It’s a project at the intersection of history and technology, meant to rekindle the magic of old Las Vegas.
In a drab room of cubicles at UNLV, Aniello De Santi, Marco Antognozzi and Marco Locatelli are resurrecting The Sands, the storied Strip resort imploded on a clear night 12 years ago, collapsing into a mountain of memories and dust.
In the lobby of the students’ virtual version of The Sands, everything mirrors the original — the color and shape of the lounge chairs (red, with curved bodies), the pattern on the carpet (like splashes of paint on canvas), the mural behind the old Sands bar (desert scene with a covered wagon and a Joshua tree). Even napkins on the counter are modeled from archetypes, with wavy edges and red-brown lettering proclaiming The Sands “a place in the sun.”
The details that the students from Politecnico di Torino, a well respected engineering and design school in Turin, Italy, are incorporating are exquisite, painstaking.
But the objective, as De Santi says, is not to craft a perfect replica. So in the lobby, by the blackjack tables, is an icon, an “S” floating in midair. Approach it and you are treated to a slide show, a series of black-and-white snapshots from the late 1950s and early 1960s showing crowds playing 21 at The Sands.
In the Copa Room, you will be able to listen to Copa Girl Virginia James as she chatters away about daily life as an entertainer in Vegas’ classic age. Identifying the correct performers in a trivia game will give you access to digitized videos of performances first recorded on 16 mm film. The flickering imagery is part of the charm.
The point of De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli’s interactive exhibit is to give us a new way to experience Las Vegas’ past.
In their virtual Sands, everything is a piece of history. You can stop and play virtual roulette on a virtual table whose virtual top is copied from photographs taken at The Sands.
In this environment, “people can see, touch and play with the material” from UNLV’s Special Collections, De Santi says.
“It’ll bring the collections to light in a whole new way, and also, it would maybe expose them to people who aren’t familiar with historical research,” says Su Kim Chung, a manuscripts librarian who has been helping the young artist-engineers locate items for the project.
Master’s degree students studying media and cinema engineering, De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli arrived in Las Vegas in early September to begin their thesis project, called “Re-living Las Vegas,” the cornerstone of a new, ongoing partnership between UNLV and the Politecnico.
Each student is living on a 3,000 euro (about $3,800) stipend from the home university to study abroad. They used their money to rent an apartment at Desert Inn and Swenson. Each also bought a bicycle — “the cheapest bikes at Wal-Mart,” Locatelli says.
But all three were stolen on campus so the students now take the bus to UNLV, where they have spent 13 hours every day of the week for the past month.
“They started from scratch. They had nothing,” says Dan Cook, coordinator of UNLV’s entertainment engineering and design program who is overseeing the project along with fellow entertainment engineering professor Joe Aldridge and Politecnico professors Andrea Bottino and Vittoria Lera. “This is really incredible, what they’ve been able to produce.”
The students are creating their interactive exhibit with the C4 Engine, computer programming tools typically used to develop video games. Games, Cook says, have failed to meet their potential as an educational tool, and De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli are helping to change that.
Cook says the public will be able to access “Re-living Las Vegas” within the next year.
The students chose to resurrect The Sands because in the ’50s and ’60s, it was “the place to be in Vegas,” De Santi says. “It has the biggest stars, the most luxurious hotel.”
Stars such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, in all their magic, frequently graced the stage. Visitors played roulette on tables in the pool.
The hope is that a gaming corporation, museum or other institution will be interested in displaying the project and provide money for continued research. If that doesn’t happen, Cook said, UNLV will make the virtual Sands available through its Web site.
De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli will leave UNLV at the end of this month. But a new group is expected to arrive from Italy in February.
Cook says UNLV students, too, will work on the project in the future. Those studying history, for example, could sift through archives to find the best materials.
Today, the virtual Sands is empty. De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli have not yet created the people — avatars in the language of the digital world — who will roam the casino floors.
But as “Re-living Las Vegas” advances, the old Las Vegas landmark will come to life. Background audio will fill the virtual Sands with the sounds of Las Vegas’ golden age. Future students, perhaps, will recreate the showgirls, with their headdresses, metallic heels and painted lips, who hung off the sides of open-air trams shuttling patrons around the resort.
In creating their interactive exhibit, De Santi, Antognozzi and Locatelli examined hundreds of pictures and documents and other materials, most from a collection of Sands publicity and advertising files that the hotel donated to UNLV in December 1980.
They listened to hours of oral histories, combed through old black-and-white films and watched movies set in the Sands including “Pepe” and “Meet Me in Las Vegas.” They know that the ceiling of the Copa Room was green because a stranger they met while researching in the library mailed them an old photograph depicting it.
At the heart of what they’re doing is telling a story, bringing the old Sands back to life, conjuring a once-mighty hotel from the dust and memories, from what remnants remain.
Special thanks to RoadsidePictures for letting us use this photo.