A new book, "At the Sands" by historian and UNLV vice provost Dr. David Schwartz, looks at one of the early resorts on the Strip, which helped establish the reputation of Las Vegas as the "Entertainment Capital of the World."
"Well the Sands I think is really the classic Las Vegas casino," says Schwartz. "And it's a casino that not a ton had been written about specifically. And I thought it would be a great idea, because people seem to be really curious about the history of the Sands."
When it opened, the owner of record was a self-described Texas oilman named Jake Freeman. But was it really just another mob joint?
"Well, I mean that's kind of a hard question," muses Schwartz. "Las Vegas 1952. There definitely were some hidden investors. A guy named Doc Stacher was one of them. You know, not as well publicized as Meyer Lansky, but definitely was on a lot of people's radars. So yeah, I'd say it's fair to say that there was a little bit of influence from the start."
But for any sort of skim operation to work, operators needed to get customers in the doors and out onto the casino floor. One of the first steps the Sands took was securing the services of a top-notch entertainment director, who would also own a piece of the action.
"Well, Jack Entratter came out. He'd been the manager of the Copacabana in Manhattan. And came out and brought a lot of those relationships with him."
One of those relationships was Frank Sinatra, who after a hot start as a young singer had been enjoying moderate success a half-mile up the Strip at the Desert Inn, as his good friend and lounge singer Sonny King told News 3 in 2001.
"Jack Entratter came in and said 'How much do you want?' [Sinatra] said 'How much are you going to offer?' He said '$25,000.' They bought the contract for $25,000. Took him out of the Desert Inn, put him in the Sands. The next night he was a hit."
Another key to the entertainment success at the Sands was raising the level of musicianship. Entratter wanted a musical director who Schwartz writes was, "good, but not too good; popular, but not popular enough to outshine the featured performers; easy to work with, but no pushover."
The right man for the job was another connection from Entratter's Copacabana days.
"Antonio Morelli came into Las Vegas to basically run the orchestra at the Sands," says Schwartz. "[Frank Sinatra’s cousin] Ray Sinatra was the first person who did that. Then after he left Antonio came in, and really he was one of the people who built Las Vegas as a community."
While Morelli led a first-rate house band at the Sands, he also assembled musicians for classical performances in a long-running series of "Community Concerts" featuring the first version of the Las Vegas Symphony.
"All the headliners would show up and would perform a little bit, and really he was ahead of his time in that regard," says Schwartz. "And from the time he got here until basically his passing [in 1974], he was all about building community in Las Vegas. And I think it's very fitting that to this day, there's a scholarship in his name in the UNLV school of music."
The Sands was the crown jewel of the Strip for a decade and a half, with a powerful leadership combo in Entratter and casino manager Carl Cohen.
Things began to change soon after a reclusive billionaire arrived in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend of 1966.
VIDEO VAULT | Sinatra enjoys good times at the Sands' Copa Room
"After he bought the Desert Inn, Howard Hughes' eyes were open to buying casinos," explains Schwartz. "And he told Bob Mahue, who was his right-hand man, 'Buy everything you can.' And the Sands for a variety of reasons had a price tag on it. And that was one of the ones they bought. I don't think it made a lot of difference to Hughes. He just wanted to buy a lot of stuff. So pretty much anything he could get his hands on, he bought. And the Sands was one of them."
Sinatra and Hughes had never liked each other for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was very personal. Actress Ava Garnder had conducted an affair with Hughes for several years before marrying Sinatra in 1951 (ending in divorce six years later).
"Things came to a head. It was Labor Day weekend, 1967. Sinatra wanted more credit at the tables. They had to tell him no because management had put a limit on that. And that really blew up. He ended up getting punched in the mouth by Carl Cohen, who was the casino manager and VP there. That was when he left the Sands and went over right away to Caesars Palace."
As the episode played out in local media, there was at first a sentiment that Sinatra had gotten what was coming to him.
"People were saying Carl Cohen should run for president. You know, this is a great man who did what he did. So it's very interesting that they all seemed to be on the side of the Sands. But as time went on they said, 'Well, Frank left, Dean left, Sammy's gonna leave soon.' So it did definitely detract from the Sands."
The Sands began a slow decline and went through a series of sales before being purchased by the Interface Group led by Sheldon Adelson in 1989.
Adelson had made his fortune through the bi-annual trade show "COMDEX" held alternately in Chicago and Las Vegas at the time. But he had been entranced by Las Vegas in general and the Sands in particular since visiting as a young adult in the early '60s.
"And I remember going into the Copa Room and watching Sammy Davis Jr. And then when I left the Copa Room we went into the lounge. We were getting steaks this big," Adelson told News 3 while holding his hands about a foot apart. "They were so big they fell off the edge of your plate for like $1.99. And I thought, this is like Disneyland for adults."
The Sands had added a 17-story tower in 1966, but as Las Vegas entered the era of the "Megaresort" beginning in 1989, some of the legacy hotels were small by comparison.
"If you look at the Sands in 1996 at the time it was imploded, by that time you had the Mirage opened, you had MGM Grand opened," says Schwartz. "You know, these are 3,000-5,000 room hotels. And really the Sands' day had gone."
The hotel was imploded on November 26, 1996 and would later become the site of Adelson's Venetian Hotel and Casino. But not before leaving an impact that is still felt to this day, according to Schwartz.
"I think the Sands has a huge legacy, because when people think of classic Las Vegas, Rat Pack Las Vegas, they think of the Sands. And I think that's what all these years later, when you say 'Sands,' people's eyes still light up the way they don't for some of the other resorts."
The 44-year history of the Sands is told in much greater detail, covering many other areas in Schwartz's new book "At the Sands" published by Winchester Books.