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Image: Celine Dion
George Bodnar  /  CDA Productions via Getty Images
Celine Dion became a full-time Las Vegas performer last year, taking her act to Caesars Palace.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/14/2005 6:27:34 PM ET 2005-05-14T22:27:34

When Michael Corleone makes his trip to Las Vegas in order to muscle in on the casino business in “The Godfather,” one of his first acts is to get Johnny Fontane’s signature on a contract. Fontane is the crooner loosely based on Frank Sinatra. Michael not only wants Johnny to agree to perform regularly, but convince some of his Hollywood friends to do so.

Those events probably didn’t occur exactly that way in real life. But situations like them happened often, and for years during the post-war period. Certainly Sinatra was reputed to have friends in the mob, and the mob controlled Las Vegas. So it was safe to assume that mobsters were largely responsible for determining which entertainers took the stages in an effort to help separate patrons from their hard-earned money.

As far as the evolution of entertainment in Las Vegas over the years, the most dramatic change was the transition from mobsters to corporations. Some today may have a hard time determining a difference between the two factions. But it is present nevertheless — in styles, productions, personalities and venues, reflecting changing times and varied tastes.

Las Vegas became a city in 1905, but for many it didn’t appear on the map until 1941 — 10 years after the Nevada legislature legalized gambling in the state — when Tommy Hull built the El Rancho Vegas Hotel-Casino, the first major hot spot on what is now known as The Strip. It was followed in 1946 by the Flamingo, built by Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, with backing from mob bosses Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen.

That ushered in a boom of building, and a corresponding golden era of entertainment. In the 1950s came the Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Sands and the Riviera. With them came legendary performers like the Rat Pack contingent of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, and others like Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong and Liberace.

They didn’t call it Sin City for nothing. Gambling, alcohol, sex, live entertainment and other hedonistic lures generated interest, but there was more discretion than there is today. And the entertainment atmosphere reflected that sense of decorum. A dress code was observed in most of the lounges, showrooms and casino floors.

A night on the town
As a result, the shows were more intimate, and done — or at least attempted — with a touch of class. The rooms were smaller. The singers, musicians and other acts took precedence over elaborate light shows and stagings. The performers wore tuxes and suits and ties, or gowns, dresses or costumes. For the folks in the audience, it was a night on the town, and they dressed to impress.

No better illustration exists of the tight-knit connection that performers often generated with audiences than the making of the 1960 film, “Ocean’s 11.” Sinatra, Martin, et al., would shoot during the day, do their acts at night, and afterward deal cards at the blackjack tables.

That personal touch applied in Vegas entertainment was the residue of the mob influence, the desire to give the customer what he or she wanted while making sure it was done with respect. Problems were dealt with in person, not through lawyers or intermediaries. Glad-handing, palm-greasing, back-slapping, it was all an extension of the horse-trading and favor-bartering that took place in mob circles in New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles.

That old-school approach begat an old-school entertainment climate. Vegas patrons of the day leaned more toward sophistication rather than outrageousness. Elvis Presley, the hip-swiveling rock and roll sensation, went on to become the biggest Las Vegas draw of all time. But his first gig there, in 1956, bombed and was cancelled after one week. People weren’t ready for him. They would rather see the comedy of Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene, or the musical talents of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. By contrast, in 1969 Elvis did four weeks at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) and sold out all 57 shows.

Also in 1960, the Strip saw the beginnings of big-time stage spectaculars that are all the rage today. The Stardust imported the Lido de Paris from France, and it lasted there for more than 30 years. Just before that, in 1957, another landmark event in entertainment took place when the Dunes hired the Minsky’s Follies, marking the first time that topless showgirls performed on the Strip.

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But the entertainment landscape began to change significantly in 1966 when Howard Hughes came to town, signaling the transition from mob influence to corporate ownership. He bought some of the nefarious old timers, who were feeling pressure from the federal government to get out anyway. Hughes bought the Desert Inn (where he lived in a ninth-floor penthouse as a recluse), the Sands, the Castaways, the Silver Slipper and the Frontier.

Also in 1966 came the first themed hotel-resort on the strip, Caesars Palace. Stars like Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Don Rickles still ruled, but the influx of corporate ownership gradually opened the door to new thinking in entertainment.

The themed hotel-casinos took off in earnest in 1989, when Steve Wynn opened the Mirage. That was soon followed by places like Treasure Island, New York, New York, Mandalay Bay, the Luxor and the Venetian. They brought with them a corporate philosophy that bigger is better.

Thus shows like Siegfried & Roy, illusionists who work with large animals in a lavish spectacle inside the Mirage, began to epitomize the modern-day Vegas show. Other extravaganzas like the various incarnations of Cirque du Soleil and oversized, splashy productions by singers Elton John and Celine Dion at Caesars — her stage show was designed by Franco Dragone, formerly of Cirque du Soleil — are symbolic of the changing times.

Of course, there are still touches of the old days. Throwbacks like comedians Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld and singers Wayne Newton and Tony Bennett still hold court in less elaborate surroundings. But for many hotels, the bar has been set, expectations have been raised, and patrons are eager to be satisfied with ever more inventive and eye-popping displays.

The entertainment scene is so different that if Michael Corleone visited Vegas today, he wouldn’t know whom to strong-arm.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.

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