February 4, 2021 Casino, Land-Based

Sands of Time

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Ezra Amacher pores over UNLV gaming historian David Schwartz’s book on the Sands and how the property anchored itself in Las Vegas royalty and became the template for future properties in the city.

Readers of this magazine have likely stepped foot in the Sands Expo and Convention Center, either for a Global Gaming Expo or another event. The 1.1 million-square foot facility is a testament to the ambition of Las Vegas Sands Corp. founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson, who himself was a convention organizer before entering the casino business. Adelson, who died in January, envisioned a Las Vegas that would attract millions of visitors a year to conventions, a prophecy that has held the test of time. 

Now, more than three decades after Adelson and his partners purchased the Sands Hotel & Casino, he was reportedly seeking to sell the three properties before he died that stand where the Sands once was: the Palazzo, the Venetian and the Sands Expo.

All the uncertainty regarding one of the Strip’s most historic brands makes this a good time to revisit how the Sands became what it is today – a multi-continent casino empire. David Schwartz, associate vice provost for faculty affairs at UNLV and gaming historian, has us covered. Last year, Schwartz published At The Sands: The Casino That Shaped Classic Las Vegas, Brought the Rat Pack Together, And Went Out With a Bang, a deservingly long title for such a detailed account of the original Sands.

Like most good Vegas stories, the book begins with a gambler trying to strike it big. Billy Wilkerson was a Hollywood café owner and trade magazine publisher with a knack for the craps table. His gambling habits inevitably led him to Vegas, where he soon established an outpost of LA’s LaRue Restaurant. The Vegas LaRue opened in late 1950 but never took off; attracting the rich and famous to the Mojave Desert wasn’t as easy a sell as the Sunset Strip. Nevertheless, the property laid the foundations for future businessmen to build a casino at the site.

Mack Kufferman, a millionaire who made his fortune in New Jersey’s bootleg liquor business, was the first to try his luck, but his East Coast ties worked against him from the start. Nevada gaming leaders decried Kufferman’s reported connections to the New York mafia, which they feared would catch the attention of Estes Kefauver, an up-and-coming Tennessee Senator with eyes on the White House. Between 1950 and 1951, Kefauver led a Senate Committee on organized crime. The Kefauver Committee threatened to tarnish the reputation of Nevada casinos if word got out that the mafia was funding the state’s legalized gambling enterprise. 

The Kefauver Committee also served another significant if unintended purpose: its crackdown on illegal gaming operations led gamblers to flock to Nevada, where they’d be protected by state law. One of those gamblers to seek refuge was Jack Freedman, a Russian immigrant who’d built a successful gambling house in Houston.

In 1952, Freedman arrived in Vegas and soon became the perfect front man for the LaRue site. Freedman, like Kufferman, had connections to Meyer Lansky and other members of organized crime, but his Texas upbringing gave off a Western persona that appealed to the cowboys of Nevada. Freedman promised the state Tax Commission that Kufferman and the mafia wouldn’t be involved in direct operations of the casino. Reluctantly, the Commission agreed to award Freedman a license.

Of course, the mafia would become very much involved in the casino business through the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lansky, Doc Stacher and other members of organized crime funneled money into Freedman’s business. Under the direction of designer Wayne McAllister, the casino renamed itself the Sands, “A Place in the Sun.” As Schwartz points out, the phrase comes from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, which involves a love triangle ending in murder. “Divorced of its cinematic context, though, ‘A Place in the Sun’ perfectly describes just what the Sands was to be: an oasis of relaxation, entertainment and gambling, in the exotic desert,” Schwartz writes.

One of the great joys of the book is that Schwartz captures in great detail what made the Sands of the ‘50s unique. Operating under a considerable bankroll with investors showing little concern for the margins, the Sands staff had the freedom to employ extravagance at a time when most casinos were just trying to go black.

Opened in December 1952, the Sands entryway incorporated Italian marble while the complex used a “fusion of sleek lines and tropical sensibilities.” The Sands consciously marketed itself to gamblers, a term we now call high-rollers. In those early days of legalized gambling, gamblers were men whose reputation was won or lost at the table. “Being called a gambler meant you had not just the means and the fortitude to bet big, but also the confidence that, if you lost big, you were good for it,” Schwartz writes.

At the Sands, gambling was the main source of revenue but far from the main attraction. That would be the Copa Room, named after the Copacabana Nightclub in New York City. Its boss, Jack Entratter, was general manager of the Copacabana before joining Freedman in Vegas.

Entratter receives the most attention of any character in the book and for good reason. He was the man responsible for bringing the Rat Pack together and, subsequently, elevating Vegas into one of the world’s premier entertainment destinations. Frank Sinatra began playing at the Sands in October 1953, and his success and salary caught the attention of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., who wanted in on the Copa. The Sands also brought in non-performing celebrities including film stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich.

The presence of Hollywood A-listers helped the Sands attract regular people who could realistically rub shoulders with celebrities. This being the 1950s, the Sands wasn’t open to everyone. Blacks were excluded as guests, and Black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. were forced to stay off property.

Schwartz includes the story of James Gay III, a Black Sands employee who assisted in hiring personnel. Gay was an active member of the segregated Westside of Vegas, where he and Black leaders threatened a protest in the late ‘50s of the discrimination their community faced from casinos. Fearful of the negative publicity the protests would bring, the casinos agreed to integrate in March 1960.

The early 1960s posed significant challenges for the original Sands team. Though the casino supported John Kennedy’s campaign for President, the new administration came down hard on organized crime. Robert Kennedy led an FBI spying campaign against Sands leadership, which Schwartz humorously recounts led to no real discoveries. However, Sinatra’s ties to the mafia ultimately led to his ouster from the Copa, ending the Rat Pack era. Between Sinatra’s departure and the untimely passing of Freedman, the Sands identity began to crumble and its business tanked.

By the mid ‘60s, the Sands was looking for a new owner just as business magnate Howard Hughes was seeking a new landing spot. Within months of arriving in Vegas, Hughes went on a casino shopping spree that included the Sands. Hughes’ team made immediate changes to the Sands business structure, none more significant than requiring gamblers to sign for the money they were lent. Moreover, guests had to show picture ID to receive credit.

Since opening 1952, Sands had promised gamblers easy credit and anonymity. When those privileges went away, so did the casino’s top clientele. It didn’t help that the Sands was now competing against some emerging heavyweights like the Caesars Palace.

Lots has been written about Hughes’ influence in Vegas, which is why it’s disappointing that such a significant character is shoved out of the picture (partly by his own doing) almost as quickly as he enters.

The Hughes-backed Summa Corporation owned the Sands from the late ‘60s to 1983, when it was sold to the Pratt Corporation. That ownership faded quickly, leading Summa to reestablish control until MGM Grand Inc. took the reins in 1988, but that experiment dissipated within a month, at which point owners of the Adelson-funded Interface Group took over.

The casino’s rapid changing of hands reflected the growing corporate trend in Vegas by the late ‘80s. No one better resembled a corporate identity than Adelson, who had made his presence felt at trade shows all over town.

From the start, Adelson prized conventions and hotel occupancy above gambling. “As always, he was happy to demonstrate, with charts and graphs, why conventions were going to be the next big thing in Las Vegas, making Sunday through Thursday as profitable as the weekend,” Schwartz writes.

With convention business booming, Adelson had enough capital to buy out his Sands partners and become sole owner by 1995. That year, Adelson hired William Weidner as president of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Weidner realized the Sands Hotel & Casino’s location was ideal for housing a $1.5bn megaresort.

“In the end, Las Vegas wanted 6,000 brand new suites, 200,000 square feet of casino space, 150 shops, 30 restaurants and more convention space… more than it wanted the old Sands,” Schwartz writes.

In earnest, the old Sands had been gone for decades. Its 1996 demolition made it reality. Gratefully, the stories of the casino live on thanks to Schwartz’ At The Sands.

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