The Story of Us
With a gritty, grassroots ethos, these filmmakers are exploring Vegas' recent history
IN THE SUMMER of 2018, I started work on a feature documentary about the creative scene that developed in a very specific Las Vegas location during a very specific era: Maryland Parkway in the 1990s. At the time, it felt like I was perhaps the first to tackle the subject of so-called “alternative” culture in Sin City in an easily digestible filmed narrative. But if my film Parkway of Broken Dreams — the result of spending three years blending together newly filmed remembrances with fragments of decades-old VHS camcorder footage — was among the first of its kind, it soon became clear it would not be the last.
Recently, a number of other documentary films by Vegas-based artists (many of them first-time filmmakers) have either debuted or started production, all focusing on a particular aspect of the valley’s recent cultural history. Take, for example, 702 Unstripped, a feature-length visual history of hip-hop culture’s influence on the development of Las Vegas’ present-day art scene. The film, which screened rough cuts at a few private events Downtown last fall, is the brainchild of Shannon Dorn, a longtime local photographer and entrepreneur. Dorn had been capturing various artistic happenings around the city on camera for years, with a focus on the Las Vegas Arts District, but she says once Zappos moved Downtown and “things started to pop off,” she realized the importance of telling the story of the Arts District from the perspective of those who built it.
“People have their own ideas of how things happen,” Dorn says. “We’re not a historic town. Everything that we build, we tear down.” She says that making 702 Unstripped was “the only way I could physically do anything to keep the history alive in Vegas. It was important to me to tell the world that culture exists in Vegas.”
The film she produced with the help of Arts District stalwart and painter Dray Wilmore, as well as other collaborators, proves her point. 702 Unstripped spans the opening of the Arts Factory in the late 1990s, the founding and expansion of First Friday in the early 2000s, and the gentrification of the Arts District in more recent years. In doing so, it serves as something of a sequel to Parkway of Broken Dreams, literally picking up where Parkway leaves off, with the heart of Vegas arts and culture being transplanted from the UNLV to Downtown Las Vegas.
Featured early on in 702 Unstripped is 5ive Finger Miscount (5FM), Wilmore’s former collective of urban muralists, surrealists, and outsider artists whose brief existence around the same time as the launch of First Friday had a lasting impact on Vegas’ art scene. One of its founding members, veteran local artist Emmett “Iceberg Slick” Gates, Jr., announced just a few months ago that, in collaboration with Robert “Tagz1” Perez and Koby Dumas, he was starting work on a documentary of his own: a retrospective about 5ive Finger Miscount, naturally. Although Gates says the impetus for such a project was the fact that both 5FM and First Friday will be celebrating 20th anniversaries this year (and plans to have a version of the film complete in time for the occasion), his greater motivation to undertake such an exhaustive project isn’t dissimilar from Dorn’s.
“The landscape has changed so much Downtown,” Gates says. “Vegas is a place that will tear down a landmark in a minute and pretend it never existed. I refuse to let that happen to all those original artists who paved the way for what’s there now.”
Although Gates says he did consult with Wilmore to ensure there wasn’t too much overlap between their respective films, these projects naturally share some familiar faces (including, in full disclosure, your humble author) as well as common subjects. For example, local art curator and urban historian Brian “Paco” Álvarez appears throughout 702 Unstripped as a commentator, but he also features prominently in a teaser trailer for 5ive Finger Miscount: A Documentary, discussing how the group introduced lowbrow art to Las Vegas. There’s also some crossover behind the scenes. In addition to crafting the visual look for the 5FM retrospective, “Tagz1” Perez also directed the recently premiered documentary short, This Doesn’t Happen, about Vegas-based artist Juan “Ninobuni” Muniz’s experience of returning to his old neighborhood in San Diego for a gallery show. And, of course, Muniz himself appears as one of the talking heads in 702 Unstripped.
All of this speaks to the close-knit and interconnected nature of Vegas’ creative community, which is also reflected in another recently completed documentary, 4 Years, 1 Song, G. Douglas Seitsinger’s almost two-hour ode to the post-Downtown Project era of the Bunkhouse Saloon. The film screened for an invite-only crowd at the Artifice bar Downtown last July, and made its public debut at the Silver State Film Festival in October, netting Seitsinger a Best Director award in the Documentary category. 4 Years, 1 Song does an effective job of conveying the rock ’n’ roll clubhouse vibe that made the Bunkhouse much more than just another place to drink beer and watch bands.
“It’s a good remembrance of what happened,” Seitsinger says, “but for the people who were never there, I hoped that it would make them wish that they were.”
Seitsinger, a former rock ’n’ roll photographer and music writer who worked the Bunkhouse door from 2016 to 2020, surreptitiously captured hundreds of shows there on an Olympus pocket camera during his watch. He says he knew something special was happening — he just didn’t know it would end up becoming a feature film.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be a doorman’s journal thing,” says Seitsinger, who also shot (with Keith Ray and Mike Busch) 26 interviews for the documentary, most of them at 11th Street Records Downtown. “I wanted it to be my perspective. I wanted to focus on the music and what the doorman captured.”
The Bunkhouse isn’t the only beloved Downtown Las Vegas venue getting immortalized on camera. Inspired by developer J Dapper’s purchase and ongoing renovation of the iconic Huntridge Theater, Chandos Erwin of Los Angeles-based Hydro Studios is directing a film tentatively titled Huntridge: The Story of a Theater and Its City, which Erwin says will examine “its role in the city’s history, its place in the hearts and memories of the people who knew it as the place they saw their first show (or) played their best show, and its future as a part of a renaissance in downtown Las Vegas.”
The Huntridge looms large in Las Vegas’ collective cultural history, serving as a nexus for disparate subculture scenes. It’s shown in Parkway of Broken Dreams hosting performance art, punk bands, and hip-hop acts. It turns up in 702 Unstripped as the place Dorn first encountered 5ive Finger Miscount during a pop-up art show. Even for a self-proclaimed “outsider” such as Erwin, he recognized what he calls “the cultural legacy” of the theater, and discovered a greater truth about Las Vegas that the valley’s homegrown documentarians are also trying to prove.
“Once we started talking to people, I realized how important the Huntridge was for so many in the community,” Erwin says. “Up until then, my only real experience with Las Vegas had been the Strip and the convention center. Spending time Downtown talking to people about the Huntridge has shown me that there is so much more to Las Vegas, that it is a city with a true heart and soul.”
Showing that there’s more to Vegas than the version regurgitated again and again in the pop culture strata since the days of the Rat Pack — that’s noble. That’s great. It’s something all the filmmakers I spoke with expressed. But even more urgently — especially in the case of folks such as Dorn and Gates — these films want to make sure the proper people get their due. After all, they can be easily overlooked when typical accounts of Las Vegas history focus on the usual iconic figures with big footprints: Siegel. Hughes. Wynn. Hsieh. Their transformative successes often overshadow the work of Vegas’ cultural entrepreneurs: The music nerd who borrowed twenty grand from his dad to open his dream record store in the same shopping center where he bought his first 8-track tape. The urban muralist who saw a home for artists in boarded-up railroad cottages on the wrong side of Downtown. The coffee shop owner who grew an entire community from a tiny space tucked behind a vintage clothing store. These are just a few of the people you’ll meet in these documentaries.
Considering that, the best explanation for these projects coming to fruition now is a collective need to prove not only that culture exists in Las Vegas, but, as Dorn says, “that it’s always been here.”