Book reminds us of those who promoted Vegas in sunshine and shadow By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports May 19, 2021 at 8:45 pm As it emerges from the nation’s coronavirus crisis and each day shows signs of returning to full speed, it’s easy to forget there was a time that Las Vegas wasn’t so much a place as an idea. I was reminded of that while reading Larry D. Gragg’s new book, Becoming America’s Playground: Las Vegas in the 1950s. For Gragg, an academic by profession at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, Las Vegas is a special place, indeed. This is Gragg’s third book-length work on the subject. His others include Bright Light City: Las Vegas in Popular Culture and Bugsy Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas. So as you might have guessed, he brings a certain affection to his research. And he appears to have thoroughly enjoyed strolling back to the days of the Sands, the Rat Pack, and the land of Runyonesque characters. He also shows an appreciation of the nuanced history of the place and includes chapters on the challenge of civil rights and equal rights for women in a place where money is what matters most. Perhaps the area of the book I enjoyed most was its coverage of the newsies, pitchmen, early marketing professionals and outright hucksters who promoted Las Vegas as America’s adult playground. Using every trick in the book and some that were creations of necessity, they generated an endless stream of daily feature copy back when newspapers were king. Publications from around the globe celebrated the Vegas idea of fun in the sun and increasingly acceptable sin in a nation grinding through the moral tumult of the 1950s and early 1960s. I would argue that those publicists and Las Vegas News Bureau photographers were as responsible for the success of Las Vegas as Sinatra and showgirls in full feather. Their names rarely made headlines and many have been all but lost to history. One who deserves a special mention in Steve Hannagan. Don’t remember Hannagan? He was only on the front lines of the Las Vegas idea for 16 months in the late 1940s (post-Siegel murder.) He had gained a big reputation with his promotions of Miami Beach and burnished his record with the marketing of the Sun Valley, Idaho, ski resort back when it was owned by the Union Pacific. Gragg gives Hannagan his due. His tenure was brief. “However, he established an effective approach to publicity. Hannagan created a news organization called the Desert Sea News Bureau with a staff of three writers and three photographers whose mission was to saturate the country with stories and photos with a Las Vegas dateline. The staff assisted visiting journalists, planted stories in major newspapers and magazines, and sent packets of photos and stories to travel editors.” Others would add to Hannagan’s hot start on the publicity parade, which grew easier as booming Las Vegas added sparkling new hotel-casinos throughout the 1950s. The stories were important for many reasons, and not just economic ones. The playful headlines competed with darker ones in those days. The challenge for the casino bosses, as Gragg observes, was outrunning the bad publicity generated by investigative reporters chasing the shadow of organized crime through the neon night. “While hotel developers enjoyed the great press coverage of their spectacular properties and their appealing entertainment options, stories about gangster influence in La Vegas continued to be a nagging problem through the 1980s,” he writes. “Dozens of journalists covered the mob story line, but four were particularly influential.” Their names are well known to Vegas denizens: Ovid Demaris, Ed Reid, Sandy Smith, and Wallace Turner. But a strange thing happened on the way to infamy. America grew up to become a lot more like Las Vegas than the other way around. Even all that bad news about dark-souled characters turned out to be not so bad for business, after all. Any city that sports its own museum devoted to the mobsters who once threatened its very existence has obviously made peace with its history.