Fifth Street

March 3, 2022

The Strip attraction trying to help save the earth | A fascinating (and fashionable) Barbie exhibit | A coffee shop contest brings out the Downtown dreamers

ARCADIA EARTH AIMS to immerse people in art without drowning them in guilt. The attraction, a spinoff of the New York original that opened around a month ago on the Las Vegas Strip, includes 15 interactive exhibits teaching people about the natural world, climate change, and everyday conservation. It would be easy to write off as greenwashing a place whose opening press release sums up its mission with one of those annoying alliterative triptychs (“educating, enlightening, empowering”) followed by a prompt to hit the gift shop: “Some rooms link to the Arcadia Earth marketplace, offering a comprehensive assortment of reusable items to help diminish their environmental footprint.” But anyone challenging the public’s massive case of eco-fatigue deserves a fair shake. So, we, Desert Companion’s resident environment nerd and attraction enthusiast, set out to evaluate it. Here’s a bit of our conversation.

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Heidi Kyser: Well, what did you think?

Mike Prevatt: Someone said to me last night, don't tell me what you thought. Just tell me if you would pay $40 to do it (tickets start at $33 and there are military, student, and locals discounts). I told him, if I decided to do this, and it took a whole hour like it did for us, I don't think I would cry about it — unlike, you know, the two-minute roller coaster ride at New York-New York that cost me $20.

HK: I would definitely recommend it. Your recommendation sounds tepid, though. Why?

MP: The whole thing with immersion, which is the selling point of a lot of these attractions right now, is that you're fully enveloped in the experience. It's transportive. Arcadia’s theming isn't always as thorough as it should be. For instance, you probably noticed in many of the rooms there was a wall full of info — it was a monitor or it was just lit up or embedded in the wall. Sometimes you interacted with it through your phone. It kind of jarred me out of wherever it was Arcadia was trying to put me in.

HK: That parallels something I was thinking, from an eco-education standpoint. I was wondering how they would tackle a complex topic like climate change in an immersive art experience, since those tend to be kind of shallow, content-wise. Arcadia provided a bunch of different entry points for people into the information, whether it’s the summary printed on the wall at each room’s entrance, or the interactive AR app, or the artwork itself — video, or sculpture, or painting. And audio — every room had someone talking to you, while you're standing there. I understand why they did that, and it probably works well for certain people. But for me, at times, it was overwhelming.

One room where it really worked for me was the ice cave made of recycled plastic bags (right). That, to me, was brilliant, because you had a coherent, tactile experience. I opted out of the AR and just had the “cave” — the art — and the audio. And then the introduction at the entrance telling me what I'm looking at and what it means.

MP: I agree. It was so simple in what it wanted to put out there. Other rooms, where they wanted to throw a lot at you, reminded me a little bit of the Marvel Avengers Station attraction that's in front of Treasure Island, where — and maybe it was just me expecting something fun because it's Marvel — it's so much information, so much backstory, so many technical details of this comic-book world. And then they were quizzing me on it so I could move on to the next station. And I was just like, No, this is like school. There were times where I felt that a little bit in Arcadia.

HK: Related: I thought it was too long — maybe because it did start to feel like homework at some point. I think it’s because you have to go through every room to get from the beginning to the end. With more than a dozen rooms, you probably want to give people a choice of the ones that they go into and opt out of. Now, granted, you could just breeze through the ones that didn’t grab you.

What were the aspects of it that worked for you?

MP: I liked the overfishing room, because, first of all, it was one of the rare instances where the mirror effect did not remind me that there were a bunch of people in the room. Instead, it made four or five of the fishing-net swings look like 30. I thought they designed that room very well. I liked how we both were kind of curious about sitting in the swings and learning where they came from. Whatever the artist did made them look imaginative and otherworldly. And it wasn't uninviting. You could just take a moment, take your selfie, sit down, swing around, and it was very tactile.

HK: That brings up something I wondered. It does purport to be an art exhibit. Some of the art — like the ice cave and the swings — was great. Some — like the murals that looked almost paint-by-number — wasn’t. What did you think?

MP: I felt like they were applying Burning Man principles of art-making, which is less about high-minded execution than using the materials that you have and being imaginative and untraditional with them. Some things, like the book pages forming the honeycomb in the bee room, showed a clever sense of reuse and recycling.

HK: You mentioning the bee room reminds me of my overriding impression of the attraction, from an environmental perspective, which was that certain sections were very successful in drawing a clear line between what you're seeing and what you're experiencing and how that translates into environmental awareness and protection principles, and others were less successful. The bee room (right) was a good example of the exhibit showing the visitor in a straightforward way how delightful it is to experience the Earth through smell — and how we lose that if we don’t protect bees.

MP: I agree. I have to say that Disney does a good job of this sort of thing with Epcot — which maybe is not the best comparison for Arcadia, but it's what I kept thinking of, because Epcot wants you to have a transformative experience. They want to teach you about science, the world and wildlife, the nonhuman world. And they keep things simple. You could tell Arcadia learned some lessons from that mode of infotainment. Other times, they were a little more astray from that.

HK: The most fun I had at Arcadia was the virtual reality headsets — up close with the threatening animals. I enjoyed that. But I confess I didn’t 100-percent see the point of it. Our guide said it was to try to teach people that wild animals aren’t scary. But like, so what? I'm not sure that’s going to change anyone's mind about recycling their water bottles, you know?

MP: I was thinking a lot about how they wanted to use both AR and VR in this attraction. I thought the AR app was pretty weak. But the most fun was definitely the VR. That really made me forget where I was. How many times did we go, Ooh and Ahh? We were really interacting — visually and mentally — with what we were seeing. I am bullish about virtual reality in these attractions, because it is such an effective way to do immersion, to transport people from where they are in a much better way than what I think attraction designers are willing to pay for and execute in real life. Maybe Arcadia, over time, can rethink how to use VR in tandem with the DIY and otherwise physical design elements they have.

HK: The thing I left with was that I feel so hopeless sometimes about the environment. I'm glad that they're trying this. I liked the message on the T-shirts and hats in the gift store: “I vow to care.” I salute them for caring and trying, because that’s so hard right now.

But … I am skeptical of the true impact something like this can make. Maybe because they're doing it on the Strip, in Las Vegas, a region that's not great about conservation and sustainability. I wish there had been a harsher message. The real problem we're confronting — in my view, as an environmental reporter — is overconsumption. And you can't skirt around that with feel-good messages about caring, or the smell of moss in a rainforest exhibit, or $12 reusable sandwich bags. None of that lets us off the hook for how much we consume, especially in places like shops on the Strip. And that's the inescapable truth at the end of the day.

MP: I was thinking some of the same things. I wonder if they're trying to have it both ways. Vegas can be so wasteful, and because it's a place where people come and they're like, Look, I have money, I should be able to get whatever I want, and you can't judge me for it, maybe Arcadia thought, We should put this here in the hope that we kind of nudge them a little bit towards some kind of perspective?

In the end, though, when I think of other attractions I’ve experienced, there are some that I would steer people away from. Arcadia Earth isn't one of those. I would say, go in with a full phone battery. Keep an open mind. Don't rush through it. And you'll probably take something away from it.

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KARAN FEDER HAS gotten inside some of the most fabulous closets in Las Vegas. “I seem to have landed in this niche where I get access to an archival collection,” says the costume curator and preservationist. Feder has cared for the furs and sequins of the Liberace collection and helped catalog and preserve hundreds of costumes from the Tropicana’s Les Folies Bergère show for the Nevada State Museum. Now Feder has helped curate the new Mattel exhibit Barbie: A Cultural Icon, an exhibit at the Shops at Crystals that displays seven decades of Barbies and their apparel, showcasing how the dolls and their looks evolved along with the fashion and culture of their times.

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This is quite a comprehensive collection. It goes from the first dolls and their Mad Men-style looks, through hippie Barbie and disco Barbie and ’80s padded-shoulder Barbie up to Versace and Lagerfeld Barbies. How did you find them all?
All of this collection comes from a single collector, David Porcello, whom I met at the Nevada State Museum. We collected some of his wonderful vintage fashion pieces for the museum, and he was telling me about another of his other collections: Barbie. I saw the collection and realized the extent of it. He collected every single piece of fashion ever created for Barbie. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces. And in the back of my mind, I thought, “I don't know what I'm gonna do with this, but I’m gonna do something.”

In the first year, 1959, there were 22 outfits introduced, and we show all of them in a shadowbox format. Those early pieces are fantastic little tailored garments, linings, working bow knots. My favorite is “Roman Holiday”: It’s got 13 accessories, including a little teeny eyeglass case — it literally is not even half an inch long. If, in fact, these were made for children, as soon as that package was open, that eyeglass case got lost in the carpeting. But we had to find it amongst all these collectors and that eyeglass case can cost hundreds of dollars.

One of the interesting things about the exhibit is how you tie what was happening in fashion with how it impacted the dolls. At one point, you match images of Jackie Kennedy and mannequins with Jackie-style human fashions with the Barbies of the time.
Not only did Jackie influence Barbie fashion, but I then ran into that same style dress with that inverted front pleat and the big A-line that was sold in the Sears catalog. Literally a knockoff of Jackie’s dress. But it’s got the same apricot color as the Barbie dress. So there's an argument to be made: Was Barbie more influenced by what designers were looking at in the Sears catalog, or by Jackie Kennedy?

Did you find out which one it was?
There are two heritage designers that are still with us, and we did oral interviews with them. I was interested to know: What did you do when you presented a dress? Did you present it with supporting evidence? Did you have tear-outs and magazines and stuff? None of them could answer that question. I wanted to look at the original patterns. But Mattel has no corporate archives. So all of this is all lost to history: It's only based on sort of vague hearsay memories.

Mattel has no archive? That’s crazy or a company that’s so invested in nostalgia.
I know. It’s so unusual that a corporation this old and this large would not have invested in really wrangling their own historical narrative. As I understand it, they like maybe in the 2000s, early 2000s, they finally did start saving one of everything.

Crystals is a shopping mall, not a museum or gallery. Do you think we’ll see more exhibitions happening in these kinds of places?
These big huge mall footprints have so many vacant storefronts, which no one likes. It’s depressing. It is in the shopping mall’s best interest to have every storefront filled. So I think there is a new movement. These kinds of attractions bring bodies in the mall that didn’t necessarily plan to shop, but maybe when they’re here, they do.

You’ve worked with the Liberace and Les Folies Bergère costumes. Are there any other costume collections in town you’d like to get your (gloved) hands on?
I'm continuing with my quest, trying to save, document, and share various entertainment costume collections. Siegfried and Roy, that’s a super-important collection. They have everything from day one, all of their costumes, they own everything — they were considered a four-wall, you know, they were hired as an act by the casino. They designed and purchased all their costumes. They realize the value and they’re preserved in climate-controlled storage units, as I understand it. And there’s a rumor that there’s a Casino de Paris archive that is literally in a local warehouse, not just costumes but huge set pieces. I’ve never seen it, but people have told me they have seen it. But the family isn’t interested, because it’s such a huge project. And so it’s just sitting there.

With all of these incredible collections in town, do you think Las Vegas could ever develop a permanent costume museum?
I hope that Las Vegas will indeed, eventually, introduce an entertainment costume attraction, hopefully a venture could be developed in partnership with the city of Las Vegas. This model found great success with The Mob Museum and the Neon Museum–both opened as attractions and, over time, managed to garner the American Alliance of Museums accreditation. I feel this is one of those "no brainer" ideas.

Barbie: A Cultural Icon is on display at Crystal through April 15. Tickets are $29.95-$44.95, available here.

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EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD in Vegas deserves a good coffee shop or diner — a caffeinated landing pad for shift workers, harried students, and revelers in need of a post-party refuel. In our 24-hour town, coffee shops are the spiritual counterweight to bars, clubs, and casinos: When Vegas nightlife empties you out, a good coffee shop fills you back up.

Developer J Dapper gets it. Since 2015, the principal of Dapper Companies has focused his attention on Downtown’s historic Huntridge area, where he and a partner company have dropped $10 million to renovate aging properties (and where Dapper spent another $4 million to buy the historic Huntridge Theater). His Huntridge Shopping Center, on the southwest corner of Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway, has certainly come a long way in recent years, but it’s missing something.

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“People love to meet and eat,” Dapper says. “And Downtown just feels like a place that should have its own diner — and it doesn’t. So, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because I feel like Downtown needs that, I want to bring that here.” The Las Vegas native tells a story of trying to find a late-night coffee shop, diner, or deli on Fremont Street a few years back and being frustrated at every turn. Du-par’s in the Golden Gate: closed. Binion’s: just a snack bar. Golden Nugget: The coffee shop was replaced by a Claim Jumper. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “On Fremont Street at 9 o’clock at night, there was not one 24-hour cafe.” Opening one in the Huntridge Shopping Center was the natural answer.

Of course, Vegas loves a good gimmick, and Dapper gets this as well. He turned his development plan into a community-wide contest: The Great Las Vegas Coffee Shop Giveaway. Basically, competing restaurateurs submit concepts and menus for a Huntridge Shopping Center diner, and the winner gets their vision built for free (including three months’ rent), with nearly $1 million in donated services and supplies from Dapper Companies, YESCO, AAA Restaurant Supply, Sysco, and a long list of other companies. On Tuesday afternoon, Dapper held a press event at Carson Kitchen to unveil the six finalists.

This is where it got interesting. If the big-arc narrative of Downtown is on a weird zig-zag at the moment as it threads its way out of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project phase — an era marked by suspect feelgood messaging, supernatural flurries of capital, and a rapid, shock-and-awe pace of transformative development that sometimes seemed like a colonization — this contest announcement felt decidedly … like an organic community event, with the entrants and contest partners out in full enthusiastic force.

Better yet, by and large, the finalists comprise a diverse roster of emphatically local talent — some of whom are happily daring to tweak the idea of the “classic diner” model itself. Take proposed coffee shop Random Act Diner, conceived by Chef Khai Vu, Chef Dia Young, Freddie Paloma, and Luis De Santos. Their idea is to spice up the staid coffee shop menu with, literally, random acts of musical theater. (At right, a page from their submitted concept deck.) It’s inspired in part by De Santos’ daughter, a Las Vegas Academy graduate. “You can be having a milkshake, and all of a sudden, you just have this 90-second Broadway skit from the staff,” De Santos tells me. “So, there’s a musical aspect to it that taps into local talents, like those at LVA.” Random Act’s proposed menu focuses on rib-sticking diner mainstays; a portion of Random Act’s profits will go to local performing arts programs.

Simple Diner, another entry, is a plant-based coffee shop concept proposed by Chef Stacey Dougan, Uniquea Taylor, Maribel Alvarez, Jen Falcione, and Jenn Tramaglino. (At right, a rendering from their concept deck.) Specializing in plant-based menus, the longtime vegan Chef Dougan aims to craft plant-based diner classics that boast all the rich satisfactions of greasy-spoon staples — think lentil loaf instead of meat loaf, tempeh bacon, and tofu eggs.

“There are so many things that can be made plant-based now much more easily than 20 years ago, when I started,” Chef Dougan says. “And, no offense to Beyond Meat or Impossible, but we’re making a lot of our things from scratch — from plants, fruits, vegetables and grains — so we’ll have a lot more versatility.” Dougan has a solid pedigree in the art and craft of vegan cuisine, having run Simply Pure in Container Park for seven years before closing in March 2021.

Other concepts, such as Savage Fine Diner & Tavern (by Christopher Jones and Chuck Fromer) and Winnie & Ethel’s Downtown Diner (by Chef Aaron Lee and Mallory Gott) played up, and played with, the aesthetic and ambience of the iconic American diner. In some ways, the real contest is just getting started as these would-be café impresarios enter the next phase in April: a series of cook-offs at Vegas Test Kitchen, where local chefs will taste and judge finalists’ menus. In May, Dapper announces the winner — a victorious restaurateur who should not only have a brand-new diner, but a healthy serving of community support as well.

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Photos and art: Arcadia Earth photos courtesy Arcadia Earth; Karan Feder portrait: Christopher Smith; Huntridge Shopping Center, concept deck images courtesy Dapper Companies

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