at the end of January, I headed out west for some much needed time off — to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Vegas several times — a perk of having friends who lived there and, for a period, living within reasonable driving distance — and went to the Grand Canyon with my family when I was 11 or 12. my traveling companion, however, had never visited either so it was interesting to experience both in a new way.
it doesn’t take very long before I reach my quota for Vegas spectacle. the Strip is something else to experience and there really is a lot to see and do … so long as shopping and gambling are near the top of your desired list of activities. we spent our first day soaking up everything from the Wynn to Bellagio and I lobbied to take a break on the second day and head downtown to get a taste of what Vegas looked like in the old days.
one of the most iconic site downtown (coming in after the more modern Fremont Street Experience) is Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy perched atop what once operated as the Pioneer Club Casino. the building dates from 1918, initially serving as a restaurant, clothing store, and offices before serving as a club and cocktail lounge from 1942. the casino was one of the most successful downtown for several decades, going through a series of remodels and expansions in the 1960s and 1980s. at one point it was owned by the proprietor of the Frontier Hotel (where we stayed during our Vegas Homecoming several years ago, shortly before it was demolished to make way for what one day might be the mega-resort Montreaux but which at the moment is a desolate vacant patch between Fashion Show Mall and Circus Circus).
new owners in the early 1990s, however, found they couldn’t compete with the larger, flashier casinos popping up along the Strip and at either end of the new Fremont Street Experience and the Pioneer closed in 1995. it remained vacant for three years before reopening as a souvenir shop. the owners retained both the vintage Pioneer Club sign and Vic on the front of the building; he’s still smiling down at tourists with his hat nearly brushing up against the screen of the Fremont Street Experience — they had to shave a few feet off for the new screen to fit.
Vic grew out of an ad campaign designed to draw people to Vegas; he originated on literature generated by a West-Marquis company, offering his trademark “Howdy Podner” greeting on postcards and elsewhere. because of his huge popularity, the Pioneer Club commissioned a Utah firm to construct a neon version. the result was the existing 40 foot structure, erected in 1951; at the time, Vic waved, puffed on a cigarette and said “Howdy Podner” every fifteen minutes. complaints about his volume prompted executives to silence Vic in 1966 for nearly two decades; he regained his voice in the 1980s but fell silent again at in 2006. he stopped waving in 1991.
after the casino closed in 1995, Vic feel into disrepair with no one maintaining him. ultimately, the Neon Museum offered to perform the upkeep if the property-owners paid the electric bill to illuminate Vic each day; the proprietor declined the offer and ended up restoring the sign themselves. now he’s got a red and yellow-checked shirt and a seven-and-a-half gallon hat, rather than the white and yellow-checked stripes and ten-gallon hat of the 1960s. and at some point he got hitched to the Glitter Gal across the road.