A Quiet Kentucky Town Was America’s Original ‘Sin City’
When I was a kid, and I've mentioned this before, it was a real mindblower to hear "Kentucky" mentioned on TV. And if a show or movie was actually SET in Kentucky, well...somebody get the smellin' salts.
See, when I was young, celebrities were "way over there" and I was "way over here" and never the twain shall meet. Then I got this job several years and the "twain" started meeting, and the world got a whole lot smaller. Hey, I still think it's cool when the Commonwealth is featured prominently in entertainment media.
The Kentucky Town Once Known as 'America's Playground'
But, as a child, if I'd known about "America's Playground"--well, my FIRST thought would have been swing sets and monkey bars--I wouldn't have been able to contain myself. And no, I'm not talking about Las Vegas. I'm talking about a town much closer to home.
While the "America's Playground" moniker has been retired, there's no shortage of fun things to do in Newport KY in 2023. And maybe THIS tops that list:
But there WAS no Newport Aquarium back when the northern Kentucky city was dubbed "America's Playground", a nickname it was given for a variety of surprising reasons.
From the 1920s through the 1960s, Newport saw its fair share of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Dean Martin. (I had no idea northern Kentucky was once a big Rat Pack hangout.) But maybe they were there because of Martin's familiarity with the area; according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, he once worked as a dealer at a Newport casino.
But Hollywood stars were not why Newport got an official condemnation from the nation's chief law enforcement officer 60 years ago. From the Enquirer:
It was also a place U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy condemned in 1963 as "known nationally for wide-open gambling and prostitution," and where "law enforcement was deeply corrupted."
Newport KY's Reputation as 'America's Playground' Began During Prohibition
Newport began earning its dubious reputation as soon as the Volstead Act was passed in 1919. That was the legislation that initiated the Prohibition Era which, according to the History Channel, put the "organized" in organized crime.
Cincinnati, which is right across the Ohio River from Newport, became an outpost for bootlegging during the 1920s, but the alcohol was not manufactured in the Queen City. That responsibility fell to Newport which had been nearly decimated by Prohibition since a good chunk of economics came from liquor.
According to the Northern Kentucky Tribune, Newport essentially thumbed its nose at Prohibition--like it wasn't even happening.
Overall, however, Newporters chose not only to disregard Prohibition — they openly defied it. Prostitution, gambling, and the sale and consumption of illegal alcohol escalated in Prohibition-era Newport. Vice raids largely ceased in the city until 1922, at least according to the media.
Today, of course, Newport thrives as a tourist destination and part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, its nefarious reputation now a distant memory.
From gambling, prostitution, and illegal alcohol sales in the 1920s to visits from film industry A-listers in the 1950s and 1960s, Newport has seen it all. But before we go, YOU can "see it all" courtesy of these amazing photos from the "America's Playground" era.
The next time you're in Newport taking in the Aquarium and everything else the area has to offer, take some time and dig into Newport's rich history. Add a layer to your trip you might never have expected.