Las Vegas can soon consume you within its whirling, swirling haze of non-stop gratification. But beyond the blaze of temptations bracketing the Las Vegas Strip, I ventured north to Fremont Street and the Downtown district, to dip into the Vegas of old, in search of the city’s heritage and golden age character. Fremont is the storied cradle of Las Vegas, it’s where the city was established in 1905, spawning the first hotels and splashes of neon.
112 years old, the Golden Gate is the city’s oldest hotel, at the head of Fremont Street and holding the distinction of introducing Vegas to the shrimp cocktail in 1959, which remains an iconic seller at Du-par’s Restaurant, just off the casino floor. Encased within a soaring barrel vault canopy that stretches for four blocks, a cluster of old-style casino hotels including the Golden Nugget, Four Queen’s, California and Binion’s flank the Fremont Street Experience.
Betty Binion was quite the trail-blazer, introducing seating and carpets to casinos. She also pioneered the insidious allure of complimentary drinks for casino patrons. Within this pedestrianised promenade is also where you’ll find the legendary neon cowboy, Vegas Vic and his cowgirl, Vegas Vicki, who was previously called Sassy Sally. The street erupts into techni-coloured excess from dusk, with the Viva Vision sound and light extravaganza, powered by 12 million LED lamps and 220 speakers.
The latest addition is SlotZilla, a mind-blowing zipline ride, tearing above the full length of the street, 12 storeys high, after hurtling out of the world’s largest slot machine. I was happy just to watch. From there I grazed from the Cultural Corridor, the city’s heritage precinct which is continuing to flourish. Liberace, the king of bling, is the latest to be immortalised in the precinct with a dedicated collection of his luxury cars now joining the Hollywood Cars Museum.
Liberace’s favourite Rolls-Royces are in good company. Exhibits include the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” Herbie the Love Bug, five James Bond cars including the Lotus Esprit submarine car, the coffin dragster from “The Munsters,” General Lee from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and KITT from “Knight Rider.” Bygone Vegas is also vividly illustrated in the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a glittering collection of costumes, stage props and show memorabilia from the past century.
I also headed to the Mob Museum, for an enlightening warts-and-all look at the ruthless world of organised crime, which, at times, has engulfed Las Vegas. The city’s culture of vice was established by the Mafia, before J. Edgar Hoover was persuaded that the mob’s multi-state tentacles had to be confronted. The most sobering but engrossingly macabre feature is the photographic gallery of mob killings, which leave nothing to the imagination.
Next up, head to the Neon Museum and Boneyard, for an intimate stroll through Las Vegas history. Dedicated to saving and preserving vintage neon signs, there’s currently over 200 signs in their stash – many of which graced legendary establishments. Riddled with fascinating anecdotes, volunteer guides will lead you through the open-air exhibition space, which only opened 3 years ago.
Mark guided me through this treasure chest of Sin City symbols, unfurling a spree of fascinating factoids and stories related to the signs and the people behind them. If you’ve ever wondered who designed the globally recognised Welcome to Las Vegas sign, it was a creative woman called Betty Willis. The city mourned her passing last year, at the age of 92.
The legendary designer created a vast array of fabled skyline emblems and frequently visited the Neon Museum, to admire her retired creations, like the delightfully cursive Moulin Rouge sign. Stand-out specimens include the signage from the Stardust, Sahara and Desert Inn. All of the signs are donated and salvaged from properties, prior to their demolition. It’s a photographic feast. www.neonmuseum.org
For another flavourful scoop of Viva Las Vegas heritage, I ventured out to Casa De Shenandoah, the staggering estate of Wayne Newton. Described by Entertainment Tonight as “The Smithsonian of Sin City,” it’s only been open to the public since September. Most Americans know Wayne Newton as “Mr Las Vegas”, an old-school entertainer who performed alongside the Rat Pack, Nat King Cole and Elvis, and at last count has clocked up over 30,000 live shows in Sin City.
Newton established his ranch in 1966, which has grown from its formative 5 acres to 52 acres today. Tours feature his enduring passion for Arabian horse breeding (there’s currently 61 horses on site), his magnificent luxury car collection, his personal museum and a walk through the family mansion, which he only stopped living in 2 years ago. Lavishly furnished in Louis XV- period style, I drooled over his magnificent antiques and the 24-carat gold gilding that decorates the capitals’ of the mansion’s columns.
A highlight is the dining room, with its Carpathian Elm wood panelled ceiling. 7 American presidents, Michael Jackson and Elvis have all been dinner guests. Outside the mansion, a baby Bellagio fountain is choreographed to his own hit songs, like Danke Schoen and Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast. Notes from presidents, personalised gifts from music demi-gods, memorabilia from his A-lister pals and show costumes fill the cabinets of his museum.
He considered Bobby Darin “the brother I never had”, and he still proudly wears a bowtie Bobby gave him to every major opening or event. Poignantly, there’s a hand-written letter from a clearly distressed Elvis, scrawled across Hilton Hotel-embossed paper, just months before his death. Parked up behind cherry-panelled garage doors, his luxury car collection includes Rollers that he bought off Johnny Cash, Paul Newman and Liberace. Casa de Shenandoah, just minutes from the strip, embodies Newton’s star-power, and provides a personable, tactile and quite stirring insight into the golden age of Sin City. www.casadeshenandoah.com
If you’re mulling over what shows to see on the Las Vegas strip, nostalgia-buffs should definitely plump for Vegas! The Show. It’s now been running for five years, intertwining a wonderful monologue with a feast of signature musical hits synonymous with Las Vegas.
The high-octane extravaganza starts on a poignant note with Ernie, a caretaker at the Neon Museum, reflecting on the golden age of Las Vegas. What ensues is a 75 minute song and dance blockbuster from 40 performers, including sizzling renditions of show standards from Elvis, the Rat Pack and Tony Bennett.
This grand-scale revue, including showgirls and a big band orchestra, weaves together the stories of the most influential names in show-biz who made Las Vegas the Entertainment Capital of the World. Staged at Planet Hollywood’s Saxe Theatre, it’s a must-see. www.vegastheshow.com
By Mike Yardley.