Seeing as most Las Vegans have lived here less than 15 years, it’s time to conduct a history tutorial. One way of doing this is to compile a top-10 list of the most important people over the past 50 or so years.
I’m not going back to the founders of our city, men such as Raphael Rivera and Antonio Armijo and John C. Fremont, although they would have made the list 100 years ago. I’ll stick with those who had the most impact on the city’s post-World War II growth and reputation.
I believe the 10 names should be broken down into two fives: undisputeds and debatables, meaning that after the first five (in no particular order), you could make a case for about 12 others who deserve to be in the second five.
Howard Hughes: His mere presence here for four years in the late 1960s did more to legitimize Las Vegas than any other single event. His advisers helped him purchase half a dozen hotels out of the hands of organized crime, and while the public at the time had no idea how debilitated Hughes was during those years, the very idea that the iconic billionaire would choose Las Vegas as a base of operation elevated the perception of Las Vegas a thousand percent at a critical time in our history.
Kirk Kerkorian: Still going strong at 96, Kerkorian on three occasions built the largest hotel in the world in Las Vegas, and he has quietly contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local charities. MGM Resorts International boss Jim Murren credits Kerkorian’s unwavering support for CityCenter becoming a reality. Steve Wynn has called Las Vegas “Kirkville.” Enough said.
Parry Thomas: As the president of Bank of Las Vegas, which became Valley Bank, Thomas was The Money for any gaming operation that wanted to expand from the middle 1950s to the late 1980s. Without Parry’s vision, neither the Strip nor UNLV would have reached anything close to their current potential. With his unfailing belief that Las Vegas could be a great American city, he was the valley’s key figure for more than 30 years. He’s still in good health at 92.
Steve Wynn: Even Las Vegans who arrived a year ago know that Wynn, more than anyone, created the look of the Strip we see today. From his remodel of the Golden Nugget in the early 1980s to the opening of The Mirage in 1989 to the majestic Bellagio in 1998 and his twin properties Wynn and Encore today, when it comes to elegance, ambience, entertainment offerings and more, he set a high bar for all other major developers. Oh, and don’t forget Shadow Creek golf course.
Elvis/Frank: It’s hard to separate these two when it comes to their importance. Both Presley and Sinatra packed their respective showrooms every night, year after year, but just as important, they filled the seats with high rollers. The fact that two such iconic performers would forever be associated with Las Vegas gives our city an aura of cool that it never would have attained without them.
Moe Dalitz: It would be hard to dispute that Moe took his early marching orders from cities such as Miami and Chicago, but he was an outstanding businessman in his own right. He turned the Desert Inn into the hotel on the Strip before selling to Howard Hughes, he ran other properties with great acumen, and he gave generously to the community. In partnership with Irwin Molasky and others, he built Sunrise Hospital, The Boulevard mall and numerous housing developments.
Ralph Lamb: He combined two separate and competitive law enforcement bodies to create the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — no easy feat. Ralph was a tough sheriff, but one who knew how to solve problems quickly and efficiently, if not always with political correctness. Lamb mentored several generations of policemen, and he continues to lend advice to all who seek his counsel. Having Dennis Quaid portray him in a prime-time CBS TV series is also pretty tall cotton.
Jerry Tarkanian: Perfectly fitting the Rebel image of his basketball program, the recently inducted Hall of Famer united the town when he took his UNLV hoopsters to four NCAA Final Fours. The blowout national championship win over Duke in 1990 brought Las Vegas together like no event before or since.
Bill Bennett: He made millions in the furniture business in Arizona, went bankrupt and made a remarkable comeback. With his partner Bill Pennington, Bennett took the underdog Circus Circus out of troubled ownership and turned it into a public company in the 1970s and ’80s, then made the Forbes 400 with his personal wealth. He understood better than his competition how to bring the Wal-Mart and McDonald’s crowd to Las Vegas on a modest budget.
Hank Greenspun: The Las Vegas Sun publisher and community booster was in the eye of the hurricane for more than 40 years in Las Vegas. He had thousands of good friends, probably an equal number of enemies, but there is no question he kept locals on their toes from decade to decade. He ran guns to Israel and shouted down red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, and if you ever crossed him, he’d bash you over the head with his daily column. Hank was harder to ignore than the Stardust sign on the Strip.
Let the debate begin.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan writes a monthly column for the Review-Journal. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org