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Exhibit Highlight: The Movies that Made Las Vegas, Las Vegas Makes Movies

By Su Kim Chung on August 4, 2014 6:20 PM | Permalink

Head of Exhibits Peter Michel has curated a fabulous new exhibit in Special Collections on two notable movies filmed in Las Vegas. Michel drew the content largely from the Sands Hotel Collection in Special Collections. Read excerpts from Michel's exhibit text here and visit us on the 3rd floor of Lied Library to peruse the exhibit in person.

Meet Me in Las Vegas, MGM, starring Cyd Charisse and Dan Daily, Directed by Roy Roland, Produced by Joe Pasternak, premiered in Las Vegas on February 21, 1956 at the El Portal Theater on Fremont Street.

Viva Las Vegas! MGM, starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret, Directed by George Sidney, Produced by Jack Cummings, released May 20, 1964.

Hollywood and Las Vegas, a fashionable mix since Bugsy Siegel brought his Hollywood pals to the opening of his Fabulous Flamingo in 1947, became a publicist’s dream for Al Freeman the publicity director for the Sands Hotel. Freeman, the promotion wizard of Las Vegas, worked his magic with Hollywood producers to assure a prominent place for his hotel on the movie screens of America.

Cyd Charisse and Dan Dailey, stars of Meet Me in Las Vegas in a publicity photo in front of the famous Sands Hotel marquee (Sands Hotel Collection)

MGM’s Meet Me in Las Vegas was a PR coup for Al Freeman and entertainment director Jack Entratter, who managed to monopolize the story and location almost exclusively in their own Sands Hotel. Besides providing the backdrop for most of the movies’ scenes both inside and out, the premier of Meet Me in Las Vegas became the biggest Hollywood-Vegas event since the opening of the Flamingo.

Cyd Charisse, Jim Backus and Dan Dailey filming in front of Sands Hotel (Sands Hotel Collection)

Not only did MGM fly a coterie of its stars to Las Vegas for the opening, Milton Berle was persuaded to broadcast his popular TV show live from the Copa Room, where he had as captive guests all the MGM stars.

Milton Berle clowning with Copa Girls before the live broadcast of his popular television show from the Copa Room (Sands Hotel Collection)

After the show they were piled into a cavalcade of sports cars and driven downtown to the El Portal Theater, where their arrival was broadcast in another live radio show as each star was interviewed and photographed as they entered the theater. And between these carefully planned and orchestrated media events were a series of private cocktail parties and a show in the Copa Room. It was a triumph for the Sands Hotel management, and an illustration of the power the big studios held over its stars, and did much to secure the city and that hotel’s reputation as the Entertainment Capital of the World.        

The World Premier of Meet Me in Las Vegas, El Portal Theater on Fremont Street (Sands Hotel Collection)

Viva Las Vegas was primarily a vehicle for Elvis Presley who had already achieved movie star status with a series of forgettable but popular films which provided simplistic scenarios for Elvis to perform forgettable songs. What made Viva Las Vegas different was not its script (a singing race car driver named Lucky Jackson, romancing a local swim instructor named Rusty Martin) or production values, but Elvis’ co-star Ann-Margaret and the catchy tune of the title song. It was Ann-Margaret’s sizzling dancing and on-screen chemistry with Presley that made Viva Las Vegas stand out from the other routine Elvis Presley Hollywood fare.  And the song, which the city adopted as a theme, and the popular movie soundtrack were decidedly a cut-above the standard Presley movie songfest.

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret dance scene filmed at Nevada Southern (UNLV)

Although Al Freeman managed to make the Sands Hotel a prominent location for the film, Viva Las Vegas was by no means the advertisement for the hotel that Meet Me in Las Vegas had been.

Copa Girls on stage filming Viva Las Vegas (Sands Hotel Collection)

The Copa Room was featured with the Copa Girls (one of whom, Judy Johnson, in her oral history interview described her experience of the filming)   performing their famous if somewhat dated fan number, but perhaps the most famous dance scene was shot at UNLV, then Nevada Southern, in the original gymnasium, now the Barrick Museum. It was a modern dance number with Ann-Margaret in a black leotard, (her character was a hotel swim instructor) quite removed from the showgirls on the Strip.

Behind the scenes filming the Copa Girls

Filming Viva Las Vegas in front of the Sands Hotel (Sands Hotel Collection)