What’s Old is New Again
March – April 2016
What’s Old is New Again
VINTAGE LAS VEGAS GETS NEW LIFE FROM NOSTALGIC ENTHUSIASTS.
BY DAVE CLARK
“If these walls could talk” is an overused cliché, but at Champagne’s Cafe in Las Vegas the 50-year-old gold-and-red velvet wallpaper is one of this dive bar’s star relics—whispering of a history strewn with mobsters, mistresses, and musicians.
“It’s like owning a piece of history. It’s almost as old as me,” says owner Gregory Sims, who vows to retain the bar’s fabled red booths and re-glue any wallpaper that may peel from the wall.
Long before becoming owner of Champagne’s in 2015, Gregory was also enraptured by the lure of Vegas history. He answered ads about a bar for sale, and using clues in the advertising, he pinpointed Champagne’s as the likely site. When he stepped inside, the bar’s unassuming facade was masking an interior rich in character.
“I said ‘Please God, let this be the bar for sale,’ ” Gregory recalls.
THE FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS
Champagne’s last booth—nestled against the back wall—was reputedly one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite haunts, likely for its convenient location. It’s rumored his mistresses lived in apartments next door, bartender Megan Goble says.
In fact, Gregory characterizes the neighborhood near Champagne’s as formerly an entertainer suburb—a spot brimming with such stars as Sammy Davis Jr., who owned a second Vegas home nearby.
In addition to Rat Packers, Gregory says the bar was a favorite den of the Hole in the Wall Gang, noting former mobster Frank Cullotta is a current regular. A corner wall section dedicated to “Milwaukee Mike” reveals yet another connection to old Vegas. “Milwaukee Mike” arrived in town during the 1960s to look after a mob boss’ son. “The story goes that he hung our famous wallpaper,” Gregory says. “Milwaukee Mike” was also fond of playing Patsy Cline on the jukebox, but not necessarily because he was a country music fan. “He often tells of how he dated Patsy Cline after meeting her in town, and he broke up with her because she was too ‘adventurous’ in the bedroom,” Gregory recounts.
MAD MEN AND WOMEN
In a town rife with demolition and renovation, Champagne’s is defiant in its embrace of classic Vegas history. Precious few establishments remain from Vegas’ golden era of the 1960s and earlier. However, businesses such as the El Cortez Hotel and Casino, the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino (formerly the Hilton, Elvis’ long-time home), and Champagne’s are reveling in the renewed retro interest. In fact, downtown is dotted with places proffering mid-19th-century cocktail menus; Classic Jewel is one of the newest additions to this swinging scene.
Classic Jewel’s cozy lounge vibe is punctuated by diamond-cut booths and a vintage Vegas mural hand painted by tenants of Juhl— the building that houses the bar on its lower level.
“I’m interested in Vegas history in general,” owner Ryan Brown says. “One of our slogans is to celebrate the cocktail hour every hour. A lot of our verbiage is derived from the 1950s when people started getting into cocktails and having people over for cocktail hour.”
Inspired by her parents’ move to Downtown Las Vegas and the bar scene in New York, Brown was drawn to the idea of opening a vintage-style locale in Vegas’ historic center. Finally, she moved back to Vegas three months ago.
“We care about the city so much and wanted to be a part of the movement,” she says.
El Cortez is another spot steeped in nostalgia, and its history reaches back to 1941 when Bugsy Siegel opened Las Vegas’ longest continuously operating casino. El Cortez Executive Vice President Alexandra Epstein trumpets her property’s integral place in Las Vegas lore. Most recently, this nod to the past culminated in the shuttering of Café Cortez and The Flame Steakhouse to make way for the unabashedly retro Siegel’s 1941. In fact, Bugsy Siegel’s visage peers over the dining area in enlarged black-and-white photos taken from his family’s personal collection.
“For better or worse he had a lasting impact on Las Vegas,” Alexandra says. “We wanted to continue to be authentic and harken back to the previous owner.”
Alexandra notes that Siegel’s daughter was enthused about the classic-themed menu and décor. She even gave the Cortez a hand-written letter that Siegel penned to his wife, where he discusses parenting issues. It’s prominently displayed at the restaurant along with photos and a scarf. Alexandra sees other luminous signs of a burgeoning interest in Old Vegas, pointing to the nearby Neon Museum and Mob Museum along with the hotel’s Parlour Bar, which features classic cocktails.
“You walk into the El Cortez and you feel like you are walking back in time,” she says. “People are craving authenticity and there are a growing number of people clamoring for a vintage experience.”
Further ensconcing their ties to an earlier era, El Cortez has applied to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
“In everything we do we reinforce the idea we’ve been around since 1941,” Alexandra says. “For us it’s an asset.”
DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE KING
While downtown draws nostalgia lovers, those visiting The Strip have had few options for visiting storied spaces, until now. The Westgate (formerly The International) has unveiled the Las Vegas Room—Elvis’ site of more than 600 performances—as part of its new Elvis Experience. They have also opened his former penthouse for tours, as well as stays, which go for $15,000 a night.
“After 40 years Elvis is back in the building,” says Elvis Experience Director of Operations Omar Lopez. “We’re trying to keep his legacy alive. Here is the only place outside of Graceland where you can say Elvis has his personal belongings.”
The exhibit boasts more than 300 artifacts, including his Viva Las Vegas outfits.
Yet, as entrepreneurs are proving, Vegas artifacts are not just relegated to museums. In the spirit of new lounges, classic Vegas thrives, while it still haunts the corner booth of a few dimly lit dives.
In 1956, Elvis took the stage at the New Frontier Hotel for his Las Vegas debut. While his first show had mixed reviews, Elvis became a force unlike any other in the history of the town. For 20 years, the King ruled. Take a look back at “Elvis: The Vegas Years,” a story that first ran in Nevada Magazine in 1995. Visit nevadamagazine.com/elvis for a retro look at Elvis and his Nevada connection.