Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

9-7 A Trip to the Other Las Vegas

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- My wife and I just finished celebrating our 48th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas, Nevada. We honeymooned there in 1961 and decided not to wait until our 50th to return since that is a time for family celebration.
Despite its efforts to the contrary, Las Vegas is not a place for the grandkids. But to our surprise, it has become a place for kids who have barely become adults and still act like kids.
In '61, I wore a coat and tie every night and sometimes a suit if we were going somewhere special. On this trip, I threw on a sport coat, with no tie, one night when we went to an especially nice restaurant. Two of the staff remarked about how nice we looked.
Attire was the biggest change we noticed. People dressed all day long as though they were at a beach resort. I understand that after hours, the loud, noisy clubs frequented by the twenty-somethings have a dress code of some sort. We never managed to stay up late enough to notice.
Staying up until almost dawn was something we did do 48 years ago. After the midnight shows, the lounges had pleasant jazz combos and very reasonable prices.
We soon learned where the big showroom stars would go to hang out and join in the after-hours entertainment. For one fifty-cent drink apiece, we were treated to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louie Prima and Keely Smith and Ray Anthony and the Bookends.
That was back in the days when the mob had total control and kept prices low so it could launder its money. It demanded class in everything and everyone -- or else.
By the mid-'60s, Howard Hughes started a takeover by big corporations. Their insistence on making as large a profit as possible from every function changed the face of the town.
They don't care how people act or dress as long as they are spending money. The competition is to see which hotel can be the most lavish. It is still enjoyable but best in small doses and not in New Mexico.
Yes, New Mexico almost became the gambling capital of the world. In the late 1940s, The New York Mafia became disenchanted with Bugsy Siegel's unsuccessful efforts to make a profit on the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas. He was having trouble getting people from Las Angeles to drive 300 miles through the desert to gamble.
So they looked for another town in the southwest that already was popular with tourists. They honed in on Phoenix and Santa Fe. The other necessity was finding a state where politicians were amenable to changing gambling laws.
New Mexico turned out to be the best bet. Politicos already were turning their heads on illegal gambling operations along our state borders. A nest of them were located along the Texas border south of Las Cruces. The area became very popular with the mob and crooked politicians.
Then, on Easter Sunday in 1949, the body of Cricket Coogler, a waitress popular with mobsters, politicos, locals, college students and anyone else looking for a good time, was found by rabbit hunters.
Clues led in many directions. The investigation was thoroughly botched by authorities who were friendly with both the mob and Santa Fe politicians.
But a Las Cruces grand jury, two brave out-of-town judges and the student body of New Mexico A&M College became incensed at the many cover-ups they witnessed.
Their efforts led to a statewide outrage about dishonest politicians. Very little evidence led to the mob. But much evidence led to the politicians the mob needed to make gambling legal in New Mexico.
So the mob quietly pulled up stakes and moved back to Vegas to try again. In 1950, the Flamingo finally made a profit and a string of luxury hotels soon began springing up along the now-famous Strip.
Santa Fe was spared from being Las Vegas.
MON, 9-7-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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