Before There Was Vegas, There Was Elko Elko, Nev., started the big bands and the big shows long before the glitz and glam of Vegas. Today, the Commercial Hotel and Casino is still open in downtown Elko, but the live entertainment is gone except for few diehards making a cacophony of digital slot machine music.

Before There Was Vegas, There Was Elko

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song "Viva Las Vegas")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician; Actor): (Singing) Viva Las Vegas.

SIMON: Where did Las Vegas come from - an idea that you could have a place where the normal rules of life just don't apply? Sure Atlantic City, Reno, and dozens of casino towns have come along in more recent times, but they've all kind of been inspired by the cocktail of gambling and showbiz first mixed in a little town about 430 miles north of Las Vegas. Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center traces the model to its very beginning.

(Soundbite of song "Viva Las Vegas")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Oh, there's blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel, A fortune won and lost on every deal.

Mr. HAL CANNON (Founding Director, Western Folklife Center): You might think that this story begins somewhere along the Las Vegas strip just after the war and that it might include Bugsy Siegel and the Mob. I thought so too.

(Soundbite of song "Viva Las Vegas")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas.

Mr. CANNON: But it actually begins here, 430 miles north of Las Vegas in the town of Elko, Nevada.

Ms. DIZ PUCCINELLI (Former Bookkeeper, Commercial Hotel, Elko): Elko started the big bands and the big shows. We started it here before Vegas ever started it.

Mr. CANNON: Diz Puccinelli's boss first had the brainstorm to bring topnotch entertainers into his casino. It all began in April of 1941 with the famous bandleader Ted Lewis.

(Soundbite of song "Me and My Shadow Going down the Avenue")

Mr. MORRIS GALLAGHER(ph): The room was darkened, and here comes Ted Lewis out, and the spotlight is on him.

(Soundbite of song "Me and My Shadow Going down the Avenue")

Mr. TED LEWIS: (Singing) Of all the people in this lonesome old world...

Mr. CANNON: Morris Gallagher remembers that opening night.

Mr. GALLAGHER: Well, he was a true showman, you know. And the song was "Me and My Shadow going down the Avenue."

(Soundbite of song "Me and My Shadow Going down the Avenue")

Mr. TED LEWIS: (Singing) Going down the avenue.

Mr. GALLAGHER: We had never seen anything like that here in Elko.

Mr. CANNON: And Nevada was about the only place Morris Gallagher and his friends could have witnessed history being made that evening in their little high desert cowboy town of 5,000 people.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CANNON: Back in the dark days of the Depression, Nevada, like the rest of the country, was suffering. A stalled economy, threadbare people shoveling down the streets - Depression had become a state of mind.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Ah, somebody do something for me. Come get me.

Mr. CANNON: Nevada was in the middle of nowhere, and being rescued just wasn't on the cards. So in 1931, the state's legislature came up with the idea of legalizing gambling. A pokerfaced hotel owner, Newt Crumley, was just one of scores around the state who applied for a gaming license. But it was Crumley's big handsome son Newt Jr. who really wanted to make their hotel, the Commercial, into something bigger than a backroom poker parlor. And then he realized the answer lay right outside his door.

(Soundbite of train)

Mr. CANNON: The main rail line connecting East to West ran within spitting distance of the Commercial. Everyone, including traveling entertainers, whizzed right through Elko without stopping. So Newt Jr. figured if he could get the big stars off the train, he could draw big crowds to gamble. So he offered Ted Lewis the outlandish amount of $12,000 to perform that first week in 1941. It was a wager that paid off in more ways than one. Diz Puccinelli.

Ms. PUCCINELLI: Some of those entertainers would come in here, and they might end up owing Newt before they left because they would gamble. So he did pretty well off of it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CANNON: Townspeople remembered that by the time World War II was over, the biggest names in show business were headlining at Crumley's casino. Guy Lombardo, Sophie Tucker, Chico Marx.

Unidentified Woman: We had Tennessee Ernie Ford and then Vikki Carr and Frankie Yankovic.

Unidentified Man: Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Spike Jones a couple of times. And I remember Xavier Cugat, and he carried a little Mexican Chihuahua.

Mr. CANNON: And these folks didn't just perform for the gamblers. Crumley's contracts stipulated that they had to perform for the community, including shows for the local high school kids. Ann Nisba(ph) was there.

Ms. ANN NISBA: I can remember Anna Maria Alberghetti. And all of these kids would come in, and we'd squish up on the floor. And she was a great singer.

Mr. CANNON: People came to Elko from Boise, Salt Lake City, and everywhere in between, including Charlie Chester(ph). He drove from the mining town of Ely, Nevada, almost 200 miles away.

Mr. CHARLIE CHESTER: My first wife, Rose(ph), and I danced all the time. You know, she weighed 225 pounds. She was a heavy woman. And I had to ask for dances because everybody wanted to dance with her. She just had that rhythm. And when she grabbed a hold and you grabbed a hold of her, you could just glide away. And the next guy would get her before I could get to her, and I'd have to ask her for a dance.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PUCCINELLI: He'd bring in shows, but they had to be clean shows, very clean. And if they weren't, he'd fire them.

Mr. CANNON: Diz Puccinelli, Newt Crumley's bookkeeper from 1946 to 1949.

Ms. PUCCINELLI: I remember one was Red Fox. And the first night that he was on, he got a little risque in his performance. And Newt fired him right then and there. After that, he made me go down to the hotel every time there was a new show to see how it was. And if we didn't keep them, then he'd fire them, and I'd pay them off.

Mr. CANNON: While some performers weren't invited back to Elko, others became attached to the place and its people. This was a time when America was redefining itself, and no other figure was as iconic as the cowboy. Mimi Ellis(ph) grew up in Elko where her father owned a competing casino. She says it wasn't just the money that drew the stars. It was something else.

Ms. MIMI ELLIS: Authenticity. Everyone was who he was, and they didn't apologize for it. It was real. The cowboys were real. The gaming was real. It had all the characteristics of the Old West.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Actor): I've been doing a lot of things. I ran into these folks in Missouri. I thought maybe I might try my hand at farming or ranching if I can find me some cattle. They make good biscuits, these folks. You're going to like them.

Mr. CANNON: Jimmy Stewart finally got that ranch. His daughter, Kelly Harcourt, talks about what drew him to Elko County.

Ms. KELLY HARCOURT: Dad liked the guys who worked on the ranch. They were real cowboys, you know, people named Tuffy(ph) and Cold-Water Bill(ph). And I think he liked being around people who were working close to the land.

Mr. CANNON: Stewart's Winecup Ranch was over 500 square miles of open country.

Ms. HARCOURT: All of us remember it as just this paradise because we did things there that we never did anywhere else. I mean, the landscape was so beautiful, and that was sort of vast vistas in the huge skies. It was so different than Beverly Hills.

Mr. CANNON: Jimmy Stewart wasn't the only one looking for a little ranch way out West. Jim Peterson(ph) remembers one hot summer afternoon when he saw a man and a boy traipsing down the road of his family ranch.

Mr. JIM PETERSON: Now, who the devil is this out here this time of day? And they had a flat tire on this old Ford truck down there about a quarter of a mile from the ranch house. And I didn't really recognize him, to be honest, right here. I went and helped him, got his tire changed and got him going. Well, it was Bing and one of his boys. Lord, have mercy. I didn't know. I was just a kid, you know.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. BING CROSBY (Singer): (Singing) Well, we moved to Elko County about a dozen years ago. We bought a ranch down on the river when the river was nice and low.

Mr. CANNON: Bing Crosby eventually owned seven ranches in Elko, including Peterson's family ranch.

Ms. CAROLYN SCHNEIDER: Uncle Bing was a working cattle rancher. He didn't just sit back in the office and give orders. He was out there in his chaps and boots doing the whole thing, helping to mend fence or brand cattle, whatever needed to be done.

Mr. CANNON: Bing's niece, Carolyn Schneider, visited the Crosbys often in Elko. Bing was determined to teach his four sons the cowboy work ethic. But at the end of the day, he also liked to come into town.

Ms. SCHNEIDER: People would see him on the street. Hi, Bing. Oh, hi there, Dorothy, how are you? You know, it was just very casual. They didn't make a fuss over him. Bing himself is quoted as saying, "I love these folks." And he really did.

Mr. CANNON: Bing made a lot of friends, including his hunting buddy Newt Crumley.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) I'll be singing sweet little Annie while Newt is sitting on his fanny counting up my dough.

Mr. CANNON: People loved sitting near him at the local Catholic Mass just to hear him croon the hymns. Bing got so involved in the community that in 1948 he was named Elko's honorary mayor.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. MARSHALL SMALL(ph): How do you do, everybody. This is Marshall Small speaking to you from the lounge of the Commercial Hotel in Elko, Nevada. And sitting on my left, I have the one and only Bing Crosby, who is in Elko this afternoon. Now, how does it feel to be honorary mayor of Elko?

Mr. CROSBY: Well, I'm deeply flattered, of course, that the good people of Elko think that much of me that they want to place the reins of the city government in my hands if it's only in an honorary capacity. I don't anticipate any work. I just want to sit around and take a few bows.

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) And as long as I'm the mayor, I like this place. I'll get my jack back if I must (unintelligible) at blackjack, Elko, Nevada. I'll stay right here.

(Soundbite of slot machines)

Mr. CANNON: The Commercial Hotel and Casino is still open in downtown Elko, but the live entertainment is gone except for a few diehards making a cacophony of digital slot machine music. By the time Newt Crumley sold the Commercial 50 years ago, Vegas had far outglitzed Elko. Still, it's tempting to close your eyes and imagine those big bands, the dancers gliding around the floor, and Bing Crosby's baritone voice echoing here on his home on the range. For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) Oh, give me a mansion where we don't do no ranching, Where the dudes and the tenderfeet play. How they love to play. Where seldom you hear, Someone roping a steer, And the dance floor is crowded all day.

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