasty that produced burlesque and vaudeville shows, was lured to Las Vegas from New York, where there was a crackdown on the so-called indecency of the Minsky productions and others like them. “Sure, I like this better than New York,” said Minsky. “Here at the Dunes, we can stage a show on a decent budget to run four months at a whack, instead of having to put a new one together every week. We can pay our performers more and rehearse them better. We can mount the whole show more lavishly. What we’re trying to put on is a full-scale big-time Broadway-type musical, but with a genuine burlesque flavor. That’s why we’ve got Pinky Lee as our star in this show.”
The fiercest competition came from Jack Entratter of the Sands Hotel, whose entertainment budget was much bigger than theirs. Minsky responded to Entratter by putting the first topless showgirls on stage in 1956 for the production “Minsky Goes to Paris,” and a new tradition was born.
Not to be outdone, in 1958 Arden brought the Paris production “Lido de Paris” to the Stardust. Although it was not the first French show in Las Vegas, it was produced on a much more spectacular scale than the others had been. This show (also topless) enjoyed an enormous success, running until 1991. It required six hydraulic lifts to move props, musicians, and performers thirty feet below or ten feet above the stage.
When it opened, the Stardust was the world’s largest resort complex, with a thousand guest rooms. It also contained the largest casino in Las Vegas. In addition to the “Lido” show, the showroom at the Stardust hosted singer Wayne Newton for ten years. Eddie O’Neil and His Orchestra served as the house band. Some musicians referred to O’Neil as “Full-Moon Eddie,” because he was rumored to fire a band member every time there was a full moon.
Donn Arden went on to become the most prolific producer in Las Vegas, presenting shows such as “Hello America” and “Jubilee!” which is still being performed today in Bally’s showroom. These Vegas spectaculars came to be a staple on the Strip, and required bigger and bigger budgets as time went on. Arden’s shows were easily recognizable by their “over-the-top costumes and sets, novelty acts, [and] special effects.” His shows also had very specific requirements for his showgirls and dancers: the women had to be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall and have “small, firm breasts,” while the men needed “tight and firm butts.” (Minsky had an even longer and more specific list of requirements for his showgirls.)
Arden became known as the Master of Disaster after he staged events such as the sinking of the Titanic and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He also created the “showgirl walk.” “There’s a certain way a girl can walk,” said Arden in 1989, “particularly when you’re going across the stage. By simply twisting the foot, it swings the pelvis forward, which is suggestive and sensual. If you twist right and swing that torso, you get a revolve going in there that’s just right. It isn’t the way a woman should walk, necessarily, unless she’s a hooker. You’re selling the pelvis; that’s the Arden Walk.”
The competition was intense. Minsky remarked:
All you have to do is ride up and down the Strip once and look at the signs to realize how tough the competition is here. Right now, we’re competing with the Lido show at the Stardust, with Ed Sullivan and Dan Dailey and Eddie Fisher and Rosemary Clooney and George Gobel and Milton Berle and Jack Benny, to name just a few. Next month, there’ll be a whole new team of stars coming in to take their places and draw fresh customer interest. You can’t compete with a lineup like that merely on a star basis. People here are so used to stars they don’t mean much anymore.
After the opening of the “Lido” show at the Stardust, Minsky raised the stakes again by featuring six nude “models.” “Here in Vegas, you’ve got to have gimmicks and you’ve got to keep them coming all the time.”
The long-running shows were very stable, but not as interesting as the star room shows from a musician’s point of view. The mind-numbing boredom of playing the same material night after night was rough on many musicians, though these jobs were also well paid and usually long term, much like working on Broadway. This type of long-term work exists only in cities that attract large numbers of tourists, such as New York and Miami as well as Las Vegas, so musicians were drawn from all over the world.
As the work began to multiply, great musicians with no obvious “baggage” began to come to Las Vegas to work. One musician relates the story of an entire band that quit a tour overnight so they could stay on in Las Vegas and get jobs in the hotel bands. The opportunities seemed endless, and the money was good. In addition to bandleaders O’Neil, Antonio Morelli, and Frank Sinatra, there were also orchestras led by Marvin Hamby, Bob Rite, Morris Brand, Garwood Van, Ted Veslie, Lou Basil, Cee Davidson, and Al Jahns. The addition of so many new showrooms and lounges created a need for numerous musicians, and the groups continued to expand as the budgets got larger. In a review for the El Rancho Hotel that was then featuring Vic Damone, Willard noted, “Bob Ellis [bandleader] has added three violins to his 10 afmers [members of the Musicians Union], giving a lush sound for Damone’s purring.”
Many musicians welcomed the chance to get off the road and settle down in one place, to have some stability and permanence, secure in the knowledge that the most popular entertainers and headliners would all make their way to Las Vegas eventually. In an interview given around 1957, Morelli noted, “It is safe to presume that, here in Las Vegas today, we have the best organized presentation of musicians and music available in the entertainment world. It is no secret that this did not come about by accident. These men and their families have been drawn here to the Las Vegas economy from every metropolitan center in America, hopeful and ready to continue in the chosen way of life in music.”
At first the musicians were the only casino employees who were not working for tips, and they had to report all of their earnings to the IRS while others were not doing so. Johnny Haig recalled, “Everybody was getting $1 an hour. Town ran on silver dollars. If you went anywhere, it was $1. Every waitress, shill, and dealer earned $1 per hour, but they could have thrown that all away because they could walk home leaning to one side from all the silver dollar tips in their pockets.” Over time the Las Vegas musicians were able to get benefits that they did not have before, such as health care and retirement pensions. New hotels meant new contracts, which attracted musicians who were both talented and relatively stable.
By the mid 1950s it seemed that there were more jobs than musicians, so many began to play extra jobs. Some musicians would play four two-hour shifts a day: they played for a house band at 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. and for a lounge band at 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. String players would often take on strolling musician work between shows or even during the day. Since all the hotels had the same basic schedule, this was possible to do if the musician was energetic and motivated. Tommy Check, a percussionist who sometimes kept this schedule, said he found it hard to stay awake.
The best way to get a job on the Strip was to be referred by someone already working there. Contractors were always looking for musicians with excellent sight-reading ability and musicianship, but who also had easy personalities, who would not create stress for their colleagues. People who worked in such close proximity night after night, perhaps fighting the tedium of playing the same music all the time, did not want anyone in their midst who was difficult. No applications were needed — just the ability to perform well under pressure and not bother or annoy the others.
Audience members sometimes provided extra entertainment by heckling the performers or getting into fights among themselves. One musician recalled an incident at the Desert Inn at the end of the show after the curtain came down. Hearing a commotion in the audience, the musicians looked out to see two men fighting, but not for long. In the old days hotels had security “like you wouldn’t believe,” said musician Don Hannah, “Those guys could see someone who was getting rowdy and take him out by the elbow.” The mob owners prided themselves on keeping Las Vegas “clean.”
What most of the musicians really miss about the old days are all the stars who came to Las Vegas. There were numerous casino showrooms that were “star policy” rooms, hosting popular artists who would typically have a two- to four-week engagement with the hotel. The orchestra musicians for the star rooms usually were members of a house band; otherwise, they were hired on an as-needed basis, unlike the musicians for the production shows, who usually worked the same show for years at a time. Many players had the opportunity to work both types of jobs over the course of their career.
Working in a star room, the musicians had the unique opportunity to observe famous singers, comedians, and other entertainers from behind the scenes. These encounters were often treasured memories. There were always those special performers who stood out for the players — not just for their talent or popular appeal, but because they were nice people. “The great percentage of acts I worked with, and I worked with just about all of them, were very good to me and the musicians,” recalled Johnny Haig.
Frank Sinatra first performed in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn in 1951. Later, Sinatra performed twice nightly at the Sands, which opened in 1952. “Anytime he had a suggestion for the band, you listened, because he knew. He grew up in bands,” said Hannah. Throughout the years, musicians continued to praise Sinatra. Violinist Patricia (Saarinen) Harrell said, “Frank Sinatra could hear anything that was wrong. He would have been a great educator.”
Horn player Beth Lano remarked, “Obviously, I loved playing for Frank Sinatra. It was my dream to play for him.” Violinist Rebecca Ramsey also said that Sinatra’s show was her favorite. “He was a great musician, and it was always a special, electric feeling in the air whenever he would walk into the room and you really felt like you were in the center of the musical universe whenever he was there. He knew every part of the music, every part of his arrangements. He was always very gentlemanly and respectful.”
Added musician Sharon Street-Caldwell, “Sinatra liked to have a full 70-piece orchestra. I’ve never felt such charisma in my entire life as from this man. During rehearsal, he would just stand there and he was listening to every single person. He could tell who was in tune. [His show was] the most amazing show I think I’ve ever played, I could see what all the hype was about.” Haig, who generally liked all the stars, said that Sinatra in particular was “a pleasure to work for.” Even the musicians who never played for him remembered that Sinatra was always good to the band.
Another favorite from the 1950s and later was Sammy Davis Jr. “He was the guy who would send champagne to other acts on opening night, or invite a group of dancers out for Chinese food or for screening 35-mm prints of movies in his hotel suite,” said Jerry Kurland, a Las Vegas tap dancer. “He cared for all the show kids, all of us who worked hard.”
Patricia Harrell said, “We loved Sammy [Davis Jr.]. He’d bring in hush puppies; he’d put on music and dance.” Sharon Street-Caldwell remembered Sammy Davis Jr. fondly as well. “Never held himself from the musicians, ever.” He would go to the movies with the musicians sometimes after the show. He was “very personable, very, very nice.”
Liberace was, in 1955, the highest-paid performer in Las Vegas, earning $50,000 a week at the Riviera. By the time he opened the Las Vegas Hilton in 1972, he was getting $300,000 per week. “He was called Mr. Showmanship—but more than that, he was a great friend. He was wonderful,” recalled Debbie Reynolds. The band members remembered him as a warm and witty person. Liberace continued to perform in Las Vegas until 1986. Other performers who appeared in the showrooms during the 1950s included the Andrews Sisters, Maurice Chevalier, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Elvis, Judy Garland, Benny Goodman, Joel Grey, Betty Hutton, Gene Krupa, Don Rickles, Ginger Rogers, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton, and Esther Williams, among many others.
When the shows finished up for the night, many of the musicians were not ready to go home because they were still wired from performing. Musicians described how everyone knew one another and that between their shows they would often go to different hotels to visit the other bands in the coffee shops. Sometimes they went to the hotel lounges, and other times they congregated at Chuck’s House of Spirits to drink and socialize. Later, the Musicians Union provided a place for them to meet and play music.
Many of the musicians fondly remembered Chuck’s House of Spirits, a liquor store that stood next to the Desert Inn in the 1950s and 1960s. Chuck’s served as the unofficial gathering place for all of the hotel musicians after work. Bassist Ed Boyer said that he was a regular there. “There was a bench outside where you could sit. And you’d drink your beer, or your bottle of gin… whatever the booze-du-jour was. What was really cool about it was that Chuck would let you run a tab.” Haig added that many musicians would get a bottle and drink it in the parking lot. “Chuck was a nice guy, he knew the musicians; he knew who he could give a bottle to and who not to trust.” Tom McDermott said, “He was amazing! A lot of the guys stayed in front of that place.”
Because there was no place for so many people to sit inside, trombone player Ralph Pressler recalled that musicians often sat on or around their cars. “We sat on the curb, the sidewalk. Most of the stuff happened after work.” He remembered sitting at Chuck’s long enough to see the sun come up. “A lot of glare!” Trumpeter Tom Snelson remarked, “I really wonder how some of us are still alive. After working two production shows a night you weren’t ready to go home, so you ended up hanging out a lot.” Percussionist Howard Agster agreed, “At 4:00 a.m. there would still be about forty black suits outside at Chuck’s House of Spirits.” As Haig recalled, “All musicians would congregate there after the last shows. Even before the shows ended, everybody knew [what] had happened on the Strip that night.”
“Lots of business was done,” said Pressler “We’d sit and talk. We’d find out ahead of time who was available, who was getting fired or leaving. Live bulletin board.” Musician Dave Hawley remembered a story that made it all the way to Miami the same night it happened. More often than not, the stories involved mishaps that occurred during a particular show. It was inevitable that things would not work perfectly all the time, and the stories of the mistakes provided the most interesting gossip. Haig noted, “We would go just to find out what happened that night. It was always something!”
Another popular early hangout was the Silver Slipper. Between shows Bill Trujillo enjoyed going there when he was not headed home to his family because “they had drinks for 35 cents and a good jazz band. It was a big hang.” Another woodwind doubler, Sam Pisciotta, said that his friends would deliberately start false rumors for him to hear at the Silver Slipper bar.
All Las Vegas musicians have their stories and anecdotes, told and retold and embellished over time. These stories become part of the collective repertoire until it is hard to know which version is true. Some players, when recounting a particular event, had trouble remembering whether they were actually there or had just heard about it later.
The hothouse working conditions of the Las Vegas hotel musicians and entertainers provided the perfect medium for gossip to flourish; the more social musicians helped the stories and gossip spread quickly. While the small town days of Las Vegas were numbered and the family atmosphere would not last forever, as Las Vegas headed into the 1960s it was riding high.
Excerpted from Played Out on the Strip: The Rise and Fall of Las Vegas Casino Bands by Janis L. McKay. Available April 12, 2016 from University of Nevada Press via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers. Pieces of this excerpt have been omitted for length and edited for clarity.
Top photo: Stardust promotional postcard, circa 1950s
If you enjoyed reading this, please log in and click the heart icon below. This will help to share the story with others.