Becoming America's Playground
Las Vegas in the 1950s
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
290 Pages | 6 x 9 | 22 b&w illus.
In 1950 Las Vegas saw a million tourists. In 1960 it attracted ten million. The city entered the fifties as a regional destination where prosperous postwar Americans could enjoy vices largely forbidden elsewhere, and it emerged in the sixties as a national hotspot, the glitzy resort city that lights up the American West today. Becoming America’s Playground chronicles the vice and the toil that gave Las Vegas its worldwide reputation in those transformative years.
Las Vegas’s rise was no happy accident. After World War II, vacationing Americans traveled the country in record numbers, making tourism a top industry in such states as California and Florida. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw its chance and developed a plan to capitalize on the town’s burgeoning reputation for leisure. Las Vegas pinned its hopes for the future on Americans’ need for escape.
Transforming a vice city financed largely by the mob into a family vacation spot was not easy. Hotel and casino publicists closely monitored media representations of the city and took every opportunity to stage images of good, clean fun for the public—posing even the atomic bomb tests conducted just miles away as an attraction.
The racism and sexism common in the rest of the nation in the era prevailed in Las Vegas too. The wild success of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack performances at the Sands Hotel in 1960 demonstrated the city’s slow progress toward equality. Women couldn’t work as dealers in Las Vegas until the 1970s, yet they found more opportunities for well-paying jobs there than many American women could find elsewhere.
Gragg shows how a place like the Las Vegas Strip—with its glitz and vast wealth and its wildly public consumption of vice—rose to prominence in the 1950s, a decade of Cold War anxiety and civil rights conflict. Becoming America’s Playground brings this pivotal decade in Las Vegas into sharp focus for the first time.
“With meticulous research and insight, Larry Gragg shows how Las Vegas and its enterprising citizens capitalized on larger national trends to transform Las Vegas from a dusty desert backwater into one of the most visited places on Earth. An important new interpretation with wide appeal.”—Andy Kirk, author of Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing
“Larry Gragg provides a thoroughly engaging examination of an iconic decade in the history of an iconic American place. Becoming America’s Playground is a serious addition to the scholarship, and a wonderfully entertaining read.”—David Wrobel, author of Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression
“Becoming America’s Playground provides a fascinating appreciation of the golden age of Las Vegas by an author whose meticulous research offers endless tales about the phenomenon of Las Vegas’s history. In three books published over the past decade, Gragg has covered a large field in a place known for its shadowed nuances and revisionist marketing campaigns. Las Vegas is a surprisingly difficult subject to get right, and few can rival Gragg’s dedication to the subject…With Becoming America’s Playground, Gragg continues to carve out a place on an ever-expanding Las Vegas bookshelf.”— Nevada Historical Society Quarterly