The 1980s marked the start of Vegas’ very own big bang, with an outbreak of mega-casinos, 7,000-yard golf courses and multilevel nightclubs.
As a 6-year-old in 1980, Vegas native and local carpet store operator Bradd Robison, now 43, remembers when the city was small. At that time there was only one grocery store in his neighborhood. His mother had to carry an ice chest for the long-distance trek to keep produce from wilting under the sweltering summer sun.
It was a time just before the Strip surpassed Downtown as the “place to be” and the mob-run city’s power shifted to the hands of corporate investors. In the late ’60s, renowned recluse Howard Hughes went on a hotel shopping spree, starting the engine of Vegas’ machine-like productivity and growth. Yet, it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that things really started kicking. According to the city’s website, Las Vegas almost doubled in size between 1985 and 1995—forever transforming the small desert community Robison remembers to what it is today.
“Our small town has grown up,” he says. It’s something he never could’ve imagined as a kid when he hoped his ice cream wouldn’t melt on the way home from the grocery store.
The history of mobsters and showgirls is tucked away into the walls of museums around town. Yet there are a few significant touchstones still in existence, allowing us to relive a typical day in Vegas’ flourishing past—minus the parachute pants and teased hair.
10 a.m.—Breakfast at Vickie’s Diner
A diner by a drugstore? The unlikely pair may be exactly the right combo. White Cross Market (previously White Cross Drugs) and Vickie’s Diner (previously Tiffany’s Cafe, 1700 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) have run beside each other since 1955, back when Rat Pack members would stroll through to pick up their prescriptions.
Sit on one of the bubble gum vinyl seats and it seems as though Elvis could walk through the door whistling “Viva Las Vegas” at any moment. The restaurant lined with framed photographs and aged keepsakes holds an authentic, Old Vegas flair you can’t quite find anywhere else.
The all-day-breakfast spot was a hit in the ’80s, perfect for a quick and affordable bite to eat early in the morning or late at night. In 2014, Vickie Kelesis took over the diner from her uncle, Pete Kelesis. She promises to continue her uncle’s legacy, serving homemade breakfast, lunch and dinner 24/7.
12 p.m.—Matinee at West Wind Las Vegas 6 Drive-In
In the Killers music video “Bones,” band members transform into skeletons as they stand in front of a big screen at the West Wind Las Vegas 6 Drive-In (4150 W. Carey Ave.). The video pans out revealing a desert lot of cars and a large tiered sign, the same one that stands on the side of Decatur today.
Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing at entertainment company Syufy Enterprises, says it remains a mystery how the band managed to pull off filming as there hasn’t been one day the theater closed since its opening on January 7, 1966.
The drive-in was the second to open in Vegas, but the only one in business today. Maniscalco says the theater remains primarily the same other than an additional five screens and audio and digital upgrades. He admits the biggest upgrade happened in the early ’80s when wireless audio transmitted through car speakers replaced squawk boxes “that sounded like the name.”
Owner of Goodfellows Shoeshine, Shelley Bonner-Carson worked at the drive-in when she was 15, often sneaking her friends in for free. The ’80s marked a time when drive-in businesses were competing with traditional movie theater counterparts. Yet, for those who grew up in Old Vegas, the spot remained a favorite part of a teen’s weekend to-do’s.
“Las Vegas is a very interesting mix of old and new, and there is nothing cooler than vintage Las Vegas. The Strip is fun but superficial,” Maniscalco says. “The older stuff is deep and interesting. … To lose them would be to lose part of the soul of America.”
3 p.m.—An Afternoon Snack at Luv-it Frozen Custard
The 44-year-old business holds a lot of luv for Vegas natives and celebrities, such as former Playboy Bunny and Girls Next Door star Holly Madison and late night television host Craig Ferguson.
The bright blue shop has sold shakes, cones and malts since it took over from a fast-food chicken joint in 1973. For 24 years, Luv-it Frozen Custard (505 E. Oakey Blvd.) survived solely by word of mouth, making it the town’s favorite secret delicacy. This especially held true in the ’80s as lines were often comprised of repeat customers.
“The only thing that has changed over the last 44 years is a different family member owning it,” says fourth-generation owner Sharon Tiedemann. She went against family custom when she decided to market and advertise, and started a delivery service to various Vegas hotels, businesses and homes. The business used to be cash only, but as of this year has expanded to accept all forms of plastic.
Within the next year, Tiedemann plans to franchise Luv-it Frozen Custard and expand to other towns, ship product out of state and start “spreading the name internationally.”
5 p.m.—Evening Skate at Crystal Palace Skating Centers
Trends come in waves, and according to Rancho Crystal Palace‘s owner Larry Sanford, the ’80s marked the end of the roller-skating craze. While skating locations in the Valley and around the States were closing left and right, two rinks on Rancho and Boulder Highway survived the fall and are still earning revenue today.
Sanford started running the place with his wife, Judy, in 1985. Before Sanford took over, the Rancho and Boulder Highway rinks (3901 N. Rancho Dr. and 4680 Boulder Hwy.) were two of four PlayLand skating centers that were built in the late ’70s by Bob Howell.
Old Crystal Palace photos by Larry Sanford
“People built thinking [the rinks] were going to last. They weren’t in the business long enough to know that you’re not going to skate this [disco] crowd the rest of our lives,” Sanford says. He believes they survived the downturn by creating a family-focused strategy.
“We’re kind of old-school. If a kid doesn’t know how to act, we’ll call a parent to come pick him up.”
Since then, the Sanfords continue to enhance the locations by bringing in new lighting and sound systems. Yet even with the enhancements, a vintage feel is left behind, with its blue, starry carpet and flashing disco ball.
6:30 p.m.—Hugo’s Cellar
Richard Assalone, the manager of Hugo’s Cellar (202 Fremont St.) wants to know what the hell happened to fine dining.
As a woman walks among the dimly lit brick room lined with blue linens, she is handed a red rose—the restaurant’s signature for more than 41 years. Dinner is made tableside. Service is the number one priority. This service-oriented Vegas experience was common before the large boom period, but is close to nonexistent today.
“The difference between us and everybody else is that we are Old Vegas, and people like that because they want nostalgia,” Assalone says of the enduring restaurant, whose menu still includes original entrées and ingredients from its opening in the mid-’70s.
Assalone came to Vegas in ’76, waiting at the Sands’ gourmet Regency Room restaurant built for Frank Sinatra. He worked in the restaurant industry through the ’70s and ’80s when every hotel had one to three in-house gourmet rooms, each table accompanied by a team with a captain, two waiters and a busboy.
Assalone said that as gambling became more prominent in Vegas, casinos bargained for more poker tables and cost cutback on the integrity of good service.
He observed the change when Steve Wynn took over the Mirage in 1989. Multiple service and quality tableside service was replaced by self-cashing waiters who cover five or more tables at a time.
“They brought in the corporate … and the first thing they do is cut labor,” he says. He saw management put more emphasis on making the books look “nice” as a compromise for the service of Old Vegas showrooms.
“That was the snowball of everything,” Assalone says, referencing the start of celebrity-chef kitchens that represent the fine dining atmosphere today.
But Hugo’s Cellar never budged. Nothing is à la carte, and while a meal can cost up to $150 a head, everything from salad to dessert is included. They often seat repeat customers—generations of families or couples who come back after 20 to 30 years to celebrate their anniversaries with the same meal they shared on their wedding night.
“It’s more of an experience,” he says.
9 p.m.—Cruising Fremont
Colleen Williams and her friends spent their teenage years in Downtown Vegas, “cruising Fremont.”
“[It] was a way to meet people fast, like online dating is today. If you saw someone you knew or wanted to know, you would strike up a conversation,” Williams says.
The night went as follows: A passenger in one car would want to get to know someone in a passing car. So they would jump in the stranger’s car, then switch back when they saw their original ride. Williams clarifies that traffic was never going very fast, so it was relatively easy to hop from one ride to the next.
The rides started in the mid-’70s and went on until Fremont closed off the street to cars in 1994. The Fremont Street Experience opened a year later, now full of tourist shops and costumed showgirls. But one can still imagine what cruising would be like when strolling the street or flying above via SlotZilla Zipline.
For Williams it was part of her every day, and even how she met some of her lifelong friends. While cruising seems to be a culture stuck in a time past, there are Fremont Street bars that can take over as that medium for connection.
“If you weren’t at work or out of town on the weekend, you were down cruising Fremont,” Williams says. The phrase could be repeated by those who spend their weekends bar-hopping along Fremont East today.