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December 3, 2020

In this issue: Vegas Vickie Rides Again | What's Killing Desert Plants? | Media Sommelier | Obsessed with NCIS

A LAS VEGAS ICON is back. No, it’s not Cher or Celine Dion running out a new production show. This famous female is the old-school type, so she’s kicking it in Downtown Las Vegas at the recently opened Circa Resort & Casino. We’re talking about Vegas Vickie, one of the most recognizable neon signs in Las Vegas. Designed by electric artist Charles Barnard and first installed in 1980 above the Glitter Gulch façade on Fremont Street, the sign depicts a cowgirl in a form-fitting fringed outfit kicking a leg skyward.

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Vegas Vickie immediately became a beloved cheerleader for Downtown’s Fremont Street and achieved global fame in 1994 when she married her neon “pardner,” Vegas Vic. In 2017, Vegas Vickie was plucked from her perch, packed in a crate and put in storage when casino owner Derek Stevens began demolition of the surrounding properties in preparation for a new resort. But Stevens didn’t want to let one of the city’s most famous neon works of art become a museum piece in the city’s Neon Boneyard.

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“She was ready for some much-needed rest and relaxation,” says Stevens, co-owner of The D, Golden Gate, and Circa resorts. “The intent all along was to bring Vickie back to her former glory. We wanted to preserve and respect the history of Las Vegas.” Today, Vickie greets patrons at her namesake lounge inside the Circa, which opened in October and is the first new resort to be built in Downtown Las Vegas in four decades.

YESCO, the century-old sign company, was responsible for the Vegas Vickie restoration. YESCO designed or installed many of the city’s most iconic signs, including the Stardust starburst, the Circus Circus neon clown, and the electric guitar outside the old Hard Rock Cafe on Paradise Road.

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“Derek Stevens and his brother, Greg, had the vision to see the value in Vickie and found a way to integrate her into the design of Circa,” says Rick Juleen, YESCO’s vice president of business development. “Because of the Neon Museum, there’s a lot more focus on these historical neon signs and the importance of preserving them. There is a little bit of a renaissance going on right now with neon in general, around the country and around the world.”

Turning a superstar sign into a supermodel was no easy task. With metal work, new paint, and new neon glass tubing, the naturally weathered 40-year-old sign got an extreme makeover. The result? Vegas Vickie is now an Instagram star. “She’s having a selfie moment right now,” Juleen says. “She’s kind of like a museum piece. You can get very close to her and see all the details from a bunch of different angles. She looks great.”

Because Vegas Vickie was designed and built to be outside and viewed from a distance, the sign had to undergo some extensive work to make her look “as good, if not better than she was in the 1980s,” Juleen explains. “She was in fairly good shape, but it was an intense process.” To get there, the first order of business for Juleen and his team was to pore over historic images in an effort to match her original colors and other tiny details. That led YESCO to create a scaled, painted mock-up to share with Circa brass. Once they got the thumbs-up to proceed with the remodel, workers stripped the sign down to its bare metal, sanded it down, pounded out dents and hand-painted the metal skin. Meanwhile, the glass shop was busy shaping the new neon, and engineers were swapping out her hydraulic leg kick with a cleaner, smoother and quieter motor-powered mechanical system.

Next up was the biggest challenge of all: moving Vegas Vickie from the warehouse into the building. The heavy, 20-by-25-foot tall cowgirl was brought to the casino in one piece and lifted into place using a crane before Circa’s walls went up. The casino was then essentially built around her.

“We had to get her in before they put the doors on,” says Juleen. “I get asked all the time how much she weighs and I say, ‘You know, Vickie and YESCO have an agreement that we don’t talk about her weight.’ She’s a big lady, though.”

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IN THE LOCAL conservation community, the most talked-about plant to have possibly been eviscerated by small mammals dying of thirst is the rare Tiehm’s Buckwheat. But it’s far from the only one.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has long lobbied for Tiehm’s Buckwheat protection under the Endangered Species Act, has said it believes humans were responsible for recently digging up some 17,000 of the Nevada flowering plants on a site near Tonopah, where Australian company Ioneer has proposed a lithium mine. Retired wildlife biologist Jim Boone isn’t so sure.

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Boone says he went to the site in September full of righteous indignation and prepared to document a case of eco-terrorism. What he found, instead, was further evidence that the Southwest’s prolonged drought is driving rodents to gnaw on desert plants in a desperate search for moisture. The jury may still be out on what destroyed the Tiehm’s buckwheat, but Boone’s theory is based on observations beyond that single site. As he documented in a blog post on his popular Bird and Hike website and discussed on "KNPR’s State of Nevada," Boone has observed similar destruction, in unusually high amounts, all over the Nevada desert. Though humans might not be directly responsible in the Tiehm’s Buckwheat case, he notes, humankind generally is implicated in the environmental degradation caused by climate change.

Here’s a visual tour of the damage Boone has observed this year, along with descriptions, both as told to Desert Companion and written by him.

"Driving north out of town, I was stunned to see the desert so dry — the plants clearly were suffering. The creosote bushes were brown, and our usually bright-green Mojave yucca (pictured) had turned sickly yellow — miles and miles of sickly yellow as I drove up the highway."


"It’s not unusual to see Joshua Tree leaves chewed on by wood rats, but I’d certainly never seen them chewing the bark off a J-tree (pictured). You’ll find where a Desert Tortoise has chewed on a Beaver Tail Cactus or jackrabbits have chewed on Barrel Cacti, but it’s rare enough that when you see it, it’s worth stopping to take a picture. Now you see it everywhere. That’s one thing that’s remarkable about this. We’ve seen damage in Mojave National Preserve, Gold Butte National Monument, Red Rock National Conservation Area, Basin and Range National Monument, up at Tonopah, and some mountain ranges up there."

"It would be interesting to do a study to find what percentage of the Joshua Trees have been damaged and how many would die. … As for the animals that are doing it — that are likely dying of thirst — it’s probably white-tailed antelope squirrels and desert wood rats. The antelope squirrel is the one everyone calls a chipmunk."


"We’ve seen it in virtually all the cactus species. The yuccas — Joshua Tree, Banana Yucca, Mojave Yucca and Utah Yucca, Silver Cholla (pictured), Buckhorn Cholla; and cacti — Beaver Tail, Pincushion, Barrel, Pineapple …

But then also, honey mesquite, catclaw, they’re stripping the bark off the branches of those, too."

"Nothing on this scale has happened before. At this point, it’s running around throwing your hands in the air yelling there’s a problem that people need to pay attention to. (Pictured, damaged Tiehm's Buckwheat.) Hopefully, the drought will end, and it won’t be a problem long-term. … Drought, rodents trying to survive, and mega fires blowing smoke across the landscape. Indeed, something is wrong in the desert this year."

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1. "WHEN IS the right time to assess a founder’s legacy?” writer Aimee Groth asks at the beginning of her paean to former Zappos boss Tony Hsieh, who died after a November 18 house fire in Connecticut. The answer appears to be not yet, judging from the lopsidedly glowing encomia that’ve come out so far. Fair enough; decorum and all. #techgenius is the preferred filter for these quick-take eulogies, invariably filed by people who recall their time aloft in Hsieh’s stratosphere. Through these peer goggles, he appears as a kind of elfin anti-mogul: mystically brilliant, inscrutably generous, obsessed with happiness, sprinkling startup magic on East Fremont. Similar notes recur: Hsieh’s unique stewardship of Zappos, his willingness to spontaneously fund the dream project of someone he just met, his love of a good party. Complications in his Downtown vision quest might be hinted at before the writers get back to delivering the happiness about (in Groth’s words) Hsieh’s “once-in-a-generation creative genius.” The most measured and readable of these takes that we’ve seen is by Paul Carr, in whose brash web magazine NSFWCorp Hsieh had invested.

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Closer to the ground, though, and decorum notwithstanding, the views have been more, ah ... nuanced? The socials have gusted with praise for his efforts to level up Downtown with new businesses and amenities, as well as condemnation for its side effects — the gentrification, the burn rate of his enterprises, the privatization of formerly public services, the hipster homogeneity he encouraged. He’s been compared to Howard Hughes, and dismissed as a charlatan who, after all of his talk about a new tech corridor, creative collisions, and “return on community,” wound up with a bunch of real estate.

Meanwhile, news outlets are just trying to figure out whether Hsieh was trapped or barricaded in his room that deadly night.

Eventually, of course, smart writers and historians will fully parse Hsieh’s legacy for its true achievements and shortcomings. (Here’s a fledgling attempt by the R-J, though it relies on some older numbers.) We’ll let you know when that happens.

2. Back to the living. Here’s a short but charming profile — said to be his first ever — of Hugh Hamrick, familiar to fans of David Sedaris as the writer’s longtime partner. An unfussy pragmatist, Hamrick frequently cameos in Sedaris’ work to provide a kind of baseline normality against which to appreciate the eccentricities of Sedaris and his clan:

When the Sedaris family head to North Carolina to clean up their father’s house after his move to assisted living, everyone is stymied by a turd on the carpet left by some untended animal — but not Hugh, who picks it up with his bare hands and disposes of it. “You people, my God,” says Hugh, which is the kind of thing Hugh can be counted on to say.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to live with a noted oddball, here’s your answer.

3. Another funread: For the New York Times Magazine, writer Sam Anderson enthuses about the endlessly renewable pleasure he finds in a 52-second snippet of film, from 1897, of a neighborhood snowball fight in Lyon, France. The colorized footage is both anachronistic — those 19th-century duds! — and as up-to-date as this year’s snowfall: “So to watch this snowball fight, to see these people so alive, is a precious gift of perspective. We are them. They are us. We, too, will disappear. We will become abstractions to be puzzled over by future people.” Meanwhile, Anderson is right: The abandon with which they pelt each other — and totally blast a bicyclist who tries to ride through — is a pure joy to watch. No wonder he declares, “This is my favorite film of 2020.”

4. Listen to some poetry already. Here’s a heavy swing by Harry Fagel about incivility on social media (“Don’t panic / the government isn’t watching you / you’re not that interesting”). “Basically,” he tells us before he reads, “at the end of it, I hope you can go through your day with a few more words in your head that will help you find the light in difficult times.”

5. It’s tempting to view this endless funhouse of postelection gestural politics that America is wobbling through as a kind of performance art: legal filings so transparently frivolous as to interrogate the very idea of lawsuits; the GOP’s operatic swoons of fealty; Rudy’s brain-leak hair dye. But, as the local arts website Settlers + Nomads recounts, the city saw some actual performance art pertinent not only to the election specifically, but to democracy more generally. In a one-night-only piece on October 29 at Available Space Art Projects, in New Orleans Square, artist Chad Scott cleverly illuminated the issue of voter suppression. Those who came to the gallery found the door locked. “We wouldn’t be allowed inside until we had passed a test, he told us,” D.K. Sole writes. “It was a shortened version of the literacy test that Louisiana, in the 1960s, used to disenfranchise its Black voters.” Of course they failed, as they were meant to, and never got into the gallery, though they could glimpse, imperfectly, the work inside. Sadly, Scott could present this work in every future election season and probably not lose its relevance. Scott Dickensheets


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Andrew: If I recall, Scott, it came up in conversation one day that we're both improbable fans of the long-running CBS police-procedural  NCIS. Whaaaaaz up, fellow fan! Okay, "fan" might be too strong and simple a word, as I suspect that, ahem, discriminating agents of the cultural intelligentsia such as us watch the show for all kinds of murky, smart reasons.  

For me, I picked up the habit from my mom. It was one of her favorite shows, and we'd watch together whenever I was around on Tuesday nights. I found it to be a competent, well-oiled forensics drama, and nothing beyond that. But during COVID isolation, I returned to the series as though pulled by a magnet. I've been rewatching it from the start. There's more than mere embedded nostalgia there (my mom has since passed), though. Post-corona and post-legal cannabis, I find the show's machine-engineered formula comforting in its predictability and shelf-stability. Which is cool. But post-#metoo and post-Black Lives Matter, I find so much more in it to think about and criticize. How'd you come to watch the show? What draws you to it?  

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Scott: Oddly, I have no memory of beginning to watch  NCIS. None. No recollection of even  wanting to watch a police procedural, naval-gazing or otherwise. (Not even its Vegas setting could get me to watch  CSI.) I’m sure I didn’t climb aboard when Gibbs and his team debuted in 2003, spun off from the show  JAG. In retrospect,  NCIS seems to have just slipped into my awareness, like that zombie ant-brain fungus in the Amazon, which rewires each ant into a hapless vessel of fungal propagation. I mean, somehow I’ve seen most of at least 15 of the show’s 17 seasons.  

Why? Why  not? I mean that only half-facetiously — as you note, the show’s dedication to familiar TV formula, as unwavering as Gibbs’ basilisk stare, can be comforting. (Even its awkward attempts at magical realism, as when Gibbs sees the shade of his dead partner, have the freezer burn of an old trope pulled from cold storage in the writer’s room.) In my case, I’ve rarely been drawn to the narrative complexities, moral ambiguities, and avant-garde flourishes of prestige TV; the last series I went gaga for was the original  Twin Peaks. For those qualities, I turn to books, which offer the one thing TV by definition struggles with: an individual human voice trying to grasp the world. With its infrastructure of writers, showrunners, producers, actors, and network accountants, TV is too collaborative for that. ( Twin Peaks was an exception, beamed straight to the screen from David Lynch’s cranial projection room.) Even in my deepest quarantine subsidence, I’ve not been tempted to watch  The Crown or  The Queen’s Gambit. But let me channel-surf across an  NCIS marathon on cable, and for the next few hours I’ll ride with Team Gibbs. I can both watch and not-watch, letting half my mind wander without really diluting the narrative.

Of course, there are a lot of shows as unwaveringly formulaic as  NCIS, including  NCIS spin-offs; so there must be a reason I favor this pattern of televised wallpaper over the others. Why do you?  

Andrew: Wow, I suspect I'm not driftily half-watching the show with nearly as much textured and self-aware deliberation as you are! I find myself watching  NCIS for two increasingly divergent reasons: One, its obvious and real pleasures. It's enjoyably hallmarked by what I suspect are standard technical specifications of primetime drama: the range (but not diversity!) of comfily reliable character types, from gruff-but-gallant Ameri-dad Gibbs to the snarky sidekick (and serial sexual harasser!) DiNozzo to the kOoKy goth forensic juggalette Abby. The rhythm and pacing of the dialogue is snappy and satisfying in a weird, hedonic, almost ASMR kind of way; there's a hit of sweet-salty combo in the way the family sitcom patter nestles here and there in the broader suspense plot. And I enjoy complacently smirking at its small, easter-eggy absurdities, like how Gibbs doesn't ever just drive, but rather urgently  skids everywhere, or the miniature techno-metal music montage that opens scenes in Abby's lab to show the Boomers this show knows what EDGY is.

But more and more I watch it — mostly the early-season stuff — as a record of someone's idea of national truths once upon a time: that justice issues most efficiently from a stern military patriarch who ain't got time for work-life balance nonsense or snowflakey sensitivities about sexual harassment or due process. In that context, NCIS seems to me an artifact that blossomed out of our country's post-9/11 patriotic spasms. It's not a coincidence that the show launched in 2003, in the smoky wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq! This adds a frisson of meta-guilt to enjoying  NCIS as a guilty pleasure. Maybe I'm taking it too seriously?

Scott: Gibbs does jump the lane bumpers of due process quite a bit, doesn’t he? Here in the Mark Harmon Televised Universe, ends are always justifying means in the guise of patriotic guff — no time for niceties when national security is the line! Illegally hack the FBI mainframe in 13 improbable keystrokes, McGee! Lean on a guy, Gibbs! (One wonders how much horizontal gene-transfer Gibbs received from  24’s rule-breaking antihero, Jack Bauer, already popular when  NCIS launched.) Still, I think we’re meant to go easy on Gibbs because in his unrelenting pursuit of bad guys he’s atoning for his extrajudicial murder of the drug lord who killed his family. Symbolically busting the evildoer within: That’s network TV’s idea of character development. And, of course, the flinty, unerring team leadership by an increasingly snow-capped white guy was bound to play well, in the Patriot Act years, with CBS’s old-growth viewership. So you’re probably taking it just the right amount of seriously.  

I find the show’s likability coming from a different direction. To me, it’s a moderately compelling fantasy of the ideal workplace. Studies have indicated that many of us feel more activated at work — it’s a reprieve from the messy, ambivalent discord and fuzzy goals of the domestic sphere, where you’re rendered stupid by your kid’s math homework and can’t quite decipher your spouse’s mood. But at the office? There you have structure, clarity, purpose, meaning. In our culture, thanks to capitalism’s hold on our imagination, prioritizing work is a virtue, so I’m not surprised that people are drawn to  NCIS’s vision of a group of carefully individuated archetypes — the bro, the nerd — who fuse into a smoothly functioning unit, led by a grimly charismatic, on-task boss, that  gets the job done. Then, crisis predictably averted, they’re our beloved characters again — Gibbs flicks his eyes to low-beam, McGee powers up a video game, and DiNozzo gets back to wondering when he’ll hear from HR.  

This, I confess, as the king of fuzzy goals, I am a sucker for. 

Andrew: That's a great observation. I had joked to you that  NCIS is a family sitcom set in a police-procedural plot grid, but the more I think about, it's interesting how the small percolations of any incipient family drama — workplace tensions, ethical qualms, personal frailties — are pretty much flattened under the churning wheels of brusque, mission-focused efficiency — which is to say, on  NCIS, nothing clears the air better than a strong cuff upside the head or a salvo of icy dagger-eyes from Gibbs. One might say this is a form of scabrous emotional censorship, but I suspect  NCIS fans find its pure functionality appealing, a throwback to the days when the fractal squall of family dynamics was heavily modulated by the prospect of dad's belt and "don't make me pull this car over!" After all, this family's got a murderer to catch! 

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Photos and art: Vegas Vickie courtesy Circa; Joshua tree Illustration: Christopher Smith; desert plant photos: Jim Boone; NCIS: CBS photo archive

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