Mr. Las Vegas … Airport?

The trick to naming places after people is to keep politics out of it

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Five years ago, no less an eminence than then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that McCarran International Airport needed a new name. Citing the 22-year (1933—1954) Nevada senator’s personal shortcomings, Reid announced that, in his opinion, McCarran’s name “shouldn’t be on anything.”

At the time I agreed, in a “modest proposal” sort of way, that a name change was in order. Ditch the historical baggage, I said, and dump McCarran. But don’t stop there: Clark County, named for a man Mark Twain called “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time,” needed a new namesake, as did Las Vegas (don’t want to risk getting confused with Las Vegas, New Mexico, you know).

Fast-forward to 2017, and a name change for McCarran is back in the news. This time Reid isn’t proposing the switch, although he is part of the story: State senator Tick Segerblom wants to rename McCarran “Harry Reid International Airport” in honor of the recently retired senator. Segerblom wants Reid’s name on Southern Nevada’s chief air gateway because he “symbolizes modern Nevada.”

Perhaps, perhaps not. But one thing is certain: As the political becomes increasingly partisan, putting any politician’s name on anything runs the risk of alienating half of the country. Even those who feel warmly toward Reid or don’t care one way or the other will be reminded of national politics which, by the time it filters down to the general public, seems like mostly people arguing with each other: Good for raising your blood pressure, but not the best thing to put you in a vacationing frame of mind.

Also, while now outside the mainstream of acceptable public discourse, many of McCarran’s views were widely shared in his time. Sixty years from now, it is quite possible that some of Harry Reid’s beliefs will be considered egregiously offensive. Times change, but they keep on changing. Swapping out those we remember to keep up with the current social and political mood is a game of eternal catch-up.

For the sake of argument, let’s say we go ahead with the name change, but with a less controversial figure than Reid. Who else could possibly symbolize modern Las Vegas in a way that doesn’t alienate or annoy?

One man comes to mind: Wayne Newton. He’s Mr. Las Vegas, after all. What better symbol of Las Vegas than him?

  • There’s already a boulevard named after him that leads to the airport.
  • He’s a longtime aviation enthusiast.
  • He’s been performing in Las Vegas casinos for nearly 60 years—about twice Reid’s tenure in the Senate.
  • When he’s not in town, he’s bringing a taste of Las Vegas to theaters from Mississippi to Alberta to California.
  • He’s performed for the United Service Organization since childhood, becoming chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle in 2000.
  • He was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame.
  • He’s been on television from The Jack Benny Program (1964) to Sharknado 4 (2016).
  • That mustache—that might be reason alone.

There are plenty of precedents for naming an airport after an entertainer. The name of Bob Hope, Newton’s predecessor as USO Celebrity Circle chairman, adorns Burbank’s airport. Farther south, John Wayne Airport serves Orange County, California. And nothing says jazz and culture like Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Just thinking of Satchmo certainly gets you in the mood for Bourbon Street.

If Wayne isn’t acceptable, there’s no shortage of classic Las Vegas headliners whose names would pop the Vegas brand: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra—or, for that matter, the entire Rat Pack—or Siegfried and Roy.

Wait, you might say: None of those luminaries is still performing. We could try a fresher, more contemporary name, but picking just one entertainer might alienate non-fans. So let’s just have visitors fly into Celine Dion/Britney Spears/Elton John/Pitbull/Jennifer Lopez/The Who/Billy Idol/Donnie & Marie International Airport. Of course, we’d have to keep updating the name as performers cycle in and out, so maybe that wouldn’t work after all. My sentimental choice would be Crazy Girls International Airport, honoring a long-standing revue that is so quintessentially Las Vegas that even the Riviera’s demise couldn’t end it.

It seems there are two real options for McCarran: keep the name, or just call it Las Vegas International Airport. The Brits might have the right idea in sticking with place names for their airports: Liverpool’s John Lennon airport is the only U.K. hub named for a person. Neutral might be the best way to go.

Because, after all, the idea is to use the airport to get people to our city, not make a statement about it.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center  for Gaming Research.

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