Editor’s Note: In the past, author David G. Schwartz has taken us through the history of gambling from the dawn of time and gotten up close and personal with Jay Sarno, the eccentric builder of Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. In his latest book, At the Sands, Schwartz brings the reader on a trip to the Sands, possibly the most iconic of the classic Las Vegas casinos.
At the Sands: The Casino That Shaped Classic Las Vegas, Brought the Rat Pack Together, and Went Out With a Bang traces the history of the Sands from before its inception (including the early involvement of one of the Strip’s usually unsung heroes) to beyond the property’s June 30, 1996 closure and subsequent implosion to make way for the Venetian. Along the way, the book weaves in stories about the casinos and those who frequented it, from the Rat Pack to Lucille Ball to Apollo astronauts.
From the start, the Sands involved several personalities: Jake Freedman, who had arrived in America destitute but by dint of his personality had become a beloved gambling operator and racehorse owner, was its president and public face. Jack Entratter, who had been a part-owner and general manager of New York’s Copacabana nightclub, was in charge of entertainment at the Sands. He was the visionary behind the Copa room, which quickly became the hottest showroom on the Strip—or in the country.
In this excerpt, Schwartz discusses the (to that point) brief history of casino openings on the Las Vegas Strip, the delicate balance between the Sands’s principals, and preparations for the Sands’ own grand opening on December 15, 1952.
By 1952, Las Vegas casino openings had come a long way. At the 1941 opening of Thomas Hull’s El Rancho Vegas, the big attraction was the roast beef, coated in two inches of rock salt and slowly cooked over charcoal. Colonel Bob Russell led a cowboy singalong at the sneak-peek preview, while Hull brought out what were no doubt to him the big guns for the grand opening, a smorgasbord of talent that included the resident El Rancho Orchestra, Pierre Carta and his Desert Caballeros, singer Lorraine de Wood, and dancers Dan Hoctor and Petite Chiquita.
Five years earlier, the Flamingo had boasted Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat as its debut stars. In 1950, the Desert Inn opened its doors with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen supported by future Guys and Dolls star Vivian Blaine and comic duo Abbott and Costello. That was the bar that Freedman and Entratter had to, at bare minimum, meet.
Onstage performances were only part of the opening, though. They were important in establishing the casino as a glamorous, prestigious place for the tourists, but this was arguably the least important group that owners courted at the opening. They worried far more about making a good impression on the national media. Favorable press notices were vital to building a name for the Sands in an era when casinos did not advertise much.
The press junket would be one of the most potent tools in publicist Al Freeman’s arsenal over the years. It was a self-evident business expense to fly 146 radio, television, magazine, and newspaper personalities into Las Vegas for the opening, with accommodations, food, and drinks all on the house, as well as 25 silver dollars, to gamble as they wished—or not. Needless to say, the opening would get national publicity far in excess of its actual newsworthiness.
The most important group that the opening was designed to lure, however, was significantly more discriminating than the eating press. They also had the potential to make or break a new casino far beyond that of the kinds of people who got their news from newspapers. These were the gamblers. The word, as men like Freedman and Entratter would use it, didn’t mean simply one who wagers on a game of chance. A hotel guest betting a dollar on roulette or his wife putting a nickel in a slot machine was not, in their minds, a gambler; they were mere tourists, to be tolerated and even humored, but never truly respected.
A gambler, to them, was someone who bet enough to hurt the house. Today, they might be called a high roller or even a whale, but back then, just “gambler,” spoken with the right inflection, did the job. It was a term of respect: Being called a gambler meant you had not just the means and the fortitude to bet big, but also the confidence that, if you lost big, you were good for it. A gambler was only as good as his reputation, and in those days, a gambler would protect his reputation with his life. Being discovered as a cheat might fog that reputation, more for the clumsiness of being caught than any ethical concerns over the purity of the game. Not paying an honestly incurred debt would destroy it. For men of certain aspirations, being known as a gambler was more precious than any material wealth.
Though the law of averages said they must, in the end, lose, these men (and, in 1952, “gamblers” were exclusively male, though a not insignificant number of women gambled) could make or break a casino with their play. First, they could drop enough money to make a significant dent in the casino’s significant overhead. Second, their visible presence would give the place legitimacy. Gamblers of this magnitude were known and respected by the savvier tourists, and even if they couldn’t approach a professional’s bankroll, being able to say that you gambled alongside Nick the Greek, or at least in the same room as him, was a hell of a story to tell back in Winnetka.
All the theatrics around Ben [Bugsy] Siegel aside, Meyer Lansky and his partners [who ran the Flamingo] approached their business rationally and systematically. No need to shout or threaten when the right look would do. And it bears saying that Lansky might have been the guy who put the “organized” in organized crime. Since that impromptu conference in an Atlantic City hotel back in 1929, with a few exceptions like the case of Siegel, reason had ruled the day. That meant everyone had a crystal-clear idea of what they were doing, and what their partners were doing.
The Sands, therefore, had a clearly demarcated division of labor. Jack Entratter had final responsibility for entertainment, food, drinks, and publicity—all the things that could attract and keep happy the tourists and media. Jake Freedman had a less well-defined but no less important remit: to serve as ambassador both to the gamblers and the cowboys who dominated Nevada politics. Entratter was Broadway and Hollywood, Freedman Houston, Dallas, and Carson City. Finally, Ed Levinson was casino manager, keeping the gamblers coming. No one cared much who grabbed which headline, who schmoozed which Hollywood star. All that mattered was money in the drop boxes—and that enough of it found its way back to New York, Miami, and parts unknown.
With so much money poured into the Sands, Freedman and Entratter were careful to accommodate the cowboys. They hired longtime local Matt Howard, who was also a member of the state boxing commission and a member of the Sheriff ’s Mounted Posse, to oversee the bar. That gave Howard power to hire two dozen bartenders and a smaller number of bar backs and porters. Making sure some of those jobs were reserved for the sons, sons-in-law, and nephews of well-connected power brokers would go a long way to keeping the cowboys on the Sands’ side.
In that cooperative spirit, Freedman was perfectly happy to cede booking of the opening to Entratter, who in turn was equally sanguine when Freedman strode through the casino, tossing out thousand-dollar bills to wide-eyed tourists.
The important thing, Entratter knew, was to begin building anticipation. At the end of the night, the business was always the same: people dressed in their finest, they drank, they ate. Entertainers entertained. Then the lights went up and everyone went home. To make a night out really magical, you had to build anticipation. The Sands’ opening didn’t just mean there would be a seventh major resort on what was sometimes called the Las Vegas Strip, but was usually still known as the Los Angeles Highway: it was going to be the greatest event in the history of entertainment.
In Entratter’s hands, even mundane human resources matters became newsworthy. In late November, from California to Georgia, papers devoted a few column inches to a simple fact: Jack Entratter was hiring dancers. The set formula for shows in Las Vegas those days was a headliner and a few complementary supporting acts: a singer with a comedy trio, a pianist, maybe a juggler. And a line of dancing women—the legendary Las Vegas showgirls—was essential. Entratter dubbed the Sands’ chorus line the Copa Girls. They would be advertised alternately as “the most beautiful women in the world,” and “the most beautiful women in the West.” And the fact that 415 dazzling young women had descended on the under-construction Sands to audition for the 14 spots on the line became national news, thanks in part to the pouting, hopeful photo of Lorraine Carol, the first in line for the interview, circulated by publicist Al Freeman.
Similarly, Entratter turned a series of construction slowdowns that had pushed the opening back from mid-November to December to his advantage. Days before the December 15 preview opening, both the New York News and Hollywood Reporter made it known that the former Copacabana boss was paying 115 construction workers $15,000 a day in overtime to get the resort ready on time. An event worth that kind of investment couldn’t be missed.
Demand indeed outstripped supply. In November, Entratter announced that he had already had to turn down hundreds of requests for New Year’s. By the time the casino was actually open, he was able to say that he and Freedman were deep into plans to double the hotel’s capacity to 400 rooms. Anticipation was that high.
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