originally published February 21, 2013
Every city has its share of oddities, but a city like Las Vegas – sewn together by the forsaken dollar bills lost to an unsatisfied inside straight, fortified by sticky plastic novelty cups and souvenir snowglobes, and ultimately cemented with a seductive plaster made up of $1.99 shrimp cocktail and the tears of the quickie-divorced – has a vault-full.
The last time I basked in the perpetual weirdness of Vegas, I spent a couple hours wandering around the Neon Boneyard / Museum just north of the unending downtown fracas of Fremont Street. In a city hell-bent on shaking the Etch-A-Sketch of its history for every fresh generation, the Boneyard is a refreshing glimpse at some of the signs, symbols and even the funky La Concha Motel from Vegas past. This place is a must-see.
This brings me to today’s topic: the great monuments that have defined, and will define Vegas.
Like Vegas Vic. When the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street wanted something that would attract the open wallets of passers-by, they decided to employ glitzy neon technology in a fresh way: a massive cowboy. Vic was based on a mid-40’s mascot commissioned by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, and already in use on postcards. Around this time the old west was the dominant theme in Vegas; a cowboy mascot made sense.
When Vic was built in 1951, his cigarette moved and his arm waved. Every fifteen minutes, a speaker would spew out a recording of Vic saying “Howdy Podner!” to the tourists below. Then in 1966, Lee Marvin kicked Vic in the nuts.
Lee was staying at The Mint across the street, shooting The Professionals. He complained that Vic’s yammering was too loud, prompting Pioneer Club management to shut his voice-box down. Vic remained quiet for two decades. His voice came back for a while, but it’s gone again. His arm doesn’t move either, and his hat’s brim needed to be clipped when Fremont Street’s four-block canopy was installed. In fact, the only reason Vic hasn’t been tossed into the bottomless crap-bin of Vegas-past is because the Neon Museum pushed his current owners into restoring him a few years back.
One piece of Vegas iconography – and indeed perhaps the only piece – that will never disappear is the famous welcome sign that shows up on almost every non-resort-specific piece of souvenir tchotchke-product sold within the “city limits”.
I guess I need to be more specific on that… the “city limits” of Las Vegas end along Sahara Avenue; every Strip hotel (except for the Stratosphere) is actually located in the unincorporated town of Winchester, or – for everything from the Wynn down – in Paradise, Nevada. The Welcome sign sits just south of Mandalay Bay, deep in the heart of Paradise.
Betty Willis, a graphic designer from the area, concocted this little piece of Vegas in 1959, but never copyrighted it. She considered the sign to be her gift to Las Vegas, and she’s reportedly happy to have it in the public domain. This is why you see so damn many of them on keychains. Of course if you want a real souvenir, you can purchase lights fresh off the Welcome sign; OfficialLasVegasLight.com donates the proceeds to local charities, who then let it all ride on ‘22’ at an area casino.
There are some titanic Vegas monuments that are just as much titanic in the sinky-ship sense as they are in size. This is the Fontainebleau resort, just north of the Riviera. I’m not entirely sure if this photo was taken around when I last visited the city in the summer of 2009 or this year, because it looks exactly the same. Sixty-eight floors, 24 restaurants, a 3300-seat theater… all sitting in half-finished limbo.
Work started on the Fontainebleau in early 2007, on the old sites of the El Rancho and Algiers hotels. The high point of Vegas revenue on the Strip occurred in late October of that year. Then the economy happened.
The story of bankruptcies and ownership swaps that ensued is nothing short of morose. It’s estimated that the resort still needs another 1 to 1.5 billion dollars to reach completion, and so far there is no indication that this will happen soon. In 2010, many of the furnishings that were intended for this resort were auctioned off – this is how the Union Plaza hotel downtown was able to renovate so cheap.
Down the block where the Stardust used to light up the night, Echelon Place has been stuck in suspended animation since August 1, 2008. Once planned to be a hotel, casino, shopping center and convention center, it now looks like a handful of unfinished lowrises. Whether the Boyd Gaming group closes the deal or not on this dream, it’s hard to say.
One project that does look like it will come to life this year is the High Roller. This Ferris wheel will be 550 feet tall when it’s complete, more than a hundred feet taller than the London Eye. Each passenger car (which will carry up to 40 people) will be set up with eight flat-screen TVs (in case the view isn’t entertainment enough) and an iPod dock. Install a sky-bar at the top and I’m in.
When the Moulin Rouge opened up in West Las Vegas, it was not just another hotel/casino. You see, the Vegas of the 1950’s was, while awesome, tremendously racist. Black people were allowed to enter the hotels and casinos only if they were labor workers or Sammy Davis Jr. The Moulin Rouge opened up in May, 1955, and was the only truly integrated hotel/casino in the city. Actually, in the country.
Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, and a who’s-who of entertainment performed at the Moulin Rouge. White performers too – George Burns, Jack Benny and Frank Sinatra would drop by after their shows to do a set then drink and gamble until dawn. It was a great party.
And it lasted all of six months.
The Moulin Rouge shut its doors in November, 1955, due to unavoidable bankruptcy. It played a huge part in Vegas’s civil-rights movement, hosting a meeting behind its barricaded doors in March of 1960 between the governor, hotel owners, city and state officials and the president of the NAACP to discuss integrating the Strip.
The strange thing is, the Moulin Rouge still exists. It has a perpetual gaming license, so as long as they open their doors for a minimum of eight hours every two years (which they have done as recently as June 19, 2012), the license doesn’t expire. The building may have been ravaged by fire, its luminous neon sign (designed by Betty Willis, just like the Welcome sign) roasting in the Neon Museum’s boneyard under the Nevada sun, but there’s still hope the Moulin Rouge will return. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its contribution to civil rights, so I’m betting it’ll happen eventually.
And it will cost a lot less than $1 billion when it does.