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Tracing Fremont’s nostaltic roots

Dec 17, 2002 6:00 AM

The news from downtown is that they’re going to pump up the casinos and create other attractions in order to generate more tourism. That’s good news; the downtown area can certainly use the boost.

But for those of us who used to drive along Fremont Street on our way to hangouts like Cosmos underground restaurant, the Bird Cage lounge next to the Mint, Wimpy’s hamburger stand around the corner or the Blue Onion on East Charleston, there will always be a soft spot in our heart for the Old Days when Fremont was a street and not a walking mall.

Of course, Fremont has always been renowned for the bright neon lights that framed the narrow street. And to walk along Fremont, especially during winter when there was a raw chill in the air, was at once exciting and invigorating in a wild and slightly sinful sort of way.

My first recollection of Fremont was with my parents, who always stayed at the El Cortez when they came to town.

It seems like the hotel was always aged, as were the hotel guests, whose median age must have been 70. The guest rooms were run down but clean, the wooden stairs creaked on the way up from the casino and the view from the second floor was nothing short of depressing.

But the El Cortez had character, the kind that spoke of no-frills gambling, without pretense, offering a fair shot at winning and tasty food served in generous portions at bargain prices.

In those days, I didn’t gamble much, but I liked to walk downtown, checking out the pawn shops, the Indian jewelry stores, cigar stands, Johnny Tocco’s gym where Ali, Holmes and Tyson trained for fights, and the endless parade of characters who oiled their way up and down Fremont.

I also enjoyed visiting the downtown casinos. Gambling was fresh, back then; it hadn’t taken on that plastic corporate patina that now shades all the games, especially the slot machines.

In one casino, the Pioneer Club, I recall stories of how the owner, a holdover from the sawdust joint days when Fremont Street was a dirt road, would send out his "best girl" to retrieve a gambler from the sidewalk after he "won too much" at the craps tables!

As an adult, my first foray into Las Vegas without parental chaperone also took me to downtown. I hitched a ride with a few friends in Simi Valley, who packed up a couple of Cessna airplanes and flew into town.

We landed at McCarran Field and were towed to our tie-downs, then shuttled into the small terminal. I believe that same terminal exists, just off Las Vegas Boulevard South, near Mandalay Bay.

To show you how naïve I was, I brought along a tennis racket, a dinner jacket and several good books to read by the pool. My buddies, who were much more sophisticated about Las Vegas than I was, brought along a change of underwear and bail money.

We stayed downtown at the Four Queens, and I don’t think we ever left the hotel. Except to wander around Fremont Street to check out the touts, crack dealers, barkers, beggars, panhandlers and hookers, and production shows like Nudes on Ice that placed at the Union Plaza. (I always wondered what happened to those skaters when they fell over.)

Oddly enough, I never broke out the tennis racket, the novels remained in my soft luggage, and the dinner jacket looked stupid at $1 shrimp bar.

Nevertheless, I think I discovered in Las Vegas the frontier heritage that was to eventually beckon me to make this vibrantly decadent outpost my home for good.