“Las Vegas is the only place I know where money really talks–it says, ‘Goodbye.’” – Frank Sinatra, “The Joker Is Wild”
During the 1960s, Las Vegas was the height of glamour. On any given night you could catch Frank Sinatra crooning at the Sands, showgirls strutting their stuff at the Flamingo and the rich, famous and fabulous mingling in any number of casinos and hotel bars.
While Vegas is still a playground for adults — and still attracts a fair number of celebrities — much of the “old” Las Vegas has been replaced with casinos, resorts and attractions locked in an endless battle to see who can be the most extreme. In a town that turns demolition into a spectator sport, it’s hard to find vestiges of the original, glamorous Golden Age.
It’s not all gone, though, and for those visitors who want to catch a glimpse of what Vegas was like long before the zip lines and the aquariums and the Broadway shows, there are a few hidden gems that offer a peak into what it was like just a few decades ago.
Where to Stay
Before construction began on the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, Las Vegas was just another dusty desert town. However, it still offered lodging to weary travellers passing through, and the first Vegas hotel, the Golden Gate, opened near what is now the Fremont Street Experience in 1906. The landmark still stands, as does the site of longest-running casino in Las Vegas, El Cortez. While some find hotels in Vegas to be over the top, at these spots, you’ll get a true sense of what it was like in the city in its earliest days.
If you’re more interested in “Rat Pack” era Las Vegas — and want to see where legendary performers like Sinatra and Dean Martin once strutted their stuff — book a room at the Flamingo or the Riviera, which have successfully held on to some of their 1960s mystique while offering more modern accommodations.
What to See
At one time, you could see legendary Las Vegas showgirls in nearly any casino or ballroom. These days, the showgirls have been replaced with illusionists, burlesque (or more risqué) performances and big-name entertainers like Cher and Bette Midler.
However, if your visit to Vegas won’t be complete without seeing women in large sequined and feathered headpieces in a choreographed routine, then reserve tickets for “Jubilee!” Performed nightly at Bally’s, this show is classic Las Vegas with a troupe of hundreds of showgirls singing and dancing in elaborately staged numbers. And while it’s impossible to see the original Rat Pack on stage, if you want to imagine what it was like, head to the Plaza Hotel and Casino to catch a performance of “The Rat Pack is Back,” featuring Frank, Dean, Sammy and Joey impersonators.
The best shows in Vegas aren’t limited to the stage though. Las Vegas itself is an ever-changing set, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the neon Boneyard, operated by the Las Vegas Neon Museum. Open by appointment only, the Boneyard is the world’s largest collection of unused neon signs, many of them recovered from legendary casinos and resorts. Even if you can’t make it to the Boneyard, the museum has several neon relics on display on Fremont Street, including the original neon genie’s lamp from the former Aladdin Casino.
Where to Eat
While cheap buffets and celebrity hot spots get most of the attention when it comes to eating in Vegas, if you want to dine in the old style (read: posh, red meat and wine), head a few minutes off the Strip to Golden Steer Steak House, an old-school spot that’s hosted Sinatra, Elvis and others. On the Strip, Lawry’s is the place for prime rib, while Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse in the Golden Nugget is another old-fashioned and well-loved steak joint.
Whether you’re sipping a martini in the Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge, a swanky bar that’s been among the most popular since the 1970s, or taking a self-guided walking tour of vintage neon signs, it’s possible to capture the spirit of the old Las Vegas and find pockets of nostalgia in an ever-changing city. So pack your fedora and your best cocktail dress and hit the town to see Vegas as Sinatra did — your way.
About the Author: Vivian Monson mourns that fact that she was born too late to enjoy the Golden Era of Las Vegas — she wished she could have seen the Rat Pack perform at the Sands. She writes about travel and entertainment for several blogs, and is planning to visit the neon Boneyard on her next trip to the desert.