The recent election was yet another reminder of how important understanding the past is to understanding our present and future. Two recent books examine our shared history in different and unique ways.
Lynn Zook’s Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip, 1930-1955, covers what the title says: the period from the Detras opening their Pair-O-Dice nightclub on old Highway 91, now Las Vegas Boulevard South (on land that now fronts a tower with a president-elect’s name at the top), through the mid-’50s building boom. That’s both fun and essential reading under any circumstances.
But it’s more than the sort of musty tome that most musty historians (or at least this one) write. If you go to classiclasvegas.com/book, you’ll find dozens of videos and more than 40 photo collections that invite further examination.
Another book related to Las Vegas history is Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing, A Graphic History, by Andrew Kirk and Kristian Purcell; Purcell is an artist and Andy is a friend and colleague in UNLV’s history department. Their volume is, as the title suggests, a graphic history—a much longer, more serious and wonderfully produced comic book.
Zook’s inspiration comes from her Las Vegas background. “Having grown up there in the ’60s and ’70s, I was always fascinated by Fremont Street and the Las Vegas Strip. My mother was a showroom waitress for a number of years and I was able to see a number of shows when I was kid, either from down in front or from backstage,” Zook recalls. “I loved the neon signs and the mid-century modern architecture of the Strip. It was very different from the Western feel of Downtown. When the Dunes was imploded, I realized that the Las Vegas I had grown up with was changing forever, and I wanted to help preserve as much of the 20th-century history of the town as I could. That’s how I came to do the Classic Las Vegas Video Oral History Project,” which features about 120 interviews with longtime Las Vegans. Zook says that “it’s important for people to realize that before the Las Vegas Strip they know today, its foundation was built years ago. And without those original visionaries and hotels, what we think of as the Las Vegas Strip would be very, very different.”
There’s also more to come. “Because there were almost 20 hotels to cover, I decided to break the book into two parts,” she says. “This book focuses on the 1930s, when the Boulevard was little more than a two-lane highway with a couple of nightclubs, through 1955 when the Strip was growing at a fast clip. Part 2, which will be available in the summer of 2017, will focus on the hotels built from 1956–1973.”
Kirk’s book also ties together the visual and the historical. He told C-SPAN, “I was fascinated with the visual culture of atomic history, and I thought about various ways you could convey this history and its visual richness to readers…. Kristian Purcell is a classical artist based in the United Kingdom. I was captivated by his work. He was doing with art what I tried to do with history, really write the people back into a story that has predominantly been told as a story of big science, big military, big and crazy technology, all of which are important and interesting. … We thought we could collaborate, try to work toward telling this story both with traditional narrative and a sequential visual narrative, like a graphic novel.” However, the book does nod to academia, with footnotes and supporting documents.
Kirk came upon this story as a western and environmental historian, who helped oversee an oral history project about the Nevada Test Site (digital.library.unlv.edu/ntsohp)—another creative way of conveying that important part of our past.
Since this is ostensibly a political column, what makes these books worth pondering is the role of politics in both stories. Nevada became the home of atomic testing, and had the freedom to let its gaming industry grow, thanks in part to Sen. Pat McCarran. His tenure almost matches Zook’s timeline—1933 to 1954. While accumulating power in Washington, D.C., and trampling the Bill of Rights in his quest to find the communists hiding under every bed, McCarran boosted his home state’s economy.
That’s what might be called a trade-off—much like the mobster image that resulted from the rise of gambling that Zook depicts, and the horrible effects of atomic testing that show up in Kirk’s work. Both books remind us that history is fascinating and messy, that it can be told in different ways—but also that we can learn from our successes and our mistakes if we try.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.