People always ask me where to go to get that old-school vintage Vegas vibe. Whether they want to bask in the long-gone afterglow of a Rat Pack night at the Sands or just watched a Vegas-centric movie like the original ‘Ocean’s 11′ or the brief Vegas cameo in ‘Swingers’, they just want to breathe in that coolified retro air.
The problem is those chips were cashed in a long time ago, literally. Sure, there are places to go like Peppermill Lounge or Binion’s to try and recapture some of that “old-school cool.” However, once past the neon facades, a lot of the places most people consider old-school Vegas, are just aged versions of their former glory.
Official hand-written signs taped to walls and in some cases, the smell of eons of smoke, glory and regret soaked into carpets aren’t the classy joints that Frank, Dino and Sammy patrolled back in the day. Don’t take it the wrong way. I do love hanging out in these places when I find myself longing for nostalgia. It’s just not the same.
Even mover and shaker George Clooney had to abandon plans to bring back that old-school Vegas sophistication with the shuttering of his Las Ramblas casino and resort project. He planned on a casino dress code reminiscent of the pictures of old Vegas where everyone dressed up to hit the slots.
There’s Old School and Then There’s Old-Old School
Most people consider the imminent razing of the Stardust (R.I.P.) as one of the last silver chords to old-school Vegas. It depends on your definition of old school. What will actually be torn down is closer to the ’70s kitsch era and not the mondo atomic years (above) of the late ’50s and early ’60s. There are still places for the kitsch like the Liberace Museum, parts of the Riviera and downtown at the California, but spots for the earlier years continue to dwindle.
You can get $1.99 shrimp cocktail from the Golden Gate casino. Originally built in 1906, it is old-old-old school, but the casino didn’t get its current name and pioneering shrimp deals until the late ’50s. There’s the Tropicana on the Strip that was built in 1957, but it seems the Trop’s days are numbered. The Las Vegas sign south of Tropicana on Las Vegas Blvd. was installed in 1959 and is a must photo-op. The Golden Steer is a classic eatery from 1958 and, as you can imagine, has hosted a who’s who of Vegas celebs.
One of the best stops for any era is a trip to the Neon Boneyard, where all of the old neon goes to retire.
Call It a Comeback
Las Vegas is bringing some of that old magic back with the new Fremont East district Downtown. The area, directly to the east of Fremont Street Experience is burgeoning thanks to hotspots like Beauty Bar, but the new development will bring in retro street fixtures to complement the old-schoolness that is already Downtown.
A breaking story in Vegas news about alleged misdealings at the county hospital details kickbacks going to associates in Chicago, which seems to fit in with Vegas’ old mob days. Of course, that’s not the old-school Vegas anyone wants around, but it just seems to fit in with the theme of the story.
The best bet to relive any Vegas of Yore is to see one of the entertainers like Tom Jones or Wayne Newton or one of the classic shows like Folies Bergere or Donn Arden’s Jubilee.
There’s enough interest in an old-school Vegas, when they develop the Tropicana property, they should build an Epcot-style complex of retro casinos instead of more rectangular towers. The end result of the project would kind of look like NY-NY casino, but with the facades of interesting “retired” buildings like The Sands and The Landmark. Of course the inside would have to be modernized, but it’s the best of both schools, old and new.
I read and hear a lot of dissent about the destruction of the past. To those people, I say Vegas is a state of mind regardless of the calendar or address. If you want old-school Vegas, blast the Tom Jones, put on a tux, grab a Romeo y Julieta and shake your dirty martini. You can do that at the Bellagio or Bally’s. We should celebrate the past, but never forget that the present state of Vegas is pretty rocking.
The Best of Both Worlds
Resorts like Caesars Palace and Sahara have done a really good job at transitioning form the past to remain relevant in today’s Vegas. However, they have gone in different directions. Caesar’s focuses on luxury and maintaining a hip status with venues like Rao’s and Pure where Sahara caters to families and budget-conscious guests with a rollercoaster, NASCAR Cafe and low-limit table games.
At the end of the neverending day, the way I see it, Vegas back then would have been pretty cool, but unless you lived it, the memories were never yours to begin with and if your curiosity needs artifacts, try eBay. I’ll be fireside at the Peppermill with a big cocktail.
Originally published in Vegas Pop with 350 user comments – highlights below.