Vegas People: Celebrities and their Las Vegas Connection

I can’t resist. I have a couple more celebrity photos from my uncle’s St. Louis, MO photographic archives (click here). Because most celebrities have a Las Vegas past, I hopped on the Internet and wondered what connections I would find.

Lucille Ball
Photo by Buzz Taylor

Lucille Ball, seen here before a St Louis CBS microphone in 1965, was that network’s “first lady of television” for 23 years before giving up her “Here’s Lucy” series in March of 1974. Her ties to the Las Vegas area involve family as well as career. Her son, Desi Arnaz Jr., lives in nearby Boulder City, NV. In 1997 Arnaz purchased the Boulder Theatre turning it from a movie theater to a theater for live performances. Arnaz’s wife, Amy, is Executive Director of the Boulder City Ballet Company which performs at the theater..

On June 30th of last year, two of Lucille Ball’s 1975 specials were released on DVD. One of the specials is entitled “Lucy Gets Lucky” filmed in Las Vegas. The plot involves Lucy traveling to the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to see Dean Martin and as one reviewer said, “has the typical Lucy plot of her being unable to get into Martin’s show, befriending him and engaging in slapstick antics along the way.”

Sonny Liston
Photo by Buzz Taylor

Although Lucille Ball died in April of 1989, her TV programs and famous scenes live on. Just last November, Las Vegas’s new PR darling, Holly Madison, stomped grapes with a Lucille Ball look-alike at the opening of the Beaujolais Nouveau celebration at Paris Las Vegas. Lucille Ball’s original grape-stomping episode on “I Love Lucy” aired April 16, 1956.

Though everybody loved Lucy, not everybody loved Arkansas-born boxer Charles “Sonny” Liston. A troubled youth who learned boxing in the Missouri State Penitentiary, his career was riddled with claims that his boxing matches were faked or fixed. The photograph to the right, promoted Liston’s October, 1958 bout against Bert Whitehurst at the St. Louis Arena. Whitehurst was “knocked through the ropes and was attempting to climb back into the ring as the final bell rang”. Liston was six feet one-half inches tall, 215 pounds and his 15-inch fists were said to be the largest in heavyweight history. He defeated Floyd Patterson to become world heavyweight champion on September 25, 1962. He fought Patterson again, at the Las Vegas Convention Center, on July 22, 1963 knocking him out in the first round.

Sonny Liston's grave marker.
Photo by Diane Taylor

Liston lost the championship two years later to underdog Cassius Clay. He continued boxing, but in early January, 1971 was found dead by his wife in their Las Vegas home. The cause of his death remains a mystery. Some said he died of a drug overdose (though he hated needles). Others speculated that he might have been murdered by underworld connections. Liston is buried in Davis Memorial Park at 6200 S. Eastern in Las Vegas. At least once a week, visitors ask to see where he is buried. His headstone bears the simple epitaph “A Man.”

Satchel Paige
Photo by Buzz Taylor

Many cities can claim Hall of Fame Pitcher Satchel Paige. In this photo, circa 1951, he was “probably” in his mid to late 40s. Bill Veeck had hired Paige to pitch for the St. Louis Browns. Earlier in his career he had pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs and Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro leagues and with the Cleveland Indians. He filled in his down time by playing with numerous barnstorming teams. He is said to have pitched more than 2500 games in his career and to have once pitched 29 days in a row. The only Las Vegas connection this reporter could find is that after marrying his first wife in 1934, Paige stopped to pitch in Las Vegas during his honeymoon. In 1965, Paige pitched three innings for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 59. Paige died in June, 1982 at age 75.

Danny Thomas
Photo by Buzz Taylor

Lebanese actor/comedian/humanitarian Danny Thomas, seen here behind a St. Louis podium, surely appeared regularly in Las Vegas, as did every other big star of his day. He definitely was part of an Ed Sullivan Show from Las Vegas September 24, 1961, taped at the Desert Inn and at the Stardust. He was also Man of the Hour for a 1976 edition of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast (featuring Lucille Ball, incidentally) filmed in Las Vegas.

A Sands Hotel advertisement “sometime” in the 1960s featured Danny Thomas on a burro with the headline, “Get off your burro and jet to the Sands Hotel.” The ad copy included the following:

“You’ll enjoy the Monte Carlo atmosphere, the pleasure of all outdoor recreation plus free golf.”

Today, golf in Las Vegas isn’t free but the Monte Carlo (Resort & Casino) has definitely come to Las Vegas. Incidentally, the Danny Thomas ad is for sale on Ebay. The price of the vintage ad, 16” by 19” framed, is $199.

Thomas died in 1991, but he is remembered for many things, not the least of which is the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital which he founded. Las Vegans, to this day, contribute to St. Jude’s. The 2008 100 Point Wine Weekend at Wynn Las Vegas was a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Great Urban Race National Championship Las Vegas, also a St. Jude fundraiser, is scheduled for November 6 of this year in Las Vegas.