Nevada’s museums are as unconventional as the state’s history. Other cities exhibit old master paintings and historical documents, but Las Vegas has the stuff people really want to gawk at. A 25-foot dinosaur skeleton. An 8-foot yellow neon duck. A Bob Mackie-designed showgirl headdress. A tricked-out 1950s camping trailer. Jayne Mansfield’s pink sofa. Al Capone’s .38 pistol. The Batmobile. How did these items make their way to Las Vegas and into the public eye? Seven local museums share some of their most interesting finds.
The Las Vegas Showgirl Museum
The Las Vegas Showgirl Museum preserves the glamorous legacy of Las Vegas’ showgirls and entertainers with items such as gowns worn by Ann-Margret and Dionne Warwick, costumes from Enter the Night and Lido de Paris, as well as set pieces from Jubilee! “There are so many odd ways I have collected things for the museum,” says museum CEO Grant Philipo, who recalls finding a trio of elaborate, identical jeweled necklaces at a “hole-in-the-wall resale store” in West Hollywood. Bought for about $25 each, they turned out to be costume pieces that Carol Channing wore in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Why three of the same necklace? Philipo explains that, “in the movie, they shot her out of a canon and they wouldn’t have shot her, so she had two stunt doubles who had to wear the same exact thing.”
Another interesting item is Uncle Fester’s Egyptian sarcophagus. “When I was artistic director of the Hollywood Wax Museum, I always admired the props they had from the TV show, The Addams Family, which had also been used in many of Roger Corman’s films with Vincent Price,” he recalls. The sarcophagus was used at the Wax Museum to hold Boris Karloff’s mummy figure but “after so many decades of use, the owners of the museum decided it was old hat and ended up giving it to me.”
The Mob Museum’s collection of artifacts ranges from FBI wiretap recordings to rigged slot machines. While the museum examines crime nationwide, some items are very closely tied to Las Vegas history. “A retired FBI agent who worked in Las Vegas in the 1980s donated the handcuffs he used to arrest Tony Spilotro,” says Geoff Schumacher, senior director of content. He also points out that “construction crews found a gin bottle in a wall of the Museum building when it was being renovated” although the building was (ahem) constructed during Prohibition.
Some items have taken a convoluted path to the museum’s collection, such as ballistics evidence from the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. “The evidence was never in the possession of the Chicago Police Department or any other law enforcement agency,” Schumacher explains. “The Chicago coroner had turned over the evidence to a privately operated forensic crime lab, one of the nation’s first, for study in its investigation of the crime. When the crime lab closed a few years later, an employee kept the evidence in his garage for several decades. It was quietly transferred through a few more sets of private hands until 2015, when the museum validated the authenticity of the objects and acquired the collection.” Sometimes even the stories keep their secrets.
Hollywood Cars Museum
At the Hollywood Cars Museum, the only backstories most of the vehicles have are those of the films they come from. However, the Lotus Esprit submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me carries a dramatic tale all its own. Museum manager Steve Levesque explains that the car “was sitting in a junkyard in the Bahamas and had been there since the movie was made,” then the car was “brought to Las Vegas and sent over to Rick’s Restorations. It was in very bad condition. It was basically a crate of all the parts.” Now restored, James Bond’s Lotus sits in the museum alongside a Back to the Future DeLorean and Kitt from Knight Rider.
Last year, the museum also became the home of a number of Liberace’s famed cars, including a mirror-studded Rolls Royce and sparkly gold Bradley GT. “They had all of these cars in storage and needed a place to put them on display, so that’s been real nice to have,” Levesque says of the Liberace collection, which also features a few costumes and other possessions. After all, who wouldn’t want to put “Mr. Showmanship” on display, even in auto form?
The Neon Museum works to preserve another aspect of our local history: the signage that documents our past in terms of economics, geography and design. Collections assistant Tracey Sprague says that “the Neon Museum would rather signs stay out on their properties. We like for the city’s signs to remain on display for the public.”
But, when legendary properties like the Stardust or the Moulin Rouge meet the wrecking ball, the museum steps in to save their signs from the same fate. Of course, not every acquisition comes through an implosion. “The sudden, unexpected gifts happen quite a bit and are always a pleasant surprise. Sometimes we don’t know what properties are remodeling or closing until we hear from them,” says Sprague, pointing out the Willy & Jose’s Restaurant sign from Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall and the signage from Planet Hollywood’s Peepshow as recent additions. She also notes that the portable Bally’s neon sign the museum uses for educational lectures, “was found by a gentleman who was cleaning out his uncle’s storage unit after he passed. Nobody knew he had it.”
However, Sprague also notes that there’s getting a sign and then getting it to the museum, which can become quite complicated. “We often work with local sign companies, who have to use flatbed trucks and cranes to get the signs to our Downtown location. It is not a simple matter.”
Clark County Museum
Sometimes public generosity can lead to an excess of riches. With a collection of an estimated 1 million artifacts, the Clark County Museum must often turn down proffered donations “due to storage space considerations,” explains Clark County museum system administrator Mark Hall-Patton. However, exceptions are occasionally made, as when the museum was recently offered “a badly damaged record master disc, which a hiker had found many years ago on Double Up Peak at the site of the Carole Lombard crash,” Hall-Patton explains. “We accepted it into the collection because of its tie to the incident, and it was certainly not an easy artifact to acquire.”
A larger unexpected (and welcome) donation was the George Collection. “The collection consists of Paiute baskets collected by the Kiel and George families in southern Nevada in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with some bows and arrows from the time,” Hall-Patton says. “The collection was not known, as it had been moved from the Vegas area in the early 20th century, and was in storage in Arizona. There are spectacular pieces in the collection, and we are very happy to have it.” And there are certain things the museum is looking for, including photos of the stone columns at McCarran International Airport being moved from their original location on Nellis Air Force Base or ones of the re-creation of Queho’s cave at Helldorado Village. “These types of photos are probably out there, often in family photo albums,” he says, “it would be great to have at least copies in the museum system collection.”
Nevada State Museum
The collection of the Nevada State Museum covers the Silver State’s history from Ichthyosaur fossils to atomic bomb videos. “Artifacts are always dropped in our laps here,” says Caroline Sakaguchi Kunioka, curator of history and collections. She points to a 1958 issue of a local African-American newspaper called The Missile recently donated by a North Las Vegas family. “The advertisements and human-interest pieces highlight something we’d love to have more of in the collection: information about the daily life of African-Americans in southern Nevada,” she says.
The museum has also made discoveries within its own collection, such as a blush-colored 1940s suit that research determined was a design by celebrated Hollywood costumer Jean Louis, worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1947 film It Had to Be You. “When museums first open, they often collect in a mad rush and aren’t always aware of what they’ve accessioned,” Kunioka says. “Decades later, it’s up to interns and volunteers to perform the inventories and back research.”
Some items have not only a connection to history, but a connection to other acquisitions, such as “the letters of Barbara Gates [that] are a record of her time in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Gates, a graduate of Las Vegas High School and relative of [Nevada Sen.] Key Pittman, was stationed in the Philippines and Dutch New Guinea,” Kunioka explains. “In 2013, the museum received a transfer of archaeological specimens from the Barrick Museum. Included were journals written by the amateur archaeologist who had done all the collecting… Marie Gates, Barbara’s mom.”
Burlesque Hall of Fame
The Burlesque Hall of Fame documents the history of burlesque and striptease through photos, posters, props and costumes from high-button chorus girl boots to Lucite stripper heels. The Hall of Fame’s collection began back in the ’60s when, according to executive director Dustin Wax, “a dancer named Jennie Lee would display a collection [of costumes] in her bar in San Pedro, California, the Sassy Lassy. As word spread, dancers would bring their costumes and literally nail them up to the wall of her bar. Which, let me tell you, is a conservator’s nightmare.”
Other items were likewise not in the best of shape when acquired, such as a pair of mother-of-pearl-inlaid staves from the fans of legendary fan dancer Sally Rand. ”One of Rand’s neighbors, another performer who knew about Exotic World—our name before the museum moved to Las Vegas in 2006—found the handles in [Rand’s] trash one day and took them, wrapped them up and sent them to us. Pretty lucky break!”
However, there have been items the Burlesque Hall of Fame has missed out on. “One piece that came up for auction but we were just way outbid on is Gypsy Rose Lee’s camo jacket,” he says. “Gypsy toured Vietnam in 1968 and, at each base [where] she performed, she added patches to the jacket representing the units she performed for. By the end of the tour, the whole jacket was covered with patches, with not a peek of camo to be seen.”