“A new generation is about to be blown away by the extraordinary presence of Dean Martin.” —Alki David, Hologram USA C.E.O. on the introduction of a hologram show of Dean Martin in Las Vegas
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A myriad of muses inspire writers to easily produce a column some weeks, while others require random rummaging through notes and reminders to jump start a creative thought. It was during that latter process this week when an aging picture postcard popped up again causing me to pause one more time and think about why I’ve saved it.
The original Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas pictured on the card opened in 1948, became the Silverbird in 1976 and the El Rancho in 1982 before closing in 1992. It sat empty and decaying for another eight years before it was imploded into history October 3, 2000 at just after 2:30 a.m.
That image depicting the Thunderbird as it appeared 52 years ago reminded me of my first night in Las Vegas, a city vastly different from the one that lured more than 42 million visitors to the playground in the desert in 2018.
The Thunderbird and I were the same age Memorial Day weekend of 1967 when Mount Pleasant High School friend and classmate of 1966, Ronnie Lilly and I spent the night there enroute from East Texas to California. While the Thunderbird was one of the nicest places in town in the 1960s, it was still concrete block walls, 500 rooms (enlarged from 200 in 1964), and doors opening to the outside motel style. The cocktail lounge décor was murals of cowboys, chuck wagons, and cactus. The combination dining and showroom had a small stage and the hotel’s pool was billed as the largest in Nevada holding 360,000 gallons of water.
Also in 1964, a new facade was added stretching 700 feet making it the largest sign on the strip, more than three times as long as another iconic 60s Vegas hotel, the Stardust.
And, that was the Thunderbird where Ronnie and I stayed in a Las Vegas where travelers could park near the front door, walk in, get a room for the night without a reservation, and get change back from a $20 bill. Also included was a bellman who showed you to your room and took your luggage in from your car. Unfortunately, the bellman’s name that night is lost to time and aging brain cells, but the memory remains of him telling us he had family in Mount Pleasant and visited often in East Texas.
The sight of the enormous sign was the second most breathtaking sight for two 19-year-olds kids from East Texas. The first was the sight of Las Vegas lighting up the desert night as we topped the mountains driving in across the desert from Kingman, Arizona, in Ronnie’s ’57 Chevrolet. Many years and many trips later, the sight of the Vegas lights when flying in after dark is still mesmerizing.
The Thunderbird’s showroom mesmerized visitors over the years with a number of stars performing there, a few being Rosemary Clooney, the Mills Brothers, Judy Garland, Mel Torme, and Dean Martin who helped instill the Thunderbird in my memory.
Seeking to make memories for our one-night stay, we found the showroom that opened onto the hotel’s lobby via an open door allowing anyone walking by to stop and look inside. That’s where we saw the actor, singer and comedian known as “The King of Cool” for his charisma and self-assurance on the stage.
Feeling somewhat self-assured ourselves, we strolled through the doors to a spot along the back wall we thought to be a good place to hide, unnoticed in the darkness. And that worked for about 15 minutes until a large, broad-shouldered guy wearing a dark suit asked to see our IDs. Game over—we left willingly and quietly.
I’ve returned to the “Oasis in the Desert” many times over the years, some for pleasure and many more for business. Years spent in marketing positions meant more trips than I care to remember working trade shows, something for which Las Vegas is a popular spot
In subsequent visits and at a legal age, I’ve added memories of other legendary entertainers of the era including Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr. Although short-lived and a long time ago, I still count seeing Dean Martin at the Thunderbird during my first trip to Las Vegas as a favorite memory.
Looking one more time at the postcard purchased for a dime in the Thunderbird gift shop decades ago, I’m thinking that a hologram likeness of any of the infamous Rat Pack members without having to sneak in, well, it just wouldn’t be the same memory.
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