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Desert Companion

History: Evel Has Landed

evel_knievel_illo_by_ryan_olbrysh.jpg

Evel Has Landed
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

... and, 50 years ago, tumbled into Vegas mythology

And I’m off! Givin’ her the throttle, up the ramp — away I go! I’m in the air! Clearing the fountains! Take that, you doubters and losers! You jerks who said it couldn’t be done! Lookit all the people down there, 10,000 of ’em, here to see me, the world’s greatest daredevil, doing something ain’t never been done! And I’m gonna make it! Then I’m gonna collect my money, and soak up the love of this huge crowd! All I gotta do is land, and then —

Evel Knievel landed, all right, but badly and hard, in a million little pieces. You’ve probably seen the famous footage, filmed 50 years ago this month by a crew Knievel had to hire because no network was interested. End over end he went, breaking all those bones, his legend supersizing even as he rag-dolled across the pavement. Had he stuck the landing, the jump would’ve surely been quickly forgotten, just another wacky promo by Caesars hype-man Jay Sarno.

But in its failure, in its graphic demonstration of the downside of risk-taking and spectacle — which, of course, form the lifeblood of Vegas — the jump became myth. It propelled Knievel to the front ranks of American huckster-showmen; it paid off for Caesars; and it helped cinch the idea of Vegas as the place for one-of-a-kind spectacle.

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But 50 years on, does anyone remember or care? Knievel, and this would no doubt infuriate him, is at best a fleeting presence in the city’s official histories. He doesn’t appear in the indexes of many books about Las Vegas, and merits just a passing mention in a few. Thankfully, UNLV professor David G. Schwartz’s Grandissimo, a 2013 biography of Sarno, has an expansive chapter on the jump, detailing the rich mix of bluster, ballsiness, and con-jobbery that went into it. We asked him to put it all into perspective for us.

“The Evel Knievel jump didn’t put Las Vegas on the map,” Schwartz says, “but it gave it an iconic image for immediate post-Rat Pack Las Vegas. Las Vegas had been cool (and, if you asked some people, corny), but it hadn’t been a place where big things happened outdoors. You could have adventures there, but you could share them, at most, with a few hundred others in the showroom. And they weren’t news. A guy nearly killing himself trying to jump a set of fountains that rivaled those at Versailles — this was newsworthy.

“And Las Vegas was hooked,” he adds. “Boxing, wrestling, and a host of other competitions had been staged in Las Vegas since before the Dam, but Evel Knievel gave the city a taste of what it meant to host an event that made people watch. It’s no accident that Caesars Palace would go on to host championship tennis, boxing superfights, and even Wrestlemania. The Ultimate Fighting Championship built on that hunger to keep Las Vegas on the cutting edge of entertainment spectacle, and the city’s current major league status is its logical conclusion.”

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