Always a roll of the dice in the Nevada desert Documentary: TV tells history of playground for adults: Las Vegas.

December 01, 1996|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Life always has been a gamble in the Nevada desert. Long before Steve Wynn brought pirate ships and volcanos to the Las Vegas Strip, native Paiutes struggled against great odds to survive in the hostile environment.

The hardscrabble tribe was sustained by a series of artesian wells, which gave their valley a name in Spanish, "The Meadows." But those same springs also lured explorers, miners, ranchers and railroad barons to their fragile home.

When these newcomers finally exhausted the limited supply of water, other justifications for Las Vegas' existence had to be invented.

"Paris is on a river, New York is on the Atlantic, San Francisco is on the Pacific, Chicago is on a lake -- there's a reason for everything," argues author Rod Amateau, in the A&E network's four-hour documentary on the gambling mecca, "Las Vegas." "There's no reason for Las Vegas, no reason the place should be there."

No reason, perhaps, besides the promise of Wayne Newton, 99-cent shrimp cocktails and the pursuit of progressive payouts on slot machines.

Almost a century

"Gamble in the Desert" (8 p.m. tonight) and "House of Cards" (9 p.m. tomorrow) explains in exhaustive detail how Las Vegas has been able to pull itself away from the brink of disaster and flourish every time. In only 91 years of official existence, it has transformed itself from a parched outpost in the hinterlands to a mecca for international fun-seekers and home for a million hardy residents.

Luck had a lot to do with it.

"Las Vegas has been an amazingly resilient place," said filmmaker Jim Milio, part of the MPH Entertainment team responsible for the documentary. "It was one of the few places that actually thrived during the Depression because of the building of Hoover Dam, then government funding of Nellis Air Force Base.

"Gambling has been legal there since 1931. But it didn't really kick in until the mid-'40s, when Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo."

People, he added, certainly came here for gambling before that, "but it was a dusty little train stop. It was where you could get a quickie divorce."

After a fitful start on Dec. 26, 1946, Siegel's Flamingo resort brought Hollywood-style glamour and luxury to the area south of downtown Las Vegas, now known as the Strip.

A sloppy businessman with an explosive temper, Siegel was executed before he could see his dream come to fruition. Immediately installed in his place at the hotel were underworld associates Gus Greenbaum, Moe Sedway, Willie Alderman and Dave Berman, all of whom were running places downtown for the mob.

Berman's daughter, Susan, grew up in Las Vegas and -- much like Eloise in Kay Thompson's stories set in New York's Plaza Hotel -- turned the Flamingo into her personal playhouse. A journalist and screenwriter, it was her idea to undertake the documentary history of Las Vegas, even if it meant dredging up some unpleasant truths about her father.

"The mob is organic to Vegas, obviously," said Berman, "and it's part of the endless fascination and allure of the myth. But it's not the only story. Las Vegas goes back to the Paiutes and Paleozoic."

Thus, the first two-hour segment of the documentary traces the history of the region from its early geologic stirrings, through the arrival of Mexican explorers and Mormon missionaries, and on to efforts by the U.S. government to clean up the legal brothels and transplanted gangsters. The second part explains the explosive growth that followed scandals and doldrums of the '70s and '80s.

Narrated by Richard Crenna, the film incorporates historic photos, newsreel footage and dozens of interviews conducted by Berman and MPH's Tom Milio and Melissa Jo Peltier. The list of on-screen participants includes historians, journalists, casino owners, longtime residents and such entertainers as Shecky Greene, Debbie Reynolds, Red Buttons, Kenny Rogers, Kay Starr as well as Alan King and Rosemarie (both of whom recall the opening of the Flamingo).

Lure of the mob

Because much of Las Vegas' allure comes from the myths surrounding the mob's role in building the city, the documentary spends a great deal of time examining that part of the legend.

"There was nowhere else is the United States they could have gone to be 'respectable' businessmen, where their gig was legal," said Berman, 51. "They weren't in it for the quick money and they weren't carpetbaggers."

Davie Berman died in 1957, after the Kefauver Commission hearings and before all the "black money" started pouring into Las Vegas from the mob factions looking for the quick score. Today the biggest resorts are owned by conglomerates whose stock is traded on Wall Street.

"I was surprised that so many of the people we interviewed regret the corporations coming in and the demise of the mob," said Milio, a native of Western Springs, Ill. "Debbie Reynolds said, 'They treated you well, they paid well, their word was their bond.' All the performers and a number of people in the town just felt it had a special nature then. everybody knew each other.

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