History of the Sands Casino in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Showgirls. Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)

The Sands casino was a popular, very ​profitable casino built on the  Las Vegas Strip in the early 1950's. Although built with Mob money, the casino was licensed and run for years with front-men, and then skimmed by the likes of Meyer Lansky for the Boys back east.

Early Beginnings

In late 1950, Nola Hahn and Billy Wilkerson (recently kicked out of his Flamingo Casino by Bugsy Siegel), opened a French restaurant called La Rue, just down the street from the other casinos growing on the Las Vegas Strip.

It was popular, but Wilkerson was once again a victim of his own building success and his gambling addiction. Instead of keeping his property, he lost it once again because he spent every dime the restaurant made playing craps at the casinos in town.

Max Kufferman approached the restaurant partners with a very lucrative offer, which they accepted, and Max went about applying for a gaming license. It was denied due to his association with Joseph "Doc" Stacher, who had ties to Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello through his New Jersey operations. Kufferman shifted the building to Texan Jake Freedman.

The 212-room hotel and casino were built at a cost of just over $5 million with Jack Entratter, Carl Cohen, and Ed Levinson as partners. Frank Costello was a hidden owner with Doc Stacher and Kid Cann (Isadore Blumenfeld). Although the Nevada Gaming Commission denied Freedman's first licensing application due to his association with Kufferman, the property was eventually licensed for gaming and the casino opened on December 15, 1952.

The Fun Begins

Danny Thomas was the headliner in the showroom with the beautiful Copa Girls dancing across the stage for guests. Players lined the casino and sat at the largest bar in Las Vegas (108 feet long) and listened to a Latin Trio play music into the night.The casino was so popular and so profitable, that the original cost of the building was recouped in less than a year.

It was said that the cocktail servers drove Cadillacs while earning $400 a week and Bell Captain Vane Weidenfopf drove one himself when he wasn't using his Jaguar.

Although Max Kufferman was again denied a gaming license in 1953, Malcolm Clarke and Ed Levinson were both licensed, and they were well-known associates of Meyer Lansky and had owned illegal casinos in other states. Frank Sinatra, well-connected to Mob friends in Chicago and New York, was given 2-percent  in the club and his license was approved. Over the years, his salary grew from $15,000 a week to appear in the showroom to $100,000.

His ownership also grew over the years, topping out at 9-percent before he was forced to sell his gaming interests in 1967 after purchasing the Cal-Neva at Lake Tahoe and taking Chicago Outfit crime boss Sam Giancana as a full partner.

One of the main draws at the Sands was the amazing number of Hollywood legends and entertainers who appeared on-stage or simply walked the grounds and enjoyed the shows themselves. Casino patrons regularly spotted stars like Marilyn Monroe, Rosemary Clooney, Lucille Ball, Mitzi Gaynor, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Lena Horne, Marlene Deitrich, Rowan and Martin, Jack Benny and much more.

The Sands casino continued to be one of the most successful in town, and the property was upgraded in 1959 to add 59 luxury suites. In 1963, the 84-room Aqueduct building was opened with views of the pool and grass area.

Along Comes Howard Hughes

The building of the 17-story hotel tower was begun in 1966 and by the time it was finished in 1967, the property had been purchased by Howard Hughes for $14.6 million. The tower itself was cylindrical, with 777 lucky rooms, and was easily seen from any point in the Las Vegas valley, as most of the properties in town were just a few stories tall, although that was to change very quickly.

Las Vegas became one of the premier vacation destinations in the 1960's, with junkets organized from many large cities. There was no cost for many junkets, where known players would contact organizers and be given a free room and free airline travel.

Gasoline was just 19-cents a gallon, so Vegas was also an easy destination for visitors from Southern California.

Rooms at the Sands were as low as $8.95 in the 1950's and in the 1960's those same rooms were still only $12.95 per night. After ​Howard Hughes's Summa Corporation upgraded the property in the 1970's, rooms were just slightly more expensive. A dinner show featuring entertainers like Tony Bennet, Joan Rivers, Doc Severensen or Dionne Warwick and Wayne Newton ran just $21.

Kirk Kerkorian bought the Sands in 1988 and renamed it the MGM Sands before selling the property for $110 million to the Interface Group. Because the property was being overshadowed by new resorts like the Mirage and Mandalay Bay, Interface built a 1.2 million-square foot convention space to house large conventions like Comdex.

Sheldon Adelson took over control of the Sands after selling Comdex to the Interface Group and the casino ran unchanged for several years before closing in 1996. The 17-story hotel tower was imploded and the Venetian Resort was built on the site. Sheldon Adelson's gaming empire is called Sands Corp.

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Moe, Al. "History of the Sands Casino in Las Vegas." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/sands-hotel-history-537395. Moe, Al. (2017, September 3). History of the Sands Casino in Las Vegas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sands-hotel-history-537395 Moe, Al. "History of the Sands Casino in Las Vegas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sands-hotel-history-537395 (accessed November 23, 2017).