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A new exhibition at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas provides a glimpse into the public relations savvy of the hotels on the Strip.
“Branding Las Vegas, 1941 to 1958 – Highlights from the Greeno Collection” focuses on small objects that helped solidify Las Vegas’s reputation as a place of fun, sophistication, and glamour.
Cocktail glasses, swizzle sticks, menus.
A huge range of items branded with the names of the original 13 Strip hotels - the result of decades of collecting by Richard Greeno and his wife, Nancy. Eight-thousand or so items in all. Richard says about 100 are on display right now.
“We’re not hoarders,” said Greeno. “But we love to collect. Postcards also. We do that number. And, we’re not only historians of Las Vegas. We do history of our own local town.”
Their town is Frankfurt, Indiana and they were in the furniture business for many years.
The Greenos are staying at the Fremont Hotel, downtown, which is where Richard stayed on his very first visit to Las Vegas. It was in 1967 - when a certain everyday object caught his eye and imagination.
“I collected several ashtrays like probably everybody else did at that time.”
Richard says “collected.” But actually, he just took them. And that’s the thing: these items were pilfered by visitors – stolen from the hotel rooms, showrooms, and restaurants of Las Vegas hotels.
The thievery was quietly sanctioned, even encouraged, by the hotels.
“Back there in that era they put their name on everything,” said Greeno. “And they expected you to take the matches, the ashtrays, the stirrers, the plates – what have you. Yes, they didn’t say: take me home. But yet they did. It was their cheap way of branding.”
Dennis McBride is director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. He's curating the exhibition of pieces the Greenos collected – things that showed off Las Vegas as an early tourist destination.
McBride says these items were “free publicity that spread the Las Vegas brand all over the world.”
Some of the branded items in the glass display cases are not what we generally think of as souvenirs.
“They branded everything," McBride said, "They branded shoe horns. They branded swizzle sticks. They branded record albums. They branded thermos jugs. Everything you can imagine, they branded. Matches and cigarette holders and ashtrays, knowing that these things would make their way in the tourist luggage back to where they came from. And even now, people who collect – they are amazed at the Las Vegas material they find in the South or the Midwest or the Northeast. Canada, Germany. It was very good for Las Vegas, of course. And to produce that stuff, too, it was relatively inexpensive. In fact, you’d find menus from that period that have on the back an address spot for a stamp. You could take the menu home with you and mail it to your friends. It’s interesting. They talk about theme hotels and people really think of Steve Wynn and the 1990s and 2000s, but the El Rancho Vegas – the first one was themed. It was an old-West theme. So, you see cowboys and cowgirls and horses. And you see all of this Western-related imagery.”
As curator McBride shows us the items in this exhibition, it’s easy to see that even an ordinary ashtray became extraordinary in the era referred to, by some, as the Golden Age of the Las Vegas hotel-casinos.
“That’s part of what I wanted to get across was the aesthetic appeal of so many of these things,” McBride said. “They really are beautiful. The Tropicana ashtrays in particular. Their logo at that time was this amazing fountain that stood out front for many, many years. And there’s a stylized version of it on all of their logo merchandise.”
All of the ashtrays, except for one, are glass. The word that comes to mind is chic.
“It is,” said McBride. “When you look at some of these ashtrays that are really beautiful little works of art that they were made to stub your cigarette out in. It seems kind of sacrilegious. Thank goodness they’re made of glass. They clean up well.”
Back at the Fremont Hotel, collector Richard Greeno is still on the lookout for new branded objects.
“Yes. Yes. The answer is definitely yes,” said Greeno. “In fact, last night I was at a place and found a glass. It’s a beer glass. And it has the Las Vegas welcome sign on it. Home it goes.”
On the glass, the words are “Bud Light.” And underneath the works, there’s an image of the iconic Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada welcome sign.
“That’s what I find interesting,” said Greeno. “And, you know, these are the little things that catch my eye. And this is all part of still: branding Las Vegas. And letting people know that it’s there. You see something like this, I’m probably not the only person that sees this just because we collect. But other people see it and they say: Yes, I’d like to take that home with me.”
Branded Las Vegas objects may not be as plentiful as they once were or as elegant, but they’re still around if you know where to look.
And, if you were wondering: Richard Greeno did get permission from the waitress before walking off with the beer glass.
“Branding Las Vegas, 1941 to 1958 – Highlights from the Greeno Collection” is at the Nevada State Museum/Las Vegas. The exhibition features branded items – logo merchandise - from the original 13 Strip hotels – from El Rancho Vegas to the Stardust.
Dennis McBride, director, Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas; Richard Greeno of Frankfurt, Indiana. Collector of memorabilia including Las Vegas branded items.
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