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Back in the day ...
Story by Scott Dickensheets and
Photography by Christopher Smith
Las Vegas is good at forgetting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing: A city of second chances and fresh starts can’t waste too much time futzing with yarns about the good old days. But there’s a lot more to memory than nostalgia. There are lessons, insights and valuable experiences. Here, a range of longtime Las Vegans recall, remember and riff on their own private Vegas of yesteryear.
When anti-poverty activist Ruby Duncan led a contingent of 1,500 protesters down the Strip and into Caesars Palace on March 6, 1971, she had no idea they were walking into history. Part of a series of national protests against Welfare Department cuts, the march focused national attention on the plight of poor people.
I was not afraid. The march was fun to me, actually. We didn’t want to be on welfare. We needed jobs to be able to get off of welfare. We wanted to be able to help ourselves and our families. … I didn’t know what to expect when we started (organizing). A wealthy friend in Carson City brought me up to lobby the Legislature about food stamps. I didn’t know what I was doing, but a lot of lobbyists helped me understand the bills. I got a lot of help with this fight. Lawyers would prep me so I could talk to the lawmakers. Friends would educate me on certain programs. I was able to let the politicians know how much money would be brought into the state and how many people would be hired if Nevada accepted food stamps. It changed peoples’ minds.
Duncan would serve as president of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization and executive director of anti-poverty organization Operation Life, which opened a health-screening center, a library, a free food program, a child-care center and a public swimming pool. Today, she sees those gains under threat.
It’s improved but we’re only halfway there (to a post-racial society). Racism wasn’t as in-your-face back then; it was more subtle. Today, people are more brazen with their feelings, like the rancher (Cliven Bundy). And people are not just racists, they’re also sexist and against the poor — poor white women have it hard, too. Even though racism is more out in the open, it’s an issue for older people. Most young whites are not racists. … When we elected a black president, racism came back out in the open in a big way. Some of the things they (lawmakers) are doing to hinder voting are motivated by racism. Some of the things they are doing to programs that help the poor (cuts to food stamps) are motivated by race. Poor white men and women haven’t woken up to the whole notion they might as well be minorities. Things that hurt poor minorities also hurt them. …
While Duncan is pleased to see progress — and to have contributed to that progress — she can’t help but notice that some things, alas, don’t change.
Politicians and others have to have someone to talk about, to demonize. Poor people have always been blamed for something or another. The other thing is that no programs for the poor — whether they provide aid to dependent children, welfare benefits or food stamps — are run well, so it makes them easy targets. These programs are often the first ones that politicians want to cut, which hurts the poor even more. — Damon Hodge
Latin Chamber of Commerce
Otto Mérida is president and CEO of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. He came to the U.S. in 1961 as a political refugee from Cuba. In 1973, he drove across the country, getting to know his adopted home — and getting his first glimpse of Vegas.
I bought a 1972 Vega — it was one of the first hatchbacks, a four-on-the-floor with no air-conditioning. I loved that car. I traveled the country — all the Midwest, the Southwest and West with that car. It was a four-cylinder. One of the problems with that car was that really it was one of the first aluminum models, actually, they were lemons. After, like 30,000 miles, they started burning oil like crazy. But I loved that car. I remember my cousin saying, “Nobody lives in Vegas.” I told him, “There have to be people here! I’m sure people who live here, work here.” Eventually I returned to Vegas — I remember seeing that light as I drove in, and I said, “I’m in Vegas!” I drove to Las Vegas Boulevard, and I ended up on Convention Center Drive. I paid for a hotel room with my credit card and stayed there for two weeks.
He settled in Las Vegas in 1974. With a stone-steady, tireless industry that would become his trademark, he co-founded the Latin Chamber of Commerce in 1976. It had a purpose beyond a mere glad-handing club for Latin businesses.
When we started the chamber, we didn’t have many Hispanic support organizations. So we took that role — we’re Latin Chamber, we are for business development and so forth — but people would come to us, saying, “My kids need a scholarship.” That’s how we went ahead and started the scholarship program, which has been giving scholarships since 1985 — we gave $500 at that time.
Sounds like a minor investment, but the scholarships have been vital to — and appreciated by — a growing Hispanic community.
I remember, for example, I took somebody to catch a plane early in the morning. When I was coming back, I went to the McDonald’s by Mandalay Bay. I’m eating breakfast there at 5:30 in the morning. And the lady that was picking up the trays and all of that, said, “I know you! You work for the Latin Chamber, right?” “Yes.” “You gave a scholarship to my daughter, and she graduated yesterday from the university, and now she’s going to be teaching at one of the local schools.” It happens all the time — I’m visiting a school, and someone runs up and says, “I’m the new counselor of this school, thanks to your scholarships!” We have a lot of those moments that are very rewarding. That’s why, as I’m coming to the end of this road — for me, anyway — I think we have established enough of an organization that will be long-lasting, and this is what I wanted. We’re helping with jobs and education. — Andrew Kiraly
Musician, bar owner
Tommy Rocker is the owner of Tommy Rocker’s, a longtime rock ’n’ roll bar on Dean Martin Drive popular with Parrotheads and late-shift Strip workers. Before he became the iconic guitar-strumming jokester at his own place, Rocker honed his schtick in the ’80s at a UNLV-area hotspot called Carlos Murphy’s — performing both as himself, but sometimes as an alter ego.
For years, when I was at Carlos Murphy’s, I did part of my act as a cowboy called Darryl Green, and I had a rhinestone jacket and everything. It was just filthy, filthy, horrible, disgusting stuff, but it was really funny. The lights would go down, he would come out — I would — and some people thought it was a different person. I would change my voice and berate people and flip ’em off and everything. And they had these cardboard coasters, and they would start flinging them at me, and then that turned into wadding up things, so Darryl would come out and there would be this barrage of stuff being thrown at him. It was the funniest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s saying, F— you, and they’re going, F— you, throwing things, just bedlam. ... For me, it gave me a chance to do really funny, dirty stuff and not be Tommy Rocker, and they didn’t hold it against me. But I finally had to abandon him. It got so out of hand that guys would be taking napkins and pouring ice out of their drink and making balls, like a baseball, and throwing them at me as hard as they could, so Darryl died an untimely death. But it was so cathartic. It was a love-hate thing. They loved to hate me, but they really loved Darryl.
Tommy Rocker’s opened in 1989. The bar/restaurant flourished over the years — but the passage of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act in 2006 worried Rocker. To sidestep the smoking ban, in 2007 he transformed the party-hearty, beach-vibe bar into a strip club.
I asked the person at the county what’s the minimum we have to do to hold onto the strip-club license. They say, “Nobody’s ever asked us that. They usually ask what they can get away with!” So we did a wet T-shirt contest once a month, just to keep the license. Unbeknownst to us, the economy was collapsing, but we had already made our move, so we had to go all in. … We were competing with strip clubs with huge, deep pockets, they’re paying over $100 a head to cab drivers just to get people in the door, and we just couldn’t afford that. I regretted it nightly. I had to stop coming in here because I didn’t get along with the strippers very well, and I tried to get up and play, but playing Jimmy Buffet and having a girl stripping just didn’t work. I always tell people, with a strip club, you have your pimps, you have your hookers, and you have your drug dealers — and that’s just the bartenders! (Laughs.) They say comedy comes from tragedy, and that’s exactly what that joke is about.
Tommy Rocker’s became a bar again 2009. Today, it’s a decidedly sleepier joint nestled in the shadow of an ever-changing Strip.
Because it’s been tough the last few years, I joke that in 1984, I drove into town in an old Volkswagen with $10 in my pocket — well, déjà vu! — AK
Former first lady of Nevada
Bonnie Bryan is probably best known as the former First Lady of Nevada; her husband Richard Bryan was governor from 1983-1989, after which he served in the U.S. Senate for 12 years.
Where I grew up, you never saw the governor, and that was not very far from Sacramento, California. When I met Dick, I knew he wanted to be governor someday, but knowing it and living that life are two different things. Everybody in Nevada knew everybody then, and nobody stood on formality. Everybody worked. That was just life. When the attempted assassination was made on President (Ronald) Reagan, they sent someone out to look at all the governors' mansions, and they couldn’t believe ours. People could just walk up and open the front door then. We had people over all the time.
That’s not to say Bonnie had no life of her own — she did. A big part of it was the Junior League, which she joined in 1969, when she was 29 and the youngest of her three children was 2 years old.
When I joined, nothing met at night and nobody worked. We all joined early, because back then, you had to be sustaining at 40, which means you’re no longer an active member, but you still have the privilege of membership. We all had to work at the thrift shop, 17 shifts a year, three hours per shift. We were required to go to meetings; now you’re not. We worked on projects together. All that formed friendships that have lasted to this day.
Her children were the biggest part of Bonnie’s life, though, and she recalls at least one way they were involved in an important chapter of our nation’s history.
Our son was in the first class after they started the sixth grade centers, and all three of my kids went to them. They were created to answer the (U.S. District) Court order on integration of the schools (following a lawsuit against Clark County School Board for running a segregated school district in violation of federal law). They took all the elementary schools in West Las Vegas and turned them into sixth grade centers, and all the children from all over Las Vegas were bused there for sixth grade. … Our children had a great experience there. They loved it. They were big shots. They had their own school, and they got to ride a bus. The one they went to (Kit Carson) was really good. The principal (Ron Gaydosh) was outstanding. It was a great way for them to get used to changing rooms for classes and having lockers. That was the good news. — Heidi Kyser
Former Nevada state senator
The first African-American elected to the Nevada State Senate, Neal served for 32 years and earned a reputation as the upper body’s conscience, fighting for equal rights and higher taxes on Big Gaming. After he was elected in 1972, he caused one of his first stirs when he told blacks they had a right to retaliate against abusive cops. The fallout was immediate.
I became a target. I came out of the Civil Rights movement in the South. When I was younger, I was willing to die for my beliefs. I was fresh from law school and knew the laws that governed this country. If a cop was abusing you, you had the right to match force with force. After I said it, cops gave me tickets all the time. If I felt the ticket was wrong, I’d challenge it in court. I got good at beating the tickets. In municipal court, I’d appeal to district court. In district court, the judge would knock it down to a parking violation. It became too costly for cops to ticket me and the court to only get $40. … I spent four years in the Air Force, where I was trained with hand-to-hand combat, so I felt that no one cop could beat my butt. I knew how to defend myself. I didn’t want to get hurt or to hurt anybody. But I’d seen cops have guys put their hands on the hoods of cars in the dead of the summer. If the guys flinched, the cops would use that as justification to hit them with a billy club. One time, I observed a cop harassing a man. The cop told me to move on. I sat there and said I have a right to observe him in the performance of his duty. He wrote me up for impeding traffic. The headline in the paper said, “Neal cited in arrest attempt.” The judge threw the case out because you have to be driving to impede traffic. Cops weren’t happy with me.
With the Rancho High School riots in 1969, and fights in the ’70s over welfare benefits and school desegregation, Vegas was once rife with racial tension. Neal sees things getting better — with exceptions.
The racial climate is improving. When I got elected, it was because a district was created to ensure a black person got elected. Now blacks get elected in majority white districts. So the political climate has changed. So, politically, things are better. But we still have racial issues in employment — high unemployment, blacks with degrees but unable to find work in their chosen fields or jobs providing a decent salary. The gaming industry hasn’t diversified enough. And there are still issues with cops abusing minorities.
But, he notes, diversity has a curious wrinkle — a melting-pot society can start to lack flavor.
There are soul food restaurants all over town now. You can live anywhere you can afford, so a lot of young people are moving out of West Las Vegas and African-Americans moving to town don’t locate there. So the area is losing its identity as the “black” part of town and losing its history in the process. There’s been a lack of investment in the area over the past 50 years, compared to other parts of the valley. In the ’80s, I fought to get banks in West Las Vegas. I went to Washington, D.C. to testify before the banking committee. We have banks now. But now, as then, we don’t get loans. So in that sense, not much has changed. — DH
Dancer, cultural patron
Nearly four decades ago, long before she co-founded the Nevada Ballet Theatre, Nancy Claire was living out of a suitcase. Following a two-year stint at the Dunes, she and dance partner Francois Szony had taken their act on the road. They were in New York when she got a call urging her back to Las Vegas.
They were opening the new Folies Bergerè at the Tropicana. I didn’t want to come, because I didn’t think I could stand Las Vegas for that long. It was 15 shows a week! Two a day, every day, plus three on Saturday. … I told Maynard Sloate, the entertainment director, there was no way — unless I could get two weeks’ vacation. And he agreed. But things turned out a little different anyway. We opened in December 1968, and very close to that, while I was rehearsing, I got a call. This voice said, “Do dancers ever go to dinner?” I thought it was an obscene phone call. It was right when I was getting ready, and I had to warm up and get to the theater, so I was a little rushed. Then he said, “It’s Kell Houssels,” and I thought, “That’s a weird name.” As I spelled it out in my head, I thought, “That’s the name that signs my checks!” So, we went to dinner between shows, at a tiny little Italian restaurant behind the hotel, and his lawyer was there, Mead Dixon. That was our first date!
Claire and Houssels married soon after. Her journey from Vegas performer to casino magnate’s wife is filled with nuggets of bygone-era gold.
When I was at the Dunes in the early ’60s, we had a softball team. We played at 2 o’clock in the morning at Fantasy Park. We won almost every game, because we had the Rudas girls. They were all tumblers and such, very athletic. They were famous for the cancan at the Trop years ago. The showgirls played; everybody played. I pitched. The Dunes had a team, the Stardust had a team, all the big production shows and French shows had teams. It was great rivalry. I think we won the championship because of the Rudas girls!
In 1972, Vassili Sulich asked Nancy Houssels to bring her friends and family to see a ballet troupe he’d assembled from Strip dancers perform at Judy Bayley Theater. The show inspired Houssels and Sulich to found a permanent ballet company, which would eventually become the Nevada Ballet Theatre. The group’s evolution wasn’t without its backstage snafus and amateur hitches along the way.
We were doing a waltz number at Judy Bayley, and for it, we got this 900-pound crystal chandelier. Well, they didn’t put it securely in the ceiling. So, one day, we’re sitting there during rehearsal, and it comes crashing down on the stage. It could’ve killed someone! Needless to say, we axed that part of the show. The poor kid who was nearby, he thought we were out to get him. He was never the same. — HK
Media figure, PR man
Ira Sternberg has been a jack-of-all-media trades since his arrival here in the 1970s — writer, radio personality, casino PR whiz. Now the host of “Talk About Las Vegas” on KUNV 91.5 FM, over the years he’s intersected with a number of iconic Vegas moments.
I was at home and the phone rang; it was a radio station in Los Angeles. At the time I was just writing; I had taken a little bit of a hiatus from broadcasting. And they asked, “Can you give us any information on the fire?” I said, “Fire?” They said, “Yeah, the MGM fire.” I said, “I’ll call you back in five minutes.” So I find out what’s going on, I get back on the phone and I’m on the air in L.A. reporting on an event that I’d just found out about.
But the more significant part of that story is this: They had a major clampdown on the media getting into the old MGM (right after the fire). I actually got in. I went in not with my media hat, I went in under the auspices of an attorney who needed a photographer (to document the disaster). So I went in. That was quite a … (long pause) … scene. Quite a mess in there. I had a flashlight — there was no power — you would see blackjack tables with melted chips, melted cards. We went up to some of the rooms, and you would see chalk outlines where bodies were. You could see soot around the bathtubs. I knew what I was seeing was fairly rare. The pictures I took became part of that litigation.
I’m a fairly sensitive guy, so I really had to steel myself, and make my presence as objective as possible. I didn’t think I was going to come across a dead body or anything; all the bodies had been removed. But still, when you see the aftermath of it — yeah, it does have an effect.
There was a more casual interaction between local media and celebrities then; Sternberg says that with a single call he could get a hold of anyone he needed to interview. He became friends with Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Shecky Greene …
My best Shecky Greene story? He was going through a divorce. Shecky is fearless onstage, but he doesn’t edit himself, either. So he was very hurt by his wife at the time, who was divorcing him. He was ranting about her onstage. And I remember talking to him backstage, telling him, “Shecky, I know you’re hurt and I know that you’re pissed off, but is it wise to rant about her and call her names onstage? Because you could be sued for slander.” I don’t know that he ever took my advice, because I don’t think Sheckey likes to take advice anyway, but that was my recommendation.
If the MGM fire found Sternberg directly confronting a momentous Vegas catastrophe, he also managed to avoid one.
Do you remember Showgirls? When I was at the Trop, one of the things I did as director of public relations was, I handled all the movie stuff that would come in, TV productions — I was the point man for all that. So I had an appointment with (director) Paul Verhoeven. Now, I rarely get angry. But he was trying to push — (pause) he was looking for places to film Showgirls, and I had read the script and I didn’t want to have it at the Trop. I think the word is cheesy. I just knew it wasn’t going to be good. But he was so over-the-top in trying to intimidate me into letting him film at the Trop — he was going to go over my head, he was trying to be heavy-handed. I finally stood up and threw him out of my office, and told him I was going to call security. If you remember, they filmed at the Stardust — and the results speak for themselves. (Laughs)
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