New York nostalgia triggers look back at Vegas' summer of '77


New York is looking back 30 years to its tumultuous summer of 1977, when a lightning strike knocked out electricity for 8 million people and led to widespread looting and arson, the Son of Sam serial killer menaced young women, and the long-struggling Yankees, led by volatile slugger Reggie Jackson, enthralled sports fans with their winning ways. An ESPN dramatic series called "The Bronx Is Burning" is memorializing that fateful year.

It just so happens that it was the summer of '77 when my family moved from Wisconsin to Las Vegas. I've lived in Nevada, mostly in Las Vegas, ever since -- 30 years, not a native, but far from a newcomer.

As a naive 11-year-old at the time, all I remember about New York's chaotic summer was the home-run hitting of Reggie Jackson and his team's hot-headed manager, Billy Martin. To be honest, I was barely more aware of what was happening in Las Vegas that fateful season. But a little research, ably assisted by intern Vicki Marquette, reveals that 1977 was quite a fascinating time in Las Vegas as well.

In March, local police launched a search for the body of missing Culinary union leader Al Bramlet, who had been kidnapped at McCarran International Airport, shot in the head and buried in the desert southwest of Las Vegas. A few weeks after the police search began, hikers discovered his body under a pile of rocks.

Bramlet was killed by Tom Hanley and his son, Gramby, who murdered the powerful labor boss after he allegedly refused to pay for two bombs that he ordered but which didn't go off. The Hanleys pleaded guilty and received life prison terms without parole.

That same spring, the Nevada Supreme Court reaffirmed the authority of the state's Gaming Commission, which had denied a key employee license to Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal to work at the Stardust Hotel. Gaming regulators based the denial on Rosenthal's lengthy record of fixing ball games and illegal bookmaking. They also were concerned about his relationship with Tony Spilotro, the Chicago mob's enforcer in Las Vegas.

At the time, the Stardust, operated by Argent Corp., was the mob's cash machine. Nicholas Pileggi, author of "Casino," wrote: "The Argent skim was blatant. No one sneaked around in the middle of the night with cash hidden under his shirt. People who worked in the count room and cashier's cage knew all about it. ... The more experienced casino executives, who suspected that some kind of skim was in place, were experienced enough to understand that it was not in their interest to pursue such matters."

Rosenthal's attorney, Oscar Goodman, vowed to appeal the Nevada ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Rosenthal became a local television personality, hosting a bizarrely entertaining late-night talk show.

Not everything in Las Vegas in 1977 involved murder or the mob. UNLV's high-scoring basketball team and its towel-chewing coach, Jerry Tarkanian, gained national prominence and advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.

The Runnin' Rebels boasted a now-legendary lineup of high fliers, including Reggie Theus, Eddie Owens, Robert Smith, Sam Smith, Larry Moffett, Glen Gondrezick and Lew Brown. The Rebels averaged 107 points per game -- without the benefit of the three-point line. UNLV finished its amazing season with a 29-3 record, narrowly losing 84-83 to North Carolina in the semifinals. Team members and fans alike fondly recall the sold-out games at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"[Las Vegas] was a small town back then, but it was a big-time atmosphere," Theus said in Review-Journal sportswriter Steve Carp's book, "Runnin'." "The Convention Center rocked like you wouldn't believe."

Glancing through the 1977 Arthur Frommer's Guide to Las Vegas, it's clear that a whole lot has changed in Las Vegas over the past 30 years.

The hottest resort on the Strip was the MGM Grand, built in 1973 by Kirk Kerkorian. With 2,092 rooms, the MGM was the largest hotel in town. According to Frommer's, "Many hotels claim to be resorts, but the MGM Grand is the first hotel we've seen in our round-the-world travels that fully qualifies as a complete and contained resort."

Three years later, the MGM Grand would burn, with 87 people losing their lives. The resort was renovated and today stands proudly as Bally's. But it's medium-sized compared with the mega-resorts lining the modern Strip.

Las Vegas in 1977 also featured numerous iconic hotels that no longer exist. Besides the aforementioned Stardust, which came down earlier this year, there was the Sands, Dunes, Desert Inn, Landmark, Castaways, Hacienda and Showboat.

Other 1977 trivia:

Clark County's population in 1977 was 390,000. Today, the county has more than 1.9 million people.

The state's only fully enclosed mall was the Boulevard on Maryland Parkway.

The east leg of the U.S. Highway 95 Expressway -- running from downtown Las Vegas to Henderson -- did not exist. Motorists had to take Boulder Highway instead. The west leg of the Expressway extended from downtown all the way to Decatur Boulevard.

"Blansky's Beauties," a "Happy Days" spinoff set in Las Vegas, debuted in 1977. The main character was a woman who served as "den mother" for a group of showgirls. Scott Baio and Pat Morita had supporting roles. Alas, despite this prodigious star power, the show lasted only half a season.

A typical bill for a Las Vegas lunch buffet: $1.99.

New York has come a long way since the summer of '77, when the city endured a crime wave, high unemployment, record heat and an elusive serial killer. Any nostalgia for that troubled time tends to be reserved for the heroics at Yankee Stadium.

Las Vegas, too, has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past three decades -- though not entirely for the better. Corporations have eclipsed the mob, and suburbia has erased the open desert.

It's not difficult to find old-timers who believe things were better in the glory days of Al Bramlett, Lefty Rosenthal and Jerry Tarkanian. I might be considered an old-timer in some circles, but I'm not sure I share their nostalgic feelings.

Las Vegas is big and ungainly today, but it boasts amenities unheard of in 1977, from large bookstores and an endless array of restaurants to diverse job opportunities and specialty medical care. Those who miss the good old days often conveniently forget the advantages of size.

 

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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