Las Vegas Celebrates its Centennial Since its humble origins in a 1905 land auction, the city of Las Vegas has grown from a two-track railroad junction town to a metropolis of nearly two million people, and has become an American cultural touchstone, for better or worse.
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Las Vegas Celebrates its Centennial

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Las Vegas Celebrates its Centennial

Las Vegas Celebrates its Centennial

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

On Sunday, Las Vegas will officially be 100 years old. It may surprise you that the city actually has a history. It's better known for exploding the old to make way for the new. And Las Vegas doesn't seem like the kind of place to get misty-eyed over its past. DAY TO DAY sent Madeleine Brand to Vegas to find its history, and here's what she found.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Most cities have a well-worn story about how they began. Think Manhattan bought for $24 or Los Angeles starting out as a Spanish pueblo. And Vegas--well, you've got this.

This looks like a parking barrier. What would you even call this? This looks like a block of cement.

Mr. MICHAEL GREEN (Las Vegas Historian): It really is just a block of cement.

BRAND: That's the historic marker commemorating the day in 1905 when 110 acres of land were auctioned off by the railroad and the city was born. Las Vegas historian Michael Green and I are standing in front of the marker. It's on a sidewalk in between a run-down casino and a scruffy McDonald's a block away from the Greyhound bus station downtown. You really have to make an effort to, A, find it and, B, actually read it, the type is so small.

This is the founding of Las Vegas right here, and I would wager--if I may; I'm in Las Vegas--that nine out of 10 people have no idea what this is. And even after reading it, they would have no idea what this is.

Mr. GREEN: I'd be willing to bet higher.

BRAND: And, Green adds, not only do they have no idea, they probably don't care. But at least one man does: Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas.

Mayor OSCAR GOODMAN (Las Vegas): I represent the history of Las Vegas.

BRAND: Goodman is a mob laywer turned politician. He represented gangster Meyer Lansky in the 1960s. Now he trots around the country with his own showgirl and Elvis impersonator. He knows how to put on a good show. Here he is on the phone with the mayor of Miami when we arrived to interview him.

(Soundbite of phone call)

Mayor GOODMAN: I was the first politician to engage in a Playboy photo shoot. I had my own Playmate, two weeks ago, absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.

BRAND: Goodman says he's the happiest mayor in the universe and, yes, he thinks it's important to honor the past, but the sexy past, the past that can entertain tourists and make the city some money. So to that end, he's pushing for a mob museum or a mobseum, as he calls it. In Las Vegas, history is entertainment and entertainment is history.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas.

Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Author, "Fabulous Las Vegas in the '50s"): The most significant piece of history in Las Vegas is Elvis and Liberace, and even more so Liberace, because he has his own museum.

BRAND: Charles Phoenix is the author of "Fabulous Las Vegas of the '50s." He's an expert on Vegas culture.

Mr. PHOENIX: By the way, Las Vegas is `kulture' with a K, as in kitsch. It is `klass' with a K, as in kitsch.

BRAND: And now we are going to one of those places. We're going to go to the Liberace Museum, which has all your K-words in it and then some.

Mr. PHOENIX: Yes, and including `kween.' Yes, it is. Elvis is "The King" of Las Vegas and Liberace's the queen.

BRAND: `Kween' with a K. Let's go.

Mr. PHOENIX: `Kween' with a K, right.

(Soundbite of vehicle doors)

BRAND: On the way, we drive past some other significant `kulture'-with-a-K spots.

Mr. PHOENIX: We're right in front of the Frontier Hotel, which is on the site of the original Frontier, which is one of the first resort casinos on the Strip, built in 1942. All the casinos were kind of that Western theme, and it wasn't until 1946, when Bugsy Siegel came along; he brought in that kind of Miami Beach glamorous, Hollywood glamorous motif in the Flamingo, which is another hotel from the early days which still exists here on the Strip, yet bears, of course, not a--there's no resemblance to the early days.

BRAND: We pass the casinos of the '70s, '80s and '90s, pirates, tigers and mini cities each more outrageous than the last. And so when we drive off the strip and find the Liberace Museum in a run-down mini mall, it's a bit underwhelming.

Mr. PHOENIX: It's just too much. Wow!

BRAND: Once inside, Liberace comes alive, at least on video.

(Soundbite of video)

LIBERACE: I am not the greatest pianist in the world. There certainly are greater virtuosos than I. (Singing) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places...

BRAND: Liberace was the first megastar in Vegas. When he opened at the Riviera Hotel in 1955, he was the highest-paid performer, earning $50,000 a week. Until his death in 1987, he was Vegas' top draw. Legions of fans came to see him in his jewel-encrusted outfits. The most flamboyant cost $750,000.

Ms. CHRISTINE PHILLIPS (Tour Guide, Liberace Museum): That costume has 40,000 Swarovski crystals, two and a half carats each.

BRAND: Christine Phillips is one of the tour guides at the museum. They are all elderly women who adore Liberace without a trace of irony.

Ms. PHILLIPS: And this costume used to be very ice-blue. It's faded a lot. And we call this BC; that was before capes. We have three costumes that are BC. Now he has a big cape that is very heavy, but it's being cleaned. But this was actually made before the capes.

BRAND: Do you think Las Vegas is remembering him, remembering him properly?

Ms. PHILLIPS: Oh, there's not enough, no. They're too much into the stars today. And most people, young people, don't know what he--who he was; Liberace (pronounced lee-bur-AYSS), they say. But you know, one day about a year ago, we got one guy who was a black hip-hop kid. He came in this museum because he thought it was a casino, and we took him by the hand and made him see the museum, and he loved it. He loved it. So we said, `Go tell your friends so your generation can know who it is, too.'

BRAND: The Queen of Bling. "The King," though, is alive and well. Downtown at the decidedly unglitzy Plaza Hotel, Elvis performs four days a week.

Mr. JOHNNY THOMPSON (Elvis Impersonator): I've been performing as Elvis about eight years full-time, maybe nine, and originally started about 12 years ago.

BRAND: That's Johnny Thompson. He's dyed his blond hair back and wears mascara and a white jumpsuit called the `aloha from Hawaii' jumpsuit. That's the Elvis with the sideburns, big sunglasses, the past-his-prime Elvis.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, originally when I came to the Plaza, they were talking about putting me in the showroom, and since then, they've had a change of plans, so I'm still hoping to go in there one day, but if not, this is the lounge.

BRAND: Oh.

Mr. THOMPSON: This lounge here is the Omaha Lounge. Right.

BRAND: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, this is the first time I've ever played the lounge. I mean, I've really headlined in concerts and I've played NFL games where, you know, there was a hundred thousand people. And this is the first time I've done something like this.

BRAND: Can you give us a little sample?

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete and I love you so.

Was that good?

BRAND: That was Elvis.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

BRAND: Downtown may still love "The King," but the Strip has moved on. The $2.7 billion Wynn Hotel has just opened--oh, and it's also a casino, but that seems like an afterthought. Last year in Vegas, tourists spent more money on shows, food and shopping than on gambling. So when you enter the Wynn, the first thing you see is upscale boutiques: Chanel, Christian Dior and Jean-Paul Gauthier.

Mr. PHOENIX: The theme of the Wynn is luxury. That's the new buzzword in Las Vegas is luxury. Theme is, like, '90s, you know. It's like we're not going to say themed environment anymore; luxurious environment. It's--you know, we're richer, we're bitcher.

BRAND: (Laughs)

And Charles Phoenix, expert on all things Vegas with a V, takes one look at the imported hydroponic forest in front of the Wynn and pronounces the one takeaway image is this.

Mr. PHOENIX: Palm trees are out; pine trees are in.

BRAND: (Laughs)

Mr. PHOENIX: Wait, am I right or wrong? Look over there.

BRAND: You're so right.

Mr. PHOENIX: Do you see that?

BRAND: It's all pine trees.

Mr. PHOENIX: It's pine trees, pine trees. How fresh!

BRAND: In other words, Vegas is remaining true to its past in one enduring way: It is still decadent. Happy birthday, Las Vegas. Madeleine Brand, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

LIBERACE: (Singing) ...at the moon, but I'll be seeing you.

CHADWICK: That report produced by Shereen Meraji. For pictures of Madeleine's adventures in Vegas--Shereen took them--visit our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More DAY TO DAY just ahead.

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