In his latest volume of Las Vegas lore, historian Larry Gragg says it was deliberate publicity strategies that changed the perception of Sin City from a regional tourist destination where one could legally gamble and access legalized prostitution just outside the city limits, to a family vacation spot filled with entertainment options and surrounded by scenic beauty.
“The rise in Las Vegas tourism from a million visitors in 1950 to 10 million in 1960 was no accident,” says Gragg, a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of history and political science at Missouri S&T.
Gragg’s book, Becoming America’s Playground: Las Vegas in the 1950s, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the development of tourism in Las Vegas. This is his ninth book and third about Vegas culture. It’s also the first to exclusively focus on Las Vegas in the ’50s.
Las Vegas and Clark County grew substantially during World War II because of job opportunities at the Las Vegas Air Force Base Aircraft Gunnery School and the Basic Magnesium Plant in nearby Henderson, Nev. But when the war ended, jobs were scarce, Gragg says.
“Las Vegas was searching for a way to provide continued employment for its residents and to grow the community,” he says. “At the time, post-war Americans felt a need to escape, and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw a chance to capitalize on the town’s reputation for leisure.”
In the book, Gragg describes how the unconventional yet highly successful promotional strategies of Steve Hannagan, a well-known publicist hired by the city of Las Vegas between 1948 and 1949, propelled the city’s growth of tourism. By ignoring Vegas’ image as a gambling resort and heavily promoting it as the hub of a scenic wonderland where families would want to vacation, Hannagan began to change the city’s public perception.
Don English, a popular photographer at the time, previously worked for Hannagan and came to Las Vegas in 1949 to join the News Bureau. He recalled the daily morning “hometown run” where news staff photographed small-town couples in front of their hotels, then sent the photos to the subjects’ hometown newspapers to publish so their friends and neighbors would be inspired to make the same trip.
Las Vegas publicity in this era also revolved around the Nevada Test Site, situated 65 miles outside the city. English’s famous promotional photos include a striking black and white image of a nuclear detonation cloud framed by the iconic neon “Vegas Vic” and the Pioneer Club sign.
From 1950 to 1960, Las Vegas had the highest per capita income in the U.S., hotel building was thriving, and the city was deeply segregated. In an interview with platinum album recording star Johnny Mathis, Gragg learned that after his performances, Mathis was shuffled to the west side of Las Vegas, where most black residents lived, because African Americans were not welcome to stay in the same hotels with white guests. Mathis described his experience as “almost like watching a sad, sad movie.”