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Vegas's still golden oldies

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Friess
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2005

LAS VEGAS -- If ever a city had a peculiar relationship with its past, it is Las Vegas. In just the last 15 years, almost five centuries' worth of buildings have been bulldozed or imploded, in several cases on national TV.

As a result, Vegas has not been able to celebrate this, its centennial year, the way most cities would, by reliving historical moments at the carefully curated scenes of their occurrence.

The Desert Inn suite where the reclusive Howard Hughes lived for years? Gone. The wedding chapel at the original Aladdin where Elvis Presley married Priscilla? Gone. Even the Moulin Rouge, the city's first interracial casino resort (it was on the National Register of Historic Places) is gone, having succumbed to arson in 2003.

''Las Vegas isn't concerned with what we were yesterday or with what we are today," says Hal Rothman, chairman of the history department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. ''It's tomorrow that entices us."

Thus, Vegas being what it is, the city has celebrated instead with a certain amount of schlock: The festivities, which started last New Year's Eve and will end on the one coming up with extravagant bashes on the Strip, have featured stunts like the world's largest birthday cake and a contest in which 100 winning couples got married en masse.

In one nod to the past, the 72-year-old neoclassical Post Office downtown reopened in May for tours. The building was a federal courthouse in 1950, when it was the site of the US Senate's sensational organized-crime hearings, led by Senator Estes Kefauver.

If you are looking for more Old Vegas, you are on your own.

Start at the Neon Museum. It is not a pretty sight: two junkyard-style lots, known as the Boneyard, crammed full with more than 100 pieces of nonoperative, but still fabulous, signage. Among the mountains of metal and broken bulbs are the letters from the old Stardust sign and the 20-foot high-heeled shoe that once revolved atop the Silver Slipper's marquee. Appointment-only group tours of the Boneyard are available. Also, 11 of the classic signs are restored and functioning on the public plaza of the Fremont Street Experience, 425 Fremont St.

Not every old building has been destroyed. The El Cortez on Fremont Street still has the same low-rise, brown-brick gambling hall and neon lights from when it opened in 1941, though with a newer high-rise hotel tower attached. This is a no-frills Vegas of dingy carpeting and low minimum bets (25-cent roulette tables and $1 craps).

A few blocks west is the city's oldest hotel, the Golden Gate hotel and casino. Built in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada and renamed in 1955, it was advertised as the definition of turn-of-the-20th-century luxury: electric lighting, ''large" rooms of 100 square feet, and the city's first telephone.

About a mile east of the Fremont Street area is the Gambler's Book Shop, founded by the late John and Edna Luckman. John realized in the 1960s that there were fewer than 20 books about gambling in print, so he set up a ramshackle little store that went on to publish more than 100 titles. The little privately owned shop has $1 million in annual sales. Ask marketing director Howard Schwartz about the gamblers who pop in, blaming or thanking the books for their luck.

At the southern end of the Strip is the Little Church of the West, a 62-year-old miniature of an Old West mining-town chapel built of cedar. Dozens of stars have been married inside, both in real life (Betty Grable, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Richard Gere) and in the movies (Elvis and Ann-Margret in ''Viva Las Vegas").

Up the block at Circus Circus is the bizarre Horse Around Bar, lampooned by the late author Hunter S. Thompson in ''Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." On the second floor, overlooking the hourly trapeze and circus acts, is a revolving bar that resembles a carousel. The perimeter is ringed with horses and poles, but behind each horse is a black cocktail table.

A few restaurants of historic import remain, most notably the thatched-roof Peppermill, a 24-hour diner with swooping, rainbow-colored booths. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza conjured up the idea for this year's foul-mouthed documentary, ''The Aristocrats," while eating here.

In entertainment, the 45-year-old Folies Bergere at the Tropicana is the longest-running show, the quintessence of Vegas showgirl extravaganzas. Finally, check out the karaoke sessions at the 55-year-old Bootlegger Bistro, which routinely draws the likes of Wayne Newton, Gladys Knight, and Clint Holmes. Young hopefuls try to impress the stars -- or chat them up for advice.

Contact Steve Friess, a freelance writer in Las Vegas, at friesster@aol.com.

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