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Who founded Las Vegas? Myth vs Reality

If you would conduct a survey among the millions of people that visit the Las Vegas Strip yearly, and asked the simple question "Who founded Las Vegas?", we would bet that 90 percent of those people would answer: "Bugsy Siegel of course". If you asked the same people "Which casino was the first Las Vegas Strip casino?", probably more than 90 percent would answer "Easy. The Flamingo".

The Las Vegas Myth

The Las Vegas Myth says that Bugsy Siegel, one of the most violent gangsters in his lifetime and beyond, founded the Las Vegas Strip by building the first casino, the Flamingo, along Highway 91, the highway through the Mojave desert, connecting Las Vegas with Los Angeles. Bugsy Siegel, we are told, was a tough and often vicious guy, who lived to build his one great idea, an oasis of splendor and gambling in the middle of a desert. And eventually he was killed for it by his gangster "friends", at the same time his "invention", the Flamingo, started to make a profit.

This myth was popularized by many casino operators, historians and films, including in particular "The Godfather". But is it true? We're afraid it's not. The Flamingo was *not* the first casino on the Las Vegas Strip, and it was also *not* the invention of Bugsy Siegel.

The Las Vegas Myth debunked

The first casino on the Vegas Strip was not "Bugsy Siegel's" Flamingo, but rather "El Rancho Vegas", a casino that was opened five years earlier by Thomas Hull in 1941. El Rancho Vegas was a casino with a new frontier Western theme. In that respect it was certainly not unique. Many Las Vegas City casinos were themed along similar lines. However, El Rancho Vegas *was* a revolution for two reasons.

Firstly, it was the first casino to be located on Highway 91, known today as the "Las Vegas Strip". Secondly, El Rancho Vegas was the prototype of the modern casino resort, with it's emphasis on the idea to fulfill all of it's customer's needs on the casino premises (and keep people near the gambling tables!). El Rancho Vegas featured not just a casino, but also a travel agency, shops, night-clubs, steakhouses and a swimming pool. A visit to El Rancho Vegas was a complete vacation, and customers didn't have a reason to venture outside of the casino complex.

So if Bugsy Siegel didn't create the first Vegas Strip casino, could he still be labeled as the "inventor of Las Vegas" for masterminding the Flamingo, the first casino on the Las Vegas strip that was truly successful?

Again, we're afraid nothing could be further away from the truth. The vision of superimposing Beverly Hills upon the Mojave desert, was masterminded by Billy Wilkerson, founder of the "Hollywood reporter" and a compulsive gambler. Wilkerson employed architect George Russell and decorator Tom Douglas, to design his casino, the Flamingo, as he envisioned it, an extravagant casino modeled on the Beverly Hills Hotel and Paris' Moulin Rouge, catering to the needs of California's rich and famous.

As Wilkerson's capital soon proved to be insufficient to make his dream come true, he turned to investors of a more dubious nature, i.e. criminal syndicates. It was Bugsy Siegel who represented the investors of these criminal syndicates, who in the end not just invested in the project but took control of it. Thus, Bugsy Siegel is *not* the inventor of Las Vegas, but it's Billy Wilkerson. Bugsy Siegel merely took control of Wilkerson's project, and by some strange twist of history takes all the credits for Wilkerson's invention.

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This article was partly based on chapter 2 - The Unwholesome Allure - of the great book "Suburban Xanadu", written by David G. Schwartz, currently the coordinator of the Gaming Studies Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. More information can be found here.


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