Where: in the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, NV Admission: 4 bucks, but it's easy to get a coupon for free admission- just check out the free Vegas magazines
Las Vegas has acquired a certain degree of self-awareness in the last few years. For some pilgrims, the mythology of Las Vegas has even eclipsed gambling. Indeed, since legalized gambling is almost everywhere, Vegas must now offer something above and beyond video poker and table games. The Casino Legends Hall of Fame capitalizes upon this demand and serves Las Vegas' campy, glitzy history on a big shiny platter just for you. The founders of the Hall of Fame seem to have discovered that the image of Las Vegas as a Swinger's Paradise sells. The blue hairs can get all nostalgic for the kooky kicks of their youth, and the whippersnappers can pretend that their youth is kicking kookily, too.
When Las Vegas was first founded, it didn't even have the glamour of Sacramento. A series of photographs in the Hall of Fame follows the evolution of Fremont St. from pastoral thoroughfare to Casino Row. In the 1930s, there were goats. Now, Fremont St. is a paved, livestock-free promenade-slash-light show, and you'll just have to be satisfied with folks who merely smell like goats. Don't miss the photo of Fremont St. that features the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb test; the neon wasn't the only thing glowing that night!
But Vegas didn't just absorb high levels of radiation in order to mutate into what it is today. It took a handful of people with big ideas and big stashes of cash to create one of the most surreal and laissez-faire cities on the planet. Visitors to the Hall of Fame, after reading about some of Vegas' most notorious citizens, can decide whether they have what it takes to be a Casino Legend. Can you intimidate people like Benny Binion? Can you show folks a good time, like Sophie Tucker did? Are you Polish, like Bob Stupak? Bob Stupak even has a larger-than-life bronze statue devoted to him; my companions and I thought he might be holding a dice with two sixes on it. An accident? Or, was the sculptor trying to cast aspersions upon the Polish Maverick?
Casino legends come and go. Over the years, dozens of casinos have bitten the dust, while others continue to be popular. For me, the extinct joints hold a special fascination, because I always wonder what they must've been like. Club Bingo looked like a hamburger stand, and the Sinabar had a decadent name, while the monikers of the Silver Palace, the Lucky Strike and the Mint promised riches aplenty. They're all gone now, but the colorful ashtrays and packs of cards, the lost plastic glamour, still remain. The Hall of Fame fills in the blanks by displaying all the colorful flotsam and jetsam from the dozens of casinos in Las Vegas- old chips, cocktail napkins, swizzle stick, the occasional gewgaw. Each glass case is devoted to a few casinos, some defunct, some still in operation. You can learn that back in 1941, people at the El Rancho ate things like chiffonade salad (for 50 cents) and Meat Balls and Spaghetti Italian with Grated Cheese. By 1960, people didn't eat chiffonade salad at the El Rancho anymore, because the restaurant and everything else had burnt down.
But what is it about Las Vegas that captures peoples' imagination, that requires a museum such as this one? Is it the easy and not-so-easy money? If you like to look at poker chips, you'll think you've died and gone to poker chip heaven. I never knew there was such a market in commemorative chips, but there are chips for Halloween, for famous poker players, for classic cars, for historical figures. Throughout the museum, vintage slot machines stand silent guard. They look so staid; there's not one flashing light in the bunch. However, one machine has an illustration of a sad, skinny man wearing nothing but a barrel. Another slot machine awarded a large cash prize to the person who could get three barrel-wearing paupers in a row. Hey, at least they were more honest than all of those "Double Diamonds" or "Piggy Bankin'" machines you see nowadays.
And what would a museum devoted to Las Vegas be without oodles of pictures of half-naked women? Old advertisements for Harold's (a.k.a. "The Friendly Club") feature nubile, presumably friendly lovelies. There's also a collection of famous Old West ladies sans clothing. I admit that I never thought of Annie Oakley as a Playmate of the Month, but if you're into that sort of thing, you can catch her here. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the showgirl dressing room replica, complete with a display of elaborate costumes and video of performances. According to this replica, showgirls are avid gewgaw collectors and herbal tea drinkers. Bet you didn't know that!
Money and sex are admittedly central to the Las Vegas allure, but the wealth of celebrity lore adds magic to the mix. Las Vegas was the perfect backdrop for a certain type of celebrity- Jayne Mansfield looking sultry by the Trop pools, Marty Allen and Steve Rossi as secret agents in a comedy show, Elvis and Priscilla getting hitched. The Casino Legends Hall of Fame cultivates the right tone to perpetuate these legends, with equal parts schlock and glamour. The walls and glass cases display a veritable treasure trove of Las Vegas history, in the form of swizzle sticks, souvenirs and posters. Most of the posters advertise movies made in and about Las Vegas, from "Las Vegas Hillbillies" ("It's the Wildest When the Country Music Stars Go Vegas!") to "Oceans 11." Most of these posters and video clips focus on the perceived glamour of a city devoted entirely to sin (buxom girls and piles of chips), but the movie poster from "Casino", featuring Mr. Joe Pesci preparing to experience a fatal bludgeoning, is a bit of a wake-up call. But, as visually engaging as these posters might be, the Hall of Legends doesn't stop there. A continuous loop of Vegas film footage shows on a screen- stay tuned for a little hot Ann-Margret action in "Viva Las Vegas."
I found the contracts and paychecks for Vegas entertainers especially interesting. I only have the vaguest idea who Miss Lili St. Cyr was, but I liked to know how much she made a week as an entertainer. I learned that in the early 70s, Robert Goulet could make 65,000 bucks for 16 weeks at the Sands-Frontier-Desert Inn, while Lena Horne made 40,000 dollars at the Sands. No survey of Vegas entertainers would be complete without Liberace (he has his own museum in town), and here, visitors can watch a video of the Glittery One conducting the bubbles from his bathtub and playing his piano.
Adding to the thrill factor of the museum is one Fox-style video display devoted entirely to famous fires and explosions, and another honoring Las Vegas' most famous criminals. No dry, scholarly museum, this! Just like the city it chronicles, the Casino Legends Hall of Fame has a mission to entertain (which it did pretty well, especially for free admission), and to perhaps inspire the next generation of Casino Legends. Lord knows, they have a hard act to follow.
Who are we? ©1998 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. Questions or Comments?