In Vegas, when things get old, we tear them down. When a show on the Strip runs its course, it closes. Businesses, restaurants, even people come and go, sometimes with little-to-no fanfare. Here, history is fleeting, and what’s seen as dated is often demolished instead of saved.
Yet traces of Southern Nevada’s past, from early 20th century promotional materials and mining prospectuses to mid-century menus and magazines, have survived, and many them are housed in one of Vegas’ hidden gems: the UNLV Special Collections.
Located on the third floor of UNLV’s Lied Library and open to the public, the Special Collections is a treasure trove of books, documents, personal papers, institutional records, photographs, periodicals, maps and oral histories, some of which is digitized and available online, and all of which tells a story about Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. It’s a place that proves history is fun as well as fascinating.
“We have what people have saved and what still exists,” says manuscript librarian Su Kim Chung, the author of Las Vegas Then and Now. Many items have been donated by individuals or their families, and while entertainment history is a key collecting area, so too are mining and gaming.
“Mining may not be as glamorous as showgirl costume design,” Chung says, “but it’s equally important.”
And when it comes to gaming, UNLV has the largest collection of materials in the world, including books from the 16th century and up-to-date equity reports.
Chung is a veritable walking encyclopedia of Vegas history, and talking with her is both fun and informative. On this day she’s agreed to be my guide through a world of vintage periodicals, location files for the movie Casino and Las Vegas promotional materials from the early 20th century. These items hold clues to Vegas’ past, for anyone willing to look, listen and learn.
Few people would recognize the Las Vegas that existed in 1914. There were no casinos, poker chips or neon. Instead, there was an artesian water supply and an emphasis on agriculture. According to Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce brochures from this era, “Yes, you can grow things in the desert!” Pictures of farmers growing cantaloupes, lettuce, tomatoes and fig trees appeared frequently in promotional materials in an effort to combat the idea that the desert was a desolate and inhospitable place where nothing could grow and no one could live comfortably.
“What kind of soil are you looking for? We have it in the Las Vegas Valley,” claims a brochure from 1914.
“People with limited knowledge might not know that agriculture is an important part of Vegas’ past or that there was a history before the Strip,” Chung says.
By 1924 Las Vegas had 4,000 residents, two banks, two newspapers, five churches and a modern sewer system. The Boulder Dam project had been proposed but was not yet underway, and Las Vegas was described as a “thriving railroad town,” with undeveloped land and vast mineral resources. Long before gaming and lady luck were factors, Las Vegas was already being promoted as a “land of opportunity.”
Showgirl costume designs
Jerry Jackson was the longtime director and choreographer for the legendary Folies Bergere, which ended its almost 50-year run at the Tropicana in 2009. In 2004, Chung contacted Jackson to explore the possibility of adding his production notes and elaborate costume designs to the library’s collection.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” she says about the acquisition. “I reached out when the show was still running. In 2009 when it closed, he felt it was the right time to donate.”
A designer, choreographer and composer, Jackson is a rarity in the business, a triple threat. When Chung visited him at his home in West Hollywood to pick up part of his collection, he pulled out choreography notes, stood in the kitchen and started to dance—up one two three, back one two three. For Chung, Jackson’s ability to bring his work to life added depth and context to the material—the “ideal donor experience.”
What can old menus from Las Vegas coffee shops, showrooms and buffets reveal about the past? They might evoke a longing for 10-cent cups of coffee and a slice of pie for 35 cents at the El Rancho Hotel, but they also teach us about graphic design and menu construction, as well as social and cultural history.
Take for example the Last Frontier Hotel, the second resort casino built on a young Las Vegas Strip in 1942. (The hotel also gave Vegas its first wedding chapel, the Little Church of the West.) As the name implies, it had a Western theme, which was reflected in the menu design for the Ramona Room, with an image of a covered wagon and cowboys cooking by an open fire.
In the mid-’50s, the hotel—then under new ownership—was refurbished, reopening in 1955 as the rebranded New Frontier. Gone were the Ramona Room and its Western theme; in its place was the Venus Room, with a sleek, space-age menu design signaling the “new frontier.”
While Las Vegas Weekly didn’t exist 50 years ago, other publications detailing life and culture in Las Vegas tell us a lot about the fashion, personalities and entertainment that defined the time.
Looking through old issues of Las Vegas Magazine and Las Vegas Life from the 1950s and ’60s, it’s apparent that grassroots efforts to create culture and community in Vegas are nothing new. And while the Strip was certainly an important part of the city’s identity, the emphasis wasn’t solely on entertainers or celebrities, but local artists, business people and casino workers who formed the fabric of the community. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for a casino dealer to get a shout out for catching a “string of fish from Lake Mead,” or for homes in the Downtown neighborhoods of Huntridge or Paradise Palms to be the backdrop for fashion shoots featuring prominent local women known for their charitable work.
But perhaps most significantly, Downtown Las Vegas was a vibrant hub, a center of daily life. It was the place you shopped, took your car to get fixed, dined when you went out and, importantly, lived.
Location files from the movie Casino
In 1994 when the movie Casino was filmed in Las Vegas, the production crew had the challenge of finding locations—neighborhoods, homes and hotels—that had the look and feel of the early 1970s.
The movie was filmed at 132 different locations, and location scout Maggie Mancuso was responsible for finding most of them. Mancuso donated her files to the Special Collections, including notes from her scouting trips, photographs of potential locations and even a copy of the Casino script. The files are fascinating, not only because of what they reveal about the process of scouting locations for a major Hollywood film, but because they also offer a snapshot of what Las Vegas looked like in 1994.
Now, 17 years later, Las Vegas has changed dramatically. Once-empty land has been developed, old casinos have been imploded and landmarks have been razed. The Landmark Hotel, for example, which was used for the exterior shots of the Tangiers, was imploded in 1995. The iconic Glass Pool Inn, featured in an early scene in the film, was demolished in 2004. The Casino files also contain documentation and photos of things that often get overlooked—neighborhoods, homes, restaurants and businesses—all of which contribute to the visual backdrop of Vegas as much as the shiny Strip.
“We tend to forget that history is not only what happened 30 or 40 years ago,” Chung explains, “but it’s also what happened yesterday.”
So save your theater programs, your menus, scrapbooks, business files and notes—save this magazine—because you never know what kind of clues they might one day hold to the past.