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Prostitution 1940'S to today.

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  • Prostitution 1940'S to today.

    After the second world war, a few of the old proprietors attempted to revive Block 16, ( a block designated for sexual services in downtown Las Vegas) but it'd gone to seed with cheap rooming houses, most of which the city condemned in 1946. In the meantime, after the prostitutes were evicted from Block 16 downtown, most of them relocated to clubs out on Boulder Highway, such as the Little Club, Kit-Kat Club, Kassabian Ranch, C-Bar-C, and Roxie's. The Kassabian was shut down by the county vice squad in 1946 and the C-Bar-C burned to the ground in a mysterious fire shortly thereafter, but Roxie's survived into the '50s.

    Roxie's is an interesting side story. The owners, Eddie and Roxie Clippinger, surrounded themselves with strong juice by paying off, year after year, the county sheriff, two county commissioners, and a law firm one of whose partners also happened to be the lieutenant governor of Nevada. The FBI raided Roxie's in 1954, charging the Clippingers with violating the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes). Disclosures during their trail in Los Angeles, combined with a sting operation contrived by a Las Vegas crime reporter (covered in detail in Green Felt Jungle), produced indictments against the sheriff and one county commissioner, disgraced the lieutenant governor, contributed to the governor's subsequent defeat, and revealed hidden ownership in the Thunderbird Hotel-Casino by Jake Lansky, Meyer Lansky's brother, resulting in the revocation of its license a year later. Among the other revelations: payoffs to the county vice squad to discourage prostitution on the Strip and thus eliminate competition, and a dollar-a-head kickback to cabbies who delivered tricks to Roxie's.

    The demise of Roxie's dealt the sex industry a serious blow, but by no means killed it off. A new system of cash and carry was evolving, as Las Vegas developed into a city with more and more hotel rooms. And it all started, naturally enough, in the feverish dreams of that prominent pioneer and private pimp: Benjamin Siegel.

    The sex business had been part of Bugsy's overall vision all along. An inveterate ladiesí man, he instinctively wanted to provide easy sex to seduce, service, and presumably satisfy the suckers. The Flamingo established two traditions of sex Las Vegas-style. First, the hotel was designed with separate modular wings, so the rooms were accessible without ever having to pass through a lobby or main entrance. This was at a time (the mid-1940s) when the men who ran hotels actively barred prostitutes: Grim Soviet-style matrons guarded hallways and elevators and Mack Sennett-type house detectives roamed the floors listening into rooms registered to single men for telltale evidence. At the Flamingo, though, a guy could spend every night with a different girl and never be seen by anyone.

    The second tradition was the "dressing up" of casinos with young, pretty, and suggestively attired women: coat-check girls, hat-check girls, cigarette girls, shills, showgirls, and pit cocktail waitresses. Some working girls were hired as hotel help to be at the beck and call of the house; they quickly and discreetly introduced other receptive workers to the lucrative sideline and its procurement procedures. Of course, Bugsy left the hotel business before he had time to fine-tune his sex agenda, but other boss gamblers picked up right where he left off.

    These racketeers recognized the sexual excitement implicit in gambling and that women were integral to the casino scenery. The fact was, gamblers needed sex: the suggestion of it, with women parading around on stage and decorating the floor; the mysterious myth of its ready availability with gorgeous and expensive pros; and the eventual consummation -- prescribed, hidden, safe -- that would get the gambler to sleep or wake him up, make him fell lucky when he won or console him when he lost, keep him around the tables a little longer, and send him home having experienced what has been called the "Las Vegas total."

    They also knew, however, that countless women were attracted to Las Vegas and that uncontrolled prostitution, especially in urban areas, became very dangerous, because of its association with pimps, drugs, theft, and violence. So the sex trade had to be directly and carefully choreographed from start to finish to avoid any chance of offending the multitudes of straights who filled the hotels. Prostitution simply could not become so obvious or vulgar or hazardous that it menaced in any way the smooth and consistent workings of the great god Percentage.

    So they laid down the law, which, as always back in the day, revolved around juice. The girls had to be connected. She had to work for the hotel: be hired by the hotel as a hooker and given a straight job as a front, or recruited after she was hired for a straight job. She had to be recommended and vouched for by a trusted employee. She had to be cooperative; her main objective was to see that the player spent more time at the tables and less time in the hotel room. She had to be reliable. And she'd better be honest. After all, the money that wallet thieves and chip hustlers and trick rollers stole belonged to the house.

    The personal connection extended to the john as well. A male customer who wanted sex, from a high roller to a tinhorn, had to go through the proper channels. The gamblers well known to the big bosses were supplied with a showgirl or high-class call girl as a matter of course. The lesser players, if known by the small bosses, were hooked up with cocktail waitresses or registered cruisers. Regular casino customers could become familiar enough with a bellmen, bartender, or someone with connections to make a circumspect inquiry.

    If you didn't know the procedure, however, you might walk away thinking that Las Vegas's fabled copious commercial copulation was one of the great myths of the day. Because above all, the pandering, procuring, and coupling had to be kept a secret. Herein lay the true beauty of the system and the unmistakable signature of Siegel, Moe Dalitz, and all the other racketeers-turned-executives. For propriety, for privacy, and ultimately to protect the reputation of legal gambling, the whole delicate system had to operate in the shadows. One false step, one loose lip, and the whole precarious structure would collapse like a house of cards.

    This system lasted for twenty years and then all hell broke loose.

    In 1967, Howard Hughes showed up in Las Vegas. His presence, including the quarter-billion dollars he pumped into the economy, helped stimulate a five-year boom in which the Aladdin, Caesars Palace, Landmark, Circus Circus, Four Queens, International (now the Las Vegas Hilton), Holiday Inn (now Harrah's), and MGM Grand (now Bally's) opened, and nearly every existing casino expanded. Increased tourism and gambling revenues reflected the prosperity and full-employment of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Social upheaval, the drug culture, and the so-called sexual revolution also helped transform Las Vegas during the short, intense, and uncertain Hughes era.

    For these reasons and others, thousands of new hotel workers -- bellmen, bartenders, cocktail waitresses, and showgirls among them -- suddenly joined the Las Vegas fray, possessing as little idea about the traditional dynamics of the local sex industry as did the vast new wave of visitors. A strangeness and ambiguity crept into the sex business.

    This vacuum was quickly filled by the greatest pimp in Nevada history: Joe Conforte. Conforte, who owned the world-famous Mustang Ranch in northern Nevada, roughly 15 miles east of Reno in Storey County, was a staunch advocate of legalizing prostitution in Nevada. By this time, the mid-1960s, bona fide brothels had been servicing Nevada towns for more than 100 years and nearly 50 rules and regulations had been entered into the state statutes governing the brothel business. For example, no brothel could operate on a main street or within 400 yards of a church or school (one town moved the school). No advertising was permitted. City councils and county commissions could declare brothels a public nuisance and close them, or tax and regulate them, or just ignore them. In short, the state had continually increased control of brothels without finally outlawing them altogether.

    Conforte's Mustang Ranch was the largest taxpayer in Storey County, which gave Joe a certain amount of juice in local politics. In 1971 Conforte convinced the commissioners to pass Ordinance 38, which legalized prostitution in Storey -- the first county in the country ever to do so.

    But when he set his sights on Las Vegas, the state legislators stepped in. Largely, again, to safeguard the image of and revenues from gambling, also in 1971 they passed Statute 244-335 (8), rendering prostitution illegal in counties with a population of more than 250,000 -- which applied in that year only to Clark County. Roughly 30 years after the feds shut down Block 16, prostitution was finally illegal in Las Vegas.

    Well, it mightíve been illegal, but it certainly wasn't going away anytime soon. With the demand swelling and the old rules increasingly relegated to history, a dilemma of supply suddenly surfaced. Maybe the conventional wisdom that Hughes had bought out the mob opened the door, or maybe the radical Sixties finally arrived in Las Vegas, but whatever the cause, hard-core streetwalkers came out of the woodwork. In addition, weekend warriors -- California secretaries, Utah Lolitas, and the like -- descended on Las Vegas like locusts. Today, long-time residents recall the time, in the late 1970s, when a man couldn't walk the long block between the Sahara and the Riviera, with his wife, without getting at least a couple of bold and lurid solicitations. The corner of Flamingo and the Strip was so overrun that streetwalkers took turns directing traffic. It was what the cops, the casinos, and Carson City had feared all along: obvious, rampant, defiant, and dangerous prostitution in Sin City.

    In the early 1980s, John Moran was elected Clark County Sheriff on a platform, in part, of ridding the county of its highly visible prostitution problem. In 1982, police made 13,000 arrests of prostitutes. In 1984, 6,000 arrests were made and in 1985, around 5,000. In 1986, 90% of prostitution-related arrests were made inside the hotels by undercover vice cops. Las Vegas relieved itself of its unsavory image as an out-of-control sex capital by removing the most visible evidence. But by then, the sex system had, once again, evolved.

    In 1971, the first handful of sex ads appeared in the Yellow Pages phone book under Escort Services. By 1975, three pages of explicit ads left nothing to the imagination. The ads rotated among different categories: Dating Services, Massage Parlors, before finally settling on Entertainers. And thatís where it stands today: A man calls a phone number listed in the Yellow Pages, or a sex rag from newsracks lining the Strip, or cards handed out by smut peddlers on the sidewalks, and a girl shows up at his door. It might be illegal, but Las Vegas tradition still tolerates it.