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Objects

In honor of this month’s Nevada sesquicentennial we look at … The history of NEVADA in 25 objects

It presents a curious challenge for the year that marks Nevada’s 150th birthday: Can Desert Companion reflect the story of our city and our state through objects rather than the words and deeds of people? Turns out, we can. And, as with people, selection is key: We chose these 25 items, but could have told a wholly different, equally valid story with 25 different ones, so rich is our history. For assistance, we brain-picked a dream team of historians: Dennis McBride, Claytee White, Geoff Schumacher, Bob Stoldal, Mark Hall-Patton, Danielle Kelly, Michael Green, Alan Palmer, Eugene Moehring; then we tapped our many museum curators, as well as several businesses, nonprofits and individuals. The result: this lively virtual pop-up museum that celebrates the Silver State.

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Railroad lamp

That Las Vegas exists at all has a lot to do with the railroads. After two battling railroad barons — one of them being William Clark, after whom our county is named — merged their Southwestern lines, a way station was needed. Las Vegas fit the bill, though, according to Southern Nevada: The Boomtown Years, “One can easily read in railroad correspondence J. Ross Clark’s (William’s brother and partner) lack of enthusiasm for ‘booming’ a town at Las Vegas, because he feared that land would fall into the hands of speculators.” So the railroad laid out its own town and, in the celebrated 1905 auction, sold off the lots — “mostly to real estate speculators from California” — and Las Vegas was born. — SD

 

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Paiute Basket

Though it dates from the last century, this lovely artifact reminds us of the Paiute presence in Nevada well before traders, trappers, miners, Mormons, railroaders, ranchers, mobsters and tourists showed up. But once they began — when, for instance, the Old Spanish Trail brought increasing numbers of people — it was only a matter of time until that traffic, in the words of the tribe’s website, “brought an end to the Paiutes’ free movement and traditional way of life.” Around the time this basket was created, rancher Helen J. Stewart, an admirer of the Paiutes’ desert hardiness, deeded the tribe 10 acres of her ranch. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe is still based there. — SD

1876

“Las Vegas Ranch,”
by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh

There’s a reason this painting is more at home in a history museum than an art one — it’s not a great painting. (That cowboy in the lower right — is he rolling his bedding, performing CPR or …?) But it’s the first known image of the Las Vegas Valley, painted when Dellenbaugh, a noted explorer, paused here on his way to California. This is the prelapsarian valley, well before America took notice of the place, other than the original inhabitants and the few settlers who’d tried, with varying success, to live here. It’s a place pretty much lost to our imagination now without a visual aid like this one. — SD

1955

Table knockers from the Moulin Rouge

These unusual items were used at the iconic but short-lived hotel-casino that catered to the African-American community — patrons would supplement their applause by slapping these on the tables. The casino made the cover of Life magazine with a memorably colorful photo, but the Moulin Rouge remained open less than a year. Still, its brief operating life belies its historical importance: It figures into the city’s civil rights history, and in 1960, though still closed, it was the site of the meeting that led to the overdue desegregation of the Las Vegas Strip. —SD

 

Atomic testing mannequin

Atomic testing figures into our history in any number of ways — as a vital element of national security; as a manifestation of the huge federal presence in Nevada; as the pretext for “atomic parties” in the good old days of above-ground testing, and, later, as the occasion for passionate protests; in the legacy of downwinders poisoned by the fallout. In some ways, the high stakes geopolitical gamble represented by nuclear testing harmonized with the risk mentality embodied by the Strip. Among the most eerie artifacts of that era were the mannequins that populated mock structures in the blast zone, the better to study what would happen to actual people. The existential jitters of that arrangement once prompted local artist Robert Beckmann to paint a series about those doomed fake humans. “Of course, the pathos in all the images of the mannequins follows from their being our sad surrogates in the construction of a federal ‘survival town,’” he says now. “In my paintings of them, I called them ‘kin,’ picturing them as they were carted off to what has ever after been called ‘Doomtown.’” — SD

 

Neon sign

Neon: It’s the fourth most abundant element in the universe, but for a long time, didn’t it seem as though most of it was here? Vegas didn’t invent the neon sign (representative example: Jerry’s Nugget). But this city’s sign-making artisans perfected it to such a wild, iconic degree that, in the early 1960s, Tom Wolfe was moved to note that “the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless” to describe our signage. So he tried: “Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming Alert Spiral, McDonald’s Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney.” Even though much signage has gone digital, the visual soul of Las Vegas still resides in that bright electrified gas. — SD

Chunk of imploded desert inn

Talk about the boom years! The megaresort era, launched by Steve Wynn and the Mirage in 1989, vastly increased the density, variety and bombast of the Strip, the magnitude of its spectacle and, of course, its profitability. The churn was so pronounced that French theorists and professors of urban studies went gaga, and visiting journalists referred for years to “the New Las Vegas.” But, of course, it came at the expense of the old one. From 1993 to 2007, what the New York Times Magazine termed Vegas’ “demolition bender” took out 10 aging hotel-casinos, starting with the Dunes and ending with the New Frontier. That’s modernity for you, always with the new. But with a Vegas twist: the blasts were turned into destructo-tainment spectacles, complete with audiences, special effects and TV coverage. Something about the city mulching its own history and memory in a spasm of marketing woo-woo struck many as oh-so-Vegas — a sensibility that perhaps reached its apotheosis in Kurt Andersen’s novel Turn of the Century, in which a new Vegas megaresort has a winkingly satirical lobby attraction: a holographic simulation of its eventual implosion. Boomtown, baby! — SD

 

Floor tile from Mystere

With its acrobatic intensity and dreamlike beauty, Mystère at Treasure Island inaugurated the era of resident Cirque du Soleil shows on the Strip. In place of aging comedians or crooners, Eastern European gymnasts; instead of showgirls in wowsy production numbers, supple dancers and acrobats on stage sets unlike any seen in a Vegas revue before. So vigorous were Mystère’s performances that, over its 16-year lifespan, this floor tile was repainted 90 times. —SD

 

Frangible bullet

Fired from one plane at another, these break apart on impact — they’re training rounds. They’re here to represent the massive military footprint in Southern Nevada. Gaming and hospitality usually get the credit for creating modern Las Vegas, but it’s hard to imagine the valley without the deep and wide presence of the military. — SD

 

Pawned wedding ring

This is a cautionary note for the ages: Be careful what happens in Vegas. — SD

 

Singed MGM Grandpoker chip

The catastrophic MGM fire — 85 dead — was a watershed moment for the city and its resort industry. The worst disaster in state history, it resulted in a mass of litigation; in practical terms, it (and a subsequent fire at the Las Vegas Hilton) led to much-needed reforms in fire-safety and sprinkler laws; and it remains a touchstone of memory for old-time Las Vegans. — SD

 

Miniature decorative LDS temple

The angel Moroni appears, gazing ever eastward in anticipation of the Second Coming, atop the six-spired Las Vegas temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. From those ecclesiastical heights, he has welcomed Jesus and Las Vegans alike. No kidding: Almost 300,000 of us, regardless of our faiths or lack of one, toured the building during its three-week open house in late 1989. How badly did the faithful want this temple, the first in Nevada? Asked to raise money toward its construction, local Mormons contributed $11 million, according to a church website — “428 percent of their assessment.” Among the first to attempt to live here (see the Old Mormon Fort), Mormons are now deeply woven into the city’s social fabric. — SD

 

penstock pipe, hoover dam

First thing you register: Damn, that’s a big pipe. Yes, 30 feet in diameter; it’ll help deliver water to the power plant. Then: Who are those guys? “Members of Boulder City Consulting Board and officials of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Babcock & Wilcox Co.,” according to info from the Bureau of Rec. Then, in the background: Ah, Hoover Dam. That brings it all together: The imposing scale of the hardware, the drama of the men borne aloft — they signify the unimaginably huge scale of the project (fun fact: Workers had to drill 16,000 feet of tunnels, 50 feet wide, before they could start building the actual dam; picture that if you can), as well as its immeasurably large social, economic and human impact. Modern Southern Nevada simply wouldn’t exist without it. — SD

 

King Looey bric-a-brac

The mid-’90s saw some Las Vegas properties adopt an ill-advised “family friendly” posture, represented here by a slice of kitsch from the long-gone MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park. Upsized arcades, fun designed for the kids … it didn’t last, a casualty of the “What happens here” era. — SD

 

Filing cabinets, Las Vegas News Bureau

In these drawers reside the big picture of modern Las Vegas, pixilated into approximately 5 million individual photos touting casino openings, showgirl appearances, celebrity comings and goings and thousands of long-forgotten civic events — images dispatched into the world to keep Vegas fizzing in the public mind. —SD

2012

Model of The Smith Center

Consider the architectural model. Although it’s a real object itself, at the time of its creation it doesn’t yet represent a real thing — the project hasn’t been built. So the model is more like ... a promise. A huge one, in the case of The Smith Center. Once completed, the building proposed by this model would become the city’s largest, most substantial counter-argument to the grimly persistent view of Las Vegas as a cultural wasteland. Of course, over the years a lot of people worked gamely to dispel that perception, notwithstanding the long list of arts orgs that didn’t make it. But The Smith Center is different: It is, recognizably, a big-city music hall, an irrefutable cultural achievement. As such, it now ably anchors those rebuttals. No, they’re not holding Beckett festivals in it. But Philharmonic shows and Book of Mormon aren’t a bad substitute. — SD

 

Liberace’s shoe

Screams “Liberace,” doesn’t it? And “Las Vegas,” too. “It is in Las Vegas that Liberace reached the pinnacle of his entertainment career,” cultural critic Eric Leake wrote in 2009. “Las Vegas is also a city associated with extravagance, mass and popular culture, ‘bad taste’ and the idea of personal reinvention, all ideas associated with Liberace.” This glitzed-out footwear takes us back to an older idea of only-in-Vegas entertainment. That’s why Liberace’s represented in these pages rather than Elvis or Sinatra. Those entertainers belonged to the world; Liberace belonged to Vegas. (Close second: Wayne Newton.) — SD

 

Spago menu

There were fine restaurants in Las Vegas before Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars, and those pioneering chefs deserve a shout out. But in retrospect, Spago was the trendsetter that eventually begat resorts packed with celebrity kitchen wizards, the rise of destination restaurants and a thorough, ongoing revolution in the city’s culinary life. — SD

 

Show Boat costume from “Hallelujah Hollywood”

Oh, the things dancers endure for their art. Take, for instance, this Show Boat costume, one of four similar getups used from 1974 to 1980 in a show called “Hallelujah Hollywood” at the then-MGM Grand (now Bally’s). The boat costumes weighed less than you’d think looking at this one (15-20 pounds), but were so unwieldy that they had to be hung from the rafters backstage and lowered via rope-and-pulley onto pre-coiffed and -accessorized performers, who could then do little more than walk on stage, make a few twirls and walk back off. But the costumes’ cumbersomeness was part of their over-the-top appeal, serving as the finale’s piece de résistance. Bob Mackie designed them to be worn by African-American dancers as an homage to the original 1927 Broadway
musical that tackled some heavy themes, including racial prejudice. So, the topless show boats are the quintessential Strip symbol: a kernel of American truth wrapped in a thick layer of Vegas glam. — HK

 

Mining hoist

Really, any piece of mining equipment would suffice, from helmet to pickaxe, such is the absolute historical and economic importance of mineral extraction to Nevada. From the iconic Comstock Lode up north to the Johnnie mine near Pahrump (left), it created fortunes in Nevada, as well as boomtowns, ghost towns — and both a still-vital (and constitutionally protected) industry, and an ongoing debate about its role in meeting the state's funding issues.  — SD

 

Roof tile

Red terra-cotta roof tiles and taupe artificial stucco are the unofficial team colors for the powerful building and development industry in Las Vegas, an industry that helped the metropolitan population double every 15 years for much of the 20th century. Sprawling residential developments, strip malls and office complexes usually followed similar patterns, including materials and coloring, leading to some complaints of “sameness” by a few malcontents, but even though the pace of growth dramatically slowed after the real-estate-finance collapse and recession of 2008, people still move into those properties. And growth, as well as the spread of red roof tiles, has picked up again in Las Vegas. — LR

 

Mid-1980s (approximately)

Horseshoe owner Benny Binion was a core enigma of Vegas — a Texas bruiser with a deadly streak reinvented as an avuncular burgher of postwar Sin City who, as you can see above, more or less had his face on his own money. (Read Doug Swanson’s new bio, Blood Aces, reviewed in these pages last month.) One of many people over the years who have laundered their pasts here, the onetime Texas gangster founded the World Series of Poker, which would go on to add considerably to the city’s mystique and appeal. He epitomizes the phrase, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” Extra cool points: This chip was owned by yet another old-Vegas legend, Jackie Gaughan, whose face was on some El Cortez chips. — SD

 

Culinary Union protest sign

When visitors hear the word “culinary,” they’ll probably think of Strip restaurants and fancy kitchens. When the word is used by locals, they’re probably referring to the region’s most powerful union and its celebrated bargaining unit, Culinary Local 226. The union’s history is the story of war, ongoing in some cases, with powerful casino and entertainment companies (such as the long, contentious Frontier strike, memorialized at left); as well as cooperative peace, often, with other powerful industry giants. Other memorable union actions in Vegas include a musician’s strike in the late 1980s, and, in 1977, the murder of union president Al Bramlet. He was found dead in the desert, the victim, allegedly, of mob interests. His body’s outstretched arm and clenched fist became known as the “Bramlet salute” in labor-organizing circles. Amid such colorful history, union activity in Las Vegas has ensured many stable, well-paying jobs. No wonder this has been called “the most unlikely union town in America.” — LR

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

A scalding, hilarious classic that, in the words of one cultural critic, “framed how thinking people thought about Las Vegas” for years. Unthinking people, too: It established the desirability of, and the template for, the debauched, over-the-top Vegas experience — which is to say, it was marketing gold — when The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis was still a toddler. — SD

 

Ceramic flamingo from the opening of the Flamingo

Over the years, Las Vegas casino openings have been momentous affairs, featuring lavish culinary spreads, marquee entertainers and gaggles of gamblers queued for a shot at what they believe are unusually loose slot machines.

The tradition started almost 70 years ago, on Dec. 26, 1946, when Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the handsome hoodlum with anger-management issues, organized a big party to mark the opening of his Flamingo Hotel. Siegel had a grand vision for an unforgettable evening, but it didn’t unfold as he had hoped.

Siegel invited all of Hollywood royalty. More might have come, but storms drenching Los Angeles grounded Siegel’s chartered plane. Another impediment was newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who spread the word that he frowned on entertainment types associating with Siegel.

It wasn’t a shutout on the celebrity front. Some second-tier stars, such as Siegel’s actor-buddy George Raft, showed up, as did the evening’s entertainment lineup, led by Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat’s band and a young singer named Rose Marie (who may be best remembered today for her long-term occupancy of the upper-center square on Hollywood Squares).

People were impressed with the elegant Flamingo, and they enjoyed taking home a ceramic pink flamingo as a memento of the historic occasion. But the lackluster opening-night guest list was only the beginning of Siegel’s troubles. First, under pressure from partners who wanted to start seeing a return on their investments, he moved up the opening by several months. As a result, when the evening’s festivities wound down, everybody piled into their cars and left — the Flamingo’s hotel rooms weren’t ready yet. Instead, the guests bedded down a few blocks up the road at the Last Frontier and El Rancho Vegas.

And, unfortunately for Siegel, a lot of gamblers left the Flamingo very happy, because they had enjoyed an unexpected string of luck at the tables. Against the odds, at Siegel’s Flamingo the house did not win.

The Flamingo’s rotten luck continued through New Year’s, and then the visitor counts nosedived in January, as they used to do in Las Vegas. The Flamingo was tanking. Toward the end of the month, Siegel temporarily closed the resort.

With 100 hotel rooms and some fresh promotional schemes, courtesy of new publicist Hank Greenspun, the Flamingo reopened in March. Siegel saw improved returns, but by then his debts were piled so high that it was difficult to feel the tide had turned.

Siegel knew he was testing the patience of his gangster friends, but apparently he underestimated the level of their frustration. In June, he planned to meet up with his two daughters, who were traveling by train from New York to Los Angeles, and take a vacation with them in Canada. On June 20, he flew to L.A. and took a cab to girlfriend Virginia Hill’s house in Beverly Hills. That evening he was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when a hail of .30-caliber bullets came through the window. Nine shots were fired. Four of them hit Siegel, one taking out his left eye. He died at age 41. According to neighbors, two guys jumped into a car and sped away.

Siegel’s murder remains unsolved, but police investigators, journalists and historians have made the case for half a dozen scenarios. The most famous is that the Commission, the secret committee of organized crime bosses, met in 1946 in Havana, Cuba, to, among other things, discuss what to do with Siegel, who, many of them believed, was out of control. The Commission decided it was time for Siegel to go, and assigned the job to the Chicago mob. Chicago, in turn, gave the assignment to Los Angeles mob boss Jack Dragna, who hired the assassins.

A very different storyline involves Virginia Hill. There’s no question Siegel and Hill had a combustible relationship that often resulted in shouting matches and Hill throwing things. In this version, Hill’s brother, Chick, who was upstairs in the house when Siegel was killed, was behind the hit, fed up with Siegel’s abuse of his sister.

No matter who pulled the trigger, it’s clear that Siegel’s reckless spending on the Flamingo and his megalomania put him in a precarious position. As a former hit man, he probably should have recognized that he could push his partners only so far.

Back in Las Vegas, with Siegel out of the picture, the mob put some more experienced operators in charge of the Flamingo, and it eventually became one of the great iconic Las Vegas resorts. Today, the Flamingo retains a prominent place on the Strip skyline.

Since his death, Bugsy Siegel has become a larger-than-life character, an admixture of myth and reality. Some have dubbed him the “founding father” of Las Vegas, which is ridiculous, while others have sought to diminish his pivotal role in the city’s history. In the end, he had one good idea, and his determination to see it realized is creditable. But Siegel, a career criminal and cold-blooded killer, deserves no pedestal.

Geoff Schumacher is director of content for the Mob Museum

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)
Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.