Betty Gripentag wasn’t even aware a movie was being made in the area. So when she zoomed past Elvis, or perhaps a stunt driver doubling as Elvis, she barely noticed. She knew something was up when an angry highway patrol trooper pulled her over, though.
“At the time there weren’t speed limits here; the rule was to drive safe and sane,” Gripentag recalled. “He told me I should know better than to drive like that with my kids in the car, but my husband and I both had a lead foot and we knew the roads.”
It turned out she hadn’t broken any laws. But she figures the trooper was supposed to keep traffic off what is now Lake Mead Parkway so the crew of “Viva Las Vegas” could film the climactic car-race scene.
Having Elvis Presley’s expert-road-racer character passed like he was standing still by a mother of four with a couple of kids standing on the bench seat of a late ’50s Cadillac probably wasn’t the footage they were looking to get that day.
“Viva Las Vegas” was released on May 20, 1964, 50 years ago, but the filming took place primarily in the second half of July 1963. Surprisingly, in a town that implodes and rebuilds itself periodically like the world’s biggest Lego set, several of the filming sites remain and some are relatively unchanged.
The film is similar in plot, mood and implausibility to Presley’s other movies, but it’s widely regarded as one of his best. Presley portrays Lucky Jackson, who comes to Las Vegas to compete in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. He meets and becomes smitten with Rusty Martin, portrayed by Ann-Margret. He assumes Rusty is a showgirl but soon discovers she’s a local woman who works as a swimming instructor. High jinks, misunderstandings and songs ensue, and then there’s the race.
The movie is unusual in that it’s one of the first films to show Las Vegas as a family destination and highlight the idea of Las Vegas locals.
It opens, as many Las Vegas movies do, with a helicopter shot cruising along the lights and wild illuminated signs of the city. But since it was filmed when the casinos on the Strip still had some space between them, the shot is of Fremont Street. You can still see a few of the signs on Fremont Street, but a lot of them have been changed for new technology or to reflect new names. Many of the signs now reside down the street at the Neon Museum, 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North.
Filming took place at several casinos, most of which have since been drastically changed or replaced, but an early pivotal scene occurs at the Flamingo pool. Lucky tries to woo Rusty with a song. Rusty mocks him and pushes him into the pool. Both the casino and the pool have been completely renovated since the filming, but some of the pools in the current pool complex are in about the same place. The pool near the concession stand is the closest in feel to the pool in the film.
Other casinos have not fared so well. Nothing remains of the Sands but the name on the Expo and Convention center. The Frontier property is home to Trump Tower and a series of attempts to build something on the rubble. A scene shot at the Tropicana featured a skeet range, a concept that today seems unbelievable on the Strip and so close to McCarran International Airport.
Both the airport and the convention center make appearances in the movie, and although both are in the same location, they are all but unrecognizable from their appearance in 1963.
What is now UNLV didn’t have its first commencement until 1964, but you can still walk the same floor that Elvis and Ann-Margret danced on. In the movie, Ann-Margret dances at the stage/gymnasium and a sign identifying the young school is prominent behind her. When Elvis arrives, there are shots from the stage of Ann-Margret and a bunch of young dancers dancing at half court. UNLV has a new gym, but the old building found new life as the Barrick Museum. You can stroll through the art across the old parquet basketball court. Center court is still there and features a depiction of the school’s original mascot, Beauregard, who looks like the Big Bad Wolf in a Confederate uniform.
The film ends (spoiler alert) with the wedding of Lucky and Rusty at The Little Church of the West, which looks much as it did in the film, despite having been moved twice since then, including a long, slow crawl down Las Vegas Boulevard on Oct 6, 1978, to what is now Mandalay Bay. The church was moved once more, across the street to 4617 Las Vegas Blvd. South.
“The chapel is 70 years old. We bought the property so we shouldn’t have to move it again,” said Daniel Vallance, spokesman for the chapel. “The history of the chapel and Elvis’ part in that history is one of the keys to our success.”
Like many Las Vegas wedding chapels, The Little Church of the West offers a few Elvis packages. The difference is it can pitch those packages while pointing at pictures of the real Elvis in the chapel.
In honor of the movie’s anniversary, the chapel has scheduled a free Elvis tribute artist concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re still putting together the details, but we’ll have Frankie Castro performing, and he looks like Elvis did in the movie,” Vallance said. “We’ll also have peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.”
There’s only one other place that looks pretty much as it did in the film and is still, more or less, in the same place. In the movie, Ann-Margret’s Rusty lives with her father in a building on the docks of a Lake Mead marina. Because of shrinking water levels, the docks have shifted a few times. But if you’re out at Las Vegas Boat Harbor & Lake Mead Marina, 490 Horsepower Cove Road, you can see the home.
It was always the second floor of the marina offices, and has remained so the past 50 years, although the ownership has changed hands a few times. The current owner is a longtime valley resident. She and her family used to own another marina on the lake. About 50 years ago, she was driving her kids from there to town in a late ’50s Cadillac, when she accidentally blew past a king.