Lost Vegas Nevada: An old-time gambler recalls the glory days (and nights) of Glitter Gulch and discovers that at heart it hasn't changed. Las Vegas is still about glitz and gambling, even with that family-friendly label.

July 26, 1998|By Andrei Codrescu | Andrei Codrescu,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The first time I went to Las Vegas, they had the sheriff escort me and these two other poets out of town. We were there to teach poetry to children in Nevada High Schools. One of our poems had a "bad" word in it, and a teacher complained. I made a passionate defense of poetry, liberty and street language. The teacher called the principal, the principal called the Allied Arts Council of Southern Nevada (our employer), and someone called Senator Bible. Senator Bible called the sheriff. The year was 1972, Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was raging, and Elvis was king of the town, having made his famous comeback a few years earlier. Howard Hughes was still growing his hair and nails in his aerie above the Desert Inn. But poets couldn't say "bad words."

I was sorry to have to go. We had been put up at the Tropicana Hotel. The drinks were cheap. The food was great and practically free. I didn't gamble much, but my first time out at a blackjack table I made $50.

I also liked the drive we took that night to look at all the crisp fantasy of electric color carved into the pure desert air. Tom Wolfe, in his classic essay on Vegas, "Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can't Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!," tried to give names to the styles of some of these amazing signs. He came up with: "Boomerang Modern, Pal-ette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald's Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney." As for the colors, most of which do not exist anywhere outside the Vegas skyline, he thought of "methyl green, cyanic blue, tessellated bronze, hospital-fruit-basket-orange," among others.

The second time I came to Vegas was in 1978, alone this time, and just for fun. My friend Lamar, who lives here, took me on his own personal tour of the skyline. He drove down a dark street and told me to close my eyes. I did. When I opened them, I nearly went blind: We were on Fremont Street, or the Glitter Gulch, the "old" section of Vegas, built before the Strip. Wow! It was the Fourth of July mixed up in Peter Max's paint can.

We parked in front of Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino, one of Vegas' old-fashioned gambling parlors. Every year, the World Series of Poker takes place here. I had heard all about this fantastic event, with its attendant legends. I knew about the fabled contest between Nick the Greek (Nicholas Dandalos) and Johnny Moss, the gambler from Texas. According to a source at Binion's, the marathon game lasted five months with breaks only for sleep. By the end of the match, and after every imaginable kind of poker was played, Moss walked away with $2 million. The Greek was reputed to have once won $60 million from Arnold Rothstein, the biggest gambler on the East Coast.

My luck, however, wasn't in that class. I lost $50 quicker than you can say "horseshoe," and then dropped another $50 for good measure. That was a good thing because now, free of financial burdens (and finances), I could enjoy the unique air of the Gulch. There was, for instance, "Nudes on Ice & Steak: $9.95." We didn't go in, and I regret it to this day. The place is gone.

Other carnivalesque old places are gone, too, but what remains of Fremont Street, a k a. the Gulch, is now being put under an electric canopy to preserve its "historical" character.

Bugsy Siegel's vision

History, like everything else, moves fast in Vegas. There was mostly desert here until 1946 when a mobster named Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo on the day after Christmas Day. Bugsy's vision of a city in the desert took root, though Bugsy himself was killed by his associates when the Flamingo had a less-than-successful opening. After the Flamingo came the Thunderbird in 1948, the Desert Inn, the Riviera, the Dunes. After that came the '60s and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Wayne Newton, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Elvis. Las Vegas became, in a short two decades, the place where middle-class America could go to enjoy all the stuff that good sense forbade at home. It was legal to gamble, it was OK to stay up all night (since, inside the casinos, you couldn't tell the difference between day and night, anyway). And you could take in some spectacular acts. Provided, of course, that you were financially solvent and didn't make too much a nuisance of yourself.

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