In the first installment of this two-part series, it was my pleasure to guide readers through the long and winding history of Las Vegas and its signature casino gambling industry. To catch up on the exploits of consummate gamblers like John C. Fremont and Bugsy Siegel, head here to check out Part I.
As for Part II, this page is devoted to three more crucial dates – spanning the 1960s through the dawn of the 21st century and into the present day – that defined the rise of Sin City.
August 5, 1966 – Caesars Palace Reigns Supreme
Following the Flamingo’s arrival in 1946, the then empty drag known as Las Vegas Boulevard began to fill out into The Strip as it’s known today.
Sahara sprung up from the sands in 1952, Tropicana rose over the horizon five years later, and Tally-Ho (now called Planet Hollywood) hit The Strip in 1963.
But these four casinos combined couldn’t match the awe-inspiring splendors awaiting guests when Caesars Palace opened its doors on this day.
And out of that distinctive vision, Caesars Palace was born…
Writing about the lavishly appointed casino resort’s highly anticipated “inauguration day,” renowned architectural critic Alan Hess penned this glowing review:
“Caesars Palace needed only a sumptuous array of Classical statuary and a host of marble-white columns to establish its theme.
The visitor’s imagination, in league with well-placed publicity, filled in the opulence.”
Not to be outdone, local historians Myrick and Barbara Land celebrated Caesars Palace in reverential tones in “A Short History of Las Vegas” (2004):
“The gaudiest, weirdest, most elaborate, and most talked about resort Vegas had ever seen.
[Its] emblem was a chesty female dipping grapes into the waiting mouth of a recumbent Roman, fitted out in toga, laurel wreath, and phallic dagger.”
Even poetic prose like that doesn’t do Caesars Palace justice though, not now, and definitely not on opening day 54 years ago. When local gamblers and tourists alike first laid eyes on the marble columns, vaulted ceilings adorned with frescos, and gilded décor from wall to wall, many swore they’d been transported to ancient Rome in all its glory.
Caesars Palace became Sin City’s hotspot almost immediately, thanks in large part to the arrival of Frank Sinatra. The beloved crooner had been given the boot by Desert Inn owner Howard Hughes, but the eccentric billionaire’s loss was a definitive gain for Caesars Palace.
As the first casino in town to create a unified theme – a fantasyland for visitors to immerse themselves in even when they weren’t playing – Caesars Palace became an instant industry leader. Competitors would eventually crop up to try similar angles, with Circus Circus (1968) opting for a midway ambience and Holiday Casino (1973) echoing Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Over time, Las Vegas casinos became largely defined in the public consciousness by their central themes and styles. Rather than exclusively court the casino enthusiast community, casinos on The Strip began drawing bachelors and family men alike who didn’t know blackjack from baccarat.
And if you’re wondering why Sarno chose to leave the possessive apostrophe out of his resort’s name, here’s a hint. Rather than elevate one person above all others a la the Romans, he wanted every guest who entered Caesars Palace to feel like a God walking the Earth.
November 22, 1989 – Steve Wynn Stakes His Claim
In light of Steve Wynn’s sexual harassment scandal, which forced him to resign in disgrace in 2018, this section will be shorter than it might have been.
With that said, Wynn’s design and construction of The Mirage Resort & Casino set the Las Vegas Strip on a new trajectory that history can’t simply ignore. The Mirage doubled down on Caesars Palace’s commitment to fantasy immersion, surrounding players with a living, breathing jungle on the inside and a bubbling volcano out front.
Suddenly, a trip to The Strip was akin to visiting Disneyland for adults, with eye-popping attractions around every corner to supplement the casino scene.
Wynn eventually lured Siegfried and Roy to become The Mirage’s signature stage show, while Cirque du Soleil got its start there before becoming a fixture at Wynn’s neighboring Treasure Island.
Wynn parlayed the success of The Mirage into a casino empire like no other, one which included the Bellagio, Wynn, and Encore casinos during its peak.
May 23rd, 2003 – Chris Moneymaker Sparks the “Poker Boom”
Before he arrived at Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Las Vegas in the summer of 2003, poker was considered the black sheep of casino gambling.
Most venues in town had a real money poker room mind you, and the Mirage played host to legendary high-stakes games, but the game didn’t exactly move the needle with recreational gamblers.
And why would it anyway? After all, back then casual poker players had a snowball’s chance on The Strip to walk away a winner after sitting down with a table full of professional card sharps.
Well, over an inch of snow fell in Las Vegas in 2003, so anything’s possible…
Moneymaker proved that much in fine style, parlaying a $39 satellite entry earned on the online site PokerStars into a $10,000 entry to the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. A No Limit Texas Holdem single-elimination tournament, the Main Event at Binion’s had crowned poker’s World Champion for 32 years up to that point. And aside from one or two outliers over the years, every one of those champs counted themselves as career poker pros.
Even so – despite the ESPN broadcast filming every flop and fold dubbing Moneymaker “dead money” – the mild-mannered accountant stormed through the stacked field to win it all. With the world watching at home courtesy of ESPN’s innovative “hole card” camera technology, Moneymaker showed poker novices that anything was possible – including a life-changing $2.5 million haul at the WSOP.
Harrah’s quickly snapped up the rights to the WSOP and moved poker’s premier tournament series to the Rio in 2005. That move was necessitated by the “boom” Moneymaker’s momentous win created, as Binion’s had simply been outgrown by that point.
To wit, when Moneymaker won the Main Event he defeated a field of 839 players. That number more than tripled to 2,576 entries one year later, and by 2006, the field peaked with a staggering 8,773 players ponying up $10,000 apiece to chase their poker dreams.
The poker boom may have been focused on Texas Holdem, but with tens of thousands of players descending on the city for a summerlong series, every casino in Las Vegas reaped the benefits. Hotels were booked to capacity months in advance, high-rollers set up shop in the suites, and Sin City became a buzzword all over the world like it was back in those bygone glory days.
Las Vegas history can’t be summed up by just seven days alone, but I hope this two-part list gives you a greater appreciation of what makes Sin City so special. An oasis in the desert, this town is no mirage, it’s a lasting testament to the power of people to create something out of mere sand and pure grit.
Las Vegas has evolved by leaps and bounds since its early frontier days, there’s no denying that. But as anybody who has ever strolled The Strip on a summer evening can attest to, the city’s spirit of freedom and independence lives on 115 years after the area’s first settlers bet on themselves.