Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas


It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.

Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgTrWof9f8s

Words and photos © David Latta

 

Say Hello To My Little Friend: The Joy Of A Classic Car


Think of great movies and there’s often an equally great car or three associated with them. There’s Eleanor, the 1967 Shelby Mustang from Gone In 60 Seconds (the remake as opposed to the 1973 Mustang Mach 1 from the original); the 1981 DeLorean from Back To The Future; the 1977 AMC Pacer from Wayne’s World; the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine; the 1966 Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise; the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Convertible from Rain Man; and the 1968 Mini Cooper S from The Italian Job (the original rather than the supremely why-bother  remake). Even something as pedestrian as a 1979 Porsche 928 (in real life, the Porsche you have when you really want a Volvo) added a little extra something to Risky Business.

As the owner of a 1963 Cadillac, I have one notable association with Hollywood and that’s Tony Montana’s tiger-print upholstered convertible from the chain-saw-and-shower-curtain epic, Scarface. Although not one of my favourite Brian DePalma films (deferring instead to Phantom Of The Paradise and even the cinematic train wreck that is Bonfire Of The Vanities), Scarface would be so much less satisfying a homage to Titus Andronicus without Tony’s preferred choice of wheels.

Classic car owners can be a bewildering breed. What makes them eschew modern cars with their cup holders and ABS and extruded plastic aerodynamics is a matter best left for psychologists and their ilk. But there’s an immense pleasure in driving something different and rare, something out of the ordinary.

I can trace my car back to its first owner, Frederic Apcar, producer of expensive and elaborate Las Vegas extravaganzas at The Dunes casino. According to the original papers I hold, he took possession of the Cadillac, painted in Silver Mink with optional extras of bucket seats and red leather upholstery, in May 1963.

It came to Australia in 1965 and was converted to right-hand drive by Bill Buckle Motors in Brookvale, Sydney. From there, it passed through three owners before I finally took possession. I hadn’t been shopping for a Cadillac; my previous car was a 1968 Ford Galaxie and I had my heart set on a 1959 Thunderbird but it proved an elusive prize. When I found the Cadillac, an everyday driver from an owner who had two other Cadillacs including an amazing 1957 Eldorado Brougham, I knew I’d found my car.

My Cadillac is 5.7 metres long and weighs around two tonnes. It has power steering, electric windows, a back seat as big as a three-seater sofa, four ashtrays plus lighters, and a trunk larger than most granny flats.

It has never disappointed, despite the occasional and understandable difficulties associated with age and relative rarity. Parts are reasonably easy to locate and not too expensive. A trustworthy mechanic, however, is a necessity, one who understands classic cars and has a feel for their foibles.

A classic mid-century American car is a whale on wheels, a ponderous giant, powerful and strong. The sheet steel body panels broach no argument. I was once side-swiped by a taxi, which suffered severe panel damage. My Cadillac emerged with a length of crushed chrome trim along the front guard and a small section of scraped paint.

With the muted but throaty rumble of the eight-cylinder engine, I’m aware I’m not driving anything as common as a car. It’s a panoply of automotive history and demands respect in the way it’s handled.

It’s regarded with a charming reverence on the road, even from boy racers who recognise a fellow car enthusiast. Other drivers extend astounding courtesy, allowing you to merge easily (most likely because they’d rather have me in front of them than behind), fellow classic car drivers flash their lights and wave with the alacrity of members of an exclusive club.

On the expressway, the Cadillac comes into its own, burbling along quite contentedly at 120 kilometres per hour with the distinct impression there’s plenty more available if the need arises. But, as Peter Parker understood, with great power comes great responsibility. Despite the 390 cubic inch engine (equivalent to about 6.4 litres), speed is not an option. The 1963 Cadillac has drum brakes so while stopping in ideal conditions is not a problem, in the wet or on steep hills (or both) it can prove a challenge.

The one other notable problem when driving a classic car is the choice of music. In my case, I don’t bother matching the vintage; 1963 wasn’t a great year in the charts, a time of middle-of-the-road schlock (and not in a good way) largely moribund between the winter of rock’n’roll and the rejuvenating spring of the British Invasion.

On the open road, I’ll alternate between the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mink DeVille and AC/DC, Alice Cooper and Cream with a little Gram Parsons and Joe Walsh thrown in for colour. If I want to nail the decade during city driving, I’ll go for soul or rhythm and blues and such artists as Little Eva, Mary Wells, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Al Green.

The best accessory for driving is an iPod wired into the car’s sound system. Make it a 160GB and you’ll have a choice of 25,000 songs. That way, you’ll be prepared for any mood that takes you. Mick Ronson, Mott The Hoople and Edgar Winter one minute, the Partridge Family, Maureen McGovern and Tina Charles the next.

Yet, in the back of my mind, there’ll always be one question: what would Tony Montana prefer?

Words © David Latta

A Classic Link To Old-Time Las Vegas: The Dunes, Frederic Apcar and the Casino de Paris


A couple of years ago, I penned an article for Travel + Leisure magazine on one of my favourite subjects, old-time Las Vegas. It revolved around how my interest had developed after acquiring my prized 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and discovering the original owner’s name amongst a mountain of paperwork that came with the car.

The article remains one of my favourites, more so because of the opening line: “It started, as these things so often do, with a cardboard box full of crap.” The editor kept that line in, unmolested by decorum, when many others would have tossed it aside.

The Cadillac, a Detroit steel monster in gleaming Silver Mink paint, measures almost 5.7 metres long, weighs in at just over two tonnes, and has bucket seats and an interior of the most indulgent red leather. It was delivered new to its Las Vegas address in May 1963 and the name listed in the owner’s manual was Frederic Apcar.

For some reason, it took me a while to Google the owner’s name but, when I did, a surprise awaited. Apcar was a legend in Las Vegas, a producer of tits-and-ass showgirl extravaganzas at the famed Dunes Hotel and Casino; in 2006, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame.

The Dunes opened in 1955 on a 35 hectare site at the southern end of the Strip, diagonally across the road from the Flamingo. With 200 rooms and a 28-metre pool, the largest in the country, the hotel was dominated by a 10-metre-tall fibreglass statue of a Middle Eastern Sultan. The Dunes’ initial investors included East Coast Mob money and was later expanded with funds from the Teamsters Union Credit Fund run by Jimmy Hoffa.

In its early years, The Dunes staggered from one misfortune to another but, by the early 60s, was on the rise. General Manager, Major Arteburn Riddle, knowing the value of entertainment in luring gamblers through the doors, hired Apcar to devise an only-in-Vegas drawcard.

Born in Paris, Apcar was a chorus boy in the famed Folies Bergere at the age of 16. By the time he came to Vegas, he was 46 years old and a respected dancer and choreographer. He drew on what he knew – beautiful women, glamorous costumes, naughty-but-nice dance numbers and variety acts. His first production at The Dunes, Viva Le Girls! opened in the Parisian Room Lounge in 1961. With a budget of $US165,000, it became one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.

His ambition, however, didn’t stop there. He negotiated with the owner and producer of the Casino de Paris to license the first official show outside France. It was already synonymous with glamour; Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker had both performed with the Casino de Paris and, in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent would design costumes for the show.

In December 1963, just a few months after Apcar took delivery of my silver Cadillac, the Casino de Paris show opened in a new custom-built theatre at The Dunes. It was an immediate success; by the mid-60s, the production cost $US75,000 a week to run and had a cast of 100 dancers and performers who cycled through 518 costumes, 250 hats and 500 wigs.

Apcar remained producer and director of the Casino de Paris well into the 80s but, as the years progressed, The Dunes had trouble competing with its upstart neighbours. That it occupied such a prime position on the Las Vegas Strip only hastened its demise. Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 for $US75 million and closed The Dunes the following year. He imploded the high-rise 60s accommodation tower in spectacular style in October that year and began construction of the $US1.6 billion Bellagio.

Apcar lived to witness the changing fortunes of The Dunes and Las Vegas and died in 2008, aged 93.

Words  © David Latta. Photos from Casino de Paris programs from the 1960s from the author’s own collection. Additional information from the excellent www.classiclasvegas.com website.

In Roswell , The Truth Is Out There


Roswell, New Mexico, is where it all began. UFOs, little green men, Mulder, Scully, the whole shebang. Most likely, it was also the beginning of conspiracy theories, the wide-spread public belief in government cover-ups and that modern day malaise of never believing anything we’re told, especially if it’s by authority figures.

I’d been on a road trip through the south-western United States, driving from Las Vegas (the quaint and historic New Mexico town rather than its better-known neon-and-nihilism namesake) and had stopped off in Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid. The next stage of the trip was on to Roswell before heading to El Paso, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving.

It was late November and the weather was clear although there was little warmth from the sun and the nights were freezing cold. I’d passed by the site north of town where the “reputed” crash of a UFO and the recovery of the bodies of its alien inhabitants by the US military had occurred back in 1947. I’d paid little attention to the black helicopters that seemed to track my progress or the bulky dark SUVs that were always in my rear vision mirror.

I reached the city limits of Roswell and that’s when things really started getting weird. If there had never been an “alleged” UFO crash, there would be no tourism industry to speak of but Roswell embraces visitors of all kinds, even little green ones.

There are UFOs and aliens everywhere you turn in this town. The Walmart has them, the many fast food franchises, including Arby’s, Denny’s KFC and Chilli’s have them in profusion. There are galaxies of gift shops and nebula of T-shirts, shot glasses, ashtrays, beer coasters and snow globes. Everything you need to fit out an intergalactic space-age bachelor pad or the rumpus room of the Millennium Falcon.

The official City of Roswell website buzzes with spaceships and alien life forms, only a few of which are elected officials. Each July, there’s a UFO Festival that includes an Alien Battle Of The Bands and an Alien Wine Festival, although it should be noted that consuming alcohol while travelling at warp speed is not recommended. Long-suppressed reports of the 1947 UFO crash state that numerous empty beer bottles along with salsa and Doritos were found in the spaceship.

Ground zero for tourists to Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Centre on Main Street. Dioramas and displays carefully explain the area’s history and little green men abound. Strangely, many look exactly as they do on the Sci-Fi Channel.

In the gift store, I uncovered another disturbing link between Roswell and world history. The slim volume written by Donald R. Burleson is titled UFOs and the Murder of Marilyn Monroe (Black Mesa Press, 2003). Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I made the purchase and brought it back to the Hampton Inn and Suites.

On check-in, I’d asked the receptionist whether she’s seen anything other-worldly lately. It seemed to strike a nerve. She looked evasive for a moment, as if she knew everything she said was being recorded and beamed straight back to Area 51. Then she nodded and grimaced wearily. “Just my boyfriend,” she muttered in a low voice.

I read Burleson’s book from cover to cover that night. His central theory was that Marilyn Monroe had been briefed by John F. Kennedy about Roswell, crashed UFOs, alien autopsies and the subsequent political cover-up. She was murdered days before holding a press conference during which she intended telling the world of her discoveries.

Interestingly, Burleson had also published studies of H.P. Lovecraft which opens the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was killed not by the Mafia or the CIA but by Cthulhu itself.

I fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep while a harsh wind whipped the grassy plains outside. In the morning, I found I had no recollection of the previous few hours. I was feeling spooked and knew I had to get out of town. I barely had time for the free breakfast buffet although it was fair to say the blueberry muffins were out of this world.

The black helicopters followed me all the way to the city limits, then turned west. The spy satellites, I’m sure, are tracking me still.

Words and photos © David Latta

Hitting The Jackpot At The Casino House: A Mid-Mod Community’s Links With Old-Time Las Vegas


NOTE: When this first appeared in 2011, the location of the Casino house was a bit of a mystery. Now, it’s all over the Internet. This piece has been amended and expanded in June 2014 to reflect this.

Sometimes it pays to ask and, if you don’t get the answer you want, keep asking. Persistence pays off eventually. It just takes a little time.

I’m a big fan of Las Vegas, that glittering, gaudy and spiritually gluttonous mirage in the Nevada desert. I especially love its history, the tangled path by which it travelled from being an illicit getaway in the middle of a sun-parched nowhere to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

There’s something for everybody in Vegas: flashy ultra-luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with giant grandly tacky homages to ancient Egypt, King Arthur’s Court, classical Rome and the canals of Venice.

Unlike Los Angeles, where there’s more aspiring actors per square metre than anywhere else in the world, in Vegas everybody unashamedly wants to be rich and they have just about every way imaginable of making that happen. Most, of course, don’t and more shattered dreams lay congealing in the city’s neon glow than in a Nathanael West novel.

The archetypal Las Vegas movie is Casino, Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent 1995 depiction of old-time Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The idea being that fiction sometimes has nothing on real life, Casino is based on the story of Frank Rosenthal, the professional gambler who institutionalised sports betting in 1970s Vegas and ran a few casinos for the Mob while he was at it. Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a thinly-veiled Rosenthal.

I’d been trying for some time to locate the house on the edge of the golf course in which De Niro and Stone (as his wife, Ginger, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) lived. I’d initially contacted local journalists who specialised in Vegas history and ended up corresponding with author and Vegas buff, Steve Fischer, whose excellent book, When The Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder (Berkline Press, 2005) is required reading on the city’s lawless adolescence. Get it at Amazon. There’s also an audio version on iTunes.

CasinoDeNiro

I’d initially contacted Steve about an Australian showgirl, Felicia Atkins, the star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana, Bugsy Siegel’s old casino, in the 50s and 60s. Felicia was Vegas royalty, centerfold of Playboy’s April 1958 edition and appeared with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) before retiring and moving back to Australia where her trail went cold. Other former showgirls who’d worked with Felicia reported that she’d returned to Vegas a few times for Folies Bergere reunions but none had contact addresses; seems she didn’t stay in contact with too many of her associates.

Then, purely by luck, I found her although it was very much a good news / bad news scenario. Yes, she was still alive, living in an aged care facility north of Newcastle, New South Wales. No, she was far removed from any attempt to recall her glory days as she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease and her memories had long since evaporated.

A staff member at the home recalled that, in the early days of her arrival, she’d shared her stories about being a Vegas showgirl but not too many people took her seriously. Felicia did, however, love teaching others to dance. The cruel reality that is Alzheimer’s has robbed us of first-hand recollections of those heady days.

Anyway, back to the Casino house. Steve Fischer thought the Casino house was located on the 17th hole of the Desert Inn Golf Course and had been demolished to make way for Steve Wynn’s $US2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas development. In trying to verify that, a very helpful soul at the Nevada Film Office confided that the house was still very much in existence, a little further east on the edge of the Las Vegas National Golf Course.

The National started life in 1961 as the golf course for the Stardust Casino, in 1969 was renamed the Sahara-Nevada Country Club, changed its name to the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1994 and four years later acquired its current designation . These days, the National’s website mentions the Casino house but, when I was looking, it took a fair bit of detective work. So, armed with the film office’s clues, I started driving around the housing development hugging the golf course.

Happily, I found the house quite easily and it looks almost exactly as it did when Scorsese filmed there. If anybody is interested in paying a visit, the address is 3515 Cochise Lane.

I’m sure the owners are pretty weary of tourists snapping their property and I’d advise against knocking on their door and requesting a guided tour of the walk-in wardrobe. But they live in a little piece of movie history and, hopefully, they’re understanding about it.

Australian showgirl Felicia Atkins, star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana
Australian showgirl Felicia Atkins, star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana

Since then, I’ve learnt that the Casino house is a cherry on a far larger slice of old-time Vegas history. The golf course and the huge surrounding residential area was built at the same time and named Paradise Palms. The task of creating a homogenous design character to the development was given to the architectural firm of Dan Palmer and William Krisel, which already had mileage in that other time-capsule of mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of Krisel’s Palm Springs designs is perhaps the most famous of all the city’s mid-mod houses, the one where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed on their honeymoon. It features on every Palm Springs bus tour.)

It was a planned community in that buyers had to choose between certain Palmer & Krisel designs, although numerous variations (in such areas as roof line, decorative finishes, allowing the homes to be rotated at different angles, even having Hawaiian influences as options on some models), allowed individual expression.

Entertainers, casino executives and, inevitably, more than a few “made men”, the people who fed the furnace of Las Vegas, called Paradise Palms home. Some of the casinos also kept homes there for visiting entertainers. Amongst the Palm’s more famous residents over the years have been Bobby Darin, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, Juliet Prowse, Max Baer Jr (Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) and lounge music pioneer Esquivel.

It should come as no surprise that even Frank Rosenthal himself lived there (although not in the house where Casino filmed). And, on a personal note, I’m extremely pleased to report that Frederic Apcar, the producer of the long-running Casino de Paris show at The Dunes (and whose 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville I own – see http://www.davidlatta.org/2011/08/29/a-classic-link-to-old-time-las-vegas-the-dunes-frederic-apcar-and-the-casino-de-paris/ ) was also a resident.

Drive the streets of Paradise Palms and you’ll find a haven of low, long mid-mod homes. There was a time, when the mobsters’ reign ended and Vegas went legit (or gave every appearance of such), morphed into Disneyland and went all out to attract families, that Paradise Palms went into decline. Without regular maintenance, the built environment doesn’t survive long in the harsh desert conditions and these beautiful homes cracked, split, warped, leaked, fell apart.

The erosion would have continued had mid-century aesthetics not become so fashionable in recent times. Now, bit by bit, the tide has turned. New residents with a respect for the past have moved in and restored these wonderful homes back to their former glory.

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Nero and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Nero and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino

Paradise Palms has its own website – http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com – and Facebook page, while a host of other retro-obsessed sites breathlessly report on PP’s latest developments. The like-minded new arrivals socialize together and spread the gospel: remember, respect, retain.

When, like Felicia Atkins, the real thing is way beyond our reach, it’s still possible to visit a time when style was supreme. The residents of Paradise Palms have it better than most. They can live their dreams in ways most of us can only imagine.

For further retro and old-time Las Vegas info, go to:

http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com

http://www.classiclasvegas.com

http://www.veryvintagevegas.com/2014/05/22/the-loving-restoration-of-a-mid-century-modern-home-in-paradise-palms-las-vegas/

http://www.whenthemobranvegas.com/

Words ©2014 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.