Friday, March 14, 2014

Off-Strip Excitement

by Thereza Eugenia

by Ned Barnett

People who come to Las Vegas for “the action” generally think of The Strip, which technically isn’t even in Las Vegas. The City Limit stops at Sahara Avenue, and that’s where The Strip begins – the big casinos there were all built in unincorporated Clark County to avoid city taxes, paid by the Stratosphere Tower – the tallest building west of the Mississippi – and the downtown “Glitter Gulch” Fremont Street Experience-area casinos.

There are also what are called the “local” casinos – an insider’s term for off-strip casinos which are usually found closer to residential neighborhoods, in the city and in the county. Initially, those weren’t much to write home about, but some of them now cost a half-billion dollars or more to build, and they have charms to rival the most spectacular on-Strip pleasure palaces. 

One, Green Valley Ranch, is perhaps best known as the place where Michael Jackson hid from the press during his child molestation trials, while the Palms Casino has $50,000 per night suites that attract Britney Spears, Madonna and Lady Gaga, just to name a few.

But there is more to do off-strip than just stay in an off-strip casino. There are some real attractions to Las Vegas that often get overlooked, and one that sadly failed just because it wasn’t on The Strip. More on that in a moment.

While Vegas is best known as a gambling and world-class show entertainment Mecca, it was also the closest inhabited city to the now infamous Nevada Test Site, where the US government detonated above-ground atom bombs from the late 40s through the early 60s – blasts that were clearly visible from the casinos patronized by the Rat Pack. Today, on Flamingo near the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), there is a cold war-era National Atomic Testing Museum that brings that era to life. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but for history buffs it is well worth the visit.

Another nearby historic treasure is the Hoover Dam. Built as the Boulder Dam in the early 30s and later named for President Hoover – best known for bringing about the Great Depression because of his ill-conceived protectionist trade policies – it is one of the largest hydro-electric dams in existence, with perhaps only China’s Three Rivers Gorge hydro-electric operation being larger. The Dam created Lake Mead, the world’s largest man-made lake – so large that it is easily naked-eye visible to astronauts in earth orbit. It is also a National Recreation Area, and a place well worth visiting for its beauty and recreational opportunities.

The dam itself is now tricked out as a remarkable tourist attraction, and yes – you can go down into the very heart of the dam, a truly remarkable experience. The sheer magnitude of this largely hand-built concrete colossus has to be experienced to be believed. Highly recommended. Inside, I swear that you can feel the weight of 700 feet of concrete over your head pressing down on you – it’s all “in your head,” of course, but the sensation is nonetheless very real. 

Finally, I’d like to mention a couple of off-Strip features that are sadly no longer here. Moulin Rouge was, back in the day, one of the great after-hours entertainment venues in Las Vegas. During the Rat Pack era, when segregation still ruled, Sammy Davis Jr. could entertain at the Strip casinos, but he couldn’t stay there – so he stayed at the Jim Crow Moulin Rouge, a casino hotel catering to blacks. 

Not in the best part of town, the Moulin Rouge nonetheless tended to attract the best talent. For instance, whenever Sammy Davis was in town, it wasn’t unusual to see him jamming after hours with whatever band was playing at the Moulin Rouge – and if Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford or other members of the Rat Pack were in town, too, they’d drop by for some of the most remarkable music to be found anywhere.

Not a club, but a museum, there was until recently a tribute to one of the great and quirky Las Vegas icons – Liberace. Being off-strip, the Liberace Museum gradually faded from prominence as the memory of Lee Liberace also faded among the younger generation. It’s sad. He was as outrageously glittery as Vegas itself – the Elton John of his day – but now even his memory is gone.

However, the website claims that the museum will soon be reopened – I can only hope. And, if you want to catch a glimpse of the Vegas of long ago, you can hope, too.

Still, those who come to Vegas and focus all their attention on The Strip and Glitter Gulch downtown are going to miss a lot of real treats.

Barnett’s Insider’s Guide to Las Vegas
An ongoing blog about 
What Those Who Live in Las Vegas Do in Las Vegas

Coming to Live in Vegas
Four Seasons Are Just an Hour Away
Off-Strip Excitement
A Rootin’ Tootin’ Shoot-‘Em-Up Good Time