The Life And Death Of Las Vegas' Greatest Casino

Not only Sin City's first themed casino, The New Frontier hosted Elvis, Liberace, The Supremes and has seen all sorts of debauched action along the way...
Publish date:
Updated on

In the years since it became the site of Vegas’s first themed casino, this building has undergone many refurbishments, expansions and name changes. It has been the site of trials and triumphs for entertainers, including future President Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Phil ‘Sergeant Bilko’ Silvers, Liberace, The Supremes and, most recently, the multi-million- earning, lion-taming magic act Siegfried & Roy.

In its time, from its opening in 1942 to the early years of the 21st century, the New Frontier has passed through many hands. On each occasion for many more millions of dollars than the last. Frontier owners have included a corrupt vice cop, an arms heiress, assorted gangsters, various shady operatives and legendary millionaire Howard Hughes. And now real estate mogul Donald Trump is preparing to build on The Frontier site.

The crowd is here to witness a time-honoured build-’em-up and knock-’em-down Las Vegas ritual, a fate that has previously been visited on such city landmarks as the Sands, the Aladdin and the Hacienda. A sizzling crackling sound, something like that of a supernatural frying pan with the heat turned full up beneath it, is followed by a roar from the onlookers. An explosion of brilliant white light and cascading fireworks shoots into the night sky above the Frontier roof. Then, as the flares die away, another fuse is lit and the pyrotechnics explode out of the windows and hundreds of crevices in the building itself. In one final farewell hurrah, the Frontier building is lit up like a phosphorescent birthday cake and crumbles in a billowing cloud of steel, glass and concrete.

It is the final frontier – a sight that momentarily recalls the mushroom clouds that used to float over the nearby desert in nuclear tests, and is an eerie flashback to the horror of 9/11, when New York’s Twin Towers came crashing down. They don’t call it an explosion; this controlled, but suitably extravagant, end is an implosion.

Las Vegas made the Frontier and Vegas took it away. The Frontier’s demolition signifies an end or at least a respite to half a century of debauchery, good time girls and high times, of weddings planned on a whim and regretted at leisure, of fortunes made and lost.

The New Frontier grew up in tandem with Las Vegas itself, that most American of dream towns, a fantasy playground for the rich, the poor and the perpetually needy. It had been there – in one shape or form, with one group of bag men or another propping it up – right from the start of Vegas’s transformation into the last American, pardon the pun, boom town. Before it became a way station for gangsters and gold diggers, Vegas was a godforsaken Nowheresville. What was to become the New Frontier played a big part in turning the city into a thriving hub of Babylonian excess, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah grown out of the wilderness. It was like the old frontier of the Wild West – a place where glitzy showgirls and lavish entertainments were available for anyone with the dough-rei-me to spare.

Here was the venue where Liberace first set out his stall as the perma-grinning, piano-plinking Las Vegas King (and Queen) of Schlock. In 1956, back when he was still a hillbilly hepcat on his way to becoming an all-American institution, Elvis got his first taste of Las Vegas life at the Frontier. The unique, hermetically sealed, Vegas environment it epitomised held enticements aplenty – even for a non-gambling God-fearing guy like Elvis. The Las Vegas lifestyle that thrived there – non-stop fun, neon, showgirls and fans in every room he entered; parties that didn’t cease at the break of day or dead of night – beckoned.

The lure proved irresistible and time and again Elvis would return, back to the life he had first sampled at the Frontier, sucked into a vortex of 24-hour fried food, fast women, regicidal friends and pistol-whipped TV sets. Pleasure overkill. Though he kept away from the gaming tables Elvis would in time come to know the Las Vegas regular’s dark night of the soul – the crippling loneliness felt by habitual gamblers zonked out of their mind on stimulants and booze. It was manager Tom Parker who amassed the gambling debts but Elvis who became a case study in Las Vegas psychology – endless hours spent climbing the walls and chewing the carpet, addicted to the promise held out by the New Frontier. The hotel’s very name summed up challenge/promise - the threat of a long journey into the American night. It was what Las Vegas itself came to signify – a beacon for both lone businessmen and happy families, for two-bit hustlers and professional gamblers, for stag and hen parties.


The Las Vegas Whale Hunter

Rolling With The Dice Man

Those shining towers offered a source of income and the chance of a big break for bellhops and waiting staff, working girls and entertainers of every variety. During the Frontier’s lifespan, Vegas became a magnet for small town girls with far-fetched thoughts of starlit salvation. Though the law – of averages and of the entertainment jungle – decreed they were more likely to end up turning tricks on the boulevard of broken dreams than basking in the good life with a sugar daddy. For every wheeler dealer and pie-in-the-sky schemer who came to the Frontier humming the razzle-dazzle optimistic refrain of Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas anthem, there would be countless others experiencing the gnawing despair and desperation Gram Parsons captured on the dirty realist country rock nightmare Ooh Las Vegas

Spent all night with the dealer – trying to get ahead

Spent all day in the holiday Inn – trying to get out of bed.

What was to become the New Frontier hotel had modest beginnings; theatre magnate R E Griffith purchased a five-acre site on the Las Vegas ‘Strip’, incorporating Guy McAfee’s 91 Club, in 1941. The following year the Last Frontier hotel opened the only, patently superior, competitor to El Rancho, the first hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Back then the Strip was just a fly-blown, dusty desert stretch of Highway 91, named by McAfee, a homesick corrupt LAPD vice squad commander, aka The Captain. He had come to Las Vegas to avoid legal action arising from his mob connections and extra-curricular activities on LA’s Sunset strip. Married to a brothel madam, McAfee ran a string of gaming houses and vice dens in LA, operations which were soon to find a home from home on the Strip. Nevada’s gambling laws made it much easier for a man of McAfee’s inclinations to set up shop and enjoy a full and happy life, which he did – before finally popping the cork and rolling the dice for the last time

By the ’60s, action in Vegas turned elsewhere – to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies at the Sands and the Golden Nugget. When Elvis returned, it was to film at the Memphis Mafia’s new favourite hangout, the Sahara.

For four years, between 1961 and 65, amid allegations of mob affiliations, the Nevada Gaming Control Board kept the doors of the New Frontier closed. But the board didn’t have to look very far for a suitable new owner. Enter Howard Hughes, the Mobaverse, self-made man with the necessary cash (a cool $14 million) to buy the Frontier. Soon it was a hotspot again – comedians Bob Newhart and George Carlin, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Durante and Teresa Brewer appeared on the refurbished stage and Sinatra hosted a lavish party. But behind the scenes the Las Vegas sleaze lived on. Eddie Fisher, a favourite Frontier performer, learned how to jack-up methamphetamine in his hotel room.

It was on the Frontier stage in 1970 that Diana Ross and The Supremes made their final appearance. For months it had been an open secret that Ross was being groomed for solo stardom. That night, after she left the stage, she went on to the gambling tables at the Frontier and, in an omen for future solo success, gambled and won big. The last major contribution the Frontier made to the money-spinning miracle of all-American entertainment was to sign up German-born, lion-taming magic duo Siegfried & Roy. After 3,500 performances of Beyond Belief, Las Vegas’s first continuously run magic show at the Frontier, casino developer Steve Wynn signed them to a whopping $57 million contract.

The Frontier’s final years were mired in industrial disputes and legal actions. Beginning in 1991, 550 workers staged a strike lasting 61 months. Despite this, the hotel outlasted most of its rivals’ deaths by a thousand fireworks. And with plans well advanced for the new Plaza complex (projected opening: 2011) to be built on the site, the Frontier’s implosion merely marks the end of a chapter, and the start of a new money-mad era in the Las Vegas story.

The world has changed and the Frontier has moved on since Captain McAfee first came to town. But the new owners and developers will be calculating that mankind’s craven venal urges remain exactly the same. It would take a brave man – or woman – to bet against them.