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The Sands Hotel History - The Place in the Sun

The Sands Hotel, probably more than any other, came to symbolize the Las Vegas of our collective memory. It was here that the color line was finally broken, it was here that Sinatra, Martin, Davis and the rest of the Rat Pack held court in the Copa Room and were the hottest tickets in town, it was here that Jack Kennedy visited during a campaign trip through Southern Nevada. It was where glamour and glitz met in the Desert and it helped propel tourism in the small desert mecca like no other.

This is the story.

Originally there was a small French restaurant called La Rue's on Highway 91 (the old LA Highway). It was owned by Nola Hahn and Billy Wilkerson, creator and one-time owner of the Fabulous Flamingo.

Jake Freedman, an oilman from Texas with a penchant for western attire and pretty girls, and Mack Kufferman wanted to build a new hotel on the burgeoning Las Vegas Strip. They bought the land where the La Rue was and set about to build a resort that would cater to both the high rollers and the Hollywood glamour crowd. Others rumored to be financing the building of the resort were organized crime figures Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Joseph "Doc"Stracher and illegal bookmakers Ed Levinson, Syd Wineman and Michael Shapiro.

Freedman hired Los Angeles architect Wayne McAllister to design the resort. In 1940, McAllister had designed the El Rancho Vegas working closely with owner Tommy Hull to create a modern day version of the Old West. Since then McAllister and his partner William Wagner had been working in Los Angeles designing upscale restaurants such as Lawry's Prime Rib. Instead of going for a western or southwest motif as the other hotels along the highway were doing, McAllister wanted to bring a mid-century modern look to the Sands Hotel. Jake Freedman gave him a free hand and did not interfere with the design. The result according to author Alan Hess was the "most elegant piece of architecture the Strip had ever seen."

The resort would have 200 rooms, a casino and cost $5.5 million to build. The look of the hotel would be dramatic and modern.

Instead of tearing down the La Rue, McAllister kept the building. It's location on the street dictated that the Sands be located close to the highway. McAllister, according to author Chris Nichols, would have preferred the hotel to set further back for easier car access but he soon made the location work for him.

According to Alan Hess: "The flat-roofed casino was large, perhaps the largest built to that date. McAllister designed an eye-catching porte cochere and a zig-zag wall ornamented with tiled planters along the sidewalk to off-set the cavernous mass of the structure.

Atop the porte cochere were three sharp-edged beams that jutted out from the building and flowed over the glass-walled entry before angling down into the ground, giving the appearance of fins. The two-story glass walled entry was bordered by a wall of marble. A horizontal plane with can lights and suspended from the beams sheltered guests as they arrived."

Along the circular drive, metal sculptures, columns and stuccoed pylons created a screen between the entry and the gardens. Four two-story motel wings, named after famous race tracks, each with fifty rooms, stretched back on the property and surrounded the half-moon shaped pool.  Hotel guests were transported from the hotel to their rooms via electric trams.

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The Original Sands Rendering

 

Inside, "the main building of the Sands is a great rectangular hall, with the reception desk in one corner, slot machines along one long wall and a bar and cocktail lounge, complete with Latin trio, along the opposite wall. In the middle is a jumble of roulette and craps tables and twenty-one layouts." wrote A.J. Leibling in the New Yorker in 1953.

Three large terrazzo stairs led into the large casino. Lighting was provided by low, modern-looking chandeliers. Along the walls, signs marked the Copa Room and the restaurants. A part from the casino was a bar featuring a bas-relief, stylized mural of galloping wagons, buttes, Joshua trees and cowboys. Skylights illuminated the Garden Room.

The crowning glory though was the roadside sign. It was a departure from the usual sheet metal and neon displays that beckoned road-weary travelers to stop and stay. McAllister designed a 56-foot (the S alone was 36-feet) tall sign, by far the tallest on the highway at that time. With its elegant modern script, the sign blended with the building to create a mid-century modern paradise. The sign and the building had motifs common to both. The sign was fabricated by YESCO. With its egg crate grill, cantilevered from a solid pylon, it played with desert light and shadow. In bold free script, it proclaimed "Sands" in neon across the face. At night, it glowed red when the neon spelled out the name.

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A secondary, smaller sign stood by the southern highway turn-in. Later, an attraction board was added to the main sign listing the headliners who were playing the Copa Room. Las Vegas had not seen anything quite like the Sands.

The Nevada Tax Commission (later to be known as Gaming Control Board) however, through a monkey wrench in Freedman and Kufferman's plans for the new resort. After a long investigation, it refused to give either man a gaming license. Kufferman was linked to "Doc" Stracher, a known New Jersey mobster and Freedman was linked to Kufferman. Freedman was a well-known international gambler and race horse operator. The only reason he was denied was because of his partnership with Kufferman. Freedman bought Kufferman out and was able to be licensed. However, the rumors of hidden, Mob money continued to swirl around the Sands through-out the 1950s and 1960s.

Jake Freedman brought Jack Entratter west to work at the Sands. Entratter booked the famed Copacabana Room in New York City and had ties to most of the talent that traveled the nightclub circuit back East. Known to his friends as "Smilin' Jack", he was a mountain of a man, standing over 6'1. But he knew talent and how to negotiate. Under his leadership, the Sands quickly became known as "New York's Copacabana Gone West" featuring Lena Horne and Noel Coward. He spirited Marlene Dietrich away from the Sahara and Frank Sinatra away from the Desert Inn. The Sands had deep pockets and were willing to spend top dollar for good performers.

The pay rate for playing Las Vegas was astronomical considering it was the 1950s. Rates of $25,000 a week (usually for two-three weeks, two shows a night, six days a week and one on Sunday) were the norm. In 1955, Liberace would command $50,000 a week from the Riviera. Most contracts had a minimum of weeks that had to played throughout the year ensuring that the headliner played Vegas frequently. As Las Vegas gained in popularity, gamblers, especially the high rollers, began traveling there instead of gambling in the back rooms of night clubs. The nightclubs across the country soon realized that they could not keep up with Las Vegas pay-days.

The Sands Hotel opened on Dec. 15th, 1952. Danny Thomas, singer/songwriter Jimmy McHugh and the Copa Girls, "the most beautiful girls in the world", opened the famed Copa Room. Ray Sinatra and his Orchestra were the house musicians.

By the second night of his two-week run, Thomas, overwhelmed by all the press coverage and unaccustomed to such attention, had strained his voice and his doctor told him to take the night off if he wanted to be able to continue his gig. A call went out and, in that old standard of Hollywood and Broadway, the show went on starring a hastily gathered group that included Jimmy Durante, the Ritz Brothers, Frankie Laine, Jane Powell and Ray Anthony. It was, by press accounts of the evening, a wild, free-wheeling ad-libbed show that brought the house down.  All the performers would ultimately play the Strip throughout the 1950s.

According to journalist Bill Willard, "the Sands pulled out $50,000 from the vaults to stage a hunk of promotion surpassing palmy days of P.T. Barnum. All ingredients were tossed into the flack salad, including four openings in one and all covered by reps of the press, radio, TV and pix." Variety, Dec. 1952

Freedman had hired Al Freeman as Head of Publicity. It was a strategic move that would pay off for years as Freeman wooed Louella Parsons, Bob Considine and Earl Wilson to broadcast their radio shows from the Sands a few times a year. He invited atomic scientists and doctors to stay at the Sands during the Atomic Bomb tests that were routinely going off in the desert skies above Yucca Flats. He wooed celebrities, dignitaries and politicians. He worked closely with the photographers at the Las Vegas News Bureau to keep the Sands in the forefront of publicity.  Guys and Dolls was a smash on Broadway and one of the favorite songs concerned a floating crap game.  True to the mad-cap spirit of the day, Freeman put a craps table in the pool.  Don English, of the Las Vegas News Bureau, snapped the photograph of gamblers in swimming suits and Hawaiian shirts playing craps in the pool.  The photo garnered international attention.  Freeman was a master at his job and raised the bar for all the other publicity directors in town.

Back in those days, the money was made on the gambling and the cost of talent was the cost of doing business. Gamblers, especially the high rollers, would bring their wives to Las Vegas and while the men were busy betting fortunes at the tables, the wives were busy enjoying the shows, the shopping and the celebrity watching. Entratter was instrumental in luring wealthy gamblers from the Northeast to come visit the Sands. Former News Bureau Manager Don Payne said in a 2003 interview,

"People came to Vegas to do things they couldn't or wouldn't do at home.
And they brought wardrobes that they wouldn't wear at home but was okay to wear here".

Women in low-cut gowns were at the craps tables and women in furs stood at slot machines hoping to win enough to brag about back home while their husbands and boyfriends did the real gambling at the tables.

Entratter and company were so good at promoting the Sands that it is said the hotel made back its original $5.5 million investment in the first six months. Rather than encourage the stars to play the tables, though it often attracted big crowds, Entratter encouraged them to deal. He figured if they lost big at the tables, they would blame the hotel and not perform there again.  People flocked to the Sands in hopes of seeing a headliner dealing 21.

In 1953, the Nevada Tax Commission denied Frank Sinatra's application for a 2% interest in the hotel.

Also, in 1953, Entratter signed Tallulah Bankhead to play the Sands. He offered her $20,000 a week. Pundits proclaimed that Entratter was crazy and would fall on his face with such an off-beat booking. Even Bankhead herself wasn't sure she would be any good. She, however, turned out to be a smash. Variety critic Joe Schoenfeld wrote "Bankhead was bank night for the Sands Hotel." (Don't you love Variety writers!).

Jack Entratter was successful in spiriting Frank Sinatra away from Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn and signed him to play the Copa Room.   It was one of those miracles of timing, the right man and the right room.  Sinatra, who just a few years previously had been considered "washed-up" began his comeback to stardom on the stage of Copa.  He had by most accounts, a great deal of respect for Entratter who had continued to book him back East when he was in his "washed-up" stage and Sinatra was always grateful for that.

For their first anniversary in Dec. 1953, Entratter ordered a 12-foot time capsule. Bankhead, who was headlining the Copa Room, helped publicize the burial. Inside the capsule was a head-shot of Bankhead, Bing Crosby's pipe, Ray Bolger's dancing shoes, Sugar Ray Robinson's boxing gloves, a wax impression of Jimmy Durante's nose, an autographed copy of "Short'n Bread" sheet music by Nelson Eddy, and a transcript of Parsons interviewing Sinatra on her radio program. The capsule, in the shape of a rocket, was then lowered in the ground not to be opened for 100 years. Ten years after it was buried, the capsule was discovered in the landfill in North Las Vegas near the pig farm.  While rummaging through the landfill, filled with china plates and pieces, a family found Ray Bolger's dancing shoes.  In 1963, it is surmised that while construction was going on, the capsule was inadvertenly dug up and thrown out.

In April 1955, Danny Thomas' brother was killed in a traffic mishap outside of Barstow. He was on his way to Las Vegas to see Thomas perform. Thomas was unable to go on so Sinatra flew in to cover for him. When Sinatra had to leave a few days later due to contractual obligations, Billy Gray took his place. Entratter's assistant, Nick Kelly, arranged for a special Memoriam Mass at local St. Anne's Church for Thomas' brother.

It was announced that a Health Club, complete with Steam Room, would be built. It would be located directly off the pool.

Entratter had an aggressive booking policy but he didn't hit a home run every time. In 1955, he paired opera singer Robert Merrill and Louis Armstrong in the Copa Room. It was the first and last time.

Celebrities, it seems, loved the Sands. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, Elizabeth Taylor and more were photographed enjoying the headliners in the Copa Room.

The yearly anniversary parties were one of the hottest tickets in town. Those who headlined throughout the year would be there and often join Danny Thomas on-stage. You never know who would show up. The Anniversary celebrations were filmed by the Las Vegas News Bureau and were star-studded events.

Thomas, the star of "Make Room for Daddy" arranged to film episodes of his weekly show on the grounds of the Sands. His television family can be seen exploring the grounds of the property while "Daddy" is rehearsing his show in the Copa Room. Also, Thomas and his co-star, Marjorie Lord, filmed commercials for Maxwell House, the show's sponsor at the Sands.

Nat King Cole was hired to play the Copa Room. Abe Fox, the owner of near-by Foxy's Deli, remembered in a 2004 interview of delivering dinner each night to Cole. Cole had a trailer on the property because he was not allowed to stay in the hotel.

By 1955, Cole was tired of his trailer. He enjoyed performing at the hotel but he did not like the segregation policy that forced him to eat in the trailer between shows and forced him and his family to drive to the Westside each night to stay in a boarding house. He told Entratter if he couldn't stay in the hotel he wouldn't perform at the hotel.

Sinatra was performing at the hotel and was, by now, a close friend of "Smilin' Jack's". He reminded Entratter that it just wasn't a problem with Nat King Cole but for performers like Lena Horne and Sinatra's good friend, Sammy Davis as well. Sinatra urged Entratter to break the color line. With no fan-fare and no publicity, Entratter quietly allowed the African-American performers performing at the Sands to stay there as well.

The Silver Queen Lounge at the Sands catered to both the emerging Rock and Roll crowd and the more American Songbook standards that were still very popular.  Roberta Linn and the Melodaires rotated with Freddie Bell and the Bellboys and Gene Vincent

In the mid-1950s, Ray Sinatra was replaced as Orchestra Bandleader by Antonio Morelli.   Morelli's wife, Helen, was an advertising executive and she had to remain at her job in the East until her contract was up.  Once her contract was completed, she joined her husband in Las Vegas and he set about designing a home for them on the Desert Inn Country Club Estates.

On January 20, 1958, Jake Freedman died following surgery to repair a blockage in his aorta.  His wife Sadie was given a suite in the Belmont Park wing where she lived until she, too, passed away ten years later.  Jack Entratter became President of the Sands Hotel.  To help Mrs. Freedman pay her husband's gambling debts, Sinatra purchased a percentage of the hotel.  By now an Academy-Award winning actor who was filling the town with tourists, Sinatra was finally licensed by the Nevada Tax Commission.  He did not, however, take part in managing the hotel.  That, he wisely left to Entratter

The 1950s were coming to an end.  The Sands had been responsible for bringing more glamour and more celebrities to Las Vegas than any other hotel.  With their power-house line-up they were the hottest hotel in town.  There were big changes ahead for the Sands Hotel in the 1960s.  But before that happened, there was history to be made on the stage of the Copa Room for a month in 1960

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The famed Copa Room

 

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Early Copa Girls

 

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Smilin' Jack Entratter and Jake Freedman

 

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 The Sands Marquee after adding the Attraction Board

 

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The sign in the late 1950s

 

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Robbie the Robot, in town as part of the Sands Float in the Helldorado Parade,
tries his luck at the tables.

 

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The electric trolley

 

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A Sands Suite circa 1955 

 

Special Thanks to Nancy Williams, Don English, Mike Nagro, UNLV Special Collections,

RoadsidePictures,, UnLV Special Collections and As We Knew It for letting us use this images 

 

 

UP NEXT:

A PARTY EVERY NIGHT:

The RAT PACK at the SANDS 

 

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Reader Comments (6)

I understand Howard Hughes bought the Sands in the 1960s. Do you know who sold it to him, who the principle owners were before Hughes bought it?

Thanks,
May 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
The Sands electric trolley is hysterical! Thanks for also posting the pic of the suite. Have just discovered your blog and am loving how much I'm learning about vintage Vegas.
July 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrt374
What has been built on the grounds where the Sands once were?
I was married at the Sands Hotel 48 years ago!
March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Oberst
I was fortunate to visit the Sands a few months before it closed. A wonderful walk back in time. What a loss. I still have a gaming token from the visit.
July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoug
Brought back memories. During the summers in the 60's during the Rat Pack days, I was a member of a jazz quarter that included on of the trumpet players of the Copa Room orchestra. Thanks.
July 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjw
The Venetian is now where The Sands were!

greetings from argentina!
September 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuan Manuel

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