Old Las Vegas Photos Capture Sin City’s History
In less than a century, Las Vegas has established itself as one of the world’s most iconic hubs of nightlife and entertainment. The Nevada city is known for casinos, weddings and a fair amount of organized crime. Whether you’ve been to Vegas or not, you’ll be familiar with some of its most famous faces and stories as seen in these old Las Vegas photos (but remember: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”).
Ready? Let’s buckle up for a trip to classic Sin City.
A Single Street Of Entertainment
In 1931, work began on the huge Boulder Dam, later renamed the Hoover Dam, just east of Las Vegas. Among other things, it supplies water and power to Los Angeles and other cities in the Southwest. During construction, thousands of workers set up temporary homes, and casinos and showgirl venues opened on Fremont Street — then the town’s only paved road — to keep them entertained.
The World’s Biggest Stage
When the Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, it was the highest dam in the world. It’s as tall as a 60-story building, and its base is as thick as the length of two football fields.
This 1957 image of the Rhythmettes, a Las Vegas high school precision dance troupe, shows the scale of the construction.
Las Vegas is well-known for quick, last-minute weddings thanks in part to the state’s lack of mandatory waiting period between applying for a marriage license and receiving the go-ahead to legally wed. And from the early 1900s, Nevada was also a place where couples could get a quickie divorce. One woman who took advantage of this was Maria Gable, the estranged wife of screen icon Clark Gable, who received her formal divorce decree at Las Vegas County Courthouse on March 7, 1939.
Wealthy heir Thomas Warner Jr. and divorcee Jean MacDonald married in an airplane elopement in Las Vegas on April 28, 1938. (This was after Warner hired a detective to ensure MacDonald wasn’t only in it for the money.) After the ceremony, the happy couple took their honeymoon to New York and Bermuda on the Union Pacific streamliner.
Main Street, Las Vegas, Early 1900s
The Overland Hotel was established in 1905 on Main Street, with little surrounding it. By 1939, the street was beginning to take shape, with the addition of bars and cafes. The area continued to expand, but in 1949 the Las Vegas Club moved into the Overland, and eventually took over the whole building. After a 66-year run, the Las Vegas Club closed on August 20, 2015.
To get a quickie divorce in Nevada, you had to satisfy a six-week residence requirement. To pass the time, soon-to-be singletons turned to the roulette table. The Apache Casino was one of the divorce contingent’s favorite hangouts.
(More) Wedding Bells For Stan Laurel
Funnyman Stan Laurel was married to his second wife, Virginia Ruth Laurel, from 1935 to 1937. After they divorced, Stan was briefly married to Russian singer Vera Ivanova Shuvalova. After they divorced, Stan and Virginia remarried in the surprise ceremony pictured here in Las Vegas in 1940.
Lana Turner And Artie Shaw Elopement
Another A-list couple who wed in Vegas were film star Lana Turner and band leader Artie Shaw. They eloped in Sin City in February 1940 (Shaw happened to be engaged to Betty Grable at the time), but the marriage was short-lived. Turner ended up being one of eight — Shaw also married Ava Gardner, Evelyn Keyes, Kathleen Winsor and Betty Kern.
Mobster Bugsy Siegel’s Role In Building The Vegas Strip
Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (center) was a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. The start of his Vegas gambling operation began with the notorious Flamingo Hotel and Casino. In 1940, Siegel was indicted for the murder of his associate and childhood friend Harry Greenberg, but the case was dropped later that year due to a lack of evidence.
Judy Garland And Dave Rose
On July 28, 1941, actress Judy Garland and musician Dave Rose got married after eloping to Las Vegas. It was a scandal at the time — Garland was only 19 years old, 12 years younger than Rose. Their marriage lasted for three years, and in 1945 Garland married Vincente Minnelli.
Plane Crash Tragedy
Las Vegas was the site of tragedy in January 1942, when actress Carole Lombard and her mother Elizabeth Peters along with all other passengers onboard died in a plane crash just outside the city. Reportedly, Lombard had been advised to take a train home due to adverse weather conditions and the ongoing war, but she was determined to fly.
The crash was shrouded in mystery at the time, and many people wondered why an experienced pilot crashed into Nevada’s Mount Potosi. Lombard, who was married to Clark Gable, and her mother are pictured here the day before the doomed flight.
First Wedding Chapel
The Strip’s first wedding chapel, the Little Church of the West, opened in 1942. A replica of the little churches of pioneer days, it’s the oldest remaining structure on the Strip and the most iconic of the city’s wedding chapels. In the early days, one of the local hotels provided transportation to newlyweds via horse-drawn carriage.
Liberty’s Last Stand: A Bootlegger’s Nightmare
Prohibition — a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, transportation and sale of alcohol — didn’t go down well in Sin City, and saloons went undercover.
Liberty’s Last Stand was a prohibition-era saloon in Las Vegas fronted by a local man, Ralph Kelley, to gain the confidence of bootleggers in the area — it also made it easier for law enforcement officers to arrest them. According to local legend, Kelley got out of Nevada alive only because he could run fast.
An early hotel to open on the Las Vegas Strip, the Thunderbird Hotel opened in 1948 with 79 hotel rooms, a casino and a bar. It was always closely linked to the Mafia, and in October 1954, articles in the Las Vegas Sun alleged that Jake and Meyer Lansky, both mob figures, held hidden shares in the hotel. In 1977, it was renamed the Silver Bird, and then became the El Rancho Hotel and Casino in 1982.
Mickey Rooney And Martha Vickers
Las Vegas continued to attract celebrity couples who wanted a quick and easy wedding. In 1949, actor Mickey Rooney and his bride-to-be Martha Vickers posed together at the Boulderado Ranch ahead of their nuptials. Rooney was a fixture in Las Vegas throughout his life until he died in 2014.
Aside from gaming tables and booze, Las Vegas hotels offered plenty of outdoor fun. Singer Patti Page, the top-charting female vocalist and bestselling female artist of the 1950s, made the most of the poolside vibe.
In 1956, Page chose Las Vegas for her wedding to Hollywood dance director Charles O’Curran.
Frank Sinatra Headlines
In 1951, Frank Sinatra made his first Vegas headlining appearance at the Desert Inn, and his close relationship with Sin City continued throughout his career.
“[Sinatra] was the spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous,” former Nevada Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt-Bono told Smithsonian magazine in 2013. It was in Vegas that the “Rat Pack” formed — a phrase reportedly coined by Lauren Bacall to describe her husband Humphrey Bogart and his drinking buddies. Sinatra is pictured here with Ava Gardner, his second wife to whom he was married from 1951-1957.
‘The Las Vegas Story’
Jane Russell starred in “The Las Vegas Story” (with Victor Mature) in 1952, and she was a regular visitor to Sin City in real life. In February 1953, Russell caused a stir after a movie premiere at the Fremont Theater when she appeared with a bruised, swollen jaw and marks around one of her eyes. It came shortly after Russell’s husband, football star Bob Waterfield, was angered by comments comedian Ben Blue made about her figure.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Nevada was home to nuclear testing sites. The Nevada Test Site (NTS), 65 miles north of Las Vegas, was one of the most significant nuclear weapons test sites in the United States. The giant pillars of smoke following detonation could be seen from several miles away.
Desert Inn Hotel
Another early hotel to open on the Las Vegas Strip was the Desert Inn, and it was a hot hangout for 50 years, until it closed in August 2000. It was located between Desert Inn Road and Sands Avenue, and boasted an 18-hole golf course and an outdoor swimming pool. Along with the Rat Pack, the Desert Inn Hotel welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill, Senator John F. Kennedy and former President Harry S. Truman during the 1950s.
Fremont Street In Lights
Fremont Street is the most famous street in Las Vegas. Named in honor of explorer John Charles Frémont and located in the heart of the downtown casino corridor, it underwent massive expansion during the 1950s.
Marlene Dietrich Makes Her Night Club Debut
Marlene Dietrich made her cabaret debut at the Sahara Hotel on Dec. 16, 1953, in Las Vegas. She reportedly got $30,000 dollars a week for her three-week engagement.
“They worked on me for two years and kept upping the salary until I could no longer refuse,” she told the press.
Kirk Douglas Weds Anne Buydens
In May 1954, actor Kirk Douglas married his French bride, Anne Buydens, in Las Vegas. Unlike many celebrity marriages that began in Sin City, this one lasted. They were together for 65 years until Douglas died in 2020.
The luxury Showboat hotel was designed to resemble a ferry boat. When it opened in 1954, legendary entertainer Bob Hope broke a champagne bottle at the base of the building to christen it. Onlookers were fascinated by the 10 gallons of Mississippi river water that was dumped into the new hotel’s pool.
Liberace Jams With Elvis
Two musical greats, Liberace and Elvis Presley, crossed paths twice in Las Vegas. The first time was in 1956, during Presley’s two-week engagement at the Frontier Hotel in April and May. According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Liberace was one of the “curiosity-seeking celebrities” who showed up to see Presley’s act. Of course, the pair took the opportunity to make music together.
Sammy Davis Jr. And Loray White
In 1958, Sammy Davis Jr. married Loray White in Las Vegas. After the ceremony, the couple cut and served cake to close friends and celebrities, including Joe E. Lewis, best man Harry Belafonte and Donald O’Connor. They were the picture of happiness, but the truth was that Davis had offered White a lump sum (between $10,000 and $25,000) to marry him and act as his wife to divert attention from his relationship with actress Kim Novak.
‘Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas’
Sin City’s legendary marker point for vehicles arriving from the west, erected in 1959, has become an iconic image of the tourist hotspot. Standing 25 feet tall, it is located at 5100 Las Vegas Boulevard South and marks the start to the famous Las Vegas Strip. These days, of course, it’s also hugely Instagrammable.
Vegas has long had a reputation for offering the best in entertainment. Long-running residencies (Celine Dion holds the record for the longest — a whopping 16 years and 1,141 performances that ended in 2019) and revues were the traditional hotel entertainment. This revue photo is from the Sands Hotel in 1959.
Howard Hughes’ Investment
Legendary recluse Howard Hughes was one of the biggest players in Vegas. During the late 1960s, Hughes used his vast inherited wealth to modernize the Strip, with a spending spree that included buying the Desert Inn from the Nevada Gaming Commission for $13 million. However, he left the city abruptly after four years and went by private jet to Resorts International’s Brittania Beach hotel in the Bahamas, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
The Entertainment Capital Of The World
Las Vegas was a booming tourist destination at the time this photo was taken in 1977 and it continues to expand and transform, welcoming millions of visitors each year. In 1989, casino developer Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, the city’s first mega-resort, and over the next 20 years the Strip underwent more big changes, with old casinos knocked down to make room for huge, glamorous complexes. But some things will never change, and Vegas will always have quickie weddings and roulette tables at its heart.