7 Myths about Las Vegas

Our pal, Corey Levitan, has a great column today in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on 7 of the most common myths about Las Vegas.

Las Vegas doesn't have to lie to impress anyone. Yet a surprising number of "facts" about our town continue to resonate across pop culture and the Internet with no basis in reality. Let's straighten seven of them out...

1. Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel fathered modern Las Vegas.

"Siegel didn't walk out into the desert and have a vision," says Michael Green, history professor at College of Southern Nevada, who explains that the valley already was developing on the heels of a Southern California boom.

Siegel didn't even father the Flamingo. The hotel was the brainchild of Billy Wilkerson, founder and publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who started its construction and even may have provided the name.

"The Flamingo name probably was Billy's, because he was modeling it along the lines of the Miami Beach hotels," Green says, "and the flamingo idea was prominent down there."

Siegel's positive contribution to Las Vegas was taking over when Wilkerson ran out of money in 1946. And, considering where Siegel's money came from, the positive nature of that contribution is arguable. (Vegas wouldn't shake its resulting mobster image for another 40 years.)

The Flamingo wasn't even the first hotel on the Strip (then U.S. Highway 91). It was preceded by the El Rancho Vegas and the Last Frontier.

"Most of the people we make gods of either don't deserve it," Green says, "or we make them gods for the wrong reasons."

2. One or more bodies are buried in Hoover Dam's concrete.

Of the 112 people killed during construction of what was originally called Boulder Dam, one was buried alive in the concrete. But his remains do not remain, according to former Nevada state archivist Guy Rocha.

On Nov. 11, 1933, the wall of a form collapsed, sending hundreds of tons of wet concrete tumbling down the face of the dam and onto poor W.A. Jameson. His fellow construction workers toiled for 16 hours to exhume him.

"If you leave a body in a concrete dam, it's going to decompose, and that's a structural defect," Rocha says.

The myth of the dam's entombed, Rocha says, may owe to confusion with Montana's Fort Peck Dam, in which the remains of six of eight victims of a catastrophic slide could not be removed.

"That was an earthen dam," Rocha says. "A decomposing body in an earthen dam isn't a structural defect, because the earth will collapse around the body.

"In a concrete dam, it'll break up the concrete."

3. Las Vegas has more churches per capita than any other U.S. city.

Web sites such as cheapflights.com, swankyvegas.com and livinginlv.com all announce it, attempting to surprise readers with an ironic Sin City fact.

But this is a fiction.

According to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, we have approximately 600 churches, temples and synagogues representing more than 63 faiths. (And no, wedding chapels are not a part of this.) For a population of 1.8 million, that's one house of worship per every 3,000 residents. And that hardly warrants a name change to Forgiveness City.

A Google search shows other American cities making this same claim: Wheaton, Ill.; Key West, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C. ... the list goes on.

It would be difficult to prove which city actually holds the title. Tax-exempt status means that the IRS keeps no tabs on churches, many of which meet in storefronts and houses and do not list their phone numbers.

But it's easy to prove which city doesn't: Vegas. More than one city above claims a 700 person-to-1-church ratio, which is considerably churchier than 3,000-to-1. In addition, we are out-pioused by every city in America with fewer than 3,000 residents and more than one church.

4. A single underground vault stores hundreds of millions in casino cash below the Strip.

If it's in a movie, people tend to think it's real. And this one's not only in the 2001 remake of "Ocean's 11," it's on the poster: "11 men, 3 casinos, 150 million dollars, 1 chance to pull it off."

It's true that all major casinos must have several million in cash on hand at all times to pay huge winners. A complicated mathematical formula dictates the amount, according to David Salas, deputy chief of the Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board.

But $150 million?

"That seems like a lot of money," Salas says, "and to have it in a vault that doesn't pay interest, doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Of course, if there really were such a vault, Salas says, "I couldn't tell you about it for security reasons."

5. Roy Horn died in 1989 and was replaced in "Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage" by a substitute.

At the time, rumors were rampant that someone -- perhaps a cousin -- had replaced Horn. The R-J even published a story in which Clark County coroner's officials denied writing a death certificate.

Since Horn nearly did die onstage 14 years later, this myth has taken on the nostalgic sheen of a Paul-is-dead cultural oddity. But permutations persist. Following a Siegfried and Roy story posted on reviewjournal.com on March 2, one reader commented: "Seigfried (sic) and Roy is a three-person act; one of them has an identical twin. It's not that well-kept of a secret."

6. The original MGM Grand was imploded and rebuilt on its current site at Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

On Nov. 21, 1980, 87 guests of the MGM Grand perished in a fire caused by faulty wiring. Most died of smoke inhalation on the upper floors of the tower lining Flamingo Road.

As most longtime Las Vegans -- and few tourists -- realize, the ravaged hotel was reopened eight months later. The affected buildings were remodeled and the entire property outfitted with sprinklers. Since 1986, the hotel has been known as Bally's, and those same upper-floor rooms are rented to the public.

The myth of the imploded MGM Grand is so prevalent that even the author of Frommer's Las Vegas 2009 and Las Vegas For Dummies, when contacted for comment, argued it as fact.

7. Viewed from above, the Imperial Palace is laid out like a swastika.

This Strip hotel was opened in 1979 by Ralph Engelstad, who gained notoriety after it was discovered that he had hosted two posthumous Adolf Hitler birthday parties. Those parties, in 1986 and 1988, were held in a secret Imperial Palace room decorated with millions of dollars worth of Nazi memorabilia.

In 1989, Engelstad agreed to pay $1.5 million in a settlement with the state Gaming Control Board for tarnishing Nevada's image. (Englestad died of cancer in 2002; his hotel was purchased by Harrah's in 2005.)

Aerial photos reveal swastikalike angles to Imperial Palace, but no symbol. The myth still has Internet legs, however. Apparently, not everyone has discovered Google Earth.