[Our Metropolis] History lesson

Friends of Classic Las Vegas have many stories, including who really started Las Vegas.

John Katsilometes

This is an excerpt from the radio show Our Metropolis, a half-hour issues and affairs program that airs Tuesdays at 6 p.m. on KUNV 91.5-FM and is hosted by the Greenspun Media Group’s John Katsilometes. Tune in next week to hear the rest of this interview with Las Vegas historian Lynn Zook of the nonprofit organization Friends of Classic Las Vegas (for information, go to

Tell us about the Friends of Classic Las Vegas. How did it begin, and how did you get involved?

The Friends of Classic Las Vegas is dedicated to preserving the history of Las Vegas—not just the buildings and signage of Las Vegas, but the people who help build this town as well. … I started to realize that a lot of the old-timers were passing away and taking their history with them. It became important to me to help document their stories, their memories, their photos and memorabilia so there will be a resource for the next generation. Last summer we were able to get off the ground. [Meetings] are open to the public.

You also have regular lectures and panel discussions about Las Vegas history. The next one is May 2 at Springs Preserve, and it centers on the history of Helldorado—the rodeo, parade and street fair that was discontinued a few years ago but has been revitalized. Who is going to be on that panel, and what are you going to talk about?

We’ve got Emmett Sullivan, who is the son of Mark Sullivan, who was co-founder of Helldorado Days; Rhonda Cashman Evans, who is the granddaughter of the other co-founder, Big Jim Cashman; and we’ve also got Don Payne, who is the former manager of the [Las Vegas] News Bureau and who grew up here … When I was a kid, growing up, Helldorado was a really big deal. You went and got your Helldorado clothes so you could go to school dressed up for the event. But once you had suburbs like Charleston Heights and Hyde Park and Paradise Palms, people started moving away from Downtown, and it became more and more difficult for Helldorado to hang on.

What was the biggest misconception about Las Vegas from the movie Bugsy?

That Bugsy Siegel had a fever dream and drove out to the desert, looked out across the great expanse of Highway 91 and decided to build a hotel there. I suspect it came as a big surprise to Billy Wilkerson’s family that Bugsy Siegel had invented all of this when Billy had actually already started to build the Flamingo when Bugsy Siegel had this fever dream and decided to become his partner. The majority of Americans believe that Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas. No, there was actually a town here and people here. It was a thriving community long before he showed up. … What he did was bring the Hollywood crowd to Las Vegas, and that made a big difference.

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