Casino Lit: In times like these, we can all use a vacation at the Sands By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports November 11, 2020 at 8:00 pm In a world roiling with a runaway coronavirus pandemic and seemingly endless political controversy, no one can blame you for wanting to take a vacation. I recently decided to spend a few relaxing days at the Sands. Thanks to David G. Schwartz’s remarkable new book, At the Sands: The Casino That Shaped Classic Las Vegas, Brought the Rat Pack Together, and Went Out With a Bang, I didn’t have to wear a mask, socially distance, or even leave the couch. In no time I bumped into a parade of colorful characters. Some, like Billy Wilkerson, are part of the great Vegas mythology. Others, such as Mack Kufferman, have been all but lost to history. Thanks to Schwartz, they’re back in the action. He takes us literally from the ground up in the early 1950s, starting with Wilkerson’s vision of constructing a little class on Highway 91 emerging “Strip” of casinos in the form of a restaurant and club called LaRue. Wilkerson had dreamed up the idea for the Flamingo and created the Hollywood Reporter and a shimmering lineup of clubs and restaurants on the Sunset Strip. Wilkerson understood more than most about what motivated people to get decked out and go into the night. But he was also a compulsive gambler who played until he busted out. He had, in essence, overshot the runway by thinking that Las Vegas visitors were willing to pay top dollar and wanted first-class faire. In reality, what they really wanted was relaxation, a place to forget their troubles and live a little before returning to the grind of their difficult lives. Kufferman represented the first wave of “investors” in a new idea that became an upscale hotel-casino called the Sands. Kufferman, Schwartz writes with style, was part of the generation of casino investors who brought cash to the game along with substantial notoriety. To wit: “He was the sort of man who Las Vegas, circa 1951, should have loved, with the indistinct background that seemed tailor-made for investing in a casino: He was variously described as a ‘New Jersey liquor kingpin’ and ‘Palm Springs millionaire.’” Kufferman was, in fact, connected up to his eyebrows with organized crime figures, but he did his best to keep it on the down low. Unlike so many other historians who have tried to chronicle that era of development in Las Vegas more breathlessly, Schwartz keeps his perspective and sense of humor. As an affiliate professor and administrator at UNLV, he brings a wealth of working knowledge of his subject to the page. In many ways, the evolution of the Sands reflects the rise of the Strip from the so-called “Golden Age” to the mega-resort era. It gradually escaped its shadowy early investors and made an even bigger name for itself as a place to see and be seen thanks in no small part to a dominant entertainment policy, thanks in large part to Jack Entratter and his Rolodex of well-connected talent. The rise of the legendary assembly of the “Rat Pack” led by Frank Sinatra, whose own tumultuous interaction with Sands management has been often chronicled. Schwartz handles the madcap melodrama with rich detail. Ownership changes and the occasional scandal peppered the Sands’ later years as Las Vegas sputtered in recession and eventually outgrew its first-generation carpet joints. Game efforts were made to keep “A Place in the Sun” in action. Kirk Kerkorian and Sheldon Adelson put skin in the game, and their stories are chronicled with insight. Dr. David G. Schwartz Although no less intriguing in their own ways, the characters associated with the Sands changed, too. When it was finally imploded to make way for the newest “New Las Vegas,” a lot of hearts sunk. But that’s the story of the Strip. For more than a generation, the Sands captured the imagination of short-pockets players and high rollers alike and made them all feel like they were all in the heart of the action. Its magic is recaptured for all to enjoy in this thoroughly enjoyable history. Do yourself a favor and turn off the television, silence that cell phone, put on a little Dean Martin, and take a Las Vegas vacation to remember. (Amazon link to At the Sands: The Casino That Shaped Classic Las Vegas, Brought the Rat Pack Together, and Went Out with a Bang) John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.