Las Vegas: 100 years in the making

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On the eve of its centennial, we take a loving look back at Las Vegas, the city that makes the rest of America look normal

If ever a city had a peculiar relationship with its past, it's Las Vegas. In the last 15 years alone, almost five centuries' worth of buildings--and it-could-only-happen-here history--have been bulldozed or imploded (in several cases, on national TV). As a result, Vegas can't celebrate its centennial the way most cities would--that is, by reliving historical moments at the carefully curated scenes of their occurrence. The Desert Inn suite where the reclusive Howard Hughes lived for years? Gone. The wedding chapel at the original Aladdin where Elvis Presley married Priscilla? Gone. Even the Moulin Rouge, the city's first interracial casino resort--it was on the National Register of Historic Places--is gone, having succumbed to arson in 2003.

Las Vegas isn't concerned with what we were yesterday or with what we are today," says Hal Rothman, chair of the history department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "It's tomorrow that entices us." And the makeover madness that has swept the city for the past decade shows no signs of abating.

Vegas being what it is, the city will celebrate its 100th birthday with a certain amount of schlock: The festivities, which will start and end on consecutive New Year's Eves with extravagant bashes on the Strip, will feature stunts like the world's largest birthday cake and a contest in which 100 winning couples will get married. In one nod to the past, the neoclassical post office downtown will reopen during May for docent-guided tours. The sensational Kefauver organized-crime hearings occurred at the 72-year-old structure back when it also served as a federal courthouse.

But if you want more Old Vegas, you're on your own. The best place to start looking is the Neon Museum. It's not a pretty sight: two junkyard-style lots--known as the Boneyard--crammed with more than 100 pieces of nonoperative (but still fabulous) signage. Among the mountains of metal and broken bulbs are the letters from the old Stardust sign and the 20-foot high-heeled shoe that once revolved atop the Silver Slipper's marquee. Museum folks hope to have a proper site in coming years, but for now, appointment-only group tours of the Boneyard are available. Also, 11 of the classic signs are restored and functioning on the public plaza of the Fremont Street Experience, and the Lied Discovery Children's Museum has borrowed 30 unrestored pieces from the Boneyard for an exhibit called "Neon Unplugged," which is running through July.

Not every old building has been blown up. The El Cortez casino (a block east of the Fremont Street casino cluster) still has the same low-rise brown-brick gambling hall and neon lights from when it opened in 1941, albeit with a newer, high-rise tower. This is a no-frills Vegas of viscous air, dingy carpeting, and low minimum bets (25¢ roulette tables--after a $5 buy-in--and $1 craps). A few blocks west is the city's oldest hotel, the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. Built in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada and renamed in 1955, it was advertised as the definition of turn-of-the-20th-century luxury: electric lighting, "large" rooms of 100 square feet, and the city's first telephone. The facade has changed over the years, but many of the wood fixtures date back to the beginning. And it still sells the 99¢ shrimp cocktail, a Vegas cliché that the Golden Gate originated.

About a mile east of the Fremont Street area is the Gambler's Book Shop, founded by the late (and appropriately named) John and Edna Luckman. John realized in the '60s that there were fewer than 20 books about gambling in print, so he set up a ramshackle little store that went on to publish over 100 titles. A charming anachronism in the age of Barnes & Noble, it's a privately owned shop with $1 million in annual sales and a proprietor--the longtime manager, Howard Schwartz--who has read most everything he sells. Ask about the gamblers who pop in and out, blaming or thanking the books for their luck.

Even parts of the Strip have survived. At the foot of the Strip is the Little Church of the West, a quaint, 62-year-old miniature of an Old West mining-town chapel built of cedar that was moved from its original site, outside of what's now the Frontier Hotel. Dozens of stars have been married inside, both in real life (Betty Grable, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Richard Gere) and in the movies (Elvis and Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas).

The oldest standing piece of a Strip hotel that maintains its authentic look is the Stardust's 49-year-old villas, smallish two-room suites in two-story white-brick buildings that surround the original nine-foot-deep pool. Only very old pools like it and the fantastic one at the 47-year-old Tropicana Hotel & Casino--which also has a swim-up blackjack table!--are that deep. Pools today are usually more shallow; blame the lawyers.

Up the block at Circus Circus is the bizarre Horse Around Bar, lampooned by author Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On the second floor, overlooking the hourly trapeze and circus acts, is a circular, open-air, revolving bar that resembles a carousel: The perimeter is ringed with horses and poles, but behind each horse is a black cocktail table. In the center of the room is a round bar.

A few restaurants of historic import remain, most notably the thatched-roof Peppermill, a 24-hour diner with swooping, rainbow-colored booths. The bar lost a bit of its onetime Rat Pack panache when plasma TVs were added. Piero's is another iconic haunt, serving outstanding Italian food that was once a favorite of major mob figures. Some of their progeny still swing by. And over at the Four Queens is one of the oldest and swankiest of the gourmet rooms, Hugo's Cellar, where an expensive dinner ($29 to $58 per person) is presented with great pomp: Every woman receives a red rose.

Believe it or not, the Strip's longest-running show isn't Wayne Newton's--though he still packs the Stardust's theater nightly--but the 45-year-old Folies Bergere at the Tropicana. It's the quintessence of Vegas showgirl extravaganzas; make of that what you will. At the Flamingo, the 45-year-old Bottoms

Up revue, with its goofball comedy and topless dancing, passed its 16,000th-performance mark in 2003 and then closed in October. Creator Breck Wall hopes to find a new home for it. Finally, check out the karaoke sessions at the 55-year-old Bootlegger Bistro, which late on Monday nights routinely draws the likes of Newton, Gladys Knight, Sheena Easton, and Clint Holmes. Young hopefuls try to impress the established stars or simply chat them up for advice.

Despite Las Vegas's vast changes, this is still the same old town--where the neon glow somehow makes impossible dreams seem within reach.

Las Vegas

Lodging

  • Golden Gate Hotel and Casino 1 Fremont St., 702/385-1906, goldengatecasino.net, from $39
  • El Cortez Casino 600 E. Fremont St., 800/634-6703, elcortezhotelcasino.com, from $25
  • Stardust Resort and Casino 3000 Las Vegas Blvd., 702/732-6111, stardustlv.com, from $50
  • Tropicana Hotel & Casino 3801 Las Vegas Blvd., 888/826-8767, ropicanalv.com, from $39
  • Circus CircusLas Vegas Hotel Resort and Casino 880 Las Vegas Blvd., 877/224-7287, circuscircus.com, from $32
  • Four Queens Hotel and Casino 202 Fremont St., 800/634-6045, fourqueens.com, from $39
  • Food

  • Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge 985 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702/735-4177, pastrami and fries $9.50
  • Piero's Restaurant 55 Convention Center, 702/369-2305, $21-$45
  • Hugo's Cellar Four Queens, 202 Fremont St., 800/634-6045
  • The Bootlegger Bistro 7700 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702/736-4939, $10-$29
  • Attractions

  • Historic Downtown Post Office 301 Stewart Ave., 702/229-6710
  • Neon Museum 702/229-5366, neonmuseum.org, $5 per person for guided tours of 10 or more, $50 total for smaller groups
  • Lied Discovery Children's Museum 833 N. Las Vegas Blvd., 702/382-3445, ldcm.org, $7, kids $6
  • Little Church of the West 4617 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702/739-7971, littlechurchlv.com, wedding packages from $199
  • Shopping

  • Gambler's Book Shop 630 S. 11th St., 702/382-7555, gamblersbook.com
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