Because I apparently put my publisher out of the book business entirely, I am free to share with you my contribution to the book “Wish You Were Here.” Published in 2013 by the late Stephens Press, it was a compendium of essays inspired by early postcards from Las Vegas. Here’s the chapter inspired by my assignment — this image from the Last Frontier…
OUR LOST FRONTIERS
By Corey Levitan
Brown ooze streamed from her right hand. Yet the brunette in the orange bikini extended it to me anyway. She screamed her name above the screaming.
I took a pass on the formality. A minute later, a forearm attached to a purple bikini wrapped around my new friend’s face and yanked it floorward.
I cannot provide a firsthand account of Elvis Presley’s debut Las Vegas performance in 1956, Diana Ross’ last performance with the Supremes in 1970, or even Siegfried and Roy’s magic show in the eighties.
I visited the Frontier Hotel and Casino exactly once, in April 2007, and what I witnessed was an embarrassment to its storied legacy. It was a ritual as vomitous — and yet, I must admit, simultaneously appealing to my maleness — as the beer mold percolating from its patterned lobby carpet. It was bikini mud-wrestling at Gilley’s.
I was there to watch and, next time, participate. It was for an upcoming edition of “Fear and Loafing,” the weekly Review-Journal humor column for which I sampled unusual jobs around town. Long since stripped of dignity and headlines, the Frontier was thrilled enough to convince Gilley’s to break its female-only rule to accommodate my strange needs. It was to be the debut of my neon-green Borat mankini, which stretched from neck to (barely covered) nuts. I was so proud of myself for finding it for thirty dollars on eBay.
If you don’t already know me, by now you probably have an inkling that shame is not a frequent problem for me. However, I am genuinely ashamed at myself for ignoring the important story that introduced itself to me that night: the tragic disrespect — no, the contempt — that Las Vegas displays for any and all storied legacies.
When the Last Frontier opened in 1942, it was the shit. No Las Vegas hotel was bigger or more opulent. At the same time, it represented a vision for our city in radical conflict with the gaudy commercialism that would later define it. It was a vision that perfectly balanced man and nature, commerce and commune, past and future. It was, as advertised on the back of the postcard that inspired this essay, “stage coach rides to desert banquets.” Anything must have seemed possible on those “fifteen acres of beautified grounds in the heart of the desert,” because it was. Las Vegas was America’s last frontier.
Half a century after it opened, lost amid the fresh piles of garish cartoonitecture enveloping it, the Frontier was the other kind of shit.
Jim Barrier arrived an hour late to Gilley’s, drawing stares from the cowboys rimming the mud-pit’s log fence. Buffalo Jim, as he called himself, was the biggest Las Vegas character — in all possible senses of that phrase — that I will probably ever meet. Playing the part of my mud-wrestling coach to the hilt, the 54-year-old donned a top hat with bones and feathers, sunglasses and a championship wrestling belt never meant for his three-hundred-pound frame. He looked exactly like eighties wrestling manager “Captain Lou” Albano in those Cyndi Lauper videos.
“I guarantee you this is going to be the greatest column you have ever written!” Barrier screamed above the screaming.
In 1970, Barrier was a grease monkey who had just relocated from Cleveland. Vegas was his frontier, too. By the nineties, with zero background in the sport, he suddenly had a pro-wrestling school and local fame based on a pay-TV wrestling show called Jim Wars.
I have this theory about Las Vegas: For those who work hard enough, three times more success awaits than it does in any other city. I count myself among the beneficiaries. In 2005, I was an unknown journalist, living in a studio apartment in Southern California, who couldn’t rate a return call from the L.A. Times. Two years later, I was starring in television and radio commercials for my own column, tossing the first pitch at a Cubs-Mariners exhibition game, and living out the most insane adventures anyone ever has for a paycheck. I washed the windows on the Stratosphere, go-go-danced in a gay bar, even midwifed a stranger’s baby. Because of this gig, my gravestone cannot read “a coward who never tried shit” (also because of cemetery regulations, I imagine).
R.E. Griffith had a dream, too: to make a name for himself outside the vast shadow of his brother (movie director D.W. Griffith). R.E. had already opened a hotel called the El Rancho in Gallup, New Mexico, and planned a second one three-hundred-fifty miles away, in Deming. After a business trip to L.A. in the summer of 1941, he and his nephew, architect William Moore, cut through Vegas on their way home, and were impressed enough to alter their plans.
Their El Rancho was to be the second hotel on what would become the Las Vegas Strip until, incredibly, Griffith and Moore discovered that the first one there already went by that name.
“The Last Frontier” sounded appropriate, since it was to go south of the other El Rancho. Today, its land — adjoining the Fashion Show Mall across from Wynn Las Vegas — is part of the Strip’s north end. Then, however, it was crazy south. If the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign existed then, it would have required relocating.
For Griffith, it wasn’t enough for his hotel to be the first spotted by northbound Californians on Highway 91; anyone could come along and out-south him. So he shot for the grandest hotel Vegas would ever see. Despite construction shortages caused by World War II, Griffith pimped that crib like a motherfucka. He bused in expert stonemasons to carve fireplaces and patios from sandstone, installed expensive furniture and a 40-foot mahogany bar from the old Arizona Club, and planted three-thousand seven-hundred trees and shrubs.
Its rustic theme did not extend to the amenities. The Last Frontier epitomized postwar luxury. It had one-hundred-five rooms — nearly twice the El Rancho’s count. It was the first hotel to fly out its VIPs and entertainers (who included the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, and Judy Garland). And it was a home away from home for Howard Hughes, who used its windows to fall in love with the Strip, and the area his estate would one day dub Summerlin (after his grandmother’s surname).
Unfortunately for R.E. Griffith, he died less than a year after ground broke on his dream.
I was lucky enough to enjoy my rise to C-level Vegas celebrity — as much as my obsessive-compulsive disorder would allow, anyway. Every weekend, my wife and I hobnobbed with the rich and famous at show and restaurant openings, and in the beautiful Summerlin home we purchased at the popping edge of the Vegas housing bubble. In March 2008, Palms owner George Maloof gave a thumbs-up to my stir-fried tofu and Chinese veggies while seated at the dining-room table I purchased on Craigslist for one-hundred dollars less than the wine he brought was worth. (We looked it up online the minute he left. Oh, come on. Like you wouldn’t?)
A New Mexico native whose family earned its money in beer distribution, Maloof was a maverick who ignored all the rules of modern Las Vegas hotel construction. He built a major property without a theme. He situated it off the Strip. And he marketed it exclusively to the MTV generation, which was considered a preposterous notion since most of the members of that demographic weren’t close to big-earning — and some even legal-drinking — age.
By 2008, Maloof had made the Palms the destination of choice for young Hollywood, alternative-rock stars and pretty much all big-spenders under forty. It whooped even the Hard Rock, which had a six-year head start. Hugh Hefner was sufficiently impressed to relaunch his Playboy Club brand — not seen since 1988 — on the fifty-second floor of the Palms’ Fantasy Tower.
Okay, so I’m lying just to impress you. My friendship with the owner of the Palms and Sacramento Kings didn’t organically rise from my C-level local celebrity. Two weeks earlier, my wife and I attended a media party for the opening of a tanning salon at Palms Place. She spotted Maloof and broke away from a chat I was conducting with friends, recognizing him from a Palms TV commercial in which he co-starred with a pig. I had what I imagined to be the same telephone relationship with the man that dozens of local journalists enjoyed. But Jo Ann thought that made it appropriate to invite him to dinner at our place. Maloof accepted. And I spent the whole car ride home berating my wife for the faux pas.
“Of course, he’s going to accept!” I yelled. “George Maloof is not going to be rude to you! But now you’ve put him in an awkward position of having to blow us off!”
Two weeks later, we had a billionaire on our five-hundred-dollar couch, texting Britney Spears while our Dachshund humped his leg. (Maloof was a confirmed fan of my column, quoting as many scenarios as my parents could.)
Maybe shit like this happens in other dimensions, but not in other cities.
Nobody was more aware of the power of Vegas to transform dreams into reality than Barrier. He would phone at least twice a week with an idea for a mentally unbalanced new project — invariably with the excitement of a ten-year-old boy describing a new video game he could die from not owning.
“You’re gonna be my campaign manager!” he commanded me during one of these calls.
This was about a 2011 mayoral run he planned against Oscar Goodman, a man he despised because of his former role as defense attorney for the Mafia. NBC had already agreed to base a reality show on it, Barrier claimed.
But me as a campaign manager?
“Why not?” Barrier shot back hard.
You mean, besides the fact that no respectable newspaper would ever in a million years allow one of its reporters to participate in the news that it covered, and the fact that I KNOW NOTHING WHATSOEVER ABOUT POLITICS? (I thought all this, but didn’t say it, hoping the idea would never advance far enough for me to worry about it.)
It was William Moore who steered the Last Frontier toward the fulfillment of his late uncle’s dreams. His touches included the Strip’s first wedding chapel. (Despite three relocations, the Little Church of the West is still intact and recognized as the Strip’s oldest building.) He also built the Last Frontier Village, which would celebrate Nevada’s pioneer history in much the manner that Bonnie Springs Ranch does today. This set a precedent for the hotel: Instead of engaging in the neon screaming of its new neighbors, it would march forward by celebrating the past.
In the long run, you could call this policy successful, since most of the glitzier hotels that came along later perished sooner. By the fifties, however, the past was a four-letter word and the Last Frontier was on the outs. The Desert Inn, Sands, and Dunes invented a separate, more powerful Las Vegas mythology centered not on the old West and its bandits, but on the Rat Pack and their friends, whose legendarily (though as-yet unproven) sinful activities funded new construction costs.
In 1954, new owners attempted to compete by adding a modern, two-story building. Dubbed the New Frontier, it was decorated with aliens and flying saucers. Tourists smelled the desperation and stayed away in droves. By 1967, Bankers Life couldn’t even find a tenant to operate the hotel. So all the original buildings were razed, replaced by the every-office-building-in-America tower of five-hundred rooms that most Las Vegans remember today. An investment group including Steve Wynn then took over, but was forced to sell when some of Wynn’s partners were accused of mob ties.
Enter Howard Hughes (who else?). The mob-baiter purchased his beloved casino resort for $14 million and shortened its name. The Frontier entered middle-age as a second-rate hotel offering second-rate amenities and headliners (Frank Sinatra, JR.). But it survived, like so many others, by turning a profit in the cage.
Killer Korey was to be my wrestling name. Barrier christened me in tribute to wrestler Killer Kowalski, one of his heroes. I would be the villain in my bikini mud-wrestling match, since everyone would want a man to lose.
“Remember Andy Kaufman?” Barrier asked.
But we would need some serious choreography first.
“All wrestling is choreographed,” Barrier said, “even the wrestling that you think is not.”
Two levels of relief struck at this point. First, how does a man spontaneously wrestle a barely bikinied woman without his hands building a sexual discrimination lawsuit against him? But more important, I already had an intergender fighting record, and it was not good. No, I hadn’t yet had my rib painfully broken while working as sparring partner to six-time national bantamweight boxing champion Melinda Cooper. (That would have to wait until 2009.) I’m referring to Debbie Lee in the sandbox outside fifth grade. I have no idea what I did to anger her so effectively. All I remember is the four-inch upward stare into her grimace and the lunch being kicked out of me. (“I don’t remember beating you up — LOL,” Lee messaged me decades later, “but I am much nicer now.”)
Since Barrier arrived so late, unfortunately, my orange-bikinied wrestling opponent had vanished. So Barrier and I agreed to another meeting before walking to our cars. But that meeting was postponed due to fresh developments in a legal dispute. Barrier was suing the owner of the building that housed his business, Buffalo Jim’s Auto Marine on Industrial Road. Rick Rizzolo was unfairly restricting Barrier’s access to the parking lot his shop shared with Rizzolo’s Crazy Horse Too strip club, Barrier claimed. But the feud ran much deeper. Barrier notated and photographed Rizzolo’s activities in the parking lot, furnishing them to police and other officials who had long suspected Rizzolo of organized crime ties. (Rizzolo was scheduled to be released from federal prison in June, where he served a sentence relating to a 2006 conviction for tax evasion.)
Phil Ruffin’s only dream for the Frontier was to replace it. Ruffin, whom I interviewed once but never cooked for, was a no-nonsense businessman. He began his road to Vegas — and Fortune‘s 400 list — in 1972, with a line of Kansas convenience stores boasting the nation’s first legalized self-serve gas. Its profits built his first hotel, a Wichita Marriott, in 1987. Eight years later, he erected a resort in the Bahamas that he mortgaged to buy the Frontier, for $167 million, from Margaret Elardi and her family. By then, the fifty-seven-year-old hotel had been mired in a bitter, seven-year-long strike with the Culinary Workers Union. The purchase price included a $3.5 million payment to workers to settle the strike.
Ruffin had several ideas in mind to replace the Frontier, the last being a two-billion-dollar, Swiss-themed resort called the Montreux, featuring a four-hundred-fifty-foot-tall observation wheel based on the London Eye. But nothing panned out, so the property languished on hotel death row. Once upon a time, it lived up to the slogan on that postcard: “The Early West in Modern Splendor.” By the time I walked its beery carpet, it could only truthfully advertise, as its marquee then did, “Cold Beer and Dirty Girls.”
Barrier and I would never return for our mud-wrestling meeting. Three weeks after our visit, the Frontier announced it would be closing forever in 60 days. With the news, Gilley’s immediately suspended all mud-related activities.
At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2007, fireworks danced out a digital countdown across the face of the Frontier’s tower. The mushroom cloud that rose would be the last one before the recession, the last one Vegas hoteliers would not try to hide, out of fear of its portentous symbolism, from the media and public.
It felt more like euthanasia than implosion, to be honest. After all, the original buildings were long gone. And so this was just another sad shadow of its former self meeting a Las Vegas end to make room for something (supposedly) better. When this town is finished with someone’s dream, even a dream as big as R.E. Griffith’s, it is finished and won’t look back.
My own Las Vegas dream imploded with significantly less fanfare in June 2011, when I lost my column and the employment that went with it. I might appreciate the irony, if I didn’t find it so heartbreaking, that the person to hold more jobs than any Las Vegan in history (one-hundred-seventy) could find himself involuntarily unemployed more than a year later. (For the record, I haven’t yet asked the gay bar to take me back. However, I was its least-tipped go-go boy ever, and I’ve gained 10 pounds since then. So you do the math.)
Like too many Las Vegans, I have a mortgage that’s in default and a net worth preceded by a minus sign. I also have a baby daughter who — if I don’t quickly figure out something gainful to do with the rest of my life — stands more than a fifty-percent chance of becoming a stripper named Krystal. The majority of my income derives from ripping off senior citizens who have no idea how much the Barbie Dream Houses that populate their garage sales are worth.
Since I was fired, George Maloof changed his cell number, so we haven’t spoken. But he can’t be feeling too good these days, either. His family — currently embroiled in a battle over the future home of their Sacramento Kings — now owns only two percent of the hotel whose marquee still trumpets their name. The investment firms TPG Capital and Leonard Green and Partners each got 49 percent in return for assuming the Palms’ four-hundred-million-dollar debt last year. In June, the Playboy Club closed its doors forever.
The Frontier is now a dirt lot, a giant, dried-up version of the Gilley’s mud pit that would never become the Montreux or, as later promised by new owner the El-Ad Group, an eight-billion-dollar replica of New York’s Plaza Hotel.
No one is worse off, however, than Buffalo Jim — or, perhaps, better off. He drew his last breath in a shitty motel room on April 5, 2008. “Natural causes” is what the coroner pronounced — less than two weeks after Barrier pointed out to me and my wife the spot in his shop’s tile ceiling where someone had just broken an entering to rifle through his file cabinets and leave a tax document on his desk listing his home address.
“I’m not afraid to die,” he told us.
Two days before Barrier’s body was found, Rick Rizzolo had been freshly sprung from jail before eventually going on to violate the terms of his release. Video surveillance from a Motel 6 on Boulder Highway showed Barrier walking into a room, with a Crazy Horse Too dancer named Lisa, and never walking out.
Only one dreamer survives to the end of this chapter along with his dreams. In fact, Phil Ruffin is the only person I can think of to plumb a profit from the ruination of modern Las Vegas, his personal reward for neglecting a piece of Strip history for 10 years.
You see, the Frontier could easily have been revamped to fit the “theme” theme of nineties Las Vegas. After fire destroyed the El Rancho in 1960 — leaving an incredibly still-vacant lot across from the Sahara — the Frontier became the Strip’s oldest operating hotel. The strength of this boast alone should have warranted its rebirth as a pillar of opulence. Just as other hotels delivered visitors to other places, the Frontier could have delivered them to another time, with replica 1940′s slot machines, cigarette girls and crooners in the lounge once again striking the perfect past/future balance.
If you agree, then you will never own or operate a Las Vegas resort. Despite the forward-thinking reputation of those who shape our skyline, their overriding blueprint is the herd mentality. Just emulate what has already proven itself across the boulevard. So that Rome bullshit worked? Let’s try Egypt, Paris, Venice … This pattern is interrupted only rarely by a Griffith, a Steve Wynn, a Maloof or a Bugsy Siegel (who, for making his hotel more distinguished than it needed to be, paid the ultimate price).
In 2007 — the year I bought my Las Vegas house for three times its current value — Phil Ruffin sold the Frontier. The $1.2 billion he received was the largest per-acre price (thirty-four million dollars) in Strip history. Ruffin waited a year and a half, then made a seven-hundred seventy-five-million-dollar purchase from cash-strapped MGM Mirage. Essentially, he traded the Frontier for Treasure Island and still had $425 million left over, a deal that would pop the spectacles off Mr. Monopoly.
I dedicate this chapter to Mr. Ruffin and his sort: the scavengers. They’re the only ones to whom any kind of Las Vegas frontier still exists. Should you ever find yourself lucky enough to meet one, please remember to extend a congratulatory handshake in honor of all the important contributions they’ve made to the future of our hometown.
But be careful of the streaming brown ooze.