Classic Las Vegas: A look back at the city 1956-1973


In 2016, historian Lynn Zook published a unique new way of experiencing the beginnings of the gaming and resort industry here with the eBook "Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip From 1930 to 1955."

Now she's back with Volume 2, which covers the years from 1956 to 1973.

"What was the Strip like back then, or what was it like to see Elvis Presley," explains the author. "Because I did a bunch of video oral histories from about 2002 to 2005."

Like its predecessor, the book is interactive. Tap on a photo to release a gallery of related pictures. Or bring the video and audio of an interview to life. When discussing the experience of seeing "The King" at the International (today it's the Westgate), Zook kept the discussions close to home.

"Talked to my parents, because we actually went and saw him that August of 1969," she says with a chuckle.

"As I recall when we went to see Elvis Presley, we had to call in several weeks early," recounts her father Dave in one of the book's interactive interviews.

"You had to know someone to even get a reservation to see him," adds his wife Laura. "By knowing someone, that meant you had to know someone in the hotel that could make sure you did get reservations."

All the major hotels that opened during the book's timeframe are covered. The Tropicana, Aladdin, Hacienda, Landmark, International and the Crown Jewel at Center Strip.

"From the time it opened in 1966 until the original MGM Grand (today Bally's) was built, Caesars [Palace] was the epitome of class.

"My father deserves and he does get credit," says Heidi Sarno Strauss in an interview about her father, Caesars Palace and Circus-Circus entrepreneur Jay Sarno. "Really for being the founder of the 60s era of the themed resorts. Of opulence and elegance."

"Jay Sarno is very important," adds Zook. "Because without him there's no Caesars and without him, there's no Circus-Circus."

Its prominence led Caesars to be the centerpiece of a Civil Rights march in 1971 which included the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and actress Jane Fonda. It was led by activist Ruby Duncan.

"The only people I know that have the most money with the most power are the Strip hotels," says Duncan in the eBook. "And I think that maybe we should march down the Strip. Well everyone looked at me and said 'Oh my God. Shall we do that?' And I said 'Why not?' And so at least six thousand of us did go down the Strip. And it was interesting. Everybody was good, everybody was calm."

Duncan recalls being overcome by emotion at the event, and the approach of a Caesars official who proved empathetic.

"He told me he was the president of the hotel. 'No one is going to bother you. You don't have to cry.' And so I guess maybe that's what I needed."

It was hard to live in Las Vegas during that era without having some awareness of the mob.

"The late 70s, early 80s when Frank Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro were making headlines almost on a daily basis," observes Zook. Then you became aware that 'Oh...there's something there'."

The author tracked down veteran reporter and anchor Gwen Castaldi--now retired--who was at Channel 3 from the early 80s into the mid-90s.

"She took a lot of it to heart," marvels Zook. "And I wasn't expecting that because she has that gruff exterior."

"It was a dangerous time, for sure," recalls Castaldi in the eBook. "It was a struggle of good against evil, for a long time. This was the height of the Tony Spilotro Era. A lot of government investigations going on with the US. The federal strike force, organized crime strike force, the FBI."

One of the people Castaldi reported on, former U.S. Attorney Mahlon Brown is also interviewed, and explains how they uncovered the skim.

"And we found the three counting rooms in one of the hotels," says Brown. "You have the one that you show to the gaming control people. Then you have the next one and the next one."

While important topics like civil rights and the mob are included, more than anything else the book is meant to capture the excitement stemming from the Strip when it was first dubbed "The Entertainment Capital of the World".

"Glitz and glamour,” sums up Zook. "Back when you dressed up to go to a hotel. Whether you were going to gamble or you were going to see a show, you dressed up."

This eBook and its predecessor are becoming go-to resources for the Video Vault. They are both available online as either eBooks or PDF files through Lynn Zook's Classic Las Vegas website.

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