Section Header Background: Desert Companion Nov 2022
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Read the digital editionDownload the full issue as a pdf

Reasons to Love Las Vegas

73 Reasons to Love Las Vegas

From strip malls to small desert downs to swanky seniors and … Nicolas Cage? (Yes!)

Our unsung hospitality workers

This week on Las Vegas Boulevard, dealers are sanitizing dice, chips, and cards, then doing it again. Housekeepers are sealing off cleaned hotel rooms with red tape. Security guards are socially distancing midweek brawls. Welcome to pandemic Las Vegas, where every time a slot machine rings, a casino worker tells a tourist to please put your mask back on.

Lockdowns, canceled conventions, and occupancy restrictions have dealt our frontline workers a particularly ugly hand. Hospitality work has always been hard, but behind the casino curtain, the shifts have been particularly brutal. Due to changing health regulations, bartenders are making do with half their garnishes. (Mojito, no mint, anyone?) Cocktail servers are wearing the strongest nylons and the glitteriest PPE. In restaurants across casinos, front-of-house servers are chipping-in twenties at the end of the night to cover whichever coworker suffers the most stiffs.

Making yet another round on an empty casino floor is the definition of perseverance. Waiting for managers to call with news of available shifts takes patience. Creating a memorable experience, even for difficult guests who deserve to be forgotten, requires forgiveness. Getting a swab stuffed up your nose every two weeks just to go to work and get paid requires a thick skin (and tough nostrils). To keep welcoming strangers into your section, your workplace, and your city during a pandemic with only one expectation — Enjoy! — takes a kind of grit and resilience that is the real “on-brand” Vegas.

Sponsor Message

Without the hospitality workers who are keeping our economy alive, what would happen to the rest of us? While I work from home in disheveled hair and sweatpants, my former coworkers keep clocking in, despite the bullshit, so that the rest of the world continues to find our city fabulous. They’re the reason why you can already hear the voices of the vaccinated plotting: When this pandemic is over, they’re all coming to Vegas. Brittany Bronson



Our venerable strip malls

Sponsor Message

Photos by Christopher Smith

Venerable? Yes. Strip malls get a bad rap, synonymous with suburban soullessness and the dismal supremacy of the automobile. Truth is, they’re our city’s primary architectural expression of commerce and culture. So, embrace your local strip mall. My favorites are the valley’s older, crustier complexes, lurking hives of curiosity — the Commercial Centers, Charland Squares, Decatur Crossings — bustling with salons, dive bars, storefront churches, niche eateries, tailors, brow boutiques, brewery suppliers, quinceañera stores, cigar shops, dog groomers. You may not be in the market for a ball gown or beermaking gear, but these simmering incubators add color and texture to everyday life in Las Vegas. Andrew Kiraly



We Can’t Stop Listening to These 7 Local Bands

Mercy Music, Nothing In The Dark. The veteran power trio’s third album is their strongest to date. Raw lyrics, catchy melodies, and driving rhythms make the perfect soundtrack for screaming into the void. 

Sponsor Message

Tension Mouvement, Animator. Allow Tension Mouvement’s industrial synth with hypnotizing beats to color your world black for a while.

Phil A & Rasson Aragato, Philagato. Phil A recovered from a heart attack and joined forces with Rasson to record this throwback-flavored mixtape.

Paige Overton, Already Long Gone.

Classic country-inspired tunes with dark lyrics, smooth melodies. Overton’s voice has a haunting beauty that lingers.

Same Sex Mary, Public Comment. The mayor pro-tem of Boulder City and crew are back with a fresh EP filled with all the angst, regret, boredom, and vitriol only a pandemic could provide. 

Nick Batton, Infatuation. Batton excels on pop ballads peppered with low-fi beats and wisping vocals. A journey through a night in five stellar songs.

Brian Cantrell, Covers. While we wait for the Bee Master sophomore album, check out frontman Brian Cantrell’s full-band video covers and experimentations on Youtube. Chris Bitonti

Find these artists on Bandcamp, Spotify, and YouTube.


Boulder City

Photo by Kit Leong. Courtesy

I love Boulder City. Close enough to big city conveniences, but far away from the bustle. It’s a place I called home for more than 10 years — still, not long enough to be considered a local. This is a walkable town of tree-lined streets, where neighbors know each other and folks care about their community. It’s a place where most everyone casts a vote. It’s a place where a trip to the grocery store or post office will be a social event. It’s a place that attracts college professors, geologists, astronomers, inventors, artists, and musicians. It’s a place for families. It’s a place where schools are a stone’s-throw apart, next to the swimming pool and ballpark, down the street from a small hospital, and a large library. It’s place with a high ratio of parks to people. It’s a place surrounded by miles of walking, hiking and biking trails. It’s a gateway to Lake Mead National Recreation Area and miles of sun-bleached shoreline and bumpy dirt roads perfect for old Jeeps. It’s a day-trip destination; a gathering place after a ride. It’s a charming downtown district with murals and sculptures, funky eateries and drinkeries, antique and what-not shops. It’s hollyhocks and clusters of bungalows of various ages and styles. It’s a town once built to shelter the custodians of Hoover Dam. It’s a town in love with gatherings: art festivals, block parties, car shows, bike races, triathlons, and film festivals. It’s a place where July Fourth celebrations begin at sunrise and don’t end until the last flicker from a massive fireworks display. It’s a place that has no shortage of “dam” jokes, and it’s one of the best dam towns I’ve ever lived in. Scott Lien


Funny Vegas Stories


The standup gig was a big one: Warmup comic for the live finale of Hell’s Kitchen, the Gordon Ramsay reality show, in the Paris Las Vegas Theater, for an audience of 1,500. I was told to prepare 10-15 minutes. The fun in that is putting the puzzle together. What joke should I open with? What do I need to cut? How do I weave my set together?

After a few days of tinkering, I felt good. I like to think of my comedy as “intelligent and edgy,” so that was where I was taking the set. I got to the venue and saw a huge line of people. I realized my mistake: Among the people in line, hundreds of kids. This was a family show! “Intelligent and edgy” was not the move. I hurriedly switched everything I’d planned to do. Must have worked: I was asked back the next year! Jason Harris


How High I Am

To this day, the coolest experience I’ve ever had in Las Vegas was actually stratospheric — a ride on the ZERO-G flight. Along with a dozen or so other passengers, I floated about in a specially outfitted Boeing 727 while wearing a snazzy blue NASA-style flight suit complete with matching yellow socks. Fifteen times in a row, the jet arced upward from 24,000 feet above the Mojave Desert to 32,000 feet. When it dove downward, we all became weightless for about 30 seconds, spinning and rolling about in the air like astronauts on the International Space Station. Fantastic! The flight was even more memorable for me because the passenger roster also included the one-and-only Lonnie Hammargren, a former lieutenant governor, retired neurosurgeon, and prior owner of a funky Eastside mansion-turned-museum that once displayed an authentic Apollo command module.

Oh yeah, I also accidentally kicked a guy in the face while flailing about. Sorry! Greg Thilmont


Our Beautiful Weirdos

Mr. Happiness

The intersection of Fort Apache and Sahara is as busy as it’s ever been, but not nearly as lively as it once was. In the early 2000s, when a Blockbuster Video inhabited where a Cox Cable and Chipotle now stand, you could hear everything going on in that intersection. I know because I worked there. Car horns, road construction, heavy winds and, most importantly, the howls of what sounded like a deranged wolf.

That wolf was a man, though some thought he was probably an alien. Larry Johnson Jr. was known as Mr. Happiness to most. He was a street performer, an entertainer, a sight to behold. He confused people, angered some, but mostly he brought joy to one of Las Vegas’s busiest areas. Mr. Happiness wore crazy outfits — bike pants and sparkly jackets and cowboy boots and hats. He danced and sang and high-fived passersby. I don’t know what happened to Larry Johnson, but, I hope, somewhere, he is doing what he does best: bringing happiness to people as only he can. Jason Harris


Flat Ben

Amazon packages delivered to the wrong address. Easy mistake. “Ben” lived directly on the other side of my building. I think I’d seen him once by the pool (when we were allowed near the pool). My first inclination was to lean the box up against his door — but something made me knock.

Ben was home and thrilled I had his box. He insisted I come in. I’m neighborly and curious about people — but I wasn’t prepared for Ben’s interior. It was a full-on shrine to the notion of a Flat Earth. I’m talking every single square inch of the walls covered with posters, paintings, and maps … plus models on tables, books, pamphlets, photos of Flat Earth Society camping trips and conventions … and … women, lots and lots of nearly nude women. Turns out, Ben isn’t just my neighbor — he’s a honcho, a bigwig in the world of the Flat Earth. And the photos of women? Miss Flat Earths, of course! Kris Saknussemm

The Benevolent Busker

When I was living in Death Valley, I would visit Las Vegas often. I was somewhere between a tourist and a local — but definitely more of the former than the latter. I stuck to the Strip. The city outside of it felt like a void. The people who called it home seemed impossible to know, until one night, an almost-boyfriend and I befriended a busker on the way to XS. We never made it to the nightclub; instead, we walked and sang and danced with the busker all the way from the Wynn to the Luxor where his van was parked. Getting into a windowless van with a stranger seems like the definition of something you shouldn’t do, but we did it because he said he’d take us to the best pizza place in town. He did. And it was. To this day, I have never been able to find it again, but it and the busker who brought me there were the first things that made me feel like I wasn’t just a visitor. Krista Diamond

Nicolas Cage, the true Mr. Las Vegas

Illustration by Rick Sealock

We’ve had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Howard Hughes. The Vegas Man of today: Nicolas Cage. He’s embodied our town’s many facets: in The Cotton Club, an unhinged mob killer. In Wild at Heart, a Lynchian Elvis Presley. In Con Air, he wiped out the Hard Rock sign, an homage to Strip implosions. He was our hopeful newbie in Honeymoon in Vegas, our tragic addict in Leaving Las Vegas. In real life, Cage walks among us, rare as a white tiger, prosaic as a video poker machine — shopping at Pottery Barn, hunkering down at Frankie’s Tiki Room, chilling in a box at the Smith Center. Nicolas Cage is Las Vegas. Lissa Townsend Rodgers

A toast to rooftop solar

Photo by Christopher Smith

Here’s to the distributed solar generators, the middle-class homeowners who believed so fervently in the 2010 dream of electrical self-sufficiency that they showed up en masse at commission meetings to plead for the continuation of their sweet, sweet net metering deal, waited for days in long lines, through boring PowerPoints, for their turn to rail against the investor-owned utility’s plan to profit off all those free photons. Behold the stretch of Alta, between Jones and Buffalo, monument to no-money-down lease deals (did a SolarCity rep live on that block?), where one of four houses sports PVC panels tilted toward the never-ending sun, a black mirrored middle finger to industrial power plants — limited 25-year life span and lack of environmentally responsible disposal solutions be damned. Give them a battery, Mr. Musk, and they’ll unplug from the grid without ever going sweaty again! HK

We have rad old people

Illustration by Chris Morris

Every city has its seniors. Lovely, low-profile folks who can be found in your local diners and drugstores, perhaps having a sit in the park so long as it’s not too late. But the old folks of Las Vegas have swagger: Snazzy outfits, classic cocktails and, of course, stories.

Part of the reason is the number of former performers who have settled here — bebop musicians and ballroom dancers, rappers and race-car drivers. But even your day-job types have flair — that retired accountant handled Ann-Margret’s books, that mechanic fixed Lefty Rosenthal’s Cadillac back in the day.

The Burlesque Hall of Fame is one of our gathering grounds for some of our most astonishing grand dames — some may be grande dames, but they’re all grand dames. To the end of her days, founding diva Dixie Evans was still washing down her barbecue with champagne and doing convincing Marilyn Monroe imitations for aging sports heroes; she could make an entire table of jaded Gen Xers and millennials put down their drinks and perk up their ears with bawdy, blush-inducing anecdotes.

Ah, yes, the stories they can tell. The senior waiters at the Golden Steer can spin first-person tales of Frank Sinatra while twirling a bowl of Caesar salad; you’re having coffee with your friend’s mom, and next thing you know you’re hearing about the decade she spent playing the lounge at the Stardust. Of course, the senior citizens of Vegas aren’t resting on their laurels or their La-Z-Boys. Gail Kanner became Queen Mother of the local theater scene after retiring from an office job, and has since rapped in The Wedding Singer, fought demons in Krampus, and ran a heist crew in an all-female production of Reservoir Dogs … while pushing 80.

But the fabulousness of our senior Las Vegans can be found everywhere: There’s a woman of a certain age who wears all leopard print and drives a convertible that friends of mine share sightings of like she’s a glamorous Bigfoot. She’s Helen Mirren crossed with Keith Richards, and I defy you to find a teen Instagrammer or TikTokker who’s cooler than her. LTR

Old-school fast food

Photos by Christopher Smith

We get it. You’re looking for a fast-food fix, but you’re fed up with a quick-service landscape dominated by humdrum eateries. For a taste of nostalgia, go old-school and visit some vintage Vegas fast-food joints that harken back to yesteryear. Take local favorite Farm Basket, for instance, with its barn-shaped signage and its signature Clucker and Gobbler sandwiches. And what about Schlotzsky’s, which smells more like a bakery than a sandwich shop, given the freshly baked bread rounds made daily? (Fun fact: Schlotzsky’s sandwiches were originally served on Frisbees.) And don’t forget Wienerschnitzel, with its distinctive canary-and-cardinal-colored exterior, vaguely reminiscent of hot dog and bun. In the mood for round food? Peter Piper Pizza — the magical home of many a childhood birthday party — recently re-entered the local market with a next-gen entertainment concept. Save room for dessert: Thrifty Ice Cream is still around, too, serving up those cylindrical scoops that promote easy stacking. Danielle Birkin

We’re a union town

It’s easy to forget that Las Vegas is a union town. It could be because we’ve drunk the same elixir that we’ve served the rest of the world, internalizing our flashy brand identity that frames Vegas as a dispenser of volatile magic built by titans, mavericks, and visionaries. But look past the branding and consider something closer to the radical truth of our civic self: That Las Vegas has a functioning middle class in large part because we’re home to one of the nation’s most formidable unions, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 — a union headed, no less, by an immigrant from Nicaragua who got her start in Vegas as a guest room attendant in a Downtown hotel-casino. And, it’s useful to remember, unions such as the Culinary have managed to thrive in a right-to-work state dominated by global capital, so, yeah, not exactly friendly territory. Now, this is a breezily celebratory magazine blurb and not a scholarly polemic, so let’s make the good-faith assumption that reasonable people are in favor of a healthy middle class and worker dignity and health, and we’ll agree to skip the Virtuous Litany 101 of why unions are a good thing for civilization. Instead, think about how the social reality of Las Vegas as a strong union city with a diverse, coalition-minded workforce figures into newly urgent conversations about systemic racism. Chalking up the success of unions like the Culinary as wins for just the labor force suggest that we’ve also forgotten something else: How much the imperatives of economic justice and racial justice overlap. Andrew Kiraly

Jingle City

Illustration by Chris Morris

TV commercials are annoying. TV commercial personalities are more annoying. But there’s something paradoxically charming about local business owners acting ridiculous on TV ads. Longtime locals remember car salesmen Fred Fayeghi of GMF Motors (no credit? “No problem!”), the late Ben Stepman of Stepman Hyundai (“In Henderson, of course!”), or the goofy antics of Findlay Toyota’s John Barr. Heck, attorney Glen Lerner’s jingle is practically our second state anthem. And who can forget Josh “The Chopper” of Towbin Dodge’s endearingly dumb comedy sketches, or Edward M. Bernstein’s studious turn with “Enough said, Call Ed”? They’re not just silly TV spots; they’re a form of distinctly local pop-culture currency. Josh Bell

The Atomic Testing Museum

Photo by Joe Cavaretta/AP

Dirty martinis on the roof of the El Cortez with a mushroom cloud on the near horizon … atavistic beauty pageants with bikinis celebrating the Bomb … oh, those crazy days of Atomic Culture — and Las Vegas was Ground Zero.

As significant as Hoover Dam, gambling, and the entertainment and convention businesses have been to the city’s economy and sociology, the role of military-industrial investment can’t be ignored. A highlight is Nevada’s atomic testing program. It meant not only postwar infrastructure funding and job growth, it dramatically changed the region’s cultural and pop-psych profile worldwide.

This is just one of the insights into local history — and the American Collective Unconscious — you gain by visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum, one of the finest facilities of its scope in America, and, I think, the world.

Meticulously arranged, with expertly curated and researched descriptions, the exhibitions offer some rare puzzle pieces from this bizarre, whimsical, and yet deeply shadowy part of America’s mid-20th century. Where else can you learn very directly about nuclear reactors, historic missile systems, peculiar atmospheric experiments, exotic aircraft, “personal” atomic weapons, radiation, underground testing, once top-secret programs, brought to vivid life via genuine artifacts, official documents, and photographs?

What I find particularly remarkable are the set pieces showing sample interiors of the Doom Town “blast houses” (model homes with model people!) that were used to film, measure, and evaluate the effects of bomb detonations in a normal residential context. There’s something confusingly human, almost a quaint, even innocent touch, in these old mannequins, graciously and maybe shrewdly contributed by J.C. Penney. For me, this daft, clinical doll-housing of mutual assured destruction and possible apocalypse fails to domesticate the terror. Rather, it hints at other eccentricities and paranoias lurking in the Twilight Zone blur of our not-too-distant, Formica-patterned, Flintstones-meets-The Jetsons past. Boom, baby. Kris Saknussemm (755 E. Flamingo Road,

Our Vegas Sunsets

Photo by Justin Kelly

It’s richly fitting that our city built on fantasies of pleasure has gorgeous sunsets to back up the hype. In our own parcel of sky, we host a permanent residency of ambrosial vistas of cotton candy and purple neon fire, performing nightly. Better yet, there’s something appealingly populist about it: You can’t own it, or buy it, or sell it. Any Las Vegan can take a decent snap of the sunset. Vegas sunset shots pop up on social media like a visual denomination of goodwill scrip, freely generating likes, shares, and cheery vibes. Raise your eyes (and phone) to our glorious Vegas sunset skies, our dramatic daily exit and extravagant promise of the hope of tomorrow! AK


Ghost Adventures

Illustration by Chris Morris

You don't have to be a believer to enjoy the silly, scary fun of Ghost Adventures, produced by Zak Bagans of the Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. In fact, it’s better if you don’t believe in ghosts, because it makes the show’s grimly sober, pseudoscientific seriousness that much more entertaining, laying it bare as a device to crank up the tension before, inevitably, all hell (sometimes literally) breaks loose. That’s when Ghost Adventures reveals its true spirit: It’s an adult throwback to the juvenile thrills of investigating the creepy corner house that resides in our collective imagination. What better home for spinning such phantasmic fantasies than Las Vegas? Andrew Kiraly

Detroit, Michigan native Chris Bitonti arrived in Southern Nevada in 2007. A graduate of Michigan State University, Chris is a musician, writer, college football fanatic and public radio junkie. His favorite programs are “Radiolab,” “Ask Me Another” and “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”
As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.