Players on the Strip

The Las Vegas Strip of the 1940s and 1950s epitomized its times. Hollywood was peaking and television was entering every household, and Las Vegas enjoyed close ties to Los Angeles and Hollywood. Highway 91 provided the majority of visitors from Los Angeles, and Hollywood stars were frequent visitors and performers. Just as Walt Disney capitalized on the media and catered to fantasy by opening Disneyland in 1955, Las Vegas hotels offered their own fantasyland of luxury and the chance to rub elbows with the famous and beautiful.

The famous and beautiful also entertained the visitors. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and their "Rat Pack" were classic examples of Las Vegas showroom performers, but they were hardly unique. While many of today's Strip resorts boast elaborate production shows and concert-style appearances by big-name entertainers doing one show a night on weekends, earlier operators harkened to vaudeville or reminded customers of Ed Sullivan's variety show—again, giving the suburban audience what they were used to at home—by providing 8 p.m. dinner and midnight cocktail shows that included the headliner, an opening act (a singer would open for a comedian and vice versa), dancers, and sometimes a novelty act.

While many of the entertainers were impressive talents, what mattered most to the casino owners were the gamblers they drew to their shows. Thus, they experimented with acts that might attract players (Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, for example) and quickly turned away from those who didn't (one of the biggest bombs in Strip history, Wally Cox, a television star, proved unable to translate that popularity into showroom counts). Liberace proved an exception: his audiences were mostly housewives, but their husbands gambled, and that justified making him the highest-paid star on the Strip—he received $50,000 a week to open the Riviera in 1955.

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