Video Vault: Reliving the early glory days of the Strip in an eBook

Dressed Up For a Show (Zook Collection)

The Video Vault frequently will profile a new book which has a fresh take about on some aspect of Southern Nevada. This week is slightly different.

"Gambling on a Dream" is an eBook, which turns this look at the mid-century Strip into a rich, interactive experience.

"The landscape of the town that I knew was quickly starting to change," says author and historian Lynn Zook, who was raised in Las Vegas. "And so it became very important to me that the history – the 20th century history of the town – not get lost."

Zook maintains the "Classic Las Vegas" website and remembers the Strip of her childhood as much less cluttered and frenetic than it is today.

"It was hotel ... desert ... hotel desert ... gas station," she says, describing the wide spaces between the properties back in the 1950s.

"Gambling on a Dream," which covers the period from 1930 to 1955, is split into sections covering each resort as it opened. It's filled with pictures from UNLV Special Collections, the Las Vegas News Bureau and more. You can tap on a group of photos to examine each image you want, and bring it full screen if so desired.

Another feature is a series of oral histories Zook has collected over the years. A good example has one of Zook's interview subjects reminiscing about his early days in show business when he was a supporting act for Mae West at the Sahara, and inadvertently upstaged the superstar on the hotel marquee.

"And it says Joseph Charles Tafarella. 75 percent billing. And above it, Mae West, seven letters. Well I had 23 letters and she only had seven. She said 'What do you notice up there, Steve?' I said 'I notice my name.' She said 'Well what about mine?' I said "I don't notice it as much because you have only seven letters and I have 23.' She said 'Well from now on your name is Steve Rossi.' That's how I got my name."

The eBook takes us into the showrooms of a different era.

"The hotels themselves, even though now you look at their interiors and they seem rather quaint. But you know, back then they were resort hotels," says Zook. "Women wore mink stoles and men wore tuxedos. And you got dressed up to go to a show."

Nancy Williams Baker found herself just out of high school hired as a stage performer at the El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941 and was destroyed by fire in 1960.

"And I thought 'Gee, if I can just stay after this two weeks.' And luckily I got to stay. My contract was extended. We were all what they call dancers — not showgirls, as of today. We wore pretty dresses, pretty costumes. We didn't show a lot of skin. And we had to sing, we had to dance. Sometimes we had to introduce the stars. If you came to Las Vegas then, there were only four hotels. So if you stayed a couple of days and you saw a show in the early evening and you saw a show late at night, in two days you had seen all the shows in Las Vegas. So the entertainment had to constantly be changing."

Zook also interviewed Valerie Wiener, daughter of former Channel 3 part-owner Lou Wiener, who had been Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's lawyer while the mobster was developing the Flamingo.

"And that was his living quarters," said Wiener, referring to a building behind the Flamingo. "And I heard one time my dad was called out and Siegel was livid. He was livid. That's where he got the name Bugsy. And my dad happened to call him Bugsy once and he blew up. He said 'Get out here now, I have to show you something!' My dad was 5-6. Siegel was probably 5-10, 5-11. He came into the Oregon Building. He said 'Walk across the room.' My dad walked across the room to the other side and didn't get the point. That made Siegel angry because he was trying to demonstrate something and it didn't work. My dad was 5-6. Siegel walked across the room, and in mid-point he bumped his head on a beam because the ceiling was too low."

Anecdotes like that fill the eBook.

"One of my favorite stories is [entertainer] Sam Butera talking and tells the story of how he got the phone call on Christmas Eve from Louis Prima," says Zook.

"I said, 'Well tomorrow is Christmas.' " remembered Butera, who passed away in 2009. "'I got my kids. I can't leave, you know on Christmas, but I'll be there on the 26th.' He said 'Sounds good.' So he gave me a call and I joined him on the 26th."

"Gambling on a Dream" is truly a treasure trove of interviews and images, available for iPads, Kindles and other formats. The book is available through the "Classic Las Vegas" website. Zook is currently working on a follow-up, which will look at the Las Vegas Strip from 1955 to the present.

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