In just over half a century, Las Vegas has reinvented itself, practically every decade, as a major entertainment destination with diverse attractions. From its dusty origins in the ‘40s to today’s supercharged Strip, the city of neon lights has consistently offered more “bang for your buck” than any other entertainment spot in the world. Here’s a look at some of the most memorable--and not so memorable--Las Vegas entertainment moments.
1940s BIRTH OF THE STRIP
1941 El Rancho Vegas opens as the first hotel on what will become the Strip. It features a midnight buffet and variety acts.
1944 Sophie Tucker is the first star to perform on a Las Vegas stage.
1944 Twenty-five-year-old Liberace (with candelabra) debuts at the Last Frontier. He is a Vegas fixture (whether in hot pants or 16-foot fur train) until his last performance at Caesars Palace in August 1986, seven months before his death.
1946 Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel opens the Flamingo. Jimmy Durante headlines.
1947 Lena Horne premieres at the Flamingo. However, black performers are prohibited from dining or rooming in Las Vegas hotels.
1948 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis open at the Flamingo.
1950s LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL
1953 Marlene Dietrich headlines the Sahara at $30,000 a week--the highest paycheck for talent at the time.
1956 Louis Prima and Keely Smith, with Sam Butera and the Witnesses, are the main attraction at the Sahara’s Casbar lounge.
1956 Elvis Presley makes a dismal debut at the New Frontier (formerly the Last Frontier).
1957 Hotelier Major A. Riddle brings bare-breasted showgirls to the Las Vegas stage for the first time in the Dunes’ “Minsky Goes to Paris,” the first French-flavored revue on the Strip.
1957 Nine-year-old Liza Minnelli sings on her first Vegas stage with her mother, Judy Garland.
1958 Black performers refuse to sign contracts without access to hotel facilities. Two years later, Mayor Oran Gragson reaches an agreement with the local chapter of the NAACP to end segregation in all public spaces in Las Vegas; although the Strip is located outside the city, Strip properties follow suit (or integrate) within a few days under pressure by NAACP to hold demonstrations. Earlier, in 1955, the Moulin Rouge, located off the Strip, opens as the first integrated casino in Las Vegas.
1960s FOR SWINGERS ONLY
1960 The Rat Pack--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop--perform at the Sands for the first time. The “Clan” also appears in the film “Ocean’s 11.”
1963 Barbra Streisand sings to her first Las Vegas audience as a guest of Liberace at the Riviera. She will go on to headline the opening of the International (later the Las Vegas Hilton) in 1969.
1963 The Newton brothers, Wayne and Jerry, get top billing in the downtown Casino Center. Wayne Newton goes on to become the quintessential Las Vegas staple, earning the title “Mr. Las Vegas.” In 1985, a street is named after him near Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. After performing over 25,000 times in Vegas, he continues to headline at the MGM Grand.
1965 Muhammad Ali defends his heavyweight title against Floyd Patterson at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
1966 Howard Hughes begins living full-time at the Desert Inn. Credited for increasing the respectability of investing in Las Vegas, he buys the Desert Inn, the Sands, the Frontier and the Landmark and makes numerous contributions to the city.
1966 The $19-million Caesars Palace opens with a $1-million, three-day fest headlined by Andy Williams. Caesars is thought of as the first themed resort; two years later, the first family-oriented hotel and casino, Circus Circus, opens on the Strip.
1969 Thirteen years after his cabaret debut, five years after starring in “Viva Las Vegas” with Ann-Margret and two years after marrying Priscilla Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel, Elvis Presley makes his Vegas comeback at the International. He plays 837 sold-out shows there over seven years. His private 5,000-square-foot “Elvis Suite” is maintained--complete with bullet holes in the private elevator and ceiling--until the suite is renovated in 1994.
1970s GRAND EXPANSION
1971 Merv Griffin tapes a series of his signature talk shows at Caesars Palace.
1973 The MGM Grand, which cost $106 million to build, opens as the world’s largest resort. Dean Martin headlines.
1976 Neil Diamond appears in the $10-million Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts.
1978 Leon Spinks swipes the heavyweight crown from Muhammad Ali at the Las Vegas Hilton.
1978 “Vega$,” starring Robert Urich, appears weekly on ABC.
1979 Willie Nelson debuts at Caesars Palace. Other popular country music acts in Vegas include June Carter and Johnny Cash.
1980s PRODUCTION NUMBERS
1981 Dolly Parton debuts at the Riviera in a two-week engagement, at $350,000 a week.
1981 Donn Arden’s $10-million “Jubilee!” opens at the MGM. In the revised, multimillion-dollar version now at Bally’s, the Titanic sinks onstage.
1981 Siegfried & Roy premiere their animal/magic production, “Beyond Belief,” at the Frontier. In 1987, the German-born duo sign a $57-million, five-year contract to perform at the Mirage, which opens two years later with a lush sanctuary for the performers’ white tigers, along with the erupting volcano. They continue to perform at the hotel as a permanent act.
1983 “Legends in Concert” opens at the Imperial Palace, with faux stars and bands such as Mario Lanza, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
1987 Sugar Ray Leonard wins the WBC middleweight title against Marvin Hagler in a split decision at Caesars Palace.
1990s THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
1992 Wolfgang Puck opens Spago at the new Caesars Palace Forum luxury shops, introducing upscale dining to Las Vegas entertainment. A slate of fine-dining establishments follow, including Emeril’s, Drai’s and Le Cirque. In 1999, Puck opens Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay, Nobu Sushi comes to the Hard Rock Hotel and Valentino arrives at the Venetian.
1993 The Dunes Hotel (and sign) is imploded, followed by the 1996 implosion of the Sands (replaced by the $1.5-billion Venetian in 1999).
1993 Theme mania strikes Las Vegas as the Grand Slam Canyon Adventuredome, the Luxor, Treasure Island and the MGM Grand Hotel and Theme Park all open in the same year. The only Hard Rock Hotel opens in 1995; New York-New York in 1997; Paris is scheduled to open in the fall of 1999.
1997 The bite heard ‘round the world: Mike Tyson twice bites and then spits out a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear during their bout at the MGM Grand Garden. Holyfield wins the fight when Tyson is disqualified.
1998 The Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel-Casino is sold at public auction to the World Wrestling Federation for $9.27 million. A year later, World Championship Wrestlers debut at the Nitro Grill, a wrestling-themed dinner show at the Excalibur Hotel & Casino.
1998 The opulent $1.6 billion Bellagio hotel opens, complete with a $300-million art collection of works by such masters as Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. The hotel, which also features Tiffany, Prada and Gucci boutiques, as well as the Cirque du Soleil show, “O,” institutes an 18-and-over policy--the first of its kind in Las Vegas.
1999 The $950-million Mandalay Bay opens with Luciano Pavarotti christening its events center, which will later hold its first fight, in which welterweight boxing star Oscar De La Hoya defeats Oba Carr. “Chicago,” starring Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen, the first full-length Broadway musical to play Las Vegas, begins its run in the hotel’s 1,700-seat theater. At one end of Mandalay Bay is the Four Seasons Hotel, at the other, the House of Blues.
1999 Barbra Streisand is scheduled to perform a millennium concert at the MGM Grand. Her reported contract is $13 million; tickets range from $500 to $2,500. Bette Midler is to give her New Year’s performance at Mandalay Bay.
“Las Vegas: The Entertainment Capital,” by Don Knepp.
“Las Vegas: The Great American Playground,” by Robert D. McCracken.
Las Vegas News Bureau
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries, Special Collections
Compiled by MICHELLE BOTWIN