Living Las Vegas: Paying Tribute to Vintage Vegas

Posted on: August 14, 2022, 10:00h.

Last updated on: August 13, 2022, 04:18h.

Part of that Las Vegas allure is its ties to a bygone era — movie stars, mobsters, the Rat Pack. Sure, Vegas has changed a lot since then. But you can still pay homage to vintage Las Vegas.

Miss Atomic
The last Miss Atomic, Lee A. Merlin poses in her cloud-shaped bikini. During the 1950s, women competed in Miss Atomic pageants. The pageants aimed to celebrate Vegas’s modernity and atomic testing sites. (Image: Bloomberg)

There is no shortage of modern, “immersive” experiences in Vegas. AREA15’s massive “Omega Mart” leads the pack, and “dining experiences” like Superfrico at the Cosmopolitan — where you can eat “Italian American Psychedelic” entrees in a strikingly stage-lit environment, and be joined at your table by roving sexy and surrealist performers from the adjacent show, Opium.

But there are several gems, potentially lesser-known, in Vegas that pay tribute to years gone by. There’s no other place in the world that can lay claim to having a National Atomic Testing Museum (kaboom!) and a Burlesque Hall of Fame (va-va-voom!). These lesser-known stops harken back to a different Las Vegas.

Atomic Love Affair

The National Atomic Testing Museum highlights the history of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site in the desert, 65 miles northwest of Vegas. It’s insane to think that viewing the Nevada atomic bomb blasts was promoted as a Vegas tourist attraction in the ’50s and early ’60s, when Vegas was known as “Atomic City, USA.”

A display advertisements Atomic Vegas. (Image: Mitch Schneider)

There were all-night rooftop parties at various north-facing hotels where guests could see the predawn detonations; the city also held “Miss Atom Bomb” beauty pageants and served “atomic cocktails.”

While these blasts boosted Vegas tourism and the local economy—the downtown bar “Atomic Liquors” opened in 1952 on East Fremont Street and is still thriving—the “downwinders” who lived near the explosion years later developed cancer from the radiation and died. Serious buzzkill, I know.

The Russians created their atom bomb in 1949, four years after we dropped two of them on Japan in 1945 to end WWII. Visiting the museum will expand your consciousness about this who-can-build-a-better-bomb madness. And while winding my way through the exhibitions and viewing a horrifying “B 53 Thermo Weapon,” “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath was playing non-stop in my mind.

It’s a drive, but worth it to see this one-of-a-kind stop. Set aside three hours to tour the museum, which includes a re-creation of a bomb shelter (with a riotously well-dressed American family), and to view the films. Don’t miss the museum’s store, which includes books like Countdown To 1945 and “atomic culture” souvenirs. You may or may not want to buy the “Radiation Hat.”

Burlesque’s Ode to Feminism

The Burlesque Hall of Fame is in the ever-growing Arts District, just south of the Strip.

The museum is small but rich with original burlesque costumes, including one by Tempest Storm, show posters, news stories, and of course, a huge collection of colorful stripper pasties. There’s a lot of history to absorb here, since burlesque dates back to the 1860s.

Notably, the museum makes it a point to shine a light on how “feminist principles are found throughout burlesque’s history.” One of the news stories on display shows members of the harassed Exotic Dancers League outside the LA Herald Examiner in 1959, standing up for their rights so they could be treated like other cabaret performers.

The burlesque world got a big shot in the arm in the ’90s with the rise of the neo-burlesque scene, which incorporated vintage cool, punk rock bravado, and empowering femininity.

One of this movement’s heroes is Dita Von Teese, and the museum has Dita’s “Giant Martini Glass”– her now-iconic prop in which she performs — as part of her collection. (I was once lucky enough to see her rock that martini glass when Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne renewed their vows at their 20th anniversary Beverly Hills Hotel celebration.)

The Wild West of Burlesque

Spiegelworld’s “Atomic Saloon Show” at The Venetian highlights burlesque in a creatively designed funhouse resembling an Old West brothel.

Anything goes in this proudly indecent spectacle, with audience interaction: in-your-face near-nudity, filthy (and timely) skits mocking religious conservatives, and virtuosic acrobatic dancers hanging from ropes without a net. There’s also a body contortionist who looks at you straight in the eyes while positioned upside down.

A woman claps for a contortionist on the Atomic Saloon Show stage. (Image: Mitch Schneider)

The music at the “Atomic Saloon” — country, rock and dance—pumps loudly, drinks are spilled, and the monologues are filled with deliberately corny lines. With its campy flair, non-stop energy, and celebration of all-inclusive sexuality, the 75-minute show (Friday to Tuesday, 7:30 and 9:30 pm) brings to mind The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The folks at Spiegelworld (“Absinthe,” “Opium”) are experts in overloading your senses, and “Atomic Saloon” is exhausting in all the right ways.

More to Check Out

If you head to the Burlesque Hall of Fame, drop into the gorgeous Pepper Club by famed chef/restaurateur Todd English.

It’s within walking distance of the museum — located inside the new boutique hot spot, The English Hotel — and the lighting is sexy and blessedly sympathetic. Try its “Happiest Hours” menu, where appetizers and drinks are priced at $8.00 daily between 3 and 6 pm. The eclectic and tasty cuisine is billed as “Ocean Asian Fusion and Sushi Bar.”

There’s always a new show to see here, and I recently checked out the “Reckless In Vegas” residency at the Sahara’s historic showroom (Thursdays and Fridays at 8:30 PM). The show draws on ’60s Vegas gems/Rat Pack standards, and a power trio fronted by the personable Vegas-raised Michael Shapiro rocks them up with two backing vocalists.

There’s plenty of video footage and photos of vintage Vegas interwoven throughout, with a pair of showgirls supplying the glitz. It will be interesting to see if the show finds an audience that wants to see classic Vegas songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Sonny & Cher, Frankie Valli, and more given the rock treatment (“Think The Rat Pack meets Green Day,” to borrow the show’s bold catchphrase)

And if you see “Reckless In Vegas,” it’s worth dining at the moderately priced The Noodle Den at The Sahara. When I stopped in recently, their slippery and lovingly folded soup dumplings, Chicken Dan Dan Pulled Noodles, and stir-fried string beans reigned supreme.

Each month, Mitch Schneider explores some of Vegas’ most unique offerings. Schneider has a decades-long career working with some of the music industry’s biggest stars. he moved to Vegas from LA with his wife during the pandemic in March 2020. He’s loved the city ever since.

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