Today's Preservation Spotlight is on Dennis McBride, Executive Director of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas and longtime Las Vegas Valley historian.
I've been good friends with Dennis since we first met over ten years ago. He was one of the main inspirations behind my getting interested in preserving 20th Century Las Vegas history. His oral histories with the men who worked on the building of Boulder/Hoover Dam and the women who helped build Boulder City into more than just a Federal reservation were key to inspiring me. His pioneering work at the Boulder Dam Museum as well as his work in chronicling the history of the Gay and Lesbian movement in the Las Vegas Valley serve as inspirations to us all.
Today, Dennis helps preserve Las Vegas history at the State Museum and has a deep interest in the Photography collection there. Just a few years ago, he cataloged the J. Florian Mitchell collection that includes some wonderful images of mid-century modern Las Vegas.
We sat down with Dennis and talked about preservation and history in Las Vegas:
CLV Blog: How did you become interested in preserving Southern Nevada history?
McBride: Saving things, preserving things, collecting and organizing things is a significant part of my nature. I’ve been doing it since I was a child. I was born and raised in Southern Nevada, and when I was working on my Master’s degree at UNLV I took a course in the English Department in professional writing. This was about 1980-81. My teacher was Norma Engberg; her assignment was to produce an article that would be published in a local venue, such the old Las Vegas SUNday Magazine, Las Vegas Magazine, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Nevadan Sunday supplement, Off the Strip.
There were a number of such publications here at that time. I had taken an interest in the history of the Boulder Dam Hotel in Boulder City where I lived at the time and began researching its past. That’s when the light went off in my head that my researching, collecting, saving things could be turned into a vocation rather than only an avocation. I produced a long article on the history of the Boulder Dam Hotel that eventually became a four-part series in the Las Vegas SUNday Magazine, a number of lectures and presentations, and a book published in 1993. From that first research article in 1980 has grown all the other research projects, books, articles and jobs in museums and libraries that I’ve had over the last thirty-some years. I became an expert in the field of Southern Nevada history, been interviewed for documentaries many, many times, and called upon frequently for information. I think now where I’d be if I had chosen to write about something else for Dr. Engberg.
CLV Blog: What is the most interesting historical image you have found and why?
McBride: There are so many intriguing images I’ve uncovered in my research, so many unique and invaluable photographs that it’s hard to pick just one. I like to uncover hidden or forgotten history. Few people know that there was once a lucrative guano mine on the Colorado River near the lower reaches of Grand Canyon. I researched the story and came up with a photograph of the guano miners—skinny-dipping in the Colorado River in the late 1940s to wash all the bat shit off at the end of their shift. Another photograph donated to the Museum by our Museum Attendant Paul Carson depicts Jayne Mansfield and her husband Mickey Hargitay advertising Hollywood Vegas Estates in the foothills of Frenchman Mountain in 1958. Mansfield had a half acre lot and intended building a house there when she was in Las Vegas performing at the Tropicana. A set of color slides donated to the museum were taken by a Las Vegas resident driving home from Los Angeles the morning the El Rancho Vegas burned and he took a series of shots of the fire as he drew closer and closer to it until he stopped his car on the Strip to take pictures close-up—and caught the back of Red Skelton’s head, who was also taking photos of the fire. There’s so much!
CLV Blog: Can you talk a bit about the Museum's dedication to preserving Southern Nevada history?
McBride: The Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas’ legislated mission is not only to collect and preserve Nevada’s history in whatever form that history might take—photographs, artifacts, books, papers, whatever—but to make it available to the public for study and exhibit. So we really serve two functions.
First, we’re the repository of the physical bits of Nevada history, sort of like your great-grandma’s trunk where she’s saved all your family photos and papers for her descendents. These things show you where you came from and explain why you are who you are. If you care, of course, but that’s another conversation. These things don’t have much meaning or resonance, however, unless you take them out of the trunk and let Grandma talk about them and explain how these old letters and snapshots and baby shoes and wedding dresses show where you come from and why you are what you are. That’s what we are dedicated to doing: we collect and preserve in boxes and shelves and drawers and cabinets all these remnants of Nevada history. But then we take them out from time to time so that researchers can examine and use them, so that we can mount public exhibits that put all this stuff into a context that shows us where we came from and why we are who we are. I’m the first to admit this is an altruistic sentiment and it’s hard to argue altruism in Nevada, but we try.
CLV Blog: What's the future of preserving Las Vegas history and the obstacles to preserving that history?
McBride: Trying to predict what the future success or failure of preserving Las Vegas and Nevada history might be is like trying to predict where the ball will fall on the roulette wheel. The success or failure of preservation anywhere, but particularly in Nevada, it seems, depends upon whose vested interest is put over more convincingly and what criteria that involves. You have well-funded oligarchs who want to demolish an important building in Las Vegas and replace it with something that will better support their economic interests vs local preservationists who recognize the historic value of the property, its social and cultural importance, and who give their altruistic arguments for saving it. Who’s more likely to win? Who has usually won? You’ll forgive my cynicism.
But there are bright spots that provide some hope. The renovation of the court house/post office that houses the Mob Museum was a coup d'etat for preservationists and museum folks. The Junior League’s preservation of the Morelli House was a monumental success. Every little thing that makes it way into a museum—the photo, the letter, the shoe, the casino ashtray—is a little success. And there are more institutions now in Southern Nevada who are collecting and preserving than there ever were when I grew up: the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas; the Clark County Museum; the Searchlight Museum; the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum; the Techatticup Mine Museum in Nelson; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas library’s Special Collections Department. Education and perseverance, a sense of forward momentum with every little victory.
CLV Blog: Why is history and preservation work important to Las Vegas residents?
McBride: We have to assume first that Las Vegans do care about preserving their history and support the work we museum blokes are involved in. That’s not as safe a bet as we might like. Because Las Vegas history is so ephemeral, the struggle to save and preserve it for the future is more urgent. Nevada is a state, and Las Vegas is a city that have always been promoted as places where one can reinvent oneself, establish a new life separate from anything that went before. By extension, that attitude manifests in the way Las Vegas, for example, will demolish entire blocks of historic districts so that the next new thing can be built there. But along with those historic blocks vanishes the substance of the city’s history, its foundation, the sense of groundedness people need to establish serious communities. It’s an axiom that if you don’t know what happened before you are doomed not only to repeat past mistakes but miss opportunities to repeat past successes.
Be sure to visit the Nevada State Museum at the Springs Preserve! Their new exhibit "Every Age is an Information Age" opens Friday, May 30th. Also, if you have photos or items you would like to donate, please contact Dennis at the State Museum.
And remember, history is what binds us to our community!