NV Day 3 - Clark County, Casinos, and Contemporary Art
Today started with an outing to the Clark County Museum in Henderson with my cousin, Siobhan. It’s only a few minutes up the road from her, and it was apparently a staple of school field trips growing up, but they have a constantly rotating special exhibit and the current curator, Mark Hall-Patton, was regularly on Pawn Stars so she didn’t mind tagging along. I really loved getting to spend some time with her, because we normally only get to see each other once or twice a year so there was plenty of catching up to do, and the museum was a very cool place to do it.
The thing that most immediately jumps out to you about the Clark County Museum is that it has quite a non-traditional layout. Rather than housing their entire collection in one central building, the different art and historical artifacts are displayed across an array of historic homes arranged into a fictional village that captures over 100 years of Clark County life. Some of the homes are replicas but most are actually originals carefully transported to their present location, making for a really cool effect of taking a stroll through time.
The walk through time begins with a small ghost town paying homage to the wild west origins of the first trading post towns to pop up in Nevada. Nowadays Clark County is the largest county in Nevada, encompassing three of the state’s largest cities (Vegas, Henderson, and Boulder City) and containing three quarters of the population for the entire states so it’s hard to believe it once looked as barren as this:
Just a few steps out of the ghost town and all of sudden it was like you were in the middle of Leave it to Beaver (if Leave it to Beaver took place in the 20s, 50s, and 70s all at the same time). I was pretty impressed and I think it absolutely helps that we had a particularly beautiful day:
The houses in the cul de sac ran the gamut from an 1890s print shop to a 1960s mobile home, capturing all the decades in between. The houses were were all furnished with with era appropriate pieces of furniture, artwork, and glassware, and it was a really cool way of capturing the evolution of the surrounding towns from ramshackle miner communities to spartan government built homes for Hoover Dam workers to the more familiar suburban homes of today. Because of the combination of gold discoveries and jobs provided by zinc mining companies, dam construction companies, and later casinos, Clark County holds the record for fasted grown county in the Nation and walking through the different houses you get a taste for all the social and economic changes that came with that rapid expansion. The houses even had mannequins dressed in appropriate clothing, which was a little bit creepy but also helped bring the time periods to life in a more authentic way.
In the most stunning stroke of realism, the mannequins in one home even captured the exact moment where a 1950s marriage crumbles due to a lack of communication:
The houses were a lot of fun, but I found the different businesses in the non-temporal neighborhood more interesting. The printing press featured exhibits about the history of printing from gigantic old newspaper presses up to modern day home computer printers. It’s the kind of everyday thing you don’t fully appreciate until you see how much effort and work used to go into it, and how much more effort and work went into perfecting the simpler process we have today. I also loved the exhibits about mining, because before the casinos that was really the major source of employment in the area and it’s a really interesting mix of scientific research, mechanical engineering, and pure back-breaking labor. The models and vinage photographs of the mines and the miners really sucked me in.
Of course, what museum of Vegas towns would be complete without a quickie wedding chapel? I believe the Vegas Hotels and Casinos were the first places to really figure out how much business potential there was in offering no-frills quick weddings that still looked like they were held in a nice church, albeit a night church surrounded by gambling parlors and strip clubs. The businesses were also aided by Nevada’s relatively lax divorce laws, which led to so much tourism that getting divorced in Nevada became known as getting Reno-vated. The chapel housed in the museum’s little town is actually a restored historic building with a fun history of its own. The Candlelight Wedding Chapel was for many years a part of the Algiers Hotel, and it gained a reputation as being a go-to place for celebrity weddings. Famous love birds married there included: Michael Caine, Barry White, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, and even the Lone Ranger! It also has the record for most weddings performed in a single day with a whopping 425! For some strange reason though, in both these instances the museum didn’t also include the statistics on how many of those marriages actually lasted. Oh well.
Next up there was a restored Train Depot, complete with vintage luggage, trains you could walk around in, and even some upscale dining car table settings. I think this trip sort of gives it away that I’ve always been fond of driving, but looking at those old first class cars I think if I had the money back then I could get use to riding the rails.
Up next came a massive restored 1910 Barn which now houses the museum’s collection of vintage transportation from horse drawn carriages to automobiles with a few motorbikes thrown in for good measure. There were no actual horses though, which means I brought all my carrots to the museum for nothing.
Lastly, we went to the one more traditional museum exhibition hall in the museum which houses their rotating special exhibits. The smaller of the two temporary exhibits was about Clark County’s contributions to the war efforts of WWII. The artifacts were all very cool, but not particularly different than other war artifacts I’d seen. The thing that did really stand out for me though was the photographs of all the women and people of color who helped by working in the Vegas Magnesium Plants to develop munitions. In an effort to recruit skilled laborers, this plant and similar ones more than doubled the African-American population of Clark County, and because so many men were abroad fighting it also provided at-the-time unprecedented access to employment for women of all races which I thought was really cool to see represented in photographs. In particular, I was impressed that they had a photo of female Chinese-american chemist, Helen Gung, because I’m happy to see that her talents were actually celebrated in her own time, when so frequently she may have been overlooked either because of her race or her gender. There’s so many cool stories like hers that could have been real danger of being forgotten in post-war white washing if not for the real photographic evidence like this.
The larger exhibit was dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the museum itself, collecting notable artifacts from museum displays of years past. These included artifacts from geologic records, Native American civilizations, and more recent history. My favorite displays included: more of the Anasazi pit-houses that I was so impressed with in the Lost City Museum, some intricate Mohave effigy pottery in an impressive array of shapes and figures, and some rocks and minerals that were way more varied and colorful than I would have expected from the red rocky deserts of Nevada. Also while I know what it actually means, I couldn’t help cracking up at the very blunt labeling of a “fat lamp”.
The other thing that cracked both my cousin and me up was a display about the wildlife in the area that had some just straight up goofy taxidermy:
And lastly as we were leaving we did actually get to catch a glimpse of the Pawn Star himself, Mark Hall-Patton. We thought it would be weird to take his photo, but he does look as cherubic in real life as he does on the Museum’s facebook page:
After the museum my cousin dropped me back off at her house for a quick car exchange before the rest of the day’s adventures.Naturally my first solo stop for the day was to get some coffee at a hip coffee shop called PublicUs, which has a sleek “urban canteen” aesthetic and a mean cold brew.
Just around the corner from the coffee shop was a cool vegan restaurant that had rave reviews online called, VegeNation. They were known for making a whole host of street foods, but with completely plant based ingredients. Even the meats and cheeses were entirely made of locally sourced plant products. I got a delicious “chicken” pot pie with hearty, creamy herb sauce, fluffy potato gnocchi, very convincing vegan chicken, and lots of veggies including peas, carrots, and mushrooms all topped with bread crumbs and added herbs. It was honestly one of the best pot pies, vegan or otherwise, I’ve ever had and I am now thoroughly convinced that there is nothing that the addition of gnocchi can’t make better. I also washed it down with some more cold brew iced coffee, because I am an addict and I have a problem.
Besides the great food and friendly service, the other thing I loved about VegeNation was that their bathroom had wonderfully nightmarish wall art:
Up next, I went to the Metropolitan Gallery/Art Museum in the Freemont District which was is one Nevada’s most prominent art museums. Interestingly because it is a hybrid gallery and museum, the art on display ranges from carefully curated pieces to up and coming artists who have just purchased gallery space and are looking to get discovered. It was very cool to get see pieces and artists that might go overlooked in other art museums. The museum isn’t particularly large taking up basically one floor of a little strip mall by the Golden Nugget, but it does pack a lot into it.
One of the curated exhibits, sort of interspersed throughout the galleries, highlighted the stone sculptures of Sharon Gainsburg and her studio of artists. These were absolutely incredible, capturing so much motion and lightness in such heavy stationary material. Each sculpture had a very impressionistic feel capturing everything from abstract figures to portraits to scenes from mythology. They really complimented all the different gallery spaces they popped up in, and it was a nice recurring treat to come across each new statue.
Another incredible sculptor on display, albeit in just one gallery, was Michael Davies, who makes dark macabre little sculptures and David Lynch-y paintings. What sets his sculptures apart from anything I’d really seen before is the way he works in mechanical parts so each one is interactive and oddly life like with little lights and whirring motors giving them some combination of motion or added expression that traditional stationary sculptures lack.
Because the motion was so important to these pieces, my photos can’t totally capture them but here’s a slightly too intense video that captures these spooky little guys in action:
Besides these two featured artists, there were well over 100 pieces from different artist capturing all sorts of styles from lifelike animal sculptures to total abstractions to photorealistic paintings and surrealist painterly photos. It was a great place to just walk around.
My personal favorite pieces included: A very goofy penguin called Patience by Gary Hallock; an awfully fancy looking man with a single giant eyeball for a head (unfortunately I didn’t get as many of these artists’ names as I would have liked); a beautifully and simply abstracted image of a mother and baby; a hilarious multimedia piece that suggests Batman may be the fourth Blue Man; a dynamic sculpture of a tennis racket shattering also by Michael Davies; a hypnotic vertex of very carefully overlaid prints of the same abstract patterns swirled around to create a mesmerizing 3D effect; a baffling sculpture by Sergio Bustamante of a weird pudgy lizard person carrying his lunch pail to work (a real go-getter); a jazzy black white number by Peral Mahta that shows some ivories being thoroughly tickled; a lush photorealistic portrait of a woman in a vaguely European courtyard; and lastly a wonderfully goofy framed portrait of a very pompous puffer fish by Larry Lewis.
After all that nice relaxing art, I took a little stroll back through the hustle and bustle of the Freemont Street Experience because I realized that I didn’t get any photos of the front of the giant Slotzilla zipline so the slot machine theme probably didn’t come across quite as well as it does here. Still very ridiculous though.
From there I finally ventured into the famed Las Vegas Strip. To fully prepare myself, I made a quick stop to the beloved West Coast Chain In-N-Out Burger. I’d been hearing about this goddamn burger joint from Californians non-stop since I got to college, and I even have a friend who flew to California and back in the same day just to get some In-N-Out (his dad’s a pilot so the cost of the plane ticket wasn’t a factor but it’s no less over the top). While it would be impossible for any burger to live up this standard of hype, I do have to admit it might be the best value burger I’ve ever had with big juicy patties and lots of cheese and a side of crispy fries for almost no money at all. It didn’t change my life, but it did make me very happy in the moment. Also it was probably enough concentrated fast food to undo any goodwill my body had gained from going vegan for lunch.
Fueled by fast food, I ventured into the craziness of the Vegas Strip. I ended up parking near the Flamingo Hotel and Casino because it was the first one I found parking at. It was a pretty great location though, because you could see all the way to Paris (bet no one’s ever made that joke before).
The strip can be pretty overwhelming with massive looming hotels, flashing neon, and all sorts of vibrant, theatrical, and possibly insane street performers at every turn. It’s not quite like anywhere else in the country, because while NYC might have all those things, it’s less concentrated and less fantastical. For better and for worse, Vegas has a much greater sense of unreality with landmarks from all over the world jumbled together. It sort of feels like the whole city is kind of pretending to be something other than what it is (I mean there’s like a billion water fountains in the middle of a desert) but it makes for a super unique aesthetic of high art and high kitsch all nestled together.
I engaged in one of the Strip’s most popular past time and did some resort hopping. I started with the massive Bellagio Hotel and Casino which boasts 3,015 rooms, 36 floors, a height of 508 ft, and an 8 acre lake in front of the resort. The loose themes of the Bellagio are Italy and wealth, as its name comes from an elegant lakeside Italian town. To really hammer home its themes of opulence, the resort also has a botanical garden, conservatory, its own unique Cirque du Soleil show, a fine art museum (which I had only just missed being open), fancy dining (including a Michelin star rated restaurant that casually has Picasso paintings on the wall very unpretentiously called Picasso), the world’s largest chocolate fountain, and a truly stunning 2000 sq. ft. ceiling installation by Dale Chihuly featuring over 2000 hand blown glass flowers of every shape and color. I had mixed feeling about all the decadence, because on the one hand it really was an amazing confluence of art and architecture, but on the other hand it does seem like a tremendous amount of money to spend just to fluff up the egos of hotel guests and gamblers. In general across all the casinos, the amount of conspicuous wealth made me pretty uncomfortable because while I don’t want to fault anyone having a good time, it’s just sort of icky to me that some people around you are just casually playing around with more money than some people will even make in a year and it won’t even really affect them if they lose it all. Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if I ever actually won any money at one, but oh well at least they’re pretty.
One very big benefit of the Bellagio’s Italy-theme was that they had some damn fine gelato at a snazzy little shop called Cafe Gelato. I went with the stracciatella which I can only assume is an Italian word meaning chocolate chips from heaven itself. Just look at this beauty:
The next stop for my Gelato and me was the famed Caesars Palace (no apostrophe, isn’t that weird?). The hotel and casino towers over 20 stories high and features monumental greco-roman/art deco columns as well as really mesmerizing arrays of fountains out front. It really cuts an impressive figure across the night sky, and I can see why it’s become such a major landmark being featured in such famous movies and TV shows as Rain Man, The Hangover, The Simpsons, the Sopranos, and Iron Man among many others. It was getting close to my open mic time, though so I didn’t get to check out this behemoth from the inside but I was still pretty happy to admire it from afar.
On the way back to my car, I did get briefly sidetracked by the LINQ Promenade a lively outdoor marketplace in between the LINQ and Flamingo resorts with lots of bars, shops, restaurants, and a pretty stellar view of the High Roller Ferris Wheel the current largest Ferris wheel in the world. It’s a little ridiculous but it sure does look lovely all lit up like that.
I also had to go through the Casino to get to the parking lot, so I tried a few rounds on the slot machine with whatever loose change I had in my pockets. Unfortunately I am still not a millionaire, but I guess it was worth a shot. It is remarkable how quickly you can just lose money on the old one armed bandits. At least a card game takes you a round or two.
The open mic for the night was in a sports bar called the Jackpot Bar and Grill. Fittingly the bar had virtual slots stations all around it, which I couldn’t really figure out how to work, though that was probably for the best. I did like the bar though, because they had cheap beers and a nice stage for the performers.
I’ll be honest I didn’t pay as much attention to this mic as I should have, because I ended up getting into some really nice conversations at the bar with comics I met earlier in the week Ryan Bourassa and Genevieve Elgrichi so even though I missed a lot of the jokes the mic still affirmed a lot of the best aspects of the Vegas comedy scene, because I had a great time, felt super welcomed, and still laughed a whole ton.
Some highlights from the comedians I did see:
Mic Love - What shape is a polygamist?
Richard Kiss - People say pineapple juice makes your semen taste better, but semen just makes your pineapple juice taste salty
Vincent Blacksheer - A drug sniffing dog is bad, but a dog that likes talking to cops is even worse
Ryan Bourassa - I’m going to kill myself and also I have a horse (I wish I wrote down more context for this but it does really amuse me as is)
A Comedian Who’s Name I Didn’t Get Who Was Either Drunk/Stoned, Crazy, or Secretly a Genius- When I’m doing a bunch of drugs I feel like Jim Carrey in the Mask “Somebody Stop me!” (points for a very good impression of a hilariously obscure line)
My own set went alright but I started out a little grumpy because the comedian in front of me was an older guy who walked a table of younger women in the audience by hitting on them during his set (I should point out that he was also traveling so his actions don’t really reflect on Vegas as a whole). I would be upset that he did that anyways because it was creepy, but the fact that it also reduced the audience for all the other comedians made me a little extra annoyed (which I get is a much more selfish reason to be upset about bad behavior but in the moments before a performance the average comedian is incredibly in their own heads and self centered. Or maybe that’s just me.) So i started my set by calling that out as creepy in a way that I tried to make funny but just sort of made the older guy’s table of friends a little annoyed at me. I don’t regret calling him out, because it probably needed to be said (whether or not I was the right person who knows?) but it does mean that I spent the rest of my set trying to win back the audience, which I think I did fairly well but it still probably hurt the overall performance. Oh well you live and you learn, the mic was still a solid way of ending a solid day.
Favorite Random Sightings: Rooster Decor (seems specific); The Axehole (a ridiculous name for a ridiculous business, i had no Idea that axe throwing venues became a trend while I was on the road); “We Sale Knives”; a big billboard for Half-Priced Lawyers (a real vote of confidence); The Smashed Pig
Regional Observations: The Strip is actually surprisingly easy to park in, because there’s so many casino and hotel parking lots that they actually cost a lot less than lots in other similarly sized cities because there’s so much more competition.
Albums Listened To: Sky Blue Sky by Wilco; Skycatcher by 10 Ft. Ganja Plant (a wonderfully over the top name for a reggae band)
People’s Favorite Jokes: None today but here’s one from ol’ internet.
A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist.
Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist's room he loaded with horse manure.
That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly.
"Why are you crying?" the father asked.
"Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken," answered the pessimist twin.
Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. "What are you so happy about?" he asked.
To which his optimist twin replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
Songs of the Day: