“Do you remember when shrimp cocktail was popular in restaurants?” my husband asks as we leave the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. The oldest and smallest hotel on Fremont Street was the first to sell tiny cold shrimp topped with red seafood sauce in glass sundae-dishes for fifty cents — in 1959. My husband is too young to have caroused Vegas in the 1950s, but Las Vegas is his favorite U.S. city, and he soaks in the nostalgia on every visit. I am along for his adventure into retro casino life. Not surprisingly, my husband knows this bit of trivia, and — also not unexpectedly — he shares it.
We head to Fremont Street to see the classic casinos in daylight, without their neon faces turned on. The long fresh-swept pedestrian boulevard is already busy as vendors and band roadies are setting the stages for tonight’s shows.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You want to experience the nostalgia of the early days in Las Vegas.
- You like exploring the history of handcrafted metal signage and glass lighting.
- Good for young and old adults who appreciate the culture and history of the western United States.
Fremont Street Experience
Fremont Street was named for the explorer John Charles Frémont, and located in what became the center of the downtown casino corridor: the first Las Vegas Strip. In a place where only desert landscapes went on for miles, it was laid out with buildings topped by outlandish art to attract visitors looking for even more outlandish entertainment.
Now The Fremont Street Experience is a collection of these hotels and casinos in the westernmost section of modern downtown, capped off with refurbished art reminiscent of the city’s early days. A 90-feet vaulted canopy covers the five-block attraction. As we watch overhead, we spot bodies flying through the air: Across the morning sky, people are zip-lining their way down the street.
Passing by the 4 Queens Hotel and Casino, I an reminded that my kind of rock music – “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” by Queen — will be played later tonight. The start of the nightlight show is signaled when all the casinos turn their lights off and then flash them back on.
I look north and see the Mob Museum, a reminder of another kind of early Vegas history. But we are heading a mile down the road to the Neon Museum. The boneyard park salvages metal and glass neon art and renovates the pieces, giving them renewed life out on Fremont Street. Many of the early Vegas Strip marquee pieces were lost to a time when casino owners demolished the classic old buildings with moronic glee to make room for new properties. More recently, the white canopy covering Fremont Street meant billboards taller than the vaulted ceiling had to be taken down and replaced with shorter signage.
Iconic Symbols of Las Vegas at the Neon Museum
The clean art deco lines in the lobby of the Neon Museum was rescued from the La Concha Hotel. As we go out the backdoor into the yard, I see huge broken signs set down in boxed-out garden beds, like so many building blocks left tumbled over. In contrast with the jumble, the beds are neatly edged in rocks and walking paths smoothed with fine white gravel, giving the museum’s bony artifacts a clean canvas on which to rest.
The docent leads us up one aisle of casino and hotel memorabilia and down motel row where signs from the Tropicana Mobil Park and Clark Inn sit. The Yucca Motel with its flowering yucca still intact was built in 1950. The design of bent neon tubing and blue argon was state-of-the-art craftsmanship in its day.
I spot the striped stocking-capped pirate’s head laid looking up at the sky. His teeth are enormous and I imagine climbing up and falling into his vacant eye sockets.
Bugsy Siegel purchased his first casino, El Cortez, in Las Vegas on Fremont Street. I see flamingo wings laying still, a relic of his later Flamingo Hotel & Casino. In the 1940s, the Flamingo marquee had bubbles floating out of a giant champagne glass and movable pink wings.
Vegas Vic was the popular cowboy outside The Pioneer Club in 1951. He was the first actual advertisement made of neon. Vegas Vic’s girl was Sassy Sally, who wore boots that kicked up at the Silver Palace, which had the first outdoor escalator in town.
Benny Binion was a casino owner with many firsts: He had the first casino on Fremont Street, the first to put down carpeting, to place stools in front of slot machines and to comp drink-charges for gamblers.
Las Vegas’s Beginnings
Highway 91 was the original Strip in Las Vegas, which gradually developed into a stopover between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. It was a dusty street in 1905.
By early 1930, nearby Boulder City was starting to host work crews building the Hoover Dam. Men lived and worked there, but liquor and prostitution were illegal, so just across the city lines, a lady set up her shack to sell the men her homemade fried chicken and whiskey.
Fremont Street was the city’s first paved street. Over time, the casinos pinned their hopes on changing their names: The Dunes has become the Bellagio, the Aladdin is now Planet Hollywood and the Star Dust is an empty lot.
Finally, we are dining at the Golden Nugget on my Las Vegas comfort food; the casino’s red onion soup with blistering cheese layered over the top. My husband is served his shrimp cocktail, but it’s no longer fifty cents. In 2008, the price was raised to $1.99. Tonight, he is off to The Fremont Street Experience to hear rock music at the free concerts. I will be in the quieter part of Las Vegas, but sssshhh, don’t tell anyone.
- Tickets for the Neon Museum must be ordered in advance online. They are picked up at the museum just before the tour-time and require presenting photo identification.
- Fremont Street and the Neon Museum is wheelchair accessible.
- Close-toed walking shoes are recommended footwear for both locations.
- Parking is free at the Neon Museum but not on Fremont Street.
- You must be 21 years of age to be in any Las Vegas casino, for any reason.