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DECADES OF DYNAMISM: Reflecting on the Las Vegas Convention Center on its 60th anniversary

Flipping back through all those yesterdays and yesteryears crystallizes one unassailable truth — this place packs one monster historical wallop.

Consider …

  • Seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo. For two bucks. That — something to truly Twist and Shout about — happened in here.
  • Witnessing how “Dr. Martin Luther King Captures Heart, Conscience of Las Vegas.” That — conveyed by a headline in the Las Vegas Voice newspaper — happened in here.
  • Welcoming back a rakish politico who had schmoozed with the Rat Pack before he took an oath, stared down the Soviets and steered us clear of nuclear annihilation — then brought a message of hope to Nevada. That — delivered by President John F. Kennedy less than two months before he was murdered in Dallas — happened in here.
  • Encountering a figure destined for global reverence — literally a future saint whose first-ever glimpse of life beyond her impoverished origins would be of … Las Vegas. That — in the form of Mother Teresa of Calcutta — happened in here. 

And so much — in fact, 60 years’ worth — more.

“It was the place the community gathered, as well as the world,” says Steve Hill, chief executive officer/president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), which operates the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), the business/events hub and economic driver that made its bow 60 years ago this week. (The LVCVA also produces Las Vegas Newswire.)

“It was the place the community gathered, as well as the world,” — LVCVA CEO/President Steve Hill

Beginning May 1 and continuing through June 4, an anniversary exhibit, From Zero to 60 and Beyond, will be on display in the rotunda of the Clark County Government Center. Fittingly for the “Beyond” theme, the retrospective unfolds as the LVCC is in the midst of a sprawling expansion unfurling over the next five years.

Since its inaugural convention, the World Congress of Flight, helped it take wing on April 12, 1959, the LVCC has racked up six decades of hosting visitors, from diploma-waving Las Vegas graduates to nuclear code-bearing American presidents. Between those ends of the spectrum have been millions of trade-show conventioneers and their confabs sending multimillion-dollar streams of revenue flowing into the coffers of Las Vegas — from CES to MAGIC to NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) and all manner of specialty conferences.

Highlighting the timeline, though, are milestone events that have rippled across history.

“The image of Las Vegas has partially changed because of so many great people who have come,” says Hill about a roster of convention center speakers that have included Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and JFK.

“I’m sure that at some point in our history, the convention center was a safe place for those people to come. Some would have shied away from the Strip but wanted to be here. The convention center offered that opportunity for any number of different reasons, whether it was a sporting event or a show they were here to attend, or just a great place for them to speak to the community or the world.”

Join us for a jaunt through major moments from the LVCC archives:

In the beginning, 1956-’57: Conceived to bolster hotel occupancy rates during slow tourist months, and funded by $4.5 million in bonds, LVCC construction was set to begin one block east of the Strip at the site of the former Las Vegas Park Speedway.

  • Banner at the groundbreaking with Clark County commissioners reads: “There’s Millions in Our Future.”
  • Though it is derided by some critics as a fiscal “white elephant” before construction even commences, the LVCC soon transforms skeptics into supporters. In 1956, a story in the Las Vegas Sun is headlined, “Prophets of Doom Now Sing Brighter Tunes: Writers Change Minds on Vegas Future.”

In the Sun story, Bob Bergen, a business editor at the Los Angeles Mirror, observes: “Reports last year had Las Vegas virtually folding up. Now, with the 1955 figure in, the reports are folding. It was not a good year in terms of the usual economic indicators — it was a record-breaker. About the only thing that is down in Las Vegas are the businessmen on writers unversed in economics.”

Herb Stein of the New York Morning Telegraph — quoted in a column headlined “Hold That Undertaker” —  is also included in the Sun story, writing: “For a patient (that) some goblins of gloom have ticketed as being a heartbeat from oblivion, this amazing community has a vitality and zest for livin’ that ain’t ready to call it curtains by a longshot. Las Vegas can thrive only on increased traffic. To this end, every effort is being made to make this a big convention town.”

  • And in a Review-Journal piece headlined “Vegas Death Reports Exaggerated, Visiting Newspaper Editor Discovers,” Tom Reynolds, managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, says: “Reports that this town is folding seem pretty silly.”

Amen to that.

Open for business, 1959: The LVCC took off with the World Congress of Flight convention. “Aircraft, missiles and spacecraft – the equipment of flight – have become so numerous, so large and so fast that it is almost impossible anywhere to find a place where they can be displayed and demonstrated,” reads the convention material.

“Certainly, at such few locations where this is possible, one can hardly expect to find facilities also to house and hold conclave of the thousands of world leaders and interested organizations concerned with the design, production, use and effect — both civil and military – of this equipment. However, such a combined facility did become available when the building of a vast auditorium and exhibit hall at Las Vegas, Nev., was undertaken.”

Included in the exhibit: designs for the first U.S. unmanned exploratory space rocket.

So, is it true? If you build it, will they come? Well, the World Congress of Flight drew 7,500 attendees from the United States and 50 foreign nations — and the approval of the media.

  • Sun headlines: “Convention Hall Awes its Visitors” and “Big Convention Hall Era for Vegas Seen.”
  • Quip by George “Bud” Albright, convention center executive director: “If you don’t think we are in the convention business, just ask our competitors.”
  • Beyond the fledgling trade-show industry, the LVCC draws some hubba-hubba name curiosity. No less celebrity royalty than Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher drop by to ogle the center’s rotunda, which was designed minus pillars, columns or any visible means of support — an engineering marvel for that era.

Bobby Darin performs at a “teenage dance party,” 1959: The “Splish-Splash” hitmaker gets the joint jumpin’ and the musical legacy going.

Halloween Costume Ball, 1959: Hosted by the Culinary Union Local 226 and the Bartenders’ Union 165, the Halloween hijinks include sassy, classy entertainment by major talents of the era, including a post-midnight performance by jazz great Billy Eckstine and lounge songstress Damita Jo DeBlanc.

Mother Teresa addresses the National Council of Catholic Women, 1960: “Her 1960 speech at the NCCW convention in Las Vegas was literally her introduction to the wider world,” writes Paul A. Tenkotte, director of the Center for Public History at Northern Kentucky University, in a 2015 retrospective in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

“What happened in Las Vegas spread throughout the world — the message of a petite, frail nun who proved that you don’t have to look like somebody, talk like them, or even be the same religion as them, to love them unconditionally.” 

Maestro Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic, 1960: Nothing could confer prestige quite like musical superstar Bernstein (who was welcomed to town by the Rhythmettes, the cowgirl-costumed dance team from Las Vegas High School). As recalled in a 2018 story in the Review-Journal, the concert program advertisements alone were swoon-worthy: an “initial step toward a vigorous cultural program for our Las Vegas community” (then-Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson) and “a rare and rewarding occasion … for insuring the cultural future of Nevada, our thanks” (then-local NAACP President James McMillan).

Ex-Vice President Richard Nixon speaks to the Optimist International Convention, 1961: “I have spoken to many individual service club meetings, but Optimist has a certain lift to it,” Ike’s former No. 2 tells the group. “The name itself simply warms you up and brightens you.”

President John F. Kennedy visits Las Vegas, 1963: This state was admitted to the Union as its 36th state, largely because its mineral resources were vital to the successful prosecution of the Civil War,” he tells attendees, “and today … your resources are equally vital to the economic growth of the United States.”

Sonny Liston vs. Floyd Patterson, 1963: After flooring him three times, Liston knocks out Patterson at 2:10 of the first round of a scheduled 15-round bout that winds up a quickie rout. “I do feel disgraced and ashamed,” Patterson says afterward. “I was beaten by a better man tonight. But I’m not quitting. I love boxing. I want to try and fight my way up the ladder again.”

The Beatles rock Las Vegas, 1964: Perhaps the most consequential 60 minutes of music — split into two half-hour shows in one day at the LVCC — in Vegas entertainment history. In what amounts to the first genuine arena show in Las Vegas, the Liverpool lads were relocated to the LVCC to accommodate 17,000 fevered Beatlemaniacs when the original booked venue – the 700-seat Congo Room at the Sahara Hotel – simply wouldn’t suffice.

Before the show in Las Vegas – which, with a population of under 200,000, is the smallest U.S. city on the Fab Four tour – the Moptops eagerly meet with showman supreme Liberace, who stays for the concert/scream-fest.   

John, Paul, George and Ringo race through a set including “Twist and Shout,” “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” – straining to shout the lyrics above the teen cacophony.

Tickets: $2, $3, $4 and $5. Seriously.

President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks in Las Vegas, 1964: “I just want to say this for Nevada,” LBJ says in a stump speech for Sen. Howard Cannon. “Nevada knows how to vote. Nevada does vote. Nevada votes right.” And by “right,” we’re pretty sure that, at least ideologically, he meant “left.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visits Las Vegas, 1964: As chronicled in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the man for whom a boulevard is now named in Las Vegas came to town to rally Southern Nevadans to urge their senators to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  King, the paper reported, “spoke evenly and logically, with little attempt to play on the emotions of the audience. Observers felt the speech was an intellectual, often poetic appeal to non-violent action rather than the emotion-pitched demand which some expected.”

Muhammad Ali. vs. Floyd Patterson, 1965: Press coverage noted that Ali had labeled Patterson an “Uncle Tom” for continuing to refer to him as Cassius Clay and disrespecting black Muslims. Instead of dispatching him with a quick blow, the clearly dominant Ali mocked and wounded Patterson before finally ending the punishment with a knockout in the 12th round.  As a New York Times reporter put it, the fight was akin to “pulling the wings off a butterfly.”

Added the Review-Journal: “It will not only continue Las Vegas’ record string of title matches, it will attract worldwide interest and comment to the Las Vegas dateline.”

UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels call the LVCC home, 1966-1982:  Our hometown b-ballers would play 16 seasons at the then-6,300-seat Convention Center, before moving back to the UNLV campus at the newly-opened Thomas & Mack Center for the 1983–’84 season. Once derided as “Tumbleweed Tech” for the team’s relative obscurity, the Rebels at the LVCC made it to NCAA tournament appearances in 1975 and ’76 — and in 1977, only seven years after joining Division I, made it to the Final Four.

Archbishop of Canterbury Arthur Michael Ramsey drops into town, 1967: As described by Time magazine, referring to a photo snapped of the guest of honor appearing in a festive mood (hey, it’s Vegas baby, no matter who you are!): “From the photo, it looked as if the Archbishop of Canterbury, 62, (was) being hustled off to the pokey — and in Las Vegas yet. Well, not quite. The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Arthur Michael Ramsey, stopping off for a day en route to an Episcopal conference in Seattle, was merely getting a V.I.P.’s reception, Nevada-style. His Grace drew a crowd of 8,000 businessmen, politicians and high rollers to the convention center for a talk on Christian unity. Las Vegas responded with a luncheon for 600, at which the Archbishop was observed guffawing.” At … what? An unnamed comedian.

Consumer Electronics Show debuts in Las Vegas, 1978: As the globe’s largest consumer technology trade show, CES has also cemented itself as a symbol of the LVCC’s commitment to the trade-show industry. “CES has become an icon and a part of the Las Vegas brand,” says Hill about the show that has poured $5.4 billion in spending revenue into Las Vegas over 41 years.

That sentiment was echoed by Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, producer of CES, in a recent interview with Las Vegas Newswire. “I am the biggest cheerleader in the world for Las Vegas,” Shapiro says.

“It has more hotel rooms than any other American city. It has an amazing workforce that is dedicated to hospitality. It trains people who know how to build things and get the job done quickly and with great skill, whether they be electricians or carpenters or stagehands. It has first class restaurants. It is a destination. Every event in Las Vegas that I’m aware of has done better in Las Vegas. … Las Vegas is critical to our future. Our existence as an organization, as an event, is bet on Las Vegas.”

Oh, and in 2009, CES at LVCC may have hit its geek zenith — hosting the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions.

The Rev. Billy Graham brings his crusade to Las Vegas, 1978 and 1980: America’s most famous evangelist frames his message in the vernacular of Las Vegas: “The greatest gamble is when you gamble with your eternal soul.”

Emergency shelter for victims of the MGM Grand fire, 1980: The convention center is transformed into a civil defense shelter to aid 4,000 people in need of medical assistance, housing, clothes and food. Several hundred community volunteers flock to the LVCC to answer calls from around the world seeking information on guests.

President Ronald Reagan addresses the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1984: As reported by The New York Times, Reagan speaks out about his administration’s finding of ”mediocrity” in the nation’s classrooms. ”We’ve traveled far in improving our schools, but I don’t believe there’s one principal in this room who wouldn’t agree our journey has just begun,” Reagan says in Las Vegas, then turns toward his advocacy of a Constitutional amendment to supersede the Supreme Court’s ban on organized prayer in public schools.

”God should never have been kicked out of school in the first place,” says Reagan, who also addresses what he calls a return to ”good old-fashioned discipline,” adding: ”I can’t say it too forcefully: To get learning back into our schools, we must get crime and violence out.”

President George W. Bush campaigns for re-election in Las Vegas, 2004: “It’s great to be in the home of the Runnin’ Rebels and that’s what I’m doing — I’m running and I’m not going to stop until election day,” Bush says in his published remarks during his race against Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. Defending his administration’s anti-terrorism policies, he adds:  

“Since that terrible morning of Sept. the 11th, 2001, we have fought the terrorists across the Earth — not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake. Our strategy is clear. We will defend the homeland; we’ll strengthen our intelligence services; we’ll transform the all-volunteer army and we’ll keep it an all-volunteer army. We will stay on the offensive. We will strike the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. We will continue to spread freedom and liberty. And we will prevail.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton campaign speech, 2016: Addressing members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the former senator/secretary of state/first lady compares watching Donald Trump getting the Republican Party nomination at its convention to viewing The Wizard of Oz: “Lots of sound and fury,” she said. “Even a fog machine. But when you pulled back the curtain, it was just Donald Trump with nothing to offer the people.”

Family assistance center, post-Oct. 1, 2017 shooting: As described in the Las Vegas Sun: “People poured into the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday afternoon. Some carrying cases of water over their heads, some with stacks of blankets bundled in their arms and some with boxes of food, but all wanting to help. …

“A white van pulled up to the entrance, parking behind a firetruck. People jumped out, ran around to the back and swung the double doors open. Out came hundreds of flowers of all different types. Dozens of people carried the flowers into the building. Prior to becoming a place of refuge for families involved in the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, the convention hall was scheduled to host the Wedding MBA convention, where 5,000 wedding vendors ranging from DJs to florists and planners converge on the four-day event.”

President Donald Trump comes to Las Vegas for mid-term campaigning, 2018: “We aren’t going to apologize to other countries for our great success,” he tells Nevadans. “You now have a president who is standing up for America. We are standing up for our great values. We are standing up for Nevada.”

Expansions R Us, 1967, ’71, ’75, ’77, ’81, ’82, ’92, ’97, ’02, ’18-present:  Growth, growth and more growth. That’s been the upward surge of the Las Vegas Convention Center, as it has added ever more meeting rooms and expanded its south, east and north halls through the decades — even demolishing its distinctive rotunda along the way (in 1990) to help it happen.

Now, amid its ambitious $1.4 billion expansion project that is expected to catapult Las Vegas years ahead of its convention competition, the future looks to be fertile ground for many more memorable — and historical — moments.

“We felt like this expansion would enable the creation of 8,000 jobs … most of them out in the community. It also allows us to not only keep up with the growth of the meeting industry and the city but to make sure we can maintain our position as the No. 1 meeting destination in the world,” Hill says.

“It provides a significant portion of the tax dollars that pay for all the services and benefits that being a citizen of the state brings. I’d rather have the opportunity that comes with continued growth than to become complacent or stagnant and start to fall back. That’s the biggest message for people in the community.”

Deep breath, Las Vegans, and blow out 60 candles on the LVCC birthday cake. It’s been a long, prosperous journey to this milestone celebration.

True, the Beatles are no more. True, there are no such things as $2 tickets anymore. Yet when it comes to the Las Vegas Convention Center, there’s much more twisting and shouting to come.

The future? We love it, yeah, yeah, yeah …  



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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

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