Most people would agree though that the Nevada city’s true glory days can be traced back to the 1950s. It was the hub of glitz and glamour during post-war America and a haven for parties, weddings, and even mobsters. Here’s a look at Vegas in the 50s through some truly remarkable photos.
While Las Vegas offers tons of attractions, its main pull is, of course, gambling. In 1957, the city decided to go all in with the concept, truly living up to its reputation for excesses and hedonism. Hotels and casinos got increasingly creative and offered gambling spaces in pools.
Vacationers could take a dip, cool down, smoke a cigar, and start raking in that cash right from the water. Why have designated gambling spaces when people can up their chances anywhere? Making money needs the right environment. Let’s make it all-encompassing so merrymakers can rake in the money as they breathe, walk, and simply exist.
If there was one place to be in Las Vegas during the 1950s, it was the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel. Being seen here was the ultimate validation, a sign that you had arrived. With good reason, too! Only the best of the best performed at the venue. Legendary crooner and official "King of Cool", Dean Martin was one of the city's biggest music acts.
People flocked to see his performances in the Copa Room which were usually sold out. The showroom hosted some of the most iconic entertainers of the era. Stars like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole were also regulars at the Copa Room.
Mamie Van Doren at The Riviera Hotel
Starlet Marylin Monroe spawned a new kind of sex symbol in Hollywood – the sultry, blond bombshell. The blond bombshell was sexy and sophisticated, with an effortless charm that could disarm even the most reticent man. Monroe’s influence on Hollywood was evident when Mamie Van Doren appeared in her first-ever nightclub appearance at the Riviera Hotel in 1957.
She sang the song "Teddy Bear" in a memorable performance that was an unmistakable homage to Monroe – from the singing and clothes right down to the hairstyle. Van Doren is one among numerous actors who people have reductively (and rather unimaginatively) dubbed Marilyn Monroe clones.
Frank Sinatra at The Sands
Frank Sinatra’s shows at The Sands Hotel were so legendary that sometimes the singer himself couldn’t quite believe it. His first-ever live album, "Sinatra At The Sands," opens with the artist walking into the Copa Room, quipping about how so many people managed to squeeze into the room - around 600, to be precise!
Sinatra was a Las Vegas regular and would typically perform at the Sands about three times a year, often staying for two or three weeks at a time. Needless to say, his shows filled up the city bringing millions of dollars to the hotels and to the tables.
A Buzzing Freemont Street
Las Vegas and the Freemont Street experience are practically synonymous with each other. Freemont Street is one of the most famous landmarks in the city. You never know what you’ll discover on a walk down the street - it's always been a world in itself!
Named after famous explorer John Charles Frémont, the street is fittingly a mini-exploration of sorts! In 1955, cars whizzing down the street were a common occurrence. Of course, as the years went by and throughout the decade, the street got busier and busier. Visitors could soon find antiques, watch light shows, or indulge in free slot spins among other dizzying sights!
Sammy Davis Jr And Loray White’s Infamous Wedding
In 1957, musician Sammy Davis Jr was riding high on success. He was also quite the ladies’ man, and one lady in particular had caught his eye during this time – upcoming actor, Kim Novak. The two began dating each other in secret. But word soon got out and all hell broke loose. Goons - presumably hired by Novak’s studio executives - threatened Davis Jr., telling him to go find himself a Black woman.
Fearing for his life, the musician went and did just that. He and Loray White knew each other a little, which was seemingly enough for Davis Jr. The pair got married in 1958 and expectedly divorced soon after. The picture above also shows Joe E. Lewis, Harry Belafonte, and Donald O'Connor in attendance.
Joe Louis Signs
Joe Louis became a boxing sensation when he knocked out James J. Braddock on June 22, 1937. When other fighters managed an average reign of 3 years, Louis was world heavyweight champion for a whopping 12 years. His celebrity status skyrocketed in this time. Louis signed a contract with the Las Vegas Moulin Rouge Hotel 1954 where he would often appear for fans and do "tourist greetings."
Not many people know that he was among the original investors of the Moulin Rouge Hotel - the first non-segregated hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Louis wasn’t just a legendary boxer but also the first African American to become a national hero. He united people across color divides and backgrounds. His image was highly publicized and eventually became quite strictly managed.
Everybody loved showgirls. They were practically the face of the raunchy Vegas nightlife of the 1950s. These women or just "girls" as they called them would work constantly. Potentially, they would do up to three performances a night. Pictured here are some super-talented Vegas girls performing Jackpot at a casino in 1955. Over time, showgirls unofficially became the cultural icon of Vegas.
The now-famous Las Vegas Strip was just getting started, and as it grew, the competition became fierce. Every hotel on the Strip wanted to outdo each other with its own line of showgirls – each group more outrageously dressed (or sometimes not dressed) than the next. The girls opened and closed for headlining celebrities. Some even featured in elaborate chorus-girl productions.
Any retrospective of the 1950s would be incomplete without the incomparable Harry Belafonte. There was no denying his magnitude as a performer. His artistry was so compelling that it enabled him to do things no other Black performer could. Belafonte defiantly broke segregation laws that ruled Las Vegas during the era.
He could achieve this simply by virtue of his stature as a musician, smashing every racial barrier. Some rightfully credit Belafonte with helping pave the way for desegregation in the city. Here, he is pictured walking nonchalantly on the grounds of the Riviera Hotel & Casino where he played a four-week residency.
Jayne Mansfield With Her Dogs
Actor and singer Jayne Mansfield was always at home in Las Vegas. She was as vibrant and outrageous as the city, taking to it like a ship to the sea. While there are pictures galore of Manfield as a glamorous starlet, few capture just how effortlessly she belonged in Vegas like this 1959 picture.
She’s out and about in Sin City - not making media appearances but buying ice cream with her two dogs. Mansfield was an up-and-coming star. But a dearth of good roles kept her away from making Hollywood’s A-list. She also tragically died young, never having realized her full potential.
Actors Peter Lawford and Judy Holliday
Peter Lawford might have been a "Rat Pack" member, but he was always the odd one out. Unlike other pack members, he wasn’t very good at dancing or singing. Plus, there was the small matter of him being British - the only one in the group. Lawford was thrown out of the pack eventually but was still a defining presence in the entertainment world during the ‘50s.
He would often spend his time in Vegas. The actor also happened to be the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy. Here you can see him helping actress Judy Holliday out of a pool in the Sands Hotel in 1953. Lawford and Holliday would soon appear together in the romantic comedy “It Should Happen to You” (1954).
The Opera Singer
Celebrated opera singer Marguerite Piazza was a Las Vegas headliner originally born and raised in New Orleans. Piazza was also a radio and TV star during the 1950s, and she took her act on the road for 15 years from New York and Boston to Las Vegas.
As a Las Vegas regular, the opera singer transitioned into a jazz career, performing at the supper-club circuit in popular venues. But that’s only scratching the surface of what was a remarkable life and career. Piazza also had six children, survived cancer, saw four marriages and the deaths of her husbands, and rallied after losing a child under tragic circumstances.
The Dream Girl
Jayne Mansfield was a hugely iconic sex symbol in the 1950s and early 1960s. Everyone wanted to be her. She shot to fame after a minor part in the CBS show "Lux Video Theatre." Here, the actor poses by one of her absolute favorite spots in Las Vegas - the Dunes Hotel poolside in 1955.
Mansfield wasn’t just an actor and the very personification of a Hollywood blond bombshell. She was a singer and Playboy Playmate too. Mansfield more than made her mark in the cutthroat entertainment industry. But fans today might not know Mansfield as well as her famous daughter – actor Mariska Hargitay of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
After a successful career during the 30s and early 40s, Frank Sinatra hit a major slump. It was both Vegas and winning an Oscar for his performance in "From Here to Eternity" that turned his career around. It was also the time he had his very fiery and publicized marriage with actress Ava Gardner.
The two began dating while Sinatra was still legally married to his wife Nancy, even though they had been on and off for a while. Sinatra and Gardner’s fights were legendary, and they kissed and made up just as loudly. Here's the couple at the opening of his club in 1951.
Jon and Sandra Steele
Jon and Sandra Steele were regular Las Vegas fixtures in the 1950s. They fell in love and married in the 1930s and continued to partner together - not just for life but also as performers. They were a brilliant vocal duo. In this picture, Sondra helps fix her husband’s bow tie in their green room before a performance at the El Rancho in Vegas.
The couple skyrocketed to fame in 1948 after their rendition of “My Happiness” reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The song earned them the Cash Box award for Most Popular Jukebox Record and continued to dominate the charts for 30 weeks after. Jon passed away in 1987 while Sondra died in 1998.
Las Vegas has been the “quickie” wedding capital since the ‘50s, and the story behind how it got that name goes back even further. The city had always been lax about wedding requirements since the early 1900s. Unlike other states, Nevada didn’t need blood tests to prevent couples from marrying while inebriated – which is why everyone flocked here to get married.
But express weddings became a thing only in the 1930s when the state passed bills shortening the time needed before you could file for divorce. By the 1950s, the Vegas wedding industry was booming. Here we have a couple kissing after a Vegas wedding, with an official already handing over their easily-acquired marriage license.
Liberace and Elvis Presley Jamming
Elvis Presley and Liberace couldn’t seem more different on the surface at least. Liberace had been around the scene for years. A flamboyant pianist, everyone's (even your grandma's) favorite. And then you had Elvis Presley. Dangerously handsome. A rock n' roll artist with hips that mean business. He's the kind that could whisk your teenage daughter away into the night.
But the two artists had much more in common than one might think. Liberace and Elvis Presley were mutual fans of each other. They first met when Liberace went to see the king of Rock and Roll perform. Presley then got the opportunity to go see Liberace's act at the Riviera. The two reunited with a backstage jam in 1956. Many say they shared a mystical connection beyond their artistry.
Desert Tinsel Town
Some of the many retellings of Frank Sinatra’s life center not only on his music but the great loves of his lifetime. One of them was Lauren Bacall. On September 14, 1956, Sinatra got Bacall a three-tiered cake for her 32nd birthday and decorated it with the words ‘Happy Birthday Den Mother.’ Odd? Subliminal message?
Later, the world discovered that Bacall and Sinatra were having an affair while Bacall's husband, Humphrey Bogart was dying of cancer. The pair got engaged but Sinatra called it off. Bacall would later say he had done her a favor, saving her from the disaster their marriage would’ve been.
Elvis's Vegas Debut
Elvis Presley's first-ever Vegas concert took place in 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel. By then, his first hit “Heartbreak Hotel” and his first album were topping the charts. He’d also signed a film contract with Paramount Pictures. Everywhere he went, he attracted thousands of fans, most of them adoring teenage girls. Although dubbed the “atomic-powered singer” by newspapers, the Presley mania lost steam in Las Vegas.
The audience here wasn’t just different, it was indifferent. Polite but highly skeptical. His two-week Las Vegas debut was a rocky but critical moment in his career. Some say it was a deliberate move by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. He needed Presley to gain experience and serious credibility beyond the wild teenage audiences the musician had been used to so far.
Arlene Dahl and Fernando Lamas
It’s not an overstatement to say that Arlene Dahl was one of the most immaculate Hollywood stars of the 1950s. She never had a single strand of hair out of place and was always fashionably dressed. Her ex-husband, Argentinian star, Fernando Lamas would share after their divorce that it was like being married to Elizabeth Arden.
He had never seen her without makeup throughout their marriage. Dahl’s obsession with appearances limited the nature and number of roles Hollywood could offer her. But it served her well elsewhere. The fixation on beauty helped establish her wildly successful cosmetics and lingerie after the actor retired from movies.
Mansfield wasn't just a 1950s sex symbol but an accomplished musician and stage actress too. Plus, she was known for her incredible drive and razor-sharp pursuit of fame. Unwavering, some might add. Hollywood has seen a long line of Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. Mansfield was among the more successful heirs to that unenviable and frankly unattainable legacy!
Her nude pictorial in Playboy took the industry by storm. She also had an excellent Broadway run in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" What's more, this Vegas entertainer played the violin and the piano. She even appeared on a British TV show in 1957 where she recited a line or two from "Hamlet."
The Stardust Resort
Another iconic Las Vegas resort was the Stardust Resort and Casino that opened in the year 1958. The resort had the largest casino and swimming pool in the whole state of Nevada. But it was most famous for its large neon sign with “Stardust” written in what looked like an actual shower of stars.
You couldn’t miss the sign – all 188 ft of it towering in the distance for miles. Although it was originally an outer space-themed hotel, that concept quickly changed. Many flocked to the casino to see the topless showgirls. Rumor has it that it also attracted a fair amount of underground activity. The Stardust officially shut its doors in 2006 after having been in business for 48 years.
American singer and actor Eddie Fisher was massively famous in the 1950s. He sold millions of records and had his own TV show. Fisher was even married to Debbie Reynolds and then Elizabeth Taylor. His marriage to Taylor, as most of us know, created an international scandal - sometimes overshadowing his legacy as a performer.
The image above is from one of his greatest Vegas performances ever in 1958. Fisher was a singer at nightclubs before bursting onto the pop music scene. He delivered hit after hit between 1950 and 1956 until rock n’ roll suddenly became a phenomenon. Fisher’s pop music appeal subsequently began waning.
Mara Lane by the Pool
One of the most iconic photographs of British-Austrian actor Mara Lane is one of her in a red and white striped bikini by the pool at the Sands hotel. Shot by renowned photographer, Slim Aarons, the image is the very definition of Las Vegas celebrity glam during the 1950s.
This picture here is a rare behind-the-scenes picture of a picture. Aarons went (literally) to any lengths and heights for the perfect shot. Thank goodness for extending ladders. Lane’s star rose during the 1950s and early 1960s when she appeared in over 30 German and English language films. It’s odd that nobody seems to remember her now.
Fisher Strikes Back
Eddie Fisher’s marriage to Debbie Reynolds fell apart in 1958 when their close friend Mike Todd died in a plane crash. Todd was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. Fisher was there for Taylor as she grieved, and they eventually began an affair. The scandal sent ripples through Hollywood. It was all anyone in the film industry could talk about!
In 1959, Eddie Fisher left his wife and married Taylor in Las Vegas, just hours after his divorce. The couple actually got married in the Las Vegas synagogue, such was the urgency! Was Fisher being deliberately defiant? Perhaps it was his answer to all the wagging tongues. The divorce was devastating for Reynolds as she and Taylor had been best friends for years, or so she thought.
Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the first African American performers in Las Vegas to get equal treatment. Prior to that, these establishments wouldn't even host their talent and would give them boarding facilities outside the hotel. Davis Jr. was able to break color divides largely because of his friendship with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
It wasn’t just a social benefit but an entry point into a world he had always aspired to and had eluded so many Black artists. Getting in was half the battle won. His audience was entirely white. The clubs he performed at still served people of color away from the main bar. Here he is pictured with Clint Eastwood in 1959 at the Sands Hotel.
Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor Leaving Their Wedding
Elizabeth Taylor lost her previous husband, Mile Todd to a plane crash. She turned to her best friend Eddie Fisher. He became her shoulder to cry on. Next thing you know, they were having a secret affair. The pair got married but not before causing a Hollywood storm and alienating Debbie Reynolds – Fisher’s wife and Taylor’s best friend.
Safe to say that many hearts were broken along the way. Even theirs as they, unfortunately, divorced in 1964. History famously repeated itself. Taylor ended up having an affair with Richard Burton while the two were filming “Cleopatra.” She married Burton the same year she divorced Fisher.
Showgirl Golf Tournament
One never knew what to expect in Las Vegas in the 1950s. A place where celebrities, dancers, mobsters, and newly-married couples mingled under the Nevada night sky. And of course, there were the showgirls – the pinnacle of wild and “exotic” Vegas entertainment.
This one’s a rare picture of the girls without their elaborate costumes and regalia. Joy Skylar (left) and Florence Walters (right) seem to be enjoying some downtime as they get some practice in for a special showgirl golf tournament. The 1953 tournament featured 14 showgirls from seven different resort hotels in Vegas who competed at the Desert Inn Country Club.
The Golden Nugget
The Golden Nugget on Freemont Street was one of the hottest spots in Sin City. Built in 1946 by Guy MacAfee, it was the best and biggest gambling house in town bar none! McAfee soon became the most recognizable and feared hotshot in Las Vegas. The man reportedly spent more than $1 million to open the Golden Nugget casino on August 30.
What’s more, McAfee (a former cop) earned a reputation for doing anything for business, including breaking bread with the same brothels, mobs, and bootleggers he was otherwise tasked with shutting down! Real estate mogul Steve Wynn bought a share in the Nugget, by 1973 he was the main stakeholder and the youngest casino owner in the city.
Water Polo in a Vegas Pool
We might be stating the obvious here. But it's clear that Las Vegas has historically been a popular location for bachelor (and bachelorette) parties. And that tradition is still the case until this very day. In this photo, we can see a group of friends in a middle of a bachelor weekend, and the hotel they were staying at.
But specifically, these guys were celebrating their friend's imminent wedding with a fun game of water polo in the hotel's pool. However, they decided to put a little twist on the game, using a giant beach ball. They stayed at the famous Hotel Flamingo.
Vintage Travel Poster
Post-war America was brimming with possibility, and glamorous travel was high on everyone’s list. Posters and print ads were popular since the late 1800s but they really took off after the war and well into the 1970s. Las Vegas was a sought-after destination – where the sun shone bright, gambling was legal, wine flowed freely, and the nights were meant to be wild and free.
This America Vintage 1950s Travel Poster offers a window into the Vegas appeal and the glamour that came to define tourism during the period. Many of these posters – especially the works of poster artist David Klein – helped create the jet-setting lifestyle.
Mickey Rooney and Martha Vickers
Mickey Rooney’s love for Las Vegas is well-known. The entertainer dedicated most of his life to the colorful lifestyle and excess in Sin City. He loved the parties, the gambling, and the alcohol - all of which would eventually ruin him. Rooney also loved the ladies.
He married eight in his lifetime (each one a Vegas chapel wedding) including Martha Vickers pictured here, looking very displeased at what’s about to happen to her. Rooney never found lasting love and by the end of his life, his luck overall had run out. He became bankrupt. But when he performed his signature act under the bright lights of many Vegas stages, Rooney was a legend.
The Moulin Rouge
Built in 1955, The Moulin Rouge was the first integrated hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Before that, African Americans were denied entry unless they were staff or entertainers. The Moulin Rouge opened during a civil rights struggle in Las Vegas. The city’s Black residents sought equal rights to dine and stay in Strip hotels, challenging the city's segregation.
Led by investor Will Max Schwartz, the Moulin Rouge had boxer Joe Louis as its spokesperson and co-owner. It quickly became a hub for both black and white guests, including celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, as it was the only place in racially divided Las Vegas where entertainers of all races could socialize. The Moulin Rouge paved the way for more integrated establishments across the city and even the country.
Vegas brings out the happy in everyone but actor Kim Novak looks especially elated at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas. So, what exactly is happening here? The camera captured the exact moment when Novak yelled “You Win!” after placing a bet on a roulette wheel for Betty Craig, columnist for the Denver Post.
The winning bet was a No. 5. which Craig placed over the telephone. The columnist heard Novak’s excited cry over the phone, as she patiently waited while the wheel spun. Her winnings were an impressive $175, all of which went to the National Crippled Children’s Society.
Horse Race Betting Shops
America has had a tumultuous history with gambling and the social ills associated with it. We’ve seen numerous lottery scandals and frauds over the years. And who can forget the infamous Black Sox scandal in 1919? But horse racing (and betting on races) goes way back and has mostly remained legal across the United States.
Each state has its own regulations. Horse race betting remained popular even when Nevada legalized sports betting in 1949. It was common to find people flocking to one of the betting shops on the Strip. Many enjoyed the old-fashioned thrill of horse race betting while others needed a break from losses at the craps table.
Noel Coward looks handsome and dapper with the Nevada desert in the background. The image was taken in 1955 when Coward arrived in Las Vegas for his first American nightclub appearance. The British star had made quite a name for himself by then.
He was the veritable English gentleman – articulate, well-dressed, usually spotted with a cigar in one hand and witty one-liners on the ready. Coward was famous for his comedic acts comprising songs and delightful banter. He was also known for plays like “Private Lives,” “Blithe Spirit,” and “Hay Fever.” No surprise that the man had legions of fans and earned the nickname “The Master” in his lifetime.
The Mint Casino
Gamblers at The Mint casino in 1958. Think you’ve heard the name of the casino before? You probably have. This is the same casino featured in the 1972 Hunter S. Thompson novel, "Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas." The Mint was launched by Milton Prell in 1957. He had already worked on places like Club Bingo by then, revamped into the Sahara later on.
Prell didn't stick around long; he sold everything to Del Webb and the next year, they started working on a 22-story hotel that was meant to cost $5 million. When it was finished in 1965, it had grown to 25 floors and was the second tallest building in Nevada, right after The Landmark. Pictured above is practically a full house of gamblers playing slot machines in 1958.
Mae West Makes Her Debut
Mae West and Las Vegas were a natural match. She famously said, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," which could easily be the slogan for both her life and the bold desert playground that is and has always been Las Vegas. The actress, playwright, and comic known for her bawdy style of humor made her Vegas debut in Hotel Sahara in 1954. West took the stage surrounded by early versions of extravagantly muscular Chippendales.
But West’s reasons for ending up in Vegas were far less dreamy. Hollywood couldn't handle her. She had made a name in movies during the Great Depression, but Hollywood censors stepped in and basically ended her film career. While her screen career is a distant memory, she managed to forge a mightily successful career in the Vegas club scene.
Rita Hayworth and Dick Haymes
Rita Hayworth and Dick Haymes’s love story was a whirlwind. The two met when he was still married with a fading singing career. When Hayworth entered the scene and attended his performances, his audience suddenly grew. Money trouble hits Haymes hard – his many ex-wives demanded child support, even leading to arrest warrants. Hayworth stepped up and paid most of his debts.
The kicker? Haymes didn’t have U.S. citizenship and officials had been eyeing him for deportation back to Argentina. Haymes hoped Hayworth would step in and she did. In this picture, Hayworth signs their marriage license hours after Haymes divorced Nora Eddington Haymes. The pair married on September 24, 1953, at the Sands Hotel. The celebrations included a procession through the casino.
Aerial View of the Newly Completed Flamingo Hotel
Most of what we think we know about the Flamingo Hotel and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel comes from the 1991 movie “Bugsy “in 1991. The real deal was quite different – especially the opening night at the Flamingo in 1946. Forget what happened in the film because opening night was a big deal. They had a special three-night grand opening. First, two nights for the locals, then the third night for celebrities.
Opening night was wild – a traffic jam at the parking lot, and when the doors opened, it was like a rush to claim the Wild West. The opening party was unlike anything Vegas had seen. People described the Flamingo as “posh, ritzy, and elegant.” Carpets, draperies, and fancy dishes filled the place, as well as truckloads of flower decorations – wreaths, horseshoes, and baskets.
John F. Kennedy Visits
Prior to his presidency, John F. Kennedy often visited the Sands Hotel throughout the 1950s. As a friend of Frank Sinatra, the eventual 35th president would often show up at performances in Vegas. The two first met when Sinatra sang "The House I Live In," at a Democratic rally. The song won a special Oscar in 1946. Sinatra and Kennedy began hanging out more often – sometimes at the young senator’s hotel suite or at Sinatra’s Palm Springs home.
By then, the singer already owned a piece of the fancy Sands casino on the Vegas Strip. Here is Kennedy pictured with Peter Lawford, his brother-in-law, who was also a member of the famous Rat Pack. Sinatra and Kennedy both had something the other wanted. When Kennedy aimed for the presidency, the Rat Pack became his cheerleaders.
Annie Banks, famously known as "Tempest Storm," ruled the burlesque dance scene and was a regular performer in Las Vegas clubs. She even earned the title "The Queen of Exotic Dancers" during her prime. Born in Eastman, Georgia, in 1928, she moved to Hollywood and took on the name Tempest Storm when she turned 17. Soon, she landed an impressive deal: a 10-year contract with the Bryan-Engels burlesque chain, guaranteeing her $100,000 annually.
This made her the highest-paid burlesque star ever. In her personal life, Storm was romantically linked to famous names like Elvis Presley, Mickey Rooney, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and even gangster Mickey Cohen. Tempest Storm's career spanned more than 60 years, and she made her mark on screen too. Recently, she was featured in a documentary that explored her fascinating life story.
Since we’re time traveling back to the 1950s, a pitstop at a Junior Rodeo is always in order! Junior Rodeos were all the rage back then. Everyone wanted to watch pint-sized cowboys and cowgirls showcasing their rodeo talents with the same energy as the pros. From tiny bull riding to speedy barrel racing, these events were a blast.
Families and locals gathered to cheer on these young rodeo stars, passing down the cowboy spirit. Those junior rodeos in Vegas were the start of a legacy for aspiring rodeo masters. In 1952, the American Junior Rodeo Association was established in Texas with a similar model to the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn
When Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn first opened its doors in 1950, the deceptive sign in front featured a Joshua tree with not much ceremony around it. But inside was a different matter. Big-name entertainers were present, celebrating what they called "the most amazing opening Las Vegas had ever seen."
Opening night had performances by Edgar Bergan, Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, Vivian Blaine, and the Ray Noble Orchestra. The Desert Inn was the fifth resort ever built on the Strip. It featured mind-boggling amenities like an 18-hole golf course and a beautiful observation deck overlooking all the swimming pools. The hotel's entertainment hall, the "Crystal Showroom" hosted legends like Bobby Darin, Liberace, and Howard Hughs.
The Showboat Hotel
Not every hotel in Vegas was an automatic success or sensation. A few of them hit tougher times. Mostly due to location, location, location! One of them was the Showboat Hotel which opened in 1954 on the North End of the Boulder Strip. The hotel was constructed by Vegas stalwarts William J. Moore and J. Kell Houssels - the very same guys involved in building the Last Frontier Hotel Casino and the Las Vegas Club. But Showboat aimed to be different.
It was the first fancy place right in the heart of Sin City/ The hotel had some tough years until they came up with a super cheap breakfast deal that outdid competing establishments. Breakfast brought in the crowds. It was a hit with the local residents. The hotel was sadly demolished in 2015.
The Martin & Lewis duo was wildly popular and the two would do performances in Vegas often. Despite the duo’s success, issues started cropping up in their friendship. Martin thought Lewis was being too controlling about their work. He contemplated flying solo. Lewis really looked up to Martin and felt hurt that Martin wanted to leave.
They ended up not talking to each other anymore. The two still collaborated until 1956. On July 25, 1956, they did one last show together at the Copacabana before parting ways. Above is a picture of a better time when Martin and Lewis performed together for an ABC show. The duo collaborated for 10 years.
Sammy Davis Jr. and His Eye Patch
Sammy Davis Jr. lost his left eye in a horrific accident on November 15, 1954. He had been driving all night from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for a recording session. The accident occurred around 7 am when his car collided, and his face hit the metal steering wheel hub of his lime green Cadillac.
During that time, cars didn't come with seat belts like we have now. He ended up losing his eye due to the impact and wore a glass eye for the rest of his life. After recovery, Davis Jr. was back on stage. During the opening of his first performance back, the entertainer removed his eye patch and revealed his glass eye. He then continued as normal with the show. Here he is doing the act backstage.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson was a boxing legend from Michigan who ruled as the world welterweight champ from 1946 to 1951. They didn't call him “pound-for-pound the best” for nothing! Despite making millions in the ring, the boxer faced financial troubles by the mid-1960s. But he didn't back down and found a new calling - showbiz.
Here we see Robinson with future boxing stars Greg Genochio and Jimmy Gay. They seem to be getting boxing tips! That the gloves seem bigger than both kids combined makes it all the more endearing! Although he did a fine job at dancing, Robinson would always be remembered for his moves in the ring.
Aside from roaring parties in hotels and casinos, Nevada was also a test site for nuclear explosions. In case we forget, there was a military base there too! The test pictured here was conducted on July 5, 1956, and tested the explosion of a 75-kiloton device from a balloon.
From 1951 to 1992, the United States government carried out a whopping 1,021 nuclear tests in Nevada. 100 were done in the air and 921 were conducted underground. The government even set up special places to test nuclear rockets and ramjet engines. That’s quite a history of scientific exploration alongside the pleasures of Vegas.
Sinatra Owned a Casino
When Sinatra's career was going through a rough patch and only the casinos run by the mob were willing to host him, he started performing in Las Vegas. Sinatra's luck turned in 1952 when he nabbed an Oscar for his role in “From Here to Eternity.” The victory was a win for both him and Las Vegas.
Whenever Sinatra stepped onto the stage of a Vegas hotel, the crowds flocked in. Las Vegas became his playground. He was even more involved than you might think, holding a 2 percent stake in the Sands hotel. Sinatra was the ideal casino owner because he was an avid gambler himself! Here we can see him dealing in baccarat at the Sands Casino in 1959.
After multiple failed developments, the Charles Pop-owned site was sold and the Flamingo Hotel and Casino were erected in 1946 by Bugsy Siegel. Siegel was particularly drawn to Las Vegas in 1945 thanks to his keen interest in legalized gambling and off-track betting. He bought the El Cortez hotel for $600,000 and sold it for a $166,000 profit.
Thanks to this money and a little help from his buddies in organized crime, Siegel took over the Flamingo Hotel project. It was the first luxury hotel in the area and was supposedly named after Siegel's girlfriend Virginia Hill who was nicknamed "Flamingo." Why flamingo? Because she had flaming hair and legs that supposedly went on for miles.
Louis Prima With His Wife and Musical Partner Keely Smith
The Louisiana native, Louis Prima AKA "the King of Swing" was a popular entertainer in Vegas lounges in the '50s. The trumpeter even moved there with his wife, Keely Smith. Success came calling for Prima during the roaring 1920s when he rocked the stage with a seven-piece New Orleans crew. The maestro moved and grooved with the times.
The 1930s saw him leading a swing combo and by the 1940s, he was conducting a full-blown big band. But here's where it gets really interesting: in the 1950s, he swapped his big band vibes for a swanky lounge band that lit up the Las Vegas nights. The club in which he performed was constantly packed. Prima was even invited by Sinatra to perform at Kennedy's inauguration party.
The First Ocean's Eleven
Las Vegas was home to many iconic film productions, most notably, the heist film "Ocean's Eleven." Filming took place in 1959 and starred Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Angie Dickinson. Although the movie oozed "cool" in every frame, people shrugged it off as a fancy home movie for the Rat Pack.
After all, they shot this flick while juggling their nightly gigs at the glamorous Sands Hotel. The movie had all sorts of inside jokes that only the pack would get. What's more, a good chunk of the script wasn't even scripted! The Rat Pack, being the nonchalant trailblazers they were, just went with the flow and improvised their way through scenes.
Liberace Comes to Town
In 1955, Liberace visited Las Vegas for one of his iconic stints at the Riviera. He famously stopped to admire the trees at Marylin Parkway. Guests would visit the spot 32 years later for his memorial service. Liberace and Vegas went back a long way. He had his first show in November 1944.
It was a place where he shaped his amazing stage persona and evolved as an artist and human being. Liberace reigned supreme in Las Vegas for decades. When he passed away, cool vintage collectibles, custom cars, and fancy outfits went into a museum that Liberace fans and music lovers flock to today. This museum funds scholarships for aspiring musicians or artists.
The El Cortez
This is one of the oldest hotels still standing in Vegas today. The hotel opened its doors for business in November 1941 and is currently on the National Register of Historic Places. At first, everyone thought the place was a tad too far from downtown but it turned quickly into a money-making machine.
Casino bigwigs like Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum, and Moe Sedway couldn't resist. They got together and snagged the property in 1945 for a cool $600,000 from J. Kell Houssels, the previous owner. While the interior has been revamped countless times, the exterior has remained largely the same.
Actor Debra Paget was famous for performances in films like Cecil B. DeMille's classic "The Ten Commandments", "Love Me Tender" and the risque snake dance in "The Indian Tomb." But her film career had begun way before when she was just 15. The moment that changed everything for Paget was when she landed a role alongside James Stewart in the 1950 western flick called “Broken Arrow.”
She caught the attention of 20th Century Fox who offered her a contract. Paget would become one of their biggest stars. At one point in her career, Paget was regarded as the woman who received more fan mail than Marylin Monroe. 1956 rolled around, and she shared the screen with Elvis Presley in “Love Me Tender” the musical. Presley himself called her "the most beautiful girl in the world." They almost dated but Paget's mother was having none of it.
Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher Get Married
Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher tied the knot at Temple Beth Shalom on May 12, 1959. This was Taylor's third marriage and Fisher's second. Fisher at one point had his own TV show and was a successful singer too. The affair and marriage to Taylor negatively impacted Fisher's career.
They called him an opportunistic philanderer and loser, among other colorful insults. The actor was also struggling with substance abuse which affected his life and work. His last movie was “Butterfield 8,” alongside Taylor in 1960. Decades later, Fisher would share in an interview that it had never been his intention to allow his romantic life to take over every other aspect. He was aware that his legacy would forever be remembered that way.
Welsh singer Shirley Bassey is best known for belting out iconic Bond classics like "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Goldfinger." Here she is, hanging out with her sidekick Skunky in her dressing room at Pontypridd Town Hall on July 3, 1957. People often liken her to Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland. In 1957, she hit the charts with "The Banana Boat Song."
But it was her powerhouse performance of "Goldfinger" in 1964 that shot her to global stardom. Her voice, already a sensation in the UK, found a whole new audience in America. And that was just the start – she later nailed other Bond classics like "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker," turning her into a household name.
Judy Garland and Her Daughter
Audiences at this show were in for a treat. Judy Garland, the superstar, surprised everyone during a performance. She spotted her daughter in the audience and brought her up to sing 'Jingle Bells' together. Heartwarming! Garland's kids were regular fixtures at her shows. She had Liza Minnelli in 1946, Lorna Luft in 1952, and a son, Joey, in 1955.
The kids were always around, mixing with other celebrity kids. Rita Hayworth's kids often dropped by to hang out. Judy Garland was a true talent – an actress, singer, dancer, and vaudevillian. While she’s received acclaim for many roles in her career, she’s most well-known as the iconic Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). That role made her unforgettable.
Defying the Odds
The 1950s were a pivotal decade in Las Vegas, and we have a lot to thank the early pioneers who laid the foundations for the tourist hub that Vegas is today. After the Second World War, the American economy was in flux. Las Vegas defied the odds and only grew. The city boomed with population growth.
Luxury hotels and casinos sprouted like wildflowers. Bugsy Siegel started the trend of setting up swanky spots on the Strip and others followed suit. This era attracted big names – movie stars, music legends, and celebs, each one drawn to Las Vegas for its endless potential. The Bank of Las Vegas joined the scene, making history by lending to casinos for the first time.
Up and Atom City
From the 1940s onward, Las Vegas experienced a military boom as World War II bases would now give way to Cold War facilities, most famously the Nevada Test Site. Mushroom clouds were often seen from the hotel windows, and postcards were sold that proclaimed Las Vegas the “Up and Atom City.” But how did this come about?
During the early days of the atomic age, nuclear fission became a symbol of modernity and moving forward. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce rebranded Vegas as the “Atomic City” to draw in more tourists. People regularly gathered on desert hilltops for "bomb viewing parties.” And if you wanted to do it in style, the Sky Room at the Desert Inn was the only place to be!
Las Vegas and Its Signature Design
Vegas's impact on the world of gambling can partly be attributed to its casinos' designs and with it, the world of glitz and glamour. This only fuelled the demand for more gambling establishments to be built, each more dazzling than the next. Behind the glitz and glamour of every casino lies a careful and deliberate design. world.
Most people notice the obvious stuff, but a casino's power to create an alternate reality goes deeper than the thrill of betting against the odds. From the flashy lights to the "cha-ching!" sound of a jackpot, easy access to bars or the never-ending maze of slot machines – these aren’t just random elements. Vegas perfected the design and appeal of casinos in the 1950s, which is why people just kept coming back for more!
In the late 19th century, Las Vegas was a desolate desert, but by the 1950s, this growing city had truly shaken off that image and formed its own identity. The American gambling city is often mocked for looking 'tacky' or 'flashy.' Rather than ignoring this, Las Vegas has embraced it fully.
Vintage Vegas went through three different phases - the 1950s pool showdown, the 1960s sign showdown, and the 1970s porte-cochere showdown. During the ‘50s, a rectangular swimming pool was too basic – it transformed into a cool oasis shaped like a letter, complete with amazing underwater cocktails and groovy music tunes.
Golfers Celebrating Wins
During the swinging 1950s in Las Vegas, something more than just slot machines and neon lights captured everyone's attention. High-profile golf tournaments. The one at the iconic Desert Inn was highly sought after. The present-day Sentry Tournament of Champions was born here in 1953.
The field comprised 20 highly-accomplished golfers, all winners from the previous year. Although the prize money today goes for millions, winners of the first tournament barely earned five figures. The tournaments were big draws for golfers nonetheless. A chance to get their name on the map and enjoy a slice of that coveted Vegas life.
Mario Lanza made it big during the 1940s and 1950s as an exceptional tenor and Hollywood star. Here he is, spotted in Las Vegas while on vacation. Lanza started singing at 15. It was clear that he was destined for fame. MGM's bigwig, Louis B. Mayer, signed him in 1947 after a Hollywood Bowl hit.
His film debut, "That Midnight Kiss," made an opera song massively popular. In "The Toast of New Orleans," his song "Be My Love" instantly became a million-seller. He also portrayed Caruso in "The Great Caruso" (1951), with another hit, "The Loveliest Night of the Year." The movie ruled the box office that year.
More Hotels on the Strip
Vegas witnessed an explosion in nightlife during the 1950s. The Strip saw new additions, like the iconic Thunderbird Hotel, the Desert Inn, and the Silver Slipper. A wave of new establishments emerged in rapid succession: the Sahara (1952), Sands (1952), Royal Nevada (1955), Riviera (1955), Dunes (1955), Hacienda (1956), Tropicana (1957), and Stardust (1958).
This growth extended beyond the Strip, giving rise to properties like the Showboat (1954), Fremont (1956), and the revolutionary Moulin Rouge (1955). Additionally, commercial and residential developments developed north and east of Charleston. Boulevard.
Model and actor Kitty Dolan epitomized the glitz and glam of the 1950s in Las Vegas. She wasn't just another face in the crowd, as evident from this photograph. The camera captures Dolan in the doorway sharing an intimate moment with a friend.
Dolan was at the heart of entertainment in Vegas although cinephiles remember her best for “The Tonight Show” (1953) and “How to Marry a Millionaire" (1957). She also appeared alongside "The King" Elvis Presley in the Paramount film “King Creole.” Some of the most unforgettable pictures from the era feature Dolan and Presley together, working and hanging out in the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Nevada wasn’t all Hollywood glamour and bright lights during the ’50s. Lest we forget, the state was also the site for Operation Project 56 – a series of four nuclear tests conducted by the United States Government between 1955 and 1956. They carried out four nuclear tests over at the Nevada Test Site after Operation Wigwam and just before Operation Redwing.
Pictured here is a group checking out the very first nuclear test of '55, happening right there in Las Vegas, Nevada. They watched as the initial atomic bomb was set off from a high-flying plane. After a slight delay, this particular blast finally kicked off the 1955 nuclear tests. They dropped the bomb at noon, despite facing strong winds and snow at 3 p.m.
Show Girl Culture
During the 1950s many female performers were expected to hang out with the high rollers after their performances. With showgirls, it was the opposite; they were placed on a pedestal, and it was decidedly difficult to play arm candy from a pedestal. Showgirls initially took the stage before and after the main acts, often dancing around the featured performer.
As time went on, they shifted from being supporting acts to rightfully becoming the main stars of the show. Extravagant showgirl performances were synonymous with Vegas in the 1950s. Times and tastes have now changed, and many former showgirls struggle to find work.
Weddings in Las Vegas
Las Vegas became one of the country's most popular venues for "goin' to the chapel." Back then, it was considered very elegant to get married in Vegas, how times have changed! Getting married in Vegas wasn’t just exciting, it was aspirational of sorts.
Several celebrities chose Sin City as a marriage destination during the 1950s - from silent film stars to iconic Hollywood actors. But the most high-profile Vegas marriage of the time was that of Elvis and Priscilla. Celebrity weddings of the 1950s soon became an unspoken trend that included singer Dick Haymes and Rita Hayworth, and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
The Queen of Rock and Roll
We know Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, but what about the Queen of Rock and Roll, Lillian Briggs? As fabulous and equally talented, if not more so. Her single, “I Want You To Be My Baby,” was everyone's favorite earworm. Briggs, a former truck driver, skyrocketed to stardom in the mid-50s. Several musicians of the time transitioned to rock and roll for more publicity.
Briggs was an early trendsetter. By 1955, she was already garnering global attention as the "Queen of Rock and Roll." Even though she changed music genres, her trombone (her first love) was a constant companion through the 50s and 60s. In this rare photo, she is seen giving a fierce performance at the Sands Hotel in 1958. She didn't rely on rock n roll alone as a performer. Briggs leaned into swing rhythms, scat calling, blues, and big band influences too.
Evel Knievel was the ultimate daredevil and motorcycle stunt artist, wowing audiences with death-defying tricks. When Evel was young, he frequently got into trouble with the law for motorcycle theft. Dubbed "Evil Knievel" by law enforcement, he later tweaked the moniker to "Evel Knievel." Evel dropped out of school and pursued odd jobs, including a stint in the Butte mines.
Here, he inadvertently triggered an incident, crashing an earth mover into the city's main power source while attempting a wheelie! Pictured here is Evel attempting to jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The jump was around 141 feet, and unfortunately, Knievel didn’t make it. Knievel crashed and wound up in a coma for 28 days.
Meet Vegas Vic
You’ve probably seen this large neon cowboy a few times in movies or on TV. This guy is Vegas Vic. Vic came to life in 1951, a whole eight years before the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign greeted visitors. Created by an artist named Pat Denner, the snazzy 40-foot sign was the idea of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.
Vic was going to shine bright and give Vegas more publicity. Soon, he became an indispensable part of the Pioneer Club, a popular casino and cocktail bar on the Strip in Las Vegas that opened in 1942. Vic is arguably one of the most popular sights in Sin City even today. It isn’t Vegas without Vegas Vic setting the mood!
The Main Strip
Even if you haven’t visited the Las Vegas Strip, you can easily conjure up an image. Grand resorts, bustling casinos, and neon lights that could rival the sun. Crowds of people merrymaking with wild abandon. Entertainment that's in a league of its own. Historians peg the birth of Las Vegas in 1905.
The land was dusty and undeveloped, nothing like the glitzy wonder it is today. Captured here are the Golden Nugget, the Lucky Strike Club, and the infamously named Hotel Apache. If people back in the 1950s thought these lights were bright and dazzling, they'd probably be blown away by the overwhelming glare in Las Vegas that we see nowadays.
While America was reeling, the Hotel Apache managed to create a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors in its heyday. The hotel was the first to introduce air-conditioned lobbies and curtain-like air barriers at the entrance. It had beautiful stained-glass windows too.
The hotel was a pioneer in Vegas since it was the only one to feature an elevator, deck its casino out in full carpeting, and popularize poker as a mainstream casino game. Benny Binion later took the reins, turning the place into a haven for Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Lucille Ball.
Aerial View of Las Vegas
This aerial shot was taken back when Las Vegas was calmer than chaos when one would mostly see potential instead of pandemonium. From this aerial view, we can see what Las Vegas was about to become. You might even feel that the city is gaining steam and that the resort industry is a lucrative town feature.
Nevada became the first state to legalize gambling in 1931. Believe it or not, it was only one Las Vegas club downtown that initially received a temporary license for gambling. Just the one. Soon, a stretch of road (Highway 91) began getting attention as a gambling haven. The road was a few miles long which people had nicknamed “The Strip.”
Despite gambling being legalized in Nevada in 1931, race and sports betting still walked the shady line between semi-legal and illegal. Race betting was the purview of illegal bookies or secret turf clubs. Some of these clubs – like the Saratoga and the Derby clubs – were highly lucrative.
With little to no competition and Las Vegas attracting gambling lovers everywhere, it was only a matter of time before race betting became a big draw. In 1951, the federal government imposed a 10% tax on the state’s legal tax books that at once regulated the industry and drove some operators out of business. Pictured here is one of the many thriving betting shops in Vegas for horse racing.
College of Gambling
Have you ever wondered how casino dealers get so good at what they do? Experience and training, of course. But during the 50s, Las Vegas took it even further and introduced a dice gambling class for dealers at the College of Gambling. This college taught dealers everything they needed to know: how to deal at tables and how to deal with gamblers of all kinds and there were many.
The high-stakes gamblers and thrill seekers, the first-timers and enthusiastic onlookers. As the city experienced a major boom in visitors, there were soon more jobs than people! Many flocked to Nevada and Las Vegas for a chance to work in a booming city and rub shoulders with the rich and famous.
El Rancho Hotel
El Rancho – built by Thomas Hull - was the first resort on the Las Vegas Strip, which would become the southwest corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. Right from the start, Hull visualized building a ranch-style property. It would have a showroom, a casino, rooms people could drive up to, sprawling lawns, and a swimming pool.
Hull knew that people driving from Southern California would be exhausted and hot after being on the road. “El Rancho” aimed to be the oasis in the desert everyone needed. The hotel’s windmill signage would soon become its trademark – its neon lights visible for miles. On June 17, 1960, a fire destroyed El Rancho's main building, and El Rancho laid vacant for years.