Forty-five years ago, Las Vegas was a much smaller town. When my family moved there in 1961, it was a valley of 50,000 people. Today, there are 1.7 million and most of those newcomers have arrived in the last ten years. The small city of my childhood grew up to be the first metropolis of the 21st Century.
Yet, when people think of Las Vegas they usually think of the town that has all but vanished from the landscape. Those too young to have experienced it first hand visit it through films, books and visits to the Neon Museum's sign boneyard. The casinos and hotels market themselves using that "vintage" appeal. And yet, beyond the glitz and glamour, there is that yearning to experience it one last time as it used to be.
Having grown up with that small city, I always thought that the Dunes sign would be pushing neon into the night sky and that the front of Caesars would always be turquoise. It was only when those things were gone did I realize how much they meant not only to me but to countless others as well.
In that Lost City of our collective memory, The Treniers are performing at the The Last Frontier and the Mary Kaye Trio is cutting it up at the El Rancho. Louie, Keely and Sam are packing the room at the Casbar. Liberace is wowing the crowds at the Riviera.
A drive down the Strip will take you past not only the hotels, but also huge empty lots of land. Gas stations, such as Gulf-Western and Econo, seem to be everywhere. Motels, such as The Lone Palm and the Desert Rose, dot the highway in amongst the larger hotels. The Hacienda is considered out of town, located just south of the Tropicana. The Tiffany of the Strip and its giant pineapple evoke Miami Beach without the humidity.
A giant sultan sits atop the Dunes. When the Dunes is renovated to keep up with the times, he will be taken down and put at the back of the property welcoming tourists off the new freeway.
The Riviera is taking a gamble by building the first high rise. When it's complete it will be nine stories tall! The Sands has motel wings named after famous racing tracks. They will literally move those buildings to make room for their new tower when the high rise becomes the way of the future. The Copa Room is the hottest showroom in town. Catch Frank, Dean and Sammy for less than $20.00 and that includes dinner and two drinks! The Flamingo has giant neon champagne bubbling into the night sky. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan are performing in the lounge.
There are giant Tiki gods out front of the Stardust to advertise the Aku-Aku Restaurant where you can sip your frosty island drink from a ceramic coconut. In the back of the Stardust property is the drive-in where you can take the family on a Saturday night to see Elvis and Ann-Margaret in "Viva Las Vegas". The Frontier Village is Frontierland before Disney built the one in Anaheim. There are staged shoot-outs, shops, a blacksmith and you can ride either the train or the stagecoach.
If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of a young Elvis and his entourage checking it out. Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn has the Sky Room, located on the third floor, where you can dance to the tunes of the Sam Melchionne Quartet and have a view of the town from the bar. Foxy's is open and you can sit at the counter and take in the crowd: Don Rickles, Pete Barbutti, Shecky Greene and countless others cracking wise and enjoying the best deli in the west.
President Kennedy is giving a speech at the Convention Center, the old one with the Rotunda shaped like a flying saucer. Stan Irwin will bring The Beatles to Las Vegas and they will perform in that Rotunda because the Congo Room at the Sahara is too small to hold all those screaming girls.
Cassius Clay, on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali, will fight Floyd Patterson in that arena. Christmas programs, Mahalia Jackson and countless high school graduations will grace its stage before it is gone. In a strange turn of events, The Doors will play the Ice Palace (yes, an ice rink) located in the back of Commercial Center.
Fremont Street still has a few homes on it. The Ice House and Train Depot still stand to remind us of our railroad roots. All shopping is done downtown just a block away from the gambling halls. Getting ready to go back to school? Mom will take you to Ronzone's for new shoes and have your feet x-rayed to be sure the shoes are the proper size. Sears and J. C. Penney's have small department stores with pick up counters for those that ordered by mail. C.H Baker offers glamorous footwear for women. You can stare in the window and see beautiful showgirls trying on beautiful shoes. Coronet is the best five and dime in the world.
Over at the Horseshoe, Benny Binion is sharing a chili lunch with Doby Doc and Florence Murphy. You can have your picture taken with Chill Wills and a million dollars. Johnny Cash is at the Mint with a two-drink minimum, a beer costs a quarter. Vegas Vic looks down on all that is his domain, swings his arm back and forth and says, "Howdy, Pardner".
Thanks to Anderson Diary, the milkman comes around and delivers milk and cream to your door. Every Saturday at noon, the air raid signal atop Rose Warren Elementary in Charleston Heights is tested. Cruising Fremont Street is a must. At the far end of Fremont, the Blue Angel watches over the neighborhood, wand in hand, rotating around keeping an watchful eye on diners at the Green Shack.
K-LAS is still showing the advertised Saturday late-night movie, which means Howard Hughes must still be asleep. On Channel 5, Jim Parker, The Vegas Vampire, is hosting the late night horror flicks.
K-ENO Radio has Sam Cougar spinning rock and roll, K-RAM has Paul Harvey commentaries, Buck Owens and real country music. You can see movies downtown at the El Portal (which has a balcony!), the Guild or the Fremont. There's the Huntridge on Charleston. It even has a cry room upstairs for noisy tots. For the price of a movie you get a double feature. It's a great way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon in the summer time.
Boulder Highway is the only way to get to the Dam. There is only one tour offered. You have to stand in line outside (even in the summer!) and wait to be whisked down the elevator into the deco splendor that is the dam. Parking is limited and you dodge traffic to get to the ticket window. There is only one snack bar/gift shop in a small hut but it offers Viewmasters, 8mm movies of the building of the Dam and scorpions encased in lucite. But then, as now, the beauty and the majesty are what you remember.
You can drive by the Holsum Bakery on Charleston day or night and always get a whiff of freshly baked bread.
It is a city of neon and at night the skyline is aglow in different colors. The skyscrapers that define other cities have nothing on this Lost City. The skyline of Las Vegas stands all that conformity on its ear. With its hot pink neon of the Mint, Vegas Vic with a moving arm and the bullnose of the Golden Nugget awash in gold, Fremont Street is the most photographed streets in the world. The country is optimistic and the spirit of the nation is one possibilities. Las Vegas epitomizes that spirit in a raucous blend of architecture, neon and visionaries. Every night is a party and it is never supposed to end.
It is a city where myths and the truth collide and, like in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence", the myths get printed and past down to the next generation. There are folks who fervently believe that Tommy Hull's car broke down on the old L.A. Highway and while waiting for a tow truck, he counted cars and dreamed up the original El Rancho Vegas.
Locals tell the story of how local businessman and civic booster, James Cashman, Sr. wanted a well-known hotelier to build in Las Vegas. He met with Tommy Hull and over drinks on the patio of the old Hotel Apache (now Binions) they agreed that Hull would build a hotel in Las Vegas. Hull came to Las Vegas and built his hotel on the corner of the old L.A. Highway (now Las Vegas Blvd. South) and a dirt road called Francisco Street (now Sahara Avenue). It was 1940.
The Strip was born and Las Vegas would never be the same.