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Fifth Street

February 25, 2021

In this issue: The Rainbow Bridge | The Low Desert: Outlaws in the American Outback | Take It With You | Media Sommelier


IT'S TOUGH to pinpoint when drag went mainstream in Las Vegas. Maybe it was RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming a runaway (or is that runway?) success on TV, eventually landing its own show at the Flamingo. Or in 2003, when Cirque du Soleil contracted one of the most subversive drag queens in America, Joey Arias, to emcee its third Las Vegas production, Zumanity. Or 18 years before that, when the Riviera introduced An Evening at La Cage, no doubt rubber-stamped because of the success of the female-impersonation show across the street, Boylesque.

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Or was it back during World War II, when a spot on Charleston Boulevard called the Kit Kat openly advertised drag shows at “Nevada’s Gayest Night Club”? Yep, that happened. Las Vegas was out before you were — or before Siegfried and Roy ever were.

At the very least, drag isn’t the niche diversion you may have thought it was. From traveling female impersonators playing to straight tourists as early as 1938, to male performers in dresses and makeup reading books to children in Henderson libraries, drag culture has had the kind of multi-demographic audience Madison Avenue could only dream of, and its appeal has accelerated alongside LGBT acceptance and cultural exposure. Plus, the Venn diagram overlap between drag and Las Vegas is considerable: They’re both glitzy, sensational, uninhibited — and hoping you’ll take out your wallet and make it rain.

“Drag always been part of the Strip,” says Coco Montrese, longtime Las Vegas drag performer and former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “People have always come to see drag because they want to get away from the norm, (especially) if you’re from Iowa or Wyoming or someplace like that. When you come to Vegas, that’s what you want to see. They want to see something they can’t see at home. Vegas and drag has come hand in hand.”

Montrese is one of 10 local queens who have been featured on Drag Race. That show inspired a weekly brunch event at Señor Frog’s, where Montrese works the tables while diners guzzle mimosas and enter twerking contests. He’s also one of the many local participants in Dragapalooza, a recent video-on-demand performance film — think VH1 Divas, but gayer.

Dragapalooza is also a glow-up from traditional drag. If you’ve caught a drag show at the Phoenix, Charlie’s, Flex or just about any of the other gay watering holes in town, you know the drill: a small and bare stage, an audience clutching plastic mini-pitchers of Bud Light, a gowned host introducing a rotation of similarly frocked queens. The DJ cues up a chestnut from Britney, Whitney, or the like, and the performer subsequently mouths out the words as he flails his arms out like a conductor on Ecstasy. But during Dragapalooza, the performers actually sing, and they’re flanked by live musicians (which includes local Grammy-nominated producer/DJ Chris Cox). Not only is drag crossing over to the world of pay-per-view, but also concerts.

Then again, drag is the ultimate crossover, and the metaphor goes beyond gender. There’s a reason why Boylesque, helmed by late, widely revered Kenny Kerr, endured during a time when the AIDS crisis heightened homophobia, and why An Evening at La Cage, the star vehicle for Joan Rivers impersonator Frank Marino, became a go-to Strip show for uptight tourists seeking an experience they likely wouldn’t have seen back home in Dubuque.

"(Drag) is exciting to watch, especially when you're doing look-a-likes,” says veteran drag performer Toni James (pictured above). “People can't believe that a guy can look like, say, Diana Ross or Whitney Houston or Cher or any of the famous superstars that a lot of us impersonate. They got mesmerized by it. ... When people see you on stage, they forget the discrimination stuff.”

More than that, drag has bridged the queer and straight populations. Local historian Dennis McBride writes in his book Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State that drag was a “vehicle for (LGBT) community whose importance is often overlooked.” Historically, straight folks weren’t comfortable going to businesses that celebrated gay sexuality, but they’d patronize showrooms and lounges to see gay performers. McBride writes, “It was nonetheless these entertainers who often provided straight people their first glimpse of gay community. With their gay lives and their straight audiences, female impersonators brought both worlds together.”

Which makes drag queens natural ambassadors of the LGBT community, be it on the Strip or out in the ’burbs. “It’s now to the point where everyone is turned on about it,” says Montrese. “I can be in a Target and I’ll see a father and his football-player son, and they’ll both say, ‘Oh, it’s you! We watch you on the show — we love you, you’re awesome!’ And I’m like, ‘Ohhhh, okay. Well, thank you!’ It catches you off guard.”

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MOST STORIES are about people. But stories also can be about places. Sometimes, a place is not particularly vivid or pertinent. You might spend the whole story in one room, or perhaps the narrative unfolds in some corner of a person’s brain. But for me, the best stories are those in which the setting is an integral part of the narrative.

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In Tod Goldberg’s new collection of crime fiction, The Low Desert, his primary setting is a part of Southern California hardly anybody else writes or thinks about: the far-inland desert towns running from Palm Springs south to the borderlands. These areas are absent, for the most part, from the public consciousness, except when the Coachella music festival materialized there for a couple of weeks each spring in pre-pandemic times. Las Vegas — a more prominent element of the desert Southwest — is a second important place in this book.

These desert towns are not where most Southern California writers set their stories. They tend to stay within sniffing distance of the ocean, and who can blame them? But Goldberg knows this area and its people, because he lives there.

And because he knows the area, he resists the temptation to produce lyrical descriptions of desert vistas or gritty urban hellscapes. Instead, he wisely opts for a well-turned sentence or snapshot, just enough to transport us to, say, the suburban sprawl of Palm Springs: “The Royal Californian sat on a stretch of Highway 111 in Indio that could have been Carson City or Bakersfield or Van Nuys or anywhere else where someone had the wise idea to plant a palm tree and then surround it with cement.”

Or decaying remnants at the Salton Sea: “The barracks themselves are a Swiss cheese of mortar and drywall, to the point that even from this distance I can see the sparse traffic on Highway 86 through their walls, as if a newsreel from the future had been projected onto the past.”

Or the clash of nature and city in western Las Vegas: “Red Rock Canyon loomed around them, casting everything in a peaceful amber shadow . . . until you turned and were assaulted by the nearby sprawl of sand-colored homes and, farther away, the jutting spire of the Stratosphere, along with a nice view of half of humanity landing at and launching from McCarran.”

Most of Goldberg’s stories are about criminals of one kind or another, from low-level drug dealers to top-rung mob bosses. This, too, is a little daring and admirable, because too often literary writers avoid this central thread in the fabric of American life. (If you don’t think crime is fully integrated into American life, then you must have been sleeping for the past four years.)

Goldberg, some years back, decided that crime fiction would be his calling card, and his novels Gangsterland (2015) and Gangster Nation (2018), both largely set in Las Vegas, represent his finest work to date. But he remains one of the most literary of working crime writers.

Most of the stories in The Low Desert succeed by blending the thought-provoking nature of literary storytelling with the brisk action of pulp noir. Oh yes, people are killed in these stories, and not by slow-burning angst. They are shot, or drowned, or their heads get chopped off. But don’t misunderstand: Amid the carnage, Goldberg deftly inserts three-dimensional people with real-life issues. There’s something for everyone here, including Goldberg’s trademark biting humor.

In one memorable story, “Goon Number Four,” an international assassin abandons his high-risk, high-reward career in order to take classes at the local community college. But he can’t quite shake his old habits. If this story isn’t made into a movie or television series soon, then Hollywood has lost its mojo. In “Professor Rainmaker,” a hydrologist — no joke — finds his place in the brutal world of international drug trafficking. “Mazel,” featuring an FBI agent in Las Vegas who innocently wanders into the middle of the agency’s biggest mystery, offers this spot-on bit of social commentary:

“She was allowed to tell people she was an FBI agent. Only the covert parts of the job were classified. But in Las Vegas, where half the people were about an inch away from a RICO charge, it was like telling someone in East Germany that you worked for the Stasi.”

Las Vegas is the setting for two of the 12 stories, but the city is mentioned here and there throughout the collection. And in each case, Goldberg not only accurately describes the geography, but displays a decent understanding of how the town works as well. In “Royal California,” a man dressed as a clown, sitting in a bar in Palm Springs, remarks:

“Everyone here is always trying to get to Las Vegas, everyone in Las Vegas is always trying to get somewhere else, no one happy to be any one place.”

Goldberg clearly put a lot of thought into the selection and order of the stories in this volume. Some are fast-paced cops-and-crooks tales, while others have a more contemplative literary bent. Most of them are connected in some way. A restaurant referenced in passing in the opening story becomes the focal point of another story toward the end of the collection. A character in one story shows up in another. Something that happened several decades ago in one story has significance in a more contemporary narrative. A few are directly connected to Goldberg’s novels Gangsterland and Gangster Nation — they could be chapters trimmed to meet a word count. (These stories surely are required reading for Gangsterland completists.) Goldberg might cringe at the reference, but there’s a Tolkien-esque element of world-building going on here.

This imagined desert underworld, home to racketeers and regret, buried bodies and criminal clowns, is an engrossing place to spend time. The thoughtful treatment of Las Vegas is particularly appreciated. One hopes Goldberg continues to explore these places he knows so well.

Geoff Schumacher is the vice president of exhibits and programs at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

The Low Desert: Gangster Stories
Tod Goldberg
Counterpoint Press, 2021
289 pages

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THE LAST TIME I actually stood inside a casino, it was March 2020. I had ventured to the Bellagio’s Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for the first time. Its annual Chinese New Year display commemorated the Year of the Rat in a display of 32,000 flowers. Gorgeous reds, bright yellows, and bold fuchsias filled the room. Voluminous lanterns hung from the ceiling and cherry blossoms arched over a bridge. Jade medallion money trees bookended a display featuring giant golden rats bustling up a gold staircase. Every design element projected prosperity and luck for the new year. I allowed myself to believe that I was receiving good fortune just by being in the room.

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I watched Bellagio staff remove koi fish from the Conservatory’s pond. One of the on-site horticulturalists and I chatted about my indoor orchids at home and how to pull kumquats from the trees lining the Bellagio’s garden beds without attracting attention. (I was too nervous to try.) An hour later, I left with two things: a box of macarons from the hotel patisserie and the distinct feeling that I had finally connected with the city.

In the summer of 2018, our family moved to Las Vegas from Texas — me (pregnant), my husband, and our two-year-old daughter. I had been to Vegas before. My parents, based in California, made it the go-to destination for most of our family vacations and their own quarterly visits. But living in the city was altogether different. Vegas seemed like it would swallow my little family whole with its flashing lights, glitz, vices, and pace that ran counter to the life we’d grown accustomed to in Texas.

Our immersion was slow. (After all, we were trying to figure out how to navigate the fabled Sin City with kids in tow.) We visited the requisite museums — neon, natural history, children’s. We went to aquariums, attended concerts, and dined at too many restaurants on and off the Strip.

By the time I had established my own rhythm with the city, I was finishing my macarons in lockdown. As I polished them off, I also mourned the loss of what had become my second home of sorts: the West Las Vegas Library. The library had been an anchor for me since we’d moved here. Every visit would end with me touring the in-house art gallery and toting home a bag full of books. The library’s seasonal exhibits were a window into local arts and culture. The sculptures, paintings, and other artworks exposed me to new facets of the city and the region. I made it a habit to snap photos of the exhibits as reminders of interesting people to research and destinations to visit.

When quarantine initially started, I read my library books and watched too much Netflix. Around me, stores closed and streets emptied. Online, photographs circulated of the Strip devoid of people and its characteristic magic. Although curious what it felt like to stand in the middle of the stillness, I never dared to drive down there.

I missed the thriving culture I was just beginning to tap into. It seemed like I would never find that bond again and, in the pandemic, I wasn’t supposed to try.

In a moment of longing, I flipped through my photos of past art exhibits at the West Las Vegas Library. The exhibits had been essential to introducing me to the city. Where they were once road maps that led me to new cultural venues and local artists, now they became wellsprings in a moment when all life and culture had paused.

When my sense of playfulness became stale and dormant, engaging with whimsical paintings I’d seen restored it. There was a fairy in a fish-shaped airship scooping up dreams floating above a sleeping city. A masked figure wearing a cloud-printed dress and cowboy boots brought clouds into town, pulling them across the sky like balloons. These were "The Dream Collector" and "Here Comes the Rain" by Jorge A. Betancourt-Polanco, respectively. In flamboyant acrylics, the artwork in Betancourt-Polanco’s Life is Colorful exhibit conferred an undeniable energy and vibrancy that contrasted with a city that was slowly losing its shine. It gave me a lighthearted nudge to continue excavating this “colorfulness” in my new everyday life. The cotton candy-haired mermaids and moon-faced creatures in Betancourt-Polanco’s work inspired silliness in the drawings I made with my children or as we played together. I hoarded this exuberance inside my home until it was time to release it again.

Social distancing only sharpened my need to be in community with others — despite the fact I’m an introvert. I didn’t bother to attend the countless virtual events hosted by the City of Las Vegas. But I did visit crowds that had gathered to watch the “Beauty Parade” ease past Hotel Fremont and The Mint in the summer of ’65. I sat at a table with the late Eartha Kitt, her smile bright and arms wide open, at a Las Vegas Press Club party circa 1967-1970. These photos from Las Vegas News Bureau’s Vintage Vegas - In Color exhibit situated me within crowds that no longer congregated in and around the Strip. Each image resonated with the life and excitement, neon and glamour that had become muted since quarantine. Where I could not be in the presence of others, these photos reinforced my sense of belonging.

One particular photograph depicted a New Year’s Eve celebration at the Sahara in 1969. Revelers donned cardboard party hats and plastic leis as they raised their noisemakers. Behind them was a sea of people clinging to each other as if nothing could separate them. The more times I indulged in studying this photo, the more memories it recalled. It was set in 1969, but it was also a scene recreated by my parents during their numerous New Year’s trips to Vegas in the 90s. And it also evoked the wonder my husband and I experienced during our first New Year’s Eve dinner atop The Strat in 2019. Revisiting this exhibit and my own recollections, I was reminded of the merriment inside me. It was untapped potential that I not only carried forward, but needed to draw upon day to day.

When the West Las Vegas Library reopened in July, I immediately gravitated to its art gallery. Mixed-media prints and mirrors hung on the walls. There were pyramidal shapes with labyrinthine interiors. They loomed on the page in greys and dark blues. These were prints in Invented Landscape, an exhibit by Idaho-based artist Leekyung Kang. And when the library closed again months later, I sat down with the photos I’d taken.

Viewing Kang’s artwork evoked many aspects of Vegas. On first glance, I imagined the distinct skyline that seems to rise prominently above anything around it. When I closed my eyes, the zigzag interiors of these prints transformed into the intricate designs of hotels and casinos that I’d wandered through. Though sitting in my own home, I could feel the hotel carpeting under my feet and see its bold colors and patterns. I could hear the jangling and beeping clamor of the slot machines. With a bit of focus, the space around me rang with a familiar joie de vivre.

Las Vegas holds a richness that is difficult to encapsulate. But by invoking the work of artists and images from local history, I feel I was able to re-create elements of this vibrant city in my own private realm. I kept alive what I hope to see again once we emerge from the pandemic.

 

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1. Las Vegas’ historic Westside embodies a story of hate and hope: It developed in the 1930s in large part because Black entertainers were barred from staying on the then-segregated Strip, but it wasn’t long before the Westside became an entrepreneurial nerve center of local Black life, hosting jazz clubs, businesses, and even a major resort, the Moulin Rouge. Ironically, desegregation gradually drained the area of vitality, as many Black residents moved to other parts of Las Vegas as civil rights activism rolled back longstanding racist laws and policies. Tonight at 5:30 p.m., UNLV University Libraries and the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs focus on the historic Westside in the eighth installment of their “We Need to Talk” series. Better yet, this conversation about the state of the Westside features some local luminaries who always have thought-provoking things to say: Erika Vital-Lazare, Professor of Creative Writing and Marginalized Voices in Dystopian Literature at the College of Southern Nevada (and Desert Companion contributor); Chase McCurdy, artist (and recent guest on KNPR’s State of Nevada) and County Commissioner William McCurdy II. You can check out previous episodes there as well.

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2. Senior care is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it’s no surprise that it attracts its share of grifters, schemers, and scammers. The particular sting of senior exploitation is that it’s often perpetuated by the very people charged with a duty to care for our vulnerable elderly population. If you enjoy feeling your blood boil with righteous rage, definitely check out I Care a Lot on Netflix, starring Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a glacially sociopathic private-practice guardian who uses her position of trust to drain seniors’ bank accounts and oust them from their homes — until she meets her match in a would-be victim (Dianne Wiest) who has a few devious secrets of her own. What might have been a character-driven moral drama barrels into a plotty, outlandish crime caper, but it’s worth watching alone for them good ol’ revengey schadenfeelz. But if you really enjoy feeling your blood boil, read "How the Elderly Lose Their Rights," the 2017 New Yorker exposé that no doubt served as inspiration for the streaming hit. Of course it’s a story of avarice and exploitation based in Las Vegas!

3. Dolly Parton is having a moment as a populist icon. That’s cool. Everyone loves Dolly, the national treasure etc. who starred in one of my favorite obscure amazing terrible ’80s movies, Rhinestone. However! The funny thang about the phenomenon of memey viral storms on the internet is how they shear off subtlety and shadow, and the figures who emerge are either colossal heroes of justice and light and goodness or nefarious villains with no hope of redemption boo hiss. In the case of Parton, it’s further complicated by her image as a celebrity country singer who’s managed to keep it real and is still, at least notionally, down with the poor and working-class folks she’s long chronicled in her songs. Over at The Baffler, Tom Sexton considers our inner social justice warrior's tendency to generously fill in the blanks of our fave celebrities’ moral dimensions to pad our own civic yearnings. He writes, “When things get dicey, and collective action has largely been abandoned, we want our icons to be living, breathing, one-size-fits-all memes who can preside over us as symbols of hope.” It’s not a Dolly problem, it’s an us problem. Andrew Kiraly

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Photos and art: Toni James by Christopher Smith; Tod Goldberg and book image courtesy Counterpoint Press; casino photo illustration by Christopher Smith

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