To live in an extreme environment, you need two things: water and adaptability. Las Vegas has learned how to not only survive, but also thrive in the relative dead center of the Mojave Desert. How do they do it? Water and adaptability.
The town got its name from the water and its fame from the extreme adaptation. The name Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”) came in 1829 after natural spring waters in the area led trader Antonio Armijo along the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles.
As for the fame, fast-forward 102 years to 1931, when construction started on the Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947) on the nearby Nevada-Arizona border a couple of years into the Great Depression, a time period that was an extreme environment in its own right. The massive project attempted to adapt the barren landscape and tame the mighty Colorado River.
What was then a small desert town of 5,000 people doubled, then quadrupled in population, with hopeful workers looking to score a job. Then came the mob. An extra 15,000 single men in a small town meant 15,000 new paychecks, and they had to spend it somewhere. New casinos and showgirl theaters, a good portion of which were funded by mafia money, were more than happy to oblige.
In 1931 came the beginning of what we know as modern-day Vegas; the city issued its first gambling license, and Fremont Street, now commonly known as “Old Strip,” was the first paved road in the city, the first casinos popping up along the street.
You can still get a taste of this early casino Vegas experience at the El Cortez (600 Fremont St., Las Vegas, 702-385-5200; elcortezhotelcasino.com). It’s the oldest continuously operating casino in the city, open since 1941 and once owned by infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel and company, who later built the famed Flamingo. It’s a rare gem that still has the iconic sound of the clank of coin-payout slot machines. Speaking of rare, you can also get a full prime rib dinner for a vintage price of $10.95. And the exterior, essentially unchanged since 1952, is resplendent in not one, but nine mid-century neon signs (not including the ones in the parking lots!).
Speaking of neon signs—and you can’t talk about old-school Vegas and not mention neon—just outside the doors of the old El Cortez is the Neon Museum, an open-air collection of authentic neon signs from bygone casinos from the Golden Age of Vegas, on display along Fremont Street and free to see in their fully restored, illuminated glory. The first restored sign erected was the giant Hacienda Horse and Rider, fittingly installed in 1996 on the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, where the “New Strip” and “Old Strip” intersect. Eight other restored signs have since been added as public art in the area, and an impressive collection of more than 200 other salvaged signs such as the iconic Stardust sign can be seen at the Neon Museum Boneyard (770 Las Vegas Blvd. N., Las Vegas, 702-387-6366; www.neonmuseum.org).
While a staggering majority of Las Vegas’ legacy signs fell victim to redevelopment, the city’s most iconic one had Lady Luck on her side and remains in the same spot since 1959 (which is technically in Paradise, as is most of the Strip). The large Googie-style sign that reads “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” was designed by Vegas native Betty Willis for Western Neon (5200 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas).
While many of the watering holes of early Vegas have long since dried up, thankfully a handful remain. Dino’s Lounge (1516 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, 702-382-3894; dinoslv.com/new/) is a family-owned dive that proudly boasts it has been “getting Las Vegas drunk since 1962.” The street sides of the building proclaim it’s the “last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas.” It’s a classic mid-century lounge with red vinyl seating, pool tables, taxidermy, blue-screen video poker and a layer of smoke you can cut with a knife. It’s a local bar that doesn’t have the offbeat tourist appeal of, say, the Double Down, but rather it’s more the type of place where you can still catch a few old timers who’ve been going to the joint since it opened onstage crooning to karaoke as if the Rat Pack were back. (Check the old photo in the backroom that shows Sinatra holding a sign that reads, “Three Miles to Dino’s”.)
And no trip to Vegas is officially done right without a trip to the Peppermill (2985 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, 702-735-4177; www.peppermilllasvegas.com), which oozes kitsch from the rainbow sugar to the roller-skating-waitress-style uniforms to the indoor trees. While it’s technically from just outside the Golden Era of Vegas (hot since ’72!), the place is a total throwback; you’ll feel as if you’re in a time warp when you walk in. And when you do walk in, make sure you go straight back and behind the glass doors to the Fireside Lounge. As the Weekly’s own David C. Mau put in a previously published love letter to the Peppermill of the diner’s semi-hidden back bar room: “I don’t do cocaine, but just walking into this Scarface-ish neon booze den makes me want to dive into a mound of blow nose-first like a pit bull tearing into a Pomeranian.” Nailed it!
While it’s true what’s left of Old Vegas and the icons that gave the city the legacy it has today are drying up faster than an approaching mirage, there are still a precious few old gems to give you a glimpse of the vintage splendor now only seen as memories on old matchbook covers.
When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.