10 More Cultural Touchstones for Growing Up in Las Vegas (or Touchstones Version 2.0)

Michael T. Toole

I did a cover story three years ago about growing up in Las Vegas (Cultural Touchstones of the ’70s and ’80s). I got a considerable amount of feedback on it, and there isn’t a month that goes by where I’m not in a pub or some party and that piece doesn’t become the mood breaker for people to approach me about their own Vegas childhood. So after years of the collective cry from readers for a follow-up to that piece, I now give you a list of warmly remembered, RIP establishments that made a worthy go for our memories.

1) Seeing Six Movies for the Price of One at the Red Rock 11

Located on Charleston Boulevard just west of Decatur, this was Las Vegas’ first friendly multiplex movie house. Established in 1973, (when it was the Red Rock 4 prior to expansion), the Red Rock was from the era when theaters belonged to neighborhoods and not casinos (anyone out there remember the Cinedome or Maryland Parkway 3?). And what I loved about the Red Rock was what anyone else who went there loved about it; they had the laziest movie ushers around. That said, it wasn’t uncommon to see seven movies for the price of one, jumping from screen to screen without anyone questioning your devious moves. Add to the fact that the now defunct bar, The Rice Paddy, was the place to buy cans and cans of beer that you could stuff in your backpack and piss the night away while watching anything from Child’s Play to mindless Steven Segal action movies, and your Saturday was pretty much planned. Such were the days.

2) The Rocky Horror Festival at the Huntridge Theatre

In January 1981, geekfest in a sanctioned form hit Las Vegas. For so many of the city’s 40-somethings who grew up here, The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the (now dormant) Huntridge Theater was the start of a pleasant memory for so many of them. It marked arguably the first time that Las Vegas youth, no matter how nebbish, had a youth culture lynchpin to rally around that wasn’t sponsored by any, and I use the term loosely, agents of social control (a state, city or county sanctioning). The Rocky Horror experience, complete with make-up, fancy dress, and out-of-tune sing-alongs, only lasted for a few months, but at least it proved that kids who grew up here were savvy enough to ride a good cult item when its popularity was peaking.

3) Rock Avenue on KUNV

This was the one item missing from my old list that got most people asking me “how could you leave off ...?” The answer is simple, I felt it had been over-referenced by many respected commentators over the years (P.J. Perez, Dayvid Figler, etc.) that I felt it would have been redundant. Still, as many readers point out, newbies are spilling into our city everyday, and a list is still a list. Well then, I give you “Rock Avenue,” a definite cornerstone in the valley for well over decade. From the early ’80s to the mid ’90s, “Rock Avenue,” broadcasted from KUNV, UNLV’s campus radio station, was easily the most cherished radio program for at least two generations of kids who grew up reading about the latest alternative bands in Trouser Press or New Musical Express, which incidentally, you could have read at Tower Records awesome magazine selection at the time.

It was on weekdays from 11pm until 10 in the morning, making it the perfect program to listen to when crashing from a late-night study session or sleeping in on a day you wanted to ditch class. We heard it all, the Misfits, Ministry, the Damned, Mother Love Bone, Joy Division, the Shoes, and the list went on and on. Sadly, even though Extreme 108 makes a game effort to supply some different sounds to the city, it doesn’t have the freshness, unpredictability or off-key banter that made “Rock Avenue” such an eclectic blast of pointed irrelevance.

4) J-Mar Records (1982)

This hip haven of a record store located on the southeast corner of Sahara and Maryland, was a cultural treasure trove for those who enjoyed the effort of searching for a rare 45 or LP. J-Mar, which started in 1982 by James and Mary Leitch, was truly the first, expansive used record store in town. J-Mar had a wonderful selection of classic rock, jazz, blues, and even reggae. Later on, they expanded to comics, old Rolling Stone issues, and even pop lunch pales from the ’60s and ’70s. Sadly, the owners of J-Mar were accused of accepting hot goods in October 1999, and LVMPD confiscated a good portion of the store. Despite the protest of the owners, they never really recovered after the accusations, and sadly, they closed for good around 2000. ’Tis a shame.

5) Clown Alley Pie and Ice Cream Shop

This place, which was located on the corner of Charleston and Valley View, remains my most haunting Vegas childhood hangout. I didn’t go there often, but when I did, it was both playful and idiosyncratic. Clown Alley not only had some fine ice cream, but it was loaded with so much activity that a strobe light seemed lifeless by comparison. Among the pleasures: a smart and effervescent decor scheme. Full of clowns and winsome circus colors (whites, pinks and blues), a caricaturist on the weekends, balloon makers, and best of all, the latest video games like Pac Man, Space Invaders and my favorite, Frogger -- at least it was a step up from Pong. It wasn’t around for too long, my research had it in existence from 1979-81 (anyone out there who wants to contradict me feel free), but it’s the most far out, surrealistic memory I have of Vegas yesteryear.

6) Music Videos on Channel 21 (1984)

Long before it was KVMY, or KUPN it was KRLR television, and from 1984-86, it was a small indie station that carried the moniker “Vusic 21” that played nothing but music videos. Granted, the selection was small, and they played “Ghostbusters” way more than the video gods ever intended, but it was certainly intriguing, with bands like Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, New Order and the Smiths playing on heavy rotation. Groundbreaking? Hardly, but if you couldn’t afford cable, it passed the time nicely. Like most good things, it didn’t last too long and by 1986 KRLR started playing cartoons and “Vusic 21” was over. The poor man’s “120 minutes?” Fine, but at least it was free and a little edgier than “Friday Night Videos.”

7) Jai-Alai at the MGM

Apart from a scene in the cult flick “Tron” (1982) and a brief glimpse in the opening montage credits for Miami Vice very few of you may have been exposed to Jai Alai. Yet for those of us that lived here in the ’70s, we had the opportunity to watch it for a few years at the MGM Grand Hotel, and the sport truly ruled proverbial ass.

For a briefer, this was the sport. Of Basque origin, it gained popularity in Cuba in the early in the 20th century. It’s similar to handball or racquetball, played with two to four players with each player holding a curved, throwing instrument strapped to their wrist (a cesta). From there, the participants must bounce the ball off a front wall (a frontis) with enough velocity and spin to prevent the opponent from retrieving it. It may sound complicated, but the result was some amazing, eye-popping gymnastics complete with backflips, splits, behind the back saves all performed at a hyperventilating clip. It lasted until the early ’80s when it wasn’t bringing in the audience and therefore wasn’t earning the money. Still, there hasn’t been a sport nearly as stylishly different as Jai Alai that has graced the city since.

8) Howard Hughes Using Late-Night KLAS Movie Schedule as His Own Personal VCR

Only recently were my warped childhood memories confirmed when a friend told me about this one! KLAS-TV was, from 1968 until his death in 1976, owned by billionaire Howard Hughes. On the one hand, late night viewing was sort of a kick since Hughes had a great collection of RKO films (since he did own the studio) that included some fine film noir pieces like Out of the Past (1947) and His Kind of Woman (1951). However, it was offset by the fact that a scene would repeated various times throughout the viewing or sometimes, just switch to another film entirely. Apparently Hughes had insomnia and he had a habit of tuning out during the run of the films, so he had a minion call up the station and have them rebroadcast certain scenes, or change the scheduling on a whim. As the station’s former General Manager Mark Smith explained on the station’s website:

“It was kind of a ‘little theatre’ all for him ... I'm sure there were some very confused viewers out there.” No kidding. Let’s us all thank Mr. Hughes for the lesson in film continuity.

9) Live PBA broadcasts from the Showboat Bowling Center

To many of you, bowling may not come across as the most exciting of spectator sports, but it’s possible you doubters would have changed your minds if you had attended the Showboat Invitational at the Showboat Hotel. Formerly located on Boulder Highway just east of Fremont Street, the Showboat had a great bowling alley, 106 lanes in all, and the Invitational, a PBA sanctioned event, was held annually from 1960 until 2000. The annual live broadcast every year that brought people out in droves who wouldn’t miss the stars from the PBA tour like Dick Weber, Carmen Salvino, Earl Anthony and Bill Allen.

How much did the spectators enjoy the sport? Enough not to give up their seats at the makeshift bleachers that were brought for the telecast, and this is where my fondness for the Invitational kicks into high gear. I was a fourth grader in the audience hanging around when a gray-haired, heavy-set, mustached man named “Chuckster” asked me if I would make a beer run for his buddies and him.

“I don’t think I can do that sir, I’m under ...”

“Oh hell, they don’t care, our pickled livers keep that g*ddamn bar afloat anyways!”

It made sense at the time.

“Here’s a twenty, go to it and keep the change.”

I pocketed $28 that afternoon. I was definitely a fan of the Showboat Invitational after that. And rest assured, when they had a Senior Invitational, and the Doubles Classic complete with camera crews, I was there. Too bad they didn’t hold them with more frequency -- I could have quit my paper route.

10) Gus Giuffre

He was “Gentleman Gus” to a lot of us and if any one name can conjure up a wealth of Vegas memories for the city’s long-term residents, it’s Gus. He was a popular television personality whose history with the city goes back to the embryotic days of our city’s electronic media. Having relocated here in 1952, he got his first radio job for KRAM before being the first news anchor the following year at KLAS, Vegas’ first television station. Over the years, Gus found his niche hosting a late night movie show at KLAS, and later in the ’70s, the afternoon movie on KVVU, (where my first recollections of the man began), car dealership pitchman and doing live interviews with participants at the San Gennaro festival.

If there’s a reason that Gus can still haunt our minds in a minor key, is that his gentle baritone, casual manner and glib wit made him avuncular in the least maudlin sense of the word. His presence simply wouldn’t rile you. This was exemplified by the fact that, as a kid, I saw him at numerous retail shops: Wonder World, Von Tobel’s Hardware, Vegas Village, Zodys, etc., and he was easily the most approachable local celebrity Vegas ever knew. You’d recognize Gus: complete with Bolo tie and cigarette jutting out of his lower lip he would be willing to chat with anyone that came up to him. In a nutshell, Gus had old-school class, and when he passed away from a heart ailment in 1989 at the age of 69, you sensed the loss when all the local broadcasters announced it on the air.

If you folks want to walk down memory lane some more, here's a link to the cover story from August 2004:


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