A Dream in the Desert : Las Vegas--Known for Showgirls, Gambling and Basketball--Wants to Be the West’s Next Great City

Kevin Starr, a media fellow and visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, writes frequently on Western topics. He is currently preparing a study of California during the Great Depression for Oxford University Press

AN AIRPLANE DESCENT by night into Los Angeles or Las Vegas is a magical experience. From 10,000 feet, L.A.'s lakes and rivers of light seem serene, as if in testimony to the fact that the vast city they delineate--the one-time boom town of Southern California--has at last gained the self-assurance it is entitled to as America’s capital city on the Pacific. In contrast, the lights of Las Vegas are nervous, shimmering mirage-like in the surrounding night. There are dark patches at the center of the city, suggesting unfinished business. In the penultimate decade of the 20th Century, Las Vegas is where Los Angeles was 50 to 60 years ago--just into its take-off phase, pulling itself up by its rhinestone cowboy bootstraps.

Las Vegas, Nev., is growing. In fact, Greater Las Vegas is expected to reach 1 million population by the year 2000, and the community is in search of new symbols to both shape and celebrate its emerging identity. If certain Las Vegans--among them, Robert Maxson, president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Elaine Wynn of the UNLV Foundation--have their way, the university will be the catalyst for an entirely new Las Vegas, a desert metropolis demanding to be taken seriously as a significant American city.

USC and UCLA played a similar role in Los Angeles. Long a focus and energizer of local aspirations, USC trained the professionals of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Beginning in the 1950s, UCLA added another dimension, the perspective and resonances of world-class scholarship. Las Vegas, along with its fledgling university and the Las Vegas plutocracy that has taken UNLV under its wing, has a long way to go before growth and boostering ambition will, in Shakespeare’s phrase, take airy nothing and give it local habitation and a name. But the push is on, and the L.A. example races in the Las Vegas imagination like the 300 m.p.h. bullet train that may one day link the two cities.

You sense this city’s ambition as soon as you arrive at the theatrically space-age central terminal of McCarran International Airport. Capable of serving a city six times the size of Las Vegas, McCarran plungesdeplaning passengers into something resembling a casino review inspired by “Star Trek": computerized graphics, moving billboards, neon signs, metallic palm trees. The Las Vegas Convention Center, the largest single-level exhibition facility in the United States, is equally evocative of a city that, despite its modest size, already considers itself an international destination formore than just gambling. Los Angelesque in scale, the McCarran Airport and the Convention Center, serviceable shrines to the city’s multibillion-dollar tourist and convention industry, are gestures in the direction of a civic future that is only recently in the making.


On the Strip and downtown in Glitter Gulch 4,000 new rooms are being built. The recession that began in 1981 is over, and the fear that Atlantic City would monopolize the East Coast gaming trade has proven groundless. Nonetheless, along the Strip one finds an irregular checkerboard of empty lots where further development can occur. Residential projects valued at $2.6 billion are rising, and along Highway 95, the expressway cutting westward from downtown to the Spring Mountains, new neighborhoods sit expectantly on the edge of the desert, sales pennants fluttering in the breeze.

Parallels between the rise of Los Angeles and Las Vegas proliferate. Both are southern desert cities, long in eclipse to their northern counterparts, San Francisco and Reno. Both depend upon vast, ingenious engineering projects for water, and, in Las Vegas’ case, for the hydroelectricity to churn the air-conditioners without which the city would be unbearable for a third of the year. Both owe their growth in part to a dream industry, but sustain as well an evangelical streak that rushes forward to rebuke dreams of stardom and jackpots and to offer consolation when the hope of making it big goes awry.

Like Los Angeles in its ascendant years, Las Vegas is a city of new starts and self-definitions. “You’re rarely asked here where your family’s from or what your social credentials are,” notes UNLV’s Maxson. “You are evaluated more for who you are now, how you’re fitting into Las Vegas.”

A case in point is Elaine Wynn, a beauty who could be mistaken for a showgirl. She arrived from the East in the late 1960s with her husband, Steve, and, starting with a modest grubstake, the two eventually acquired controlling stock in the Golden Nugget casino. Active in a variety of philanthropies, Elaine Wynn has become one of Las Vegas’ most visible citizens. And Maxson, the Arkansas-born, Mississippi-educated university president, could be called the city’s omnipresent Dr. Clout.


Just as a sustaining oligarchy directed Los Angeles to its own benefit (and, on balance, to the city’s) during L.A.'s formative years, so too are the Las Vegas elite seeking to shape the West’s next major city. The process of definition involves the subsumption of a sometimes troublesome gangster past and a restructuring of the basic myth of Las Vegas itself.

BRIEFLY SETTLED BY Mormons from 1855 to 1857 before they were recalled north to defend Utah against the United States Army, Las Vegas (“the meadows”) remained for 50 years the site of a few minor cattle ranches and intermittent alfalfa production. The 19th-Century American West bypassed this half-oasis in favor of more promising locations. Not until 1905 did the railroad establish a Las Vegas stop between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. It took another 25 years and the Hoover Dam project for Las Vegas to experience its first boom--as a high-life resort for hell-raising construction workers. In 1938, L.A. hotelier Thomas Hull pointed Las Vegas in the direction of its postwar future with El Rancho Vegas, a Highway 91 resort offering gambling and glamour. Bugsy Siegel, a top mobster from Los Angeles, liked the action at El Rancho Vegas--the business opportunities afforded by the gaming tables, the Hollywood stars he chatted up at poolside--and he was delighted when the boys in the East, headed by Meyer Lansky, put together the money to build a spectacular hotel-casino complex, the Flamingo, which opened the day after Christmas 1946 with George Jessel as master of ceremonies. Xavier Cugat provided the music, Jimmy Durante and Danny Thomas the laughs.

Gunned down on the night of June 20, 1947, in the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend Virginia Hill, Siegel did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream: Las Vegas as the hotel casino capital of America. It became that over the next 20 years, but the hotel casino industry was capable of supporting only so many permanent residents. Only in the early 1960s did the city’s population reach 100,000, entitling it to draw water from the nearby reservoir, Lake Mead, that Hoover Dam created. Las Vegas was a place to visit, not to live--and certainly not a place to worry over the subtleties of city-building and civic culture.

When Elaine and Steve Wynn arrived in Las Vegas in 1967, it was still a small town. “There was no landed gentry here,” she says as she guides her creamy-white Rolls-Royce down the Strip, en route to the Golden Nugget. “This was a town ready for you.” Steve’s family ran a commercial bingo operation in Anne Arundel County, Md., the only county in the United States authorizing a casino version of the game. After the couple married, Steve went to work for his father. When the senior Wynn died--at age 46--the young couple faced the prospect of continuing in the bingo business in Anne Arundel County or heading for the gambling big-time in Las Vegas. They chose Las Vegas, where Steve went to work as a dealer at the Frontier.

Twenty years later, Elaine Wynn dominates the city as its premier patron, booster and civic activist. “A few months after we arrived,” she recalls, “Howard Hughes bought the Frontier, and with Hughes’ arrival you can date the beginnings of modern Las Vegas’ efforts to remake itself into a diversified city with a corporate presence and an identity beyond the Strip.”

With a loan from banker E. Perry Thomas, the paterfamilias behind much Strip development over the past quarter of a century, the Wynns bought a liquor distribution company and kept on the lookout for opportunities. When Howard Hughes offered a corner lot near Caesar’s Palace (the only Las Vegas real estate Hughes would ever put on the market), they borrowed money and bought it. A year later, Caesars Palace made them an offer. The $1 million they turned on the deal was a nest egg for their purchase, in 1973, of controlling interest in the Golden Nugget Corp. The Wynns upgraded and expanded the casino, then opened a second one in Atlantic City in 1980, when gambling was legalized in New Jersey.

The Rolls is left lazing in a VIP parking spot near the entrance to the Golden Nugget, and Elaine Wynn strides into the opalescent neo-Belle Epoque lobby, looking like a John Singer Sargent Duchess of Las Vegas. She rides the elevator to the Spa Towers Suites, two luxurious upper floors reserved for celebrities and gamblers of international standing. “For all his eccentricity,” she says, “Howard Hughes brought outside corporate investment to Las Vegas. Hughes’ Summa Corp. showed that an important non-casino corporate presence could be established here. We could grow into something more than just a casino city.”

Then, in the early 1980s, the bottom fell out from under the casinos. The one at the Aladdin Hotel closed. The Stardust and the Sands were in trouble. Atlantic City was challenging Las Vegas for the hearts of America’s gamblers and many of the high rollers had stopped flying in. Since Las Vegas had already committed itself to the building of a major airport and convention center, totally dependent in concept and function upon a flourishing hotel industry, there was gloom, even panic, in the air. “The leadership of Las Vegas crystallized around the future of the city during this crisis,” Elaine Wynn remembers. “We knew that we could never again be totally dependent upon the casinos or Nellis Air Force Base or the Nevada Test Site or the other branches of the federal government operating in southern Nevada. We needed economic diversity and we needed education.”


Wynn believes the crisis was as much familial as economic: “The children born here had only one place to go for work. If they weren’t interested in gaming, hotels or entertainment, they moved away. College-bound youngsters were moving away because UNLV was not looked on as an attractive alternative. We needed development so our children could have career choices in Las Vegas, and we needed a first-rate university where they could prepare for the future.”

The turnaround event in Las Vegas’ recovery, Wynn says, was the “Christmas with Class” dedication of the 18,000-seat Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV in December, 1983, for which she served as chairman. Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and Dean Martin performed that night in a show that linked the Strip, the university and Las Vegas in a gesture of unity. The primary metaphor was basketball. And Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels, consistently among the best college basketball teams in the nation, at long last had a home court worthy of their national standing. In Las Vegas, basketball is high society. The tariff for a season courtside seat is a $1,300 donation. Along with the College of Hotel Administration, which the hotel casino industry helped found, basketball represented the university’s most effective link to the wider community. “After the dedication,” Wynn recalls, “it dawned on the community that we had a resource in UNLV that we were ignoring.”

AT THE SAME TIME, in December, 1983, beleaguered UNLV president Leonard E. Goodall, beset by faculty revolt and a lack of public response to his leadership, threw in the towel. Chaired by Frankie Sue Del Papa, today Nevada’s secretary of state, the Board of Regents’ presidential search committee retained an executive recruitment firm based in Washington, D.C. Its first recommendation for Goodall’s replacement was Robert Maxson, senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Houston, who was also being wooed for the presidency of the University of Rhode Island. As a Southerner, Maxson was impressed by the civility of the New England surroundings. “But all the questions I was getting from the Rhode Island search committee were about managing with less and cutting back, and the talks I was having with the Nevada regents were about growth and development, and after all those years at Houston, taking it up rapidly to 45,000 students, I was reluctant to shift gears.”

The new UNLV president arrived on campus in August, 1984. A man at once dapper and down-home, steely-eyed and good-old-boy, Maxson is the kind of self-made man who is warmly welcomed in Las Vegas. His father was an Arkansas cotton farmer who raised his boys on hard work and fundamentalist Christianity. When Maxson told his now elderly and retired parents he was going to Las Vegas, they responded with shocked silence. “My parents,” he says, “had only one concept of Las Vegas. They didn’t realize that God-fearing Americans lived here, much less that there was a university.”

At Houston, Maxson had learned how downtown power operates in an energizing civic environment. He had discovered the importance of volunteer directorships (with the United Way, Rotary and Chamber of Commerce). He learned how banks operate when he became a director of the Security Bank of Houston in 1982. (He is now a director of the Valley Bank of Nevada.) As a director of the high-tech Houston Area Research Center he learned how to get academic and business leaders to work together. “The ambition I encountered most immediately among Las Vegans,” he remembers, “was the desire to shed the Bugsy Siegel image. I began at once to point out that a first-class city had to have a first-class university. If the time had come for Las Vegas to take itself seriously as an American city, then the improvement of UNLV was an obvious place to begin.”

Maxson assumed the presidency of a university that 25 years earlier had consisted of two buildings sitting forlornly on a desert lot at the edge of the Maryland Parkway. The campus he took over had 31 buildings and 11,000 students. (It now has an enrollment of 13,000 and is growing at an annual rate of 17%.) Although its College of Hotel Administration was arguably the best in the country, few took UNLV seriously as an academic institution. “A lot of people loved UNLV,” Maxson remembers of his arrival, “but they were also vaguely ashamed of it.” Faced with a demoralized faculty on the verge of unionization, he personally attended the twice-monthly meetings of the faculty senate. He backed the establishment of a doctoral program in desert biology, a field in which UNLV had already attained distinction, and called for the establishment of a program in architecture to serve the regional building boom. He lobbied the legislature for better faculty salaries.

The UNLV Foundation presented another challenge. With its large staff and off-campus headquarters, the foundation constituted a shadow government at UNLV. By charter, it was supposed to raise money for academic programs. Over time, however, it had come to channel money into basketball and football programs as well, and at UNLV, athletics controlled the university. Within two months of his arrival, Maxson sought the resignation of the foundation director and all but one of his staff members, cut the foundation’s budget from $400,000 to $100,000 per year and moved its offices to the campus, putting it under the direction of a UNLV vice president.

There was a day or two of shocked silence as the Las Vegas elite mulled it all over. After all, basketball, not academics, had put UNLV on the map. Who was this Maxson, with his ministerial talk about academics? But Maxson had already done his homework, talking with the casino owners, bankers, politicians and millionaires who make up the UNLV Foundation board. Each had received the Maxson treatment: the telephone call, the early-morning power breakfast, the mesmerizing amalgam of unembarrassed, flag-waving high-mindedness and country-boy cunning. And one by one, the members of the elite announced their support.


All in all, some $20 million have poured into UNLV since Maxson’s arrival. The money has come equally from casino owners and from non-gambling enterprises, symbolizing the new Las Vegas detente. The Hilton Corp., previously inactive in local philanthropy, has given $2 million for the College of Business. When Maxson flew up to Barron Hilton’s ranch in Yerington, Nev., the two men took an hour’s walk around the property. Maxson evoked the image of the Las Vegas Hilton as the largest hotel in the free world, staffed, as he pointed out, by graduates of the UNLV College of Hotel Administration. Yes, Las Vegas had been good to the Hilton Corp. A few weeks later, Hilton personally phoned with news of the gift.

Maxson used the same technique with foundation member Will Lummis, chairman of the Summa Corp. Yes indeed, Maxson suggested as the two of them walked through the UNLV campus, the Summa Corp. was undoubtedly the founding institution of modern Las Vegas. And it was the largest single landowner in southern Nevada. Maxson paused strategically at an empty lot on the edge of the campus. Here, he said softly, would one day rise a great College of Engineering to serve the high-tech industry of 21st-Century Las Vegas. Lummis returned to his office and authorized a $2 million gift for the Howard Hughes College of Engineering.

Maxson then turned his attention to the arts. Not surprisingly, Las Vegas had few cultural or philharmonic institutions. Charles Vanda, who had become UNLV’s performing arts coordinator after retiring to Las Vegas in 1975, once needed to include applause prompts in programs distributed at symphony orchestra concerts. With Maxson’s support, however, he has, in recent years, brought to the university’s concert hall such groups as Zubin Mehta’s Israel Philharmonic, the Berlin Radio Symphony, the Tokyo Symphony, Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma. UNLV’s Master Series, as Vanda’s program is called, is today considered a major source of bookings for serious music impresarios around the world. “The word is out,” says Vanda, “that it’s good to play Las Vegas.”

BUT THERE ARE, as novelist and critic John Irsfeld, a perceptive observer of the Las Vegas scene, notes, “many Las Ve gases. The Strip can be compared to the rapids of a river, which only the fastest fish can negotiate. But everywhere else there is slower water, tide pools and eddies, where day-to-day life goes on.” The experience of Don L. Christensen, a Las Vegas surgeon and spokesman for the Church of Latter-day Saints, is typical of this other Las Vegas, with its deep connections to the the desert West. “I was raised as an active Mormon on a small livestock ranch in Utah, but I have never felt more a Mormon than in Las Vegas,” he says. In the 21 years since he moved his family here, 26 Christensens--including 6 daughters, 5 sons-in-law and 13 grandchildren--have become permanent Las Vegas residents. No wonder the Mormon Church has authorized the creation of a Temple district in southern Nevada. “Our children have grown up stronger in the Church by being raised in Las Vegas,” says Christensen.

In the October, 1986, issue of Las Vegas’ city magazine, LV, Marilee Joyce reported on an explosion of evangelical Protestantism. It is centered in Dove Ministries, a nondenominational, downtown parish, but extends its influence into the mainline denominational churches as well. One follower of Dove Ministries is Chris Arthur, concierge at the Golden Nugget. Two years ago Chris and her husband, Allan, attracted by the expanding economy of southern Nevada, moved to Las Vegas from Newport Beach with their four small children. Allan opened ADC Truck Wash; Chris went to work at the hotel. “We look forward to raising our children in Las Vegas,” she says, “and to sending them to UNLV when they finish the public schools.”

This is the other side of Sin City. It would be naive to exaggerate the effect of such traditional values, but it would be inaccurate to deny their existence. Day by day, Las Vegans live in ambivalent synergy with the casino culture that brought their city into prominence. Many at UNLV, Bob Maxson among them, were embarrassed by a Forbes magazine cover showing the basketball team surrounded by feathered showgirls. Las Vegans eventually must test their aspirations and rhetoric against the reality of the Strip. But what else is new? The founding energies of Boston were not just Puritanism but the trading in rum and slaves.

Having tasted glitz, glamour and the big buck, Las Vegas now wants something more, something respectable. Los Angeles wanted this same respectability just a short time ago. Like Las Vegas, Los Angeles was not taken seriously. Today, many expect it to become the premier American city of the 21st Century, and UCLA is ranked among the most important universities in the world. If Bob Maxson, Elaine Wynn and the UNLV Foundation have their way, Las Vegas, Nev., and a university once called Tumbleweed Tech will soon also earn their longed-for place in the sun.