Awhile back I was having a beer with my friend, longtime journalist George Knapp, and we fell on the topic of whether there were any truly iconic figures in the history of Las Vegas.
We started throwing around the names of folks whose profiles would be carved onto our own Mount Rushmore in the desert, assuming we could use a big old (Red) rock wall somewhere on the edge of town and had a Gutzon Borglum to spend a lifetime sculpting them.
We eventually came up with four individual names that qualified, and one generic symbol.
If you look up "icon" in the dictionary, you'll see that one of the definitions is a representation of something sacred, particularly in the tradition of Eastern churches. But the meaning that applied to our discussion is of a person who is held up to esteem or wonderment and is the object of great attention and devotion.
Neither Heidi Fleiss nor Glen Lerner made it into our conversation.
Certainly there are present-day figures who might be considered icons down the road, say 50 years from now, when the discussion still rages on about whether a large stadium should be built on the UNLV campus, or whether it makes sense to build a bullet train between here and Los Angeles.
In athletics, guys like Greg Maddux and Andre Agassi might earn some votes. And die-hard Runnin' Rebel fans, the sort who wear scarlet and gray jammies to bed at night and have worn out their eight-track of Dick Calvert's Greatest Calls, probably would toss "Tark the Shark" into the mix. And in the gaming world, Kirk Kerkorian and Steve Wynn are names that would merit consideration.
I'll spare you any further suspense and tell you that the certified icon list George and I came up with included only these names: Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Showgirl. Of course, all four of these men have passed on, and The Showgirl is nearing extinction, which enhances their iconic status because legends only grow with the passage of time. Death eradicates the opportunity for them to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that would topple them from their pedestals (case in point: Lance Armstrong).
The least iconic of these five is Bugsy, who was here for only a short time in the mid-1940s before he got a bad case of lead poisoning sitting in Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills mansion. Even though a Hollywood publisher and nightclub owner named Billy Wilkerson deserves credit for developing the whole idea of the Flamingo Hotel, by some twisted historical logic Siegel has been accorded the mantle as the founding father of modern Las Vegas. And that is not entirely a bad thing, because his presence brought to the still-tiny city an aura of Hollywood glamour and mob influence, and the suggestion that by developing his adult playground in the middle of a remote desert visitors could indulge in the licentious activity and bacchanalian delights that we so proudly promote today with the "what happens here" campaign and its offshoots.
Howard Hughes qualifies as iconic in several different worlds: business, aviation and filmmaking among them, but he certainly makes our list in Las Vegas for taking several prominent Strip properties out of the hands of mobsters and demonstrating to corporate America that legalized gambling could someday occupy a rung of respectability in the business world. Adding to his allure was that he was ridiculously rich, a world-class womanizer in his day, and a risk-taker and adrenaline-junkie.
Although some might argue otherwise, Hughes is a slam-dunk choice as a Las Vegas icon, regardless of how long his toenails were or how many Kleenex he wrapped around his fingers before turning a doorknob in his cloistered quarters on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn.
While I saw Sinatra perform only twice in Las Vegas showrooms, and both times when his voice was failing him, he remains the essence of what Las Vegas Strip entertainment is all about. He brought the biggest gamblers to town, he was idolized by men and women equally, and his stature as lead rat in the Rat Pack assures him iconic status in our city.
Sinatra was something of a cross between Elvis and Bugsy, if you think about it. Forever linked with the mob and always in the company of a beautiful woman and a posse that genuflected before him, he was a huge talent with charisma to match. He and Howard Hughes even had something in common, namely Ava Gardner.
Then there's the Big E. I had two or three different invitations to watch him perform at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he sold out the room every night he was on the marquee for eight consecutive years. Each time I took a rain check, assuming I could catch his show at a later date. But Elvis up and died on us in August of '77, and I had forever lost my chance.
Imagine a figure so iconic - or perhaps exploited might be a better term - that no fewer than 200 men have earned paychecks over the past two decades either impersonating Elvis or performing what are loosely called tributes to him. I've even met two women through the years who proudly told me they gave up their virginity to the King during one-night stands. My only response to their sharing such a confidence was: "Thank you. Thank you very much."
Last but by no means least on our list of iconic Las Vegans is the Showgirl. Think of her as 6 feet tall, with Legs Benedict, posed with one foot slightly angled in front of the other in impossibly high heels, while balancing a 30-pound pyramid on her head and all the while smiling like she's having the time of her life as she infers to the businessman in Row Three that he might even have a shot at her if he behaves himself.
There should be no debate about whether the Showgirl deserves mention on our all-star team.
Despite the dreadful movie "Showgirls" that defiled her image, and ignoring the fact that many girls hoping to end up in the chorus line at Jubilee settle for snapping up twenties doing lap dances at Spearmint Rhino, it can't be denied that for half a century the French-revue inspired women who danced on the stages of Strip hotels have provided the defining image of what Las Vegas is all about.
So we'll put the Showgirl smack in the middle of our apocryphal Rushmore, with Howard and Bugsy on one side, and Elvis and Ol' Blue Eyes on the other. We'll let the ghosts of those guys fight it out for her affection.
And with that important business settled, George and I ordered another beer.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan writes a monthly column for the Review-Journal. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (702) 277-0660.