Crooners, bright lights, the ringing of slot machines, and...atomic bombs? This strange combination became a reality in Las Vegas during the 1950s. Scheduled nuclear detonations at the Nevada Proving Ground gave plenty of opportunities to party and raise a glass to a mushroom cloud. How did this bizarre slice of history come together in the desert sands?
Birth of the Nevada Proving Ground
In January 1951, a 65-mile plot of desert land outside of La Vegas, the Nevada Proving Ground, became the site of the first Vegas area atomic bomb test. The flash of the first bomb, codenamed Able, could be seen over 400 miles away in San Francisco, California. The power of this first test dwarfed the combined might of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And of course, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce celebrated the 235 tests that took place at the Nevada Proving Ground, designating the area a tourist attraction until 1963, when the detonations had to be moved underground due to the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The city of Las Vegas often jumped to attach itself to federal projects in hopes of luring tourists, publicizing itself as the "The Gateway to the Boulder Dam" in the decades prior.
Publicized Bomb Schedule
What's the best way to make world-devastating tests beloved by the public? Advertise them as entertainment spectacles! Roughly one detonation occurred every three weeks throughout the 1950s just outside of Las Vegas. To capitalize on this spectacle, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce created a calendar detailing the time of the detonations, along with suggested viewing spots. The Proving Ground also employed several thousand individuals, and the city of Las Vegas proved to be a perfect getaway spot.
Las Vegas earned the nickname Atomic City USA, and the nightlife took advantage of this label. The heyday of the Nevada Proving Ground coincided with the rise of lavish casinos and the beginning of the Rat Pack era in Vegas. Thanks to the unusual combination of atomic bombs and slot machines, eight million people visited Las Vegas in 1954.
Casinos used the Chamber of Commerce's schedule to plan routine, overnight parties with the flair of New Year's Eve but ending with a blast long past midnight, as officials overseeing the Nevada Proving Ground often detonated the bombs around four in the morning.
Imagine watching a bomb detonate in the wee hours of the morning, Dean Martin crooning in the background, while holding a martini in the right hand and a cigarette in the left — a surreal view on all accounts, but a possible one in 1950s Las Vegas. Partygoers imbibed a drink christened the Atomic Cocktail , a mix of vodka, cognac, sherry, and champagne perfect for those boozy explosive evenings.
The bomb parties continued until the 1963 Limited Test Ban. The detonations didn't stop — scientists just carried the experiments out underground. Until then, however, a Las Vegas visitor in the right crowd had 200+ chances to spend the night drinking, watching a nuke explode, and then dining on pancakes before passing out in the early morning.
The top image is courtesy of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. Images courtesy of Mark Holloway/CC and The National Atomic Testing Museum, with the 1956 video of the Vegas Strip from RayLindstrom/YouTube. Sources linked within the article.