Viva Las Vegas: 20 Years and Still Hopping

Ginger Bruner | Vegas Seven

These days, festivals are about mass appeal—folk, hip-hop, rock, electronic dance music, food, art shows, variety acts. Throw in everything and you’ll have something for everyone. But the Viva Las Vegas Weekender hearkens back to when festivals were subculture-specific, and back even further to an age of tail-finned cars and tube amps, petticoats and pompadours, when the only rock was rockabilly.

Viva Las Vegas began in 1998, when about 1,200 fans of the genre hit the Gold Coast for four days of music, dancing and ogling vintage cars. Over the next two decades, the festival grew into a global event, drawing devotees from Tulsa and Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Baton Rouge—a dance floor full of ladies doing the stroll looks like a glammed-up Miss World pageant circa 1958, albeit one where saddle shoes are as welcome as stilettos.

Viva now draws 10 times the crowd of its first year, and even more for the Saturday car show and concert. It’s also expanded to The Orleans Hotel & Casino: Eddie Cochran pumps through the gaming-floor speakers, the line for potato skins and mozzarella sticks at TGI Fridays is all sleeve tattoos and cuffed jeans, and the Big Easy Lounge is home to “Burlesque Bingo” and record hops.

The 20th anniversary of Viva Las Vegas (April 13–16) continued the tradition in swinging style this year. On one night, the showroom hosted a burlesque extravaganza headed by Dita Von Teese; on another it was a semi-ironic take on Hee Haw hosted by guitarist Deke Dickerson. The Bailiwick Pub was full of folks ages 21 to 71 jumping and jiving to hollow-body guitars and slap bass. Upstairs, the convention halls are full of vending and venues, where you can buy a vintage lace bullet bra or a shiny new vinyl train case and listen to a Dutch Buddy Holly or a Colombian Elvis.

The auto show is still a dream for anyone who loves cars or design or history—rows upon rows of Fords, Chevrolets, Cadillacs—metal-flake finish and chrome grills glowing in the desert sun. Cars for mermaids, for monsters, for movie stars, for any myth that you want to hop into and drive toward the horizon. Viva Las Vegas imagines that possibility, if only for a weekend.

Photography by Ginger Bruner