3355 Las Vegas Blvd South
Dec 15, 1952 – Jun 30, 1996
Photo from the Richard Greeno Collection
Photo from the Richard Greeno Collection
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection
This is the invitation to the Grand Opening on December 15, 1952. At this time I believe it to be the only survivor in this pristine condition. It was obtained from a gentleman in Montana whose parents were in attendance. Other than poker chips, this is the highest dollar piece of Sands memorabilia.
At this time there is doubt that this tri-lobe ashtray is an authentic Sands ashtray.
The seventh resort on the Strip
La Rue Restaurant and Casino
Remember Billy Wilkerson? You know, the man who really started building The Flamingo—even though Ben “don’t call me Bugsy” Siegel usually gets all the credit. In part one of this article, the segment on The Flamingo, the last thing I said about Billy was “Billy would retain one-third ownership and operational control.” That was the plan, but that’s not exactly what happened…
Billy might have been muscled out of the Flamingo, or he might have been bought out, or maybe he just got tired of dealing with Ben Siegel’s idiosyncrasies and temper tantrums. Whatever happened, Billy was out of the Flamingo, but he still wanted a club in Las Vegas. In December of 1950, Billy Wilkerson opened LaRue Restaurant and Casino, possibly with Jack LaRue and/or Nola Hahn as partners. LaRue was on Highway 91, between the Desert Inn and the Flamingo; it was licensed for slots, blackjack, craps and roulette.
Along comes Max Kufferman, who wants to build a resort on the Las Vegas Strip. He buys LaRue from Billy Wilkerson, but he can’t get a license from the Nevada Gaming Board. He allegedly sells LaRue to Jake Freedman (sometimes spelled Friedman) and his partners Jack Entratter, Carl Cohen, and Ed Levinson.
In 1952, Freedman and his partners brought in architect Wayne McAllister to design the new resort. Rather than building from the ground up, McAllister’s design remodeled and added on to LaRue. In August, Freedman went before the gaming board and applied for his casino license. Initially he was denied a license, because of his association with Max Kufferman, but eventually was able to convince the board that he wasn’t a front for Kufferman. Freedman had intended the property to open in late October or early November, but the licensing problems delayed the opening.
Finally the license was issued, the 200 luxurious rooms were ready, and the invitations went out. The world premiere of the Sands would be Monday, December 15, 1952. In the fabulous Copa room would be Danny Thomas, Connie Russell, Lou Wills, Jr., Ray Sinatra and his orchestra, and of course, “the Most Beautiful Girls in the West”. Present at the Grand Opening were 146 newspapermen and special guests including Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Arlene Dahl and Terry Moore. Each was presented with a chamois bag that was filled with newly minted silver dollars.
Similar to what happened on opening night at the Flamingo, in her first 8 hours the Sands lost over $200,000. Unlike the Flamingo, within the next 16 hours or so, the Sands won it all back.
The guestrooms were in five two-story motel-type buildings; each named after a racetrack for thoroughbreds. The buildings were arranged in a semicircle around the swimming pool. In one corner of the large rectangular main building was the reception desk, slot machines were arranged on one long wall, a bar and cocktail lounge were on the opposite wall. Three stairs led down to the casino.
Jack Entratter and Carl Cohen came to Las Vegas from New York, where both were associated with the world famous Copacabana Night Club. Entratter was named entertainment director of The Sands, and there was no one better for the position than he. He’d worked with all of the top stars of the day, and he brought all of them to the Copa Room, including Lena Horne, Danny Thomas, Judy Collins, Tallulah Bankhead, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Lind Hayes & Mary Healy, Bobby Darin, Jerry Lewis, and Vic Damone.
The Rat Pack
Thanks in large part to Entratter’s celebrity line up, the Sands was established as the ‘IN’ place to go in Las Vegas. Out of the hundreds of stars featured at the Sands, there were five that were famous individually, but together they were legendary, described by Paul Anka as “the greatest, cool, hippest entertainers around…” The Rat Pack.
Frank Sinatra was the Leader of the Pack. In addition to his incredible singing voice, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film From Here to Eternity. He would gamble, chase women and drink until dawn, and do it all with boyish charm and sophistication. Frank’s first appearance at the Sands was October 7, 1953.
Dean Martin was dark and handsome, a ladies man. He could croon a tune, or toss back a martini with equal style. He’d been one-half of the Martin & Lewis comedy team, but they split up in 1957 and Dean began working in the nightclubs as a solo act. Dean was headlining at the Sands in January 1959, when Frank joined him on the stage for the first time. A reviewer reported that the pair put on one of the best shows ever seen at the Sands.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was the sensational young performer from the Will Mastin Trio, which had included his father and his uncle. He was an awesome singer and dancer, perhaps the best all-around entertainer of the group.
Joey Bishop was the straight-man, and the best comic of the group. He’d been working as an opening act, and when he joined The Rat Pack as a warm-up he wrote many of the “improvised” routines that were performed on stage.
Peter Lawford was an actor and entertainer, but he was also John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law and Sinatra wanted to be part of Kennedy’s inner circle. Sinatra’s nickname for Peter was “Brother-in-Lawford”.
In the non-politically correct 1950’s and 1960’s, there was no subject that the group wouldn’t joke about…race, religion, politics, and of course drinking. Part of the nightly routine included rolling a bar cart onto the stage, and making regular trips to it for a refill. One of their most widely reported comic bits has Dean (after Joey Bishop whispered the idea in his ear) picking up Sammy Davis Jr., and carrying him to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who was in the audience. Dean drops Sammy into the Senator’s lap, announcing “Here you are, Mr. Senator, the NAACP sent this award over for you.” The audience burst into gales of laughter
The original Ocean’s 11 movie was produced in 1960. The movie starred all of the members of the Rat Pack; in fact the movie was produced by Sinatra’s own Dorchester Productions, as a way for the group to work together. The filming took place in Las Vegas from January 26 through February 16, 1960, and the Rat Pack used The Sands as their playground. They did two shows a night in the Copa Room then headed for the lounge where they often ended up on stage again. After a few hours of sleep, it was back to the movie set for whoever had early scenes scheduled. Around 5:00 p.m., they’d all meet in the steam room.
Those few weeks in the 1960’s were pure magic. With all the publicity that ensued, those weeks defined the image of Las Vegas in the minds of the nation. During February, the hotel received 18,000 reservation requests for its two hundred hotel rooms.
A&E did a marvelous set of four VCR tapes on the history of Las Vegas. Not only are there great old shots of the Strip, in its early days, there are also clips of The Rat Pack doing their show at the Sands. Get the tapes, you won’t be disappointed.
These days the Las Vegas Strip itself is the attraction. The casino architecture is ‘over the top’, the casinos are huge, the shopping is incredible. There are stars in town, but if they’re not hiding from public view, they can still be lost just because of the size of the town. In the 1950’s and 1960’s The Strip was a two lane road, the casinos were smaller and more personal, and you just might run into your favorite star out in the casino. While Jack Entratter discouraged the Copa Room stars from playing in the casino (“If they lose, they might hate me and say no the next time I want to book them”), he encouraged them to hang around the casino and even deal a few hands. Of course, when they dealt everybody won, so the customers loved it.
The Sands management understood the concept of spending money to make money. In the first six months, Jack Entratter spent $1 million on entertainment. In the early years, Frank Sinatra alone was paid $15,000 a week. But when Frank was in town, there was money to be had. Frank knew all the big money people, and many Hollywood Celebrities would fly in to see him perform.
The Copa Girls were the highest paid showgirls in town, described as lucious dolls in sumptuous costumes, everyone wanted to see them and to be seen with them.
Guests at the New Year’s Eve party in 1954 were supposed to pay $25 each. Instead, they were all comped, which cost the Sands approximately $100,000. I don’t know when the tradition started, but for years, on New Year’s Eve, The Sands gave their guests velvet bags filled with silver dollars. We bought one that was from New Year’s Eve 1965, and we once saw a framed display of about 25 of the bags in an array of colors, all from different years.
Another item that the Sands gave out in an array of colors was their logo coffee mugs. There were free coupons available all over the place, and if you didn’t happen to have a coupon, an out of state driver’s license would work. We didn’t spend a lot of time at the Sands, but we did visit it on almost every trip to Las Vegas. Hey…we had to get our free coffee mugs! Plus, I always liked to kick off my sandals and wiggle my toes in the lush green lawn (probably more than you needed to know…sorry!)
Frank leaves the Sands
Frank Sinatra was a star. As I said before, when he was in town there was money to be had. He knew it, the casinos knew it, and he knew that the casinos knew it. Consequently, when he made a request, regardless of what it was, the standard answer was “Of course, Mr. Sinatra. And is there anything else I can do for you…?”
Thus, on September 11, 1967, Mr. Sinatra was not a happy man when his request for credit was denied. Various sources don’t agree on the amount of credit that was requested, or who made the decision to deny Mr. Sinatra’s request. They do agree, however, that an unhappy Frank went in search of Carl Cohen, Vice President of the Sands. Frank (approximately 155 pounds) found Carl (close to 300 pounds) seated in the coffee shop. There was a lot of yelling and swearing, then Frank picked up a chair and threw it at Carl. Carl takes that kind of abuse from no one, regardless of their star status. Carl took a swing at Frank, and knocked him to the ground, also knocking the caps off of his two front teeth. Frank’s bodyguard (?!) Jilly Rizzo helped him up and back to his suite. They packed up, then headed for McCarren Airport and a flight back to Frank’s home in Bel Air. The casino found Alan King to replace Frank for the two shows he was scheduled to do that night.
Jack Entratter was right, the Copa Room stars shouldn’t gamble at the Sands.
In late 1965 there was a groundbreaking for the distinctive 17 story cylindrical tower, which would add 777 rooms. Most of The Strip was still low-rise, so the new tower would stand out as a landmark, like the Stratosphere tower does today.
On July 22, 1967, Howard Hughes (Summa Corporation) bought The Sands for $14.6 million. In 1981, financial advisors advised Summa to sell the property. The Inns of the Americas (later known as Pratt Corporation) bought the property, enlarged the casino, and remodeled the porte cochere. Pratt Corporation ran into severe financial problems, and Summa repossessed the property.
In 1988 Kirk Kerkorian bought The Sands, and renamed it the MGM Sands. Just a few months later he sold it to the Interface Group for $110 million. That sale was finalized in April of 1989.
Fifty-five years after the first hotel was built on the Strip, the one thing that was constant was change. Virtually all of the resorts, as they aged, lost business to the newer and larger resorts that continued to be built. The Sands was no exception…she was in a decline. No matter who owned her, no matter what improvements were made, she just couldn’t keep up with the newer, larger properties. In 1996, the decision was made to close the doors. Once the announcement was made, the reservations phone lines couldn’t keep up. There were thousands of people who wanted to stay there one last time, to remember the good times they’d had, to reminisce with others who were also there for one last time.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., on June 30, 1996, after Bob Stupak rolled the dice one last time, the Sands turned off her lights, and closed her doors…but not quite forever. The Sands got one last chance to be seen, in all her glory, near the end of the film Con-Air. Her lights were turned back on and she was painted and polished. Slot machines were brought in and set up. Her brief revival comes to an end when a plane crashes into her. Filming finished, the actors leave. The crew packs up and leaves. There’s no more action at the Sands.
At 2:00 a.m. on November 26, 1996, the Sands was imploded.
On May 3, 1999, the $1.5 billion dollar mega-resort, the Venetian opened for business on the former site of the Sands. The 35 story Venetian opened with 3,036 rooms on 1.7 million square feet of property.
The Venetian was the Strip’s first all-suites hotel. The spacious 700 square-foot suites feature plush private bedchambers, an oversized 130 square-foot bathroom finished in Italian marble, and a sunken living room area.
What the Venetian doesn’t have is legends-no Copa Girls, no Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Shoot, they don’t even have free coffee mugs…do they?
First published in the Casino Chip and Token News Magazine Fall 2007, Volume 20 number 4 issue.
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