Lately, Downtown Casinos Are All About the Past

You barely have to get “Las Vegas blows up” out of your mouth before someone finishes your sentence with … “its history.” That thought is so ingrained in the Las Vegas psyche that we seem to accept it as a matter of course.

On the heels of the Las Vegas Club’s closing, however, comes news that a revived interest in casino history is spreading on Fremont Street. In late August, the Museum of Gaming History, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, announced that it would install an exhibit in the Plaza celebrating the hotel-casino’s four decades of history.

The Plaza installation will be the second for the museum. Last summer it created an exhibit for El Cortez—exploring late owner Jackie Gaughan’s tremendous legacy through chips, dice, ashtrays, various artifacts and a 30-minute video that runs on a continuous loop. The display was initially slated for a six-month run. Its popularity, though, forced a change.

“It was extended to 12 months, then two years. As of today it is going to run indefinitely,” says Neal Silverman, chairman of the Museum of Gaming History’s board of directors.

According to Silverman, these exhibits offer a chance for the Museum—an offshoot of the Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club—to get its work before the public at a relatively small cost.

“We have a nine-member board, and we are 100 percent volunteer,” he says. “Opening a museum is very costly, so we needed to do something a little different.”

So what will the Plaza display include? In addition to artifacts and memorabilia, the display will honor the careers of Jackie Gaughan and Sam Boyd, both of whom were associated with the property.

While Strip casinos frequently let milestone anniversaries pass without much of a fuss, the approach is clearly a bit different on smaller, older, closer-to-the-ground Fremont Street. El Cortez has probably done the most to embrace its past: The recent opening of Siegel’s 1941 restaurant is a case in point. The D, renamed and remodeled, highlights its second-floor vintage casino, to say nothing of the recently arrived replica of Brussels’ 500-year-old Manneken Pis statue. But looking to the past doesn’t mean being mired in nostalgia; it’s possible to connect with contemporary audiences while still appreciating history. Manneken Pis, for example, has its own Twitter account (@MannekenPis_LV), and the all-volunteer museum uses its website ( to stay connected to chip collectors and those who love Las Vegas history.

For the Museum of Gaming History, the Plaza installation, which opens this January, is one in a series of exhibits that, it hopes, will get its passion in front of more Las Vegas fans. Silverman says that next summer the museum will unveil an exhibit in the Neon Museum’s lobby. After that, who knows?

“We would love to do something with the Flamingo or Caesars Palace,” he says, although the museum has had no talks with those casinos yet.

Every trend starts somewhere. Could history displays become the next fad for Las Vegas casinos? Those who have toiled to preserve the past hope the answer is yes.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

Photo by Krystal Ramirez. 

Vegas Seven