Desert Companion

The end of history


La Concha
Illustration by Scott Lien

Or, more precisely, the waning of my interest in Old Vegas


“You have to see this!” gushed my friend Doug, a Harrah’s employee who’s not the gushing type. He led me out to the roof of the showroom to gaze down at the hotel’s original Strip-facing exterior. It was a steamboat replica, probably from the ’50s, I thought. Instead of dismantling it, Harrah’s just walled it off with its current Mardi Gras facade. 

Like Robert Ballard first setting eyes on the Titanic wreckage, I stared at the faux ship’s boarded-up portholes, the shutters of its captain’s bridge surrendering its red gloss paint to the elements. I wondered how many more facets of Old Las Vegas thought lost to the ages might merely be waiting for me to discover them?

Since my wife and I moved here in 2005, glimmers of occasional hope have rewarded my perpetual search for historical authenticity, or at least some connection to Las Vegas’ former classic greatness: Shecky Greene joking about the Rat Pack at the Suncoast; Elvis properly remembered by the Westgate at the former International Hotel; the original Flamingo Capri rooms still hiding from the wrecking ball at the back of the Linq. Such moments offer a wormhole back to the days before the only force shaping Las Vegas Boulevard was shareholder value, before seeing a Vegas show meant having to choose between singing, dancing or comedy. 

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But, it turns out, no glimmer this time. The Harrah’s steamboat dates back only to 1973, when the casino was called the Holiday. The nautical façade actually stood until 1997.

Destroy it and they will come. How about a little truth in your next motto, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority? You and the industries you represent saw no good reason to preserve the Desert Inn, Sands, Dunes, Stardust or Frontier. And you were the entity that voted to purchase and demo the Riviera to make room for an expanded convention center.

And how did this city let the Flamingo gut the very last physical connection to its storied past? The motel rooms by the pool — including Bugsy’s Oregon Suite, with its secret getaway staircase — were replaced by the Hilton Corp. with two towers in the mid-’90s. That’s where a mob museum should have gone. 

I know these were profit-driven decisions. But is it impossible to imagine visitors lining up for an Old Vegas experience? Couldn’t one hotel have been spared demolition and themed to fit the heritage exploited in Las Vegas marketing campaigns — with replica 1940’s slot machines, cigarette girls and crooners in the lounges? Isn’t there some giant foot that’s supposed to come down to preserve the history of the Strip? Even occasionally? Even once?

Same Old Song

Gary Colombo knows the history of Las Vegas well. He recreates it for three hours every Thursday evening at the Mad Greek on Sahara. It doesn’t matter to him that only 12 customers have shown up tonight, none of whom seem to want to interrupt their baklava for a show. He just bursts out onto the sort-of stage with his million-dollar smile, shiny shirt and tap shoes machine-gunning to a pre-recorded instrumental of Louie Prima’s “Jump Jive an’ Wail.” (Prima and his big band performed regularly at the Sahara and, later, the Desert Inn from 1954-1960.)

A quiet falafel catch-up with my parents has come with a side of irony: Now that, out of frustration, I’ve finally stopped seeking Old Vegas, it ambushes me. Colombo eyes the only table showing him the remotest love, plops himself down and karaokes with my 74-year-old mom on “Just a Gigolo.”

“I ain’t got nobody!” she rocks out, as my 4-year-old daughter buries her face deep into my wife’s ribcage, displaying even more fright than earlier that day at the Lion Habitat Ranch.

It was the Gary Colombos of the ’50s who played the lounges every weekend, the hard-working but forgotten musical foot soldiers with names like Tommy Doyle, Jimmie Nelson and Ernie Stewart. (The Rat Pack lived in Beverly Hills, parachuting into showrooms for limited engagements.)

Colombo’s an excellent singer and hoofer. But the fact that he’s playing to the unlistening in an empty restaurant suggests that maybe the LVCVA is right and people just don’t care. (Indeed, just before this issue went to press, the Mad Greek on Sahara closed for good.)

I once had a conversation with a young Sahara publicist who had no idea that Elvis rented a suite in the hotel that employed her, much less that it’s where he began his affair with Ann-Margret while they filmed Viva Las Vegas in 1963. (Come to think of it, she didn’t seem to recognize her name.) Even worse was the response of a Caesars Palace publicist the time I phoned for details about a comedian who supposedly crashed his Oldsmobile into the fountains out front in 1968: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who Shakey Greene is.”

And these are Las Vegas experts, folks. Imagine how little ordinary tourists, and even locals, know and/or care about this stuff.

Historically, our hometown is an altar to anything bigger, better and newer. And so what Las Vegas means today to most of our tourists is 25 hands of blackjack followed by “CSI: The Experience,” Criss Angel and maybe the nightclub du jour. If even a thought is given to Ocean’s 11 as the taxi crawls through Strip traffic, it’s about how different things look since the “classic” 2001 movie starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

I’m reminded of how radio personality Garrison Keillor defined nostalgia upon his recently announced retirement: “being sentimental about the ordinary.” 

Even I don’t care as much about Las Vegas history anymore. Since becoming a dad and an unemployed writer wondering how to continue raising my child indoors, I haven’t even checked whether the SLS bothered commemorating the suite where Elvis once stayed. Hell, I never even set foot in the joint.

Anyway, would I really have loved living in Las Vegas in the ’50s, when the entertainment was sarcasm-free and booked by members of organized crime? When 32-kiloton atomic bombs sprinkled deadly fallout over Las Vegas faces craned upward for the best possible view? When Sammy Davis Jr. headlined the Frontier but couldn’t stay there because he was black? Exactly what “historical authenticity” was I nostalgic for in the first place?

I’ll get back to you on that.

In 1996, the Titanic was actually raised, by a Florida-based company that probably would have made it the centerpiece of the current Luxor exhibit. Then it sank again when lift balloons broke free of a 15-ton chunk of rusty hull about 150 meters from the surface.

Sometimes, I’ve got to figure, history is better off left where it is. 

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