Money, stars, and myths

By Peter Pollack

Las Vegas has more than its share

Every major city has its share of legends. Las Vegas, with a history of stars, gangsters, dreams, and, of course, cash, may have more legends than most.

It’s not true, for example, that casinos pump extra oxygen through the air conditioning to keep patrons from tiring, or that devout gamblers once poured “holy” water into the coin slots.

As the Academy returns to Las Vegas for the first time in two decades, AAOS Now probes some prominent myths and legends to find the facts.

Popular mythology has gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel founding the first casino in Las Vegas, planting the seeds for all that exists today. In reality, two resorts were already here when Siegel held his grand opening at the Flamingo on December 26, 1946. The El Rancho Vegas, a resort and casino, had been running a healthy business just outside the city limits since 1940.

Built by William R. “Billy” Wilkerson in 1945 at a cost of more than $6 million, the Flamingo featured the area’s first air conditioning system and had some unusual design features. The resort was built around the casino so patrons would have to regularly pass through it, the casino lacked windows and clocks, and gaming tables and chairs were specially designed for comfort.

What Mr. Siegel did contribute was a level of glamour and star power. He used his ties to organized crime to obtain building materials, and funded the purchase of those materials by selling nonexistent stock. He invited movie stars to the grand opening. Although only a few showed up, their visit laid the groundwork for making Las Vegas the star attraction it is today.

Howard Hughes

In a city of eccentricities, millionaire Howard Hughes still rates as one of Las Vegas’ most bizarre personalities. Arriving in 1966, Mr. Hughes booked two floors for 10 days at the Desert Inn—then refused to leave. He purchased the hotel and made it his home. When the Silver Slipper sign annoyed him, he purchased the casino and altered the sign so it would not cast light into his room.

A notorious night owl, Mr. Hughes enjoyed watching television into the early hours, going so far as to purchase the local CBS affiliate station. But he often took so long to make his movie selections, the station couldn’t publish a reliable schedule.

Tithing with chips?

One old legend—reinforced recently through Internet spam—is that Las Vegas churches receive so many casino chips in their collection plates that they send them to a nearby monastery for sorting. At least one church actually did have a Fran¬≠ciscan friar on staff who was regularly tagged to make the rounds and cash in the chips. In the spirit of the legend, he became known around town as the “chip monk.”