Friday, November 8, 2019

Getting Ahead of Vanishing Vegas at Circus Circus, Sold Again Upon Its 51st Year

Circus Circus in Vegas always seemed like a joke to me. But I really only started becoming aware of Vegas in the 1990s, when more "luxurious" resorts like the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay were rising up from the depths of the southern end of the Strip.

And maybe Circus Circus Hotel and Casino is a joke. But if so, it's in on the joke—because, you know, clowns.

I'd passed by the resort and the adjacent freestanding slots casino (opened 1971) many times in my many trips to Vegas—but I'd never gone inside.

And then it occurred to me that there's no way Circus Circus can last much longer, the way that Vegas has been going.

So I'd better go and document it now, while I can—if only for its spectacular neon sign.

In a city that's far more saturated by the aerial circus of Cirque du Soleil—in Vegas since 1998—it's actually a novelty to see an actual circus.

Lucky the Clown (not to be confused with Topsy the Clown in Reno) greets guests and visitors to what's billed as "the largest permanent big top in the world." But he, of course, isn't the only clown at Circus Circus.

in 1967, Circus Circus founder—the late Jay Sarno, also of Caesar's Palace fame—commissioned artist and circus performer Montyne to sculpt five statues for display on Las Vegas Boulevard. Only one remains, known simply as "the clown," the rest (including a giant gorilla) having succumbed to the landfill in 2006.

I guess you could blame Circus Circus for the influx of "family-friendly" entertainment in the 1990s—why every casino from New York, New York to the Stratosphere and even the Sahara eventually needed to have at least one rollercoaster, if not a full-fledged theme park. (Some blame The Mirage and Steve Wynn, but that's a story for a whole 'nother blog post.)

When Circus Circus first opened in 1968—as the world’s largest combined casino and amusement center—it was merely as a circus tent, designed by Rissman and Rissman Associates (and featuring those characteristic "Sarno Blocks").

There were no hotel towers. Those were added later—and in stages, from 1972 to 1996.

Inside the big top, you could find bawdy shows and showgirls, scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and "sleazy" games.

And yet Sarno also actively courted families—including low rollers who'd gamble a little or even pay an admission charge just to take in the spectacle (which, on opening day, included skydivers and a wedding ceremony whose bride and groom dangled from a hovering helicopter).

It wasn't until 1993 that Circus Circus opened the first theme park in Vegas, the Adventuredome.

Before that, the Carnival Midway was enough to keep gamblers and their underage offspring engaged...

...and even within earshot in the football field-sized casino.

But in many ways, the family amusements kept up appearances for the mob ties that occurred behind the scenes at Circus Circus (including a huge loan from the Teamsters that funded its construction) and the shysters running the midway games.

Over the last 50 years, the casino has been threatened with closure by the authorities and has changed hands several times.

It's kind of amazing that there are still world-class circus acts performing under the big top. And that's kind of the best part.

Turns out my instincts may have been right—because Circus Circus just sold to its new ringmaster, developer (and Trump supporter and associate) Phil Ruffin.

Originally built at a cost of $15 million, it most recently went for $825 million.

Ruffin says he's got big plans for it.

What that means remains to be seen.

Related Posts:
Farewell, Circus Drive-In
Photo Essay: Clown Motel, Gateway to the Haunted Miners' Cemetery
Photo Essay: The (Temporary) View from Above Vegas
The Sahara Returns to the Vegas Strip

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Sahara Returns to the Vegas Strip

Every time I go to Las Vegas, I find myself mourning for the Vegas I never knew, the Vegas that had already been imploded by the time I first arrived, the Vegas that continued to be imploded between each and every visit.

circa May 2006 (Photo: Johnwalton at English Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was only recently that I realized that the Sahara, built in 1952 as the sixth such resort on the Strip, still existed—though it had been renovated beyond nearly all recognition, in 1959, 1963, 1978, 1996, and finally in 2013–14, when it was rebranded the SLS by its new owner, SBE Entertainment.

circa May 2011 (Photo: theboyds on Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In fact, I'd been to Vegas while the Sahara was still the Sahara—in fact, staying across the street at the Stratosphere (now itself rebranded "The STRAT") and later at the Wynn and at Caesar's, farther south down the Strip. By then, the Sahara was only attracting "low-rollers" and budget-conscious families.

Once I realized my error earlier this year, I booked a room at the SLS, hoping to catch some glimpse of the old Sahara.

I didn't realize then that by the time I would be checking in, the old SLS would be transitioning into the new Sahara.

I knew it wouldn't be the Sahara that I'd missed out on...

...but I was glad for the change in branding and design by its current owner, The Meruelo Group.

While the towers that were designed by Martin Stern, Jr. and added in 1959 and 1963 are still there, with still some tiny suggestion of a Moroccan theme...

...but no longer any references to Tunis, Tangiers, or the rest.

When my driver was dropping me off for the first time, having picked me up from the airport, I noticed that we passed a working crew trying to hoist a huge letter.

My luggage still in tow, I climbed up to an upper level of the parking structure to get a better view.

I knew I was witnessing history in the making.

I welcome any change that keeps these historic properties from being imploded, like so many of the others have been.

My visit came just two months into the official changeover—and so, in addition to the signage still being swapped, the resort is currently under construction. It's hard to know what it will look like when it's done.

Photo: mrak75, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

But the original casino structure—including the entry dome–was demolished in 2013. And it surely won't be brought back. In fact, I'm not sure what of Max Maltzman's original design still exists.

circa 2013

But I know I can always visit a piece of its salvaged wreckage at The Neon Museum.

For a photo slideshow of the Sahara over the years, click here

Related Posts:

Photo Essay: The (Temporary) View from Above Vegas
Giving Thanks on the Vegas Strip

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Exploring The Haunted Historic Harris House on Halloween Eve Eve

Photo: Online Archive of America, Public Domain

"To a person accustomed to and appreciating the advantages of the city, but who prefers a life in the country for consideration of health, pleasure or profit, the ideal location for a home is found in a pleasant country neighborhood within a few minutes ride of the city." 
- Glendale Improvement Association, 1904

Built in 1902—when architecture was transitioning from Victorian elements leftover from the 19th century and into Craftsman styles—the Victorian Transitional-style Harris House is now a grand old home on an unusually big 9029-square-foot lot. 

From East Wilson Avenue (formerly West Third Street, when the city’s east-west streets were numbered instead of named), you can admire the horizontal wood siding behind the old-growth trees, the steeply-pitched gabled roofs with bands of overlapping sawtooth shingles hovering over a brick foundation.

It's a rare example of its kind in Glendale, where the style wasn't as popular as it was in other areas (like, reportedly, Pomona).

It was erected four years before the City of Glendale was incorporated, when Glendale was merely a subdivision tract of the former Rancho San Rafael—and more or less part of Los Angeles.

Along with the Goode House, a Queen Anne-Eastlake Victorian from 1892 located down the road, the 3,446 square-foot Harris Residence was one of the first homes to be built in Glendale.

And in 2014, it was added to the Glendale Register of Historic Resources—mostly for its architecture.

But there's some fascinating human history that occurred under those 12-foot ceilings of this single-family residence, which was once used as a boarding house for women in the 1940s.

And if you believe in such things, it appears as though the energy of some of those humans still hasn't left the Harris House.

Maybe it's because widows had a habit of inhabiting the house—starting with Harriet Harris, the original owner after whom the house has been named. It was her home until 1917.

There are some gaps in the information about all of the prior owners, though it's known that between 1921 and 1942, it was Anna M. McCrea and her daughter Catherine who lived in the house.

In 1981, Eileen Mary Davitian (Manus)—not a widow—bought the house and, in 2013, sold it with her husband John to the current owner.

I didn't know anything about the prior or current residents of the Harris House when I entered into its
"hall of doors" from the front...

...or when I admired the carved goat finial for the newel post of the staircase leading up to the second floor (who I immediately named "Black Phillip").

I didn't know who Aunt Laura was, or how she'd painted the recently restored self-portrait that hangs in the back of the entryway.

I'd gotten into the Historic Harris House—now also a horror film location—by buying a ticket to a seance and paranormal hunt hosted by Bizarre Los Angeles.

But I had no intention on meeting any ghosts while sitting within the circle in the dining room, at a centuries-old circular antique table with huge dog feet.

Some say they felt more than one presence in the front parlor, including blasts of cold air.

Some say they even saw figures lurking around the rear parlor, their faces reflected in mirrors and glass cases.

Maybe I was too busy looking at the house itself...

...and the current owner's unusual decor of taxidermied animals and cat portraiture.

I didn;t encounter any new ghosts there. But I always kind of feel like I've got a presence with me, somebody from beyond whispering in my ear.

Sometimes I feel the flat of someone's hand pressing up against the middle of my back while I'm ying on my side in bed. Our medium said to me, "That's how they try to get in."

So, I think I've just got no vacancy. I'm fully booked—and already haunted enough.

Related Posts:
That Which Haunts Me
These Terrors of the Night
These Creatures of the Night

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Open House: A Backyard Imagineer's Disney-Themed Garden Railroad

Southern California is full of model railroaders. I don't know if it's the good weather year-round or the excess time on their hands, but people just love miniature trains out here.

You can blame Walt Disney for part of that—not only because of his own backyard railway but also the crucial role that trains play in the Disneyland experience.

And now, that's inspired architect David Sheegog—who grew up walking distance from the park and worked there on its canoe attraction during summers while in college—to create his own backyard garden railroad, the Castle Peak and Thunder Railroad (CPTRR).

It features the same trains as at Disneyland, also stopping at their own Main Street Station (this one fabricated of laser cut acrylic). Only two of them can run on the main line at any given time—be it the reproductions of the real Disneyland locomotives and rolling stock like the E.P. Ripley, Fred Gurley, Ernest S. Marsh, Ward Kimball, or C.K. Holliday.

This has been Sheegog's hobby for the past two decades—having started construction in 1999 and hosted his first open house in 2000.

Every year, Disneyphiles scramble for reservations to see the railroad in action at Sheegog's home in Anaheim Hills...

...where tiny trains pass by a tiny Haunted Mansion and its tiny ghosts... well as some newly added ghosts from the Disney movie Coco. 

The Sleeping Beauty Castle (made of plywood, PVC, wood turnings and cast resin veneer) has been there pretty much since Sheegog drafted his original plans for it (just like any good architect would)...

...but Rapunzel’s tower from Tangled was added later, after the movie came out in 2010.

Like Disneyland itself, CPTRR is meant to be a work-in-progress, constantly evolving and changing with  the times. For now, there's still an homage to Pixar's Up (2009) next to Big Thunder Mountain (which was painted with paint left over from the painting of Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain).

But maybe one day it'll have to make way for something new. After all, the focus tends to be on what can actually be found at Disneyland.

The narrow-gauge Casey Jr. Circus Train, featuring the locomotive character from Dumbo, was one of the original Disneyland attractions (in Fantasyland) when the park first opened in 1955. The CPTRR version—with handmade caboose, cage cars, and calliope—runs continuously on an elevated track that separates it from the rest of the rolling stock.

Sheegog says he'd already had figurines of the seven dwarves from the toy collection his kids had grown out of—but when he added them to the railroad scenes, he realized they needed a place to live. Hence, the storybook cottage made of wood and plaster, with a thatched roof.

Among the character tableaus (like from The Lion King, above)...

...there are plenty of "hidden Mickeys" to look for...

...and characters to try to identify from movies you haven't seen for years.

Children seem particularly good at that. But movies like Ratatouille, I would argue, aren't just for kids.

And neither are teensy cable cars, skyways, or amusement parks where you “enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Tiny Villages at the LA County Fairgrounds (Updated for 2018)
My Turn to Ring the Bell
This 40 Year-Old Princess Has Found Her Kingdom
The Ghost Train of Griffith Park