History

[Vegas on My Mind]

Unsolved Vegas mysteries: From Savoy matchbooks to Tropicana tile, the truth is out there

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Stay cheesy: This is a real ad from a 1976 issue of Sports Illustrated. Crazy, huh?

For a city as young as Las Vegas, it’s amazing how little we really know. The big things about the big people are well documented to be sure, but in their historical wake are countless minor actors, buried tales and odd mysteries.

As a journalist, I love solving these curiosities. I’ve written columns and published podcast interviews exploring the lesser-known backstories of odd bits of architecture, long-gone restaurants and otherwise anonymous players who quietly made Vegas what it is while Hughes, Kerkorian and Wynn took the glory.

All of this is why I’ve decided to ask for your help. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a set of Las Vegas mysteries that I’ve simply been unable to resolve. As you’ll see, I’ve tried all my normal journalistic keys only to come up short in my quest to liberate the truth from behind the wall of time.

Perhaps these three questions are unanswerable. But we’ll never know if I never ask.

Mystery 1: The Savoy and Bob Maheu. One Saturday six years ago, I attended the estate sale at the home of Bob Maheu, the recently deceased, longtime public face of Howard Hughes, as well as a man with ties to the FBI, CIA and an attempted assassination on Fidel Castro. I was hunting for cool Old Vegas memorabilia, which I found in the form of a signed Noël Coward at Las Vegas vinyl record and a Howard Hughes Invitational golf ball hiding in Maheu’s golf bag.

Matchbooks from the Savoy Motel

Yet it was deep in the back of a utility pantry next to the washing machine that I struck real gold: a small, unmarked cardboard box containing 40 matchbooks from the Savoy Motel “on the Strip!” as each boasted. Neither I nor any of the Vegas history buffs I knew had ever heard of the Savoy, which stood at a long-gone address of 496 W. Keno Lane “opposite Circus Circus.” An artist’s rendering shows the place as a sprawling three-story structure configured in a stretched-out M, and a tagline promises “gracious accommodations surrounded by five major casinos.”

At first I was just charmed by the discovery. But the Internet offered precious little information about the place or even precisely where it was. Not only was there no Wiki, I failed to find any photos of the Savoy. Michael Green, the local historian, was able to find one by scouring Flickr for ancient images of Circus Circus’ original Big Top tent, which was great for confirming the place actually once existed.

Yet try as I might, I cannot figure out why Maheu had this box of matchbooks. There was a time when Hughes went on a Strip buying spree, but there’s no evidence that the Savoy was among his purchases. Maheu’s son, Peter, said he thought maybe his father was friendly with “the lady who owned the place,” but the only owners I’ve found associated with the Savoy were men—Frank Fishman and Ed McSwiggan. Neither seemed to have a logical connection to Maheu or Hughes. The younger Maheu also thought Steve Wynn bought the Savoy to raze and build the Mirage, but Green and I have ascertained that a northern tower of Circus Circus actually occupies that spot.

It remains confounding. I’ve posted on various online Vegas history discussion boards, and nobody has come forward with a memory of the Savoy or any ties to Maheu. Green theorizes that perhaps he went there for a clandestine meeting, but who takes home 40 matchbooks and then tosses them in the back of a laundry-room closet?

Mystery 2: Trop tile in a house on Ottawa Drive. When my friend Amy moved into one of those funky Paradise Palms homes along the Las Vegas Golf Course a couple years ago, she was fascinated by the image embedded in the black-and-red tile of her main living room. She did a little sleuthing and figured out that it was the same as renderings of the fabulous fountains at the Tropicana Hotel that the resort used on stationery, poker chips and elsewhere.

Tropicana tile in a house on Ottawa Drive.

The curious thing is, nobody who ever owned the house on Ottawa Drive has any obvious ties to the Trop. And believe me, we’ve tried to work one out. Amy asked her landlord, but he said it’s been there since he bought the place in 2009. The original owners were Thomas and Luella Logan and they moved there in 1963, six years after the Trop opened. Did either of them work there? Not in any prominent capacity, so far as I can tell.

Perhaps, Green theorized, one of the other four subsequent owners bought the tile at an inventory auction when the Trop was undergoing one of its many renovations, thinking it would add some Vegas chic to an already-funky mid-century abode? Or maybe one of their prominent neighbors—vaunted Vegas architect Harris Sharp, boxer Sonny Liston or actress Debbie Reynolds all lived within a block—offered to hook the owners up at a block party or something?

We’re stumped. Got anything?

Mystery 3: Bicentennial-era LVCVA. This one’s less a mystery than a thirst for knowledge. Last year, I bought a 1976 issue of Sports Illustrated for my University of Michigan-obsessed husband, because it featured the Wolverines on its cover. Imagine my surprise when the inside back cover was a full-color ad paid for by the “Las Vegas Convention/Visitors Authority,” selling the destination as one offering “sophisticated pleasures and glittering elegance” that “isn’t expensive.” The ad features a well-dressed middle-aged couple holding wine goblets.

I’m dying to understand the angle, given that Vegas of the ’70s was one in which the Rat Pack had all but dispersed and fat Elvis in polyester jumpsuits was the hottest ticket around. Advertising giant R&R Partners didn’t take on the LVCVA contract until the early ’80s, so who was in charge? Whose idea was this? What other silly slogans besides “Las Vegas: The Head of the Class” did they try?

I’m not the only one bemused by this marketing approach. Green wondered if, given the city’s reputation for cheese and tackiness in that era, the ad-meisters weren’t being a little ironic there. I reached out to today’s LVCVA, but a publicist there who promised she’d get back to me never did. Maybe they don’t know.

If you know something about any of these mysteries, please email [email protected] If you don’t have a clue but wish to offer a really creative theory, I’m open to being fruitlessly entertained, too. And if you know any old-timers who might otherwise not come across this publication, by all means, ask them to take a look.

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