Back in the Day …

Stories about the birth of Las Vegas nightlife, from the people who were there.

The history of Las Vegas nightlife—like Las Vegas history itself—is a moving target. Everyone has a version of when and where our nightlife scene began, and everyone’s memory is informed more by personal experience than public fact.

To many, Las Vegas has always been a nightlife city. But much of our past was dominated by the typical Vegas experiences: dining, casino lounges, stage shows, titty bars and gambling. Sure, there were local places to drink, dance and meet Mr. or Ms. Right Now, but until the explosion of the late 1990s, nightlife wasn’t truly a scene.

Chat with an old-timer who used to party in the 1960s, and they will fondly recall the Pussycat a’ Go Go (where the Palazzo now stands) and Nashville Nevada, the legendary Boulder Highway club where many local gals were called (via phones on every table) and asked to dance to live country music. (In the late ’80s, Calamity Jayne took over the operations, ushering in the era of post-punk, and yet another intriguing Vegas storyline.)

As the city grew in the 1970s and 1980s, the nightlife scene did as well. Rock clubs (the Troubadour, Moby Grape, Sneakers) were big with some, while disco was on the lips and hips of others. Paul Anka’s Jubilation (named, ironically, for his 1972 rock hit) was a flashy disco den straight from the scenes of Saturday Night Fever. Tony Cosmos’ adjacent restaurant served Italian in the vein of Old Vegas.

The scene was a little more mature then, and the doors a little looser. Eighteen-year-olds with fake IDs would dress to match the 28-year-olds inside, rather than the reverse that often happens today. Attracting a crowd of well-heeled, well-dressed locals, tourists and pop-culture stars, Jubilation was the first legitimate DJ/dance club in Las Vegas, it’s fair to say. For those who think after-hours clubs are a product of the 1990s rave scene, in the ’70s the party started at Jubilation—dinner at 9 p.m., dancing at midnight—and moved to the Brewery (John Travolta is said to have spent one long night dancing off his Angel Flights here), Bogie’s, or PJ Bottoms, where the pot-and-quaalude-fueled shenanigans continued until long after sunrise.

But nightlife, as we know, has a lifespan. By the mid 1980s, when the clubs and disco itself had lost their edge, new scenes were rising. Jubilation reopened as the Shark Club, and became another vital moment in the highlight reel. The Brewery closed, reopened briefly in the 1990s as the alt-rock T-Mex, later became a Z’Tejas, and has stood empty for years.

With the crowds getting younger, places like Botany’s—a Miami-inspired spot near UNLV that notably employed misters, intended to cool the queue—tried to bridge the gap between the fading memories of Jubilation and whatever was next.

It worked for a while, but things were changing. Club Rio, the first nightclub located in (and with the massive budget of) a casino opened in 1995. Meanwhile, the underground all-ages electronica scene was rising quickly. In 1995, Drink opened, followed closely in 1996 by Club Utopia (in the former Metz Club), essentially a permanent rave right on the Strip. The spaces were huge and the sound systems and lighting effects incredible. Drink even sported a retractable roof, much to the chagrin of the neighboring apartment dwellers.

The rush of new clubs that came near the turn of the century, and the cash being spent to build them was unprecedented. It was clear things would never be the same. Today, every Las Vegas mega club with a snaking line of anxious, beautiful people, a huge advertising and promotions budget, and a headlining world-renowned DJ pushing beats through a massive sound system has either Drink or Utopia to thank. Or Jubilation. Which one? We’ll leave that up to you.

See the profiles »

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