I'm living in a pool-side bungalow at the hotel that was once called the Royal Nevada. Where am I?
Imagine the "Jeopardy" theme as I allot 30 seconds for so-called Vegas history experts to answer this one. "The La Concha."
"El Rancho Vegas."
"It's downtown, right? Near the Pioneer Club."
Here's a hint. What's the only Vegas casino ever to go bankrupt because gamblers actually broke the bank?
Yes, the Royal Nevada, which existed for a little less than a year in 1955 before it went flopped, only to be swallowed up two years later by the mobbed-up Stardust next door. And today, if you request a room in the "pool" wing of the Stardust, you can still get a little flavor of the Old Vegas, with two tiers of the rock-solid Royal Nevada suites surviving from the era when the Strip was full of low-rise luxury motels with expansive lawns.
Mike Weatherford's "Cult Vegas" is the definitive history of all those cool cats and swingin' broads from the Vegas that's barely there anymore. I've always thought the Royal Nevada story was a great one for gamblers--who wouldn't like the story of the only place where the gamblers ever won?--but I've asked everyone from Wall Street analysts to old-school veteran reporters to tell me that story, and few have even heard of the place, much less written about it.
Mike Weatherford knows what the Royal Nevada was. There are a thousand other impressive insights in his new book, CULT VEGAS an informal history of Vegas entertainment that's the result of his 14 years of reporting for the Las Vegas Review- Journal, but his throwaway lines about the Royal Nevada impressed me most of all.
Everything about this book feels right, even though there's very little new information to be found here. He's got the precise date that the first bare breast was uncovered in the city, as well as the cost of Liberace's wardrobe on the night of his debut. But there's nothing here about gangsters or gambling or byzantine Nevada politics. Weatherford chose to tell the whole story of the city through its entertainers, and as history it works in many ways better than the ponderous tome THE MONEY AND THE POWER with its dead-serious investigative reporting.
Who would think you could write a chapter about Frank, Dean and Sammy and make it as fresh as though you were sitting at the Dunes in 1959? In fact, the opening chapter--telling Frank's story one more time--is as fine a history of the Las Vegas showroom as you're ever likely to read. He then follows up with expansive essays on the origins of the Vegas lounge. (Louis Prima gets the major credit, of course, but he also remembers that Prima was preceded by the Mary Kaye Trio, which started the midnight-to-dawn style of improvisational lounge entertainment that would become a Vegas trademark until it was watered down in the seventies to the level of Bill Murray's "Saturday Night Live" lounge lizard singing "Star Wars.")
Before the era of comedy clubs, but after the age of burlesque, Vegas was pretty much the only place for top comics to work, and Weatherford dispenses that history through the lives of what he calls the big three: Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene and Don Rickles. What, no Joe E. Lewis? Weatherford actually convinced me that Joe E. does not belong on the list, mainly because he was popular with the Vegas founders but never that big a star to the public. One very helpful aspect of this history is that Weatherford has gone deep into the morgue, poring over old microfiche and faded yellow clippings, to show the ups and downs of familiar careers. (For example, he reproduces a rare ad for Elvis' April 1956 debut at the New Frontier, where he's third- billed. Second billing is Shecky Greene, and the headliner? Freddy Martin and His Orchestra!)
I could quibble with some of Weatherford's choices. Tom Jones is a sidebar in the Elvis chapter, but shouldn't that be Wayne Newton? His chapter on showgirls is fascinating--going into the lives of such forgotten beauties as Lili St. Cyr, Dyanne Thorne (better known as "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"), Charo, Juliet Prowse and Mamie Van Doren--but it doesn't give enough credit to the hundreds of girls who have passed through the Tropicana's Folies Bergere, the longest-running show of them all.
Still, there are so many gems that you can't stop reading.
His section on TV stars who have tried to do Vegas shows--a list that includes Irene "Granny" Ryan, Monty Hall, Suzanne Somers, Mary Hart and Tony Danza--is devastatingly funny without being mean-spirited. And you can sense his genuine affection for such Vegas institutions as Ann-Margret, classiest of all the dames ever to hit town, and the Chairman of the Board. He also remembers the truly tragic characters like Totie Fields, Redd Foxx and Sam Kinison, without getting maudlin or melodramatic.
And he knows about the Royal Nevada. I would venture to say that he knows a lot more about it than I do. Obviously, my kinda guy.
The Vegas Strip
Theme: Celestial Gangster Schlock
Total Investment: $335 million
Known For: The Stardust Sports Book sets the opening line for the Super Bowl, heavyweight fights, and other major sporting
events that are risky for the casinos.
Marketing niche: Serious sports bettors, older tourists, locals
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Rapido
Surrounding area: On the north Strip, between the Westward Ho and the Frontier
Overall rating: 85
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $100 after an extremely quick and tragic visit to the craps tables: total to date: -$211 LAS VEGAS -- I'm living in a pool-side bungalow at the hotel that was once called the Royal Nevada. Where am I?