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Las Vegas car dealer Jim Marsh built replica 19th century chapel

Updated November 26, 2018 - 10:03 pm

AMARGOSA VALLEY — The big-city car dealer arrived at his own event here with a subtle sartorial touch befitting his character: a country gentleman’s hat bought on a recent trip to his hometown in Nebraska.

Like Jim Marsh himself, the fedora is equal parts city and country, expressing both the urban dealmaker and easy-going rural resident armed with a quick joke and a smile.

Because it is out here, well beyond the corralling city limits, that the 84-year-old owner of two Las Vegas car dealerships feels most comfortable, out where the population is scarce and the state’s history was originally made, where the high desert gives way to the somber Funeral Mountains and Death Valley National Park beyond.

“What’s going on?” said Richard Heminger, a 76-year-old horseshoer from nearby Pahrump, shaking Marsh’s hand. “You stayin’ in trouble?”

On a recent Sunday morning, Marsh unveiled his latest creation to rural Nevadans: a replica of a 19th century chapel originally built in the mining town of Belmont in 1874. The 48-seat wooden shrine sits on the back lawn of Marsh’s Longstreet Inn and Casino, an emporium built along the isolated border between Nevada and California and named after early settler Jack Longstreet, a historic touch that’s vintage Marsh.

As Marsh spoke outside his new chapel at Longstreet, his voice as gravelly as an unpaved road, a woman stepped forward from the small crowd with tears in her eyes. Patty Brubaker and her husband, Bryan, had been the first couple married inside the chapel just days before. Her last picture of her mother, Evelyn, was taken at the Longstreet casino duck pond. The mother’s ashes are spread here. And now the daughter was married in the same place.

“I want you to know,” she said, her voice breaking, “that it meant the world to me, sir.”

Marsh often evokes such emotions from rural residents. He’s known by most Las Vegas Valley residents as the car salesman with the flashy two-toned shoes, whose offbeat television spots have featured him wearing only a barrel after a specious IRS audit that he claims compelled him to sell more cars. He’s cavorted with burros, geese, chickens, mules, a water buffalo, and, well, just about anything else to grab the attention of the car-buying public.

Taking roads less traveled

But Marsh has also embarked on another less well-known pursuit as a quiet rural benefactor. Over the years, through one unheralded purchase after another, the Nevada history buff has collected a rustic bevy of tiny motels and bars across the southern reaches of the Silver State, a place he has come to love.

There’s the Santa Fe Saloon and Nixon mining building in Goldfield; the Tonopah Station casino, Banc Club and Humbug Flats bar in Tonopah; the Alamo Club in Pioche and the Manhattan bar and motel in tiny Manhattan, more than 250 miles away from the tarmac lots where Marsh makes his weekly car deals.

Through his car dealerships and Skyline Casino on Boulder Highway, Marsh employs 250 people. But he has also hired another 100 workers in struggling small towns where steady jobs are hard to come by.

“Jim keeps these little towns going; he takes on places that would otherwise be closed and breathes new life into them,” said Kimberly Wanker, a Fifth Judicial Court Judge based in Pahrump. “If it weren’t for Jim, in little places like Belmont, Manhattan and the Amargosa Valley, there would be nothing.”

Merry prankster

When he’s not selling cars, Marsh spends most of his time in Nevada’s outback, attending auctions to buy antiques and historic mementos for his properties. He sponsors local racing events and has been a regular at town fairs, playing emcee as he rides in the lead car at parades, always with that unique dash of Jim Marsh humor.

Because this urban car dealer is a bit of a rascal, a consummate prankster.

One year, as a goof, he dressed as Lady Godiva and rode a mule in the Belmont parade. In Las Vegas, he once unleashed a pack of goats to “mow” a friend’s lawn; the animals also ate the neighbors’ rose bushes. He prefers wearing ill-fitting Salvation Army tuxedos, tags still attached, to high-society events to draw stares and ruffle a few feathers.

“He often looked like such a bozo, I’d get upset,” said longtime friend Caralynne Rudin. “But I got used to it, so that when people at parties said, ‘Can’t you do something about this?’ I’d say, ‘No, I can’t and neither can you so don’t even waste your time.’ Jim just loves shocking people.”

He became a teaser early in life. As a kid hanging around his father’s Denver car dealership, Marsh got 86’d for a few days after he glued shut the mechanics’ toolboxes so no work could get done.

Years later, his favorite ruse is secretly positioning his Wyatt Earp lookalike mannequin — with handgun extended — in the offices of friends, in back car-seats, even behind the smoked windows of his home shower, to get a rise out of the unsuspecting.

He also tagged the manager of his Santa Fe Saloon, “the meanest bartender in Nevada,” and even posted a sign to that effect outside the bar, causing endless ribbing among her customers. “I have to get him back on that,” Laurel Arnold said.

But paybacks are hell, even for Marsh.

Anthony “Bud” Perchetti, a contractor who worked on Marsh’s Tonopah Station hotel and casino, once bribed the front desk clerk to allow him inside Marsh’s regular room to pull a “short-sheet” gag, fixing the bed so Marsh could only get his legs in halfway.

“I got even that day,” Perchetti laughed.

Marsh will hear none of it.

“The son of a bitch; he’s rotten to the core,” he joked of Perchetti. “Just because somebody once put a snake in his truck, he thinks it’s me. I’m accused of it, but of course I deny it.”

Rural Nevadans see the jokes as pure Jim Marsh.

“He sees us for what we are out here,” said Brubaker, a school bus driver whose husband works in a gold mine. “Sadly, most people see rural Nevada as just a bunch of brothels. But there’s so much more. And Jim understands that.”

Finding his place

Marsh landed in Las Vegas in 1971 after fleeing the rain and soured economy in Washington state. One day, he headed south in his 1948 DeSoto coupe and eventually rolled through rural Nevada’s wide-open spaces.

From that moment on, he was hooked.

“I fell in love,” he recalled. “I developed an instant attachment to the place.”

He bought his first dealership near downtown, eventually developing his signature TV ads. “One day, one of the guys suggested I do something with my daughter Stacy. She was 17 at the time,” Marsh recalled. “She was so nervous. She said, ‘Dad, my hands are shaking.’ We stumbled through and have been doing them ever since.”

Many of the ads involve Stacy ribbing her hapless car-dealing dad.

“Every time we did a commercial, I’d jab him about something,” recalled Stacy Marsh, now a schoolteacher. “Eventually, I started getting letters from people about my behavior, that I should treat my father better. What they didn’t know is that he wrote all the scripts. He loved the fact that people gave me grief.”

Marsh sold a lot of cars, but he still couldn’t keep his mind off the hinterlands. Back in the 1970s, he spotted a National Geographic magazine photograph featuring a weathered-looking woman over the headline “See the Other Nevada.”

Marsh eventually found the woman, named Rose Walter, who was considered the guardian of isolated Belmont and, as legend has it, once chased Charles Manson and his groupies out of town with a loaded shotgun.

He eventually bought some property from Walter and built a cabin he still uses today. But Marsh didn’t stop there. He soon bought the Santa Fe Saloon after the previous owner had his liquor license taken away by the local sheriff for, as Marsh tells it, “shooting the installations off telephone poles.”

Marsh revels in telling such historic asides. For example, he says, a veteran miner in Goldfield, blinded by a shaft explosion, generations ago hooked up a line of piano wire from his rural shack outside town to the Santa Fe Saloon as a way to guide him to and from drinking bouts.

Kayla Correa, hotel manager at Marsh’s Skyline property, regularly sees him walk in with some new artifact he has scrounged from the countryside and wants on display. In that way, he’s more than just an owner, but also a historical curator.

“Every antique and painting is purchased by him and placed by him,” Correa said. “He’ll say ‘This is something created 200 years ago and I want it right here.’ ”

Added Marsh: “And if they move it, all hell breaks loose.”

Marsh said he buys the properties to make a profit. “There’s a little greed in my soul,” he said. “Mostly, I make sound business deals. I’m not going to buy something historic that becomes a big money pit, that’s not my cup of tea. I’m not the great rural protector, but many deals have helped keep these communities afloat.”

In fact, Marsh acknowledges, he’s gotten a reputation as something of a skinflint. “There is some truth to that, I can’t deny it,” he said. “My grandmother back in Nebraska saved the stamps that didn’t get postmarked. I learned frugality as a boy.”

Marsh’s friends tease him about still living in the house he bought in 1971, with the same secondhand furniture purchased at some local pawnshop.

“Everybody gives Jim hell in the bar,” Perchetti said. “They’re always telling him, “It’s your turn to buy.’ And he is pretty tight, but if he decides to give you money, it’s whatever you want. He’s generous that way.”

Over time, Marsh’s downtown Las Vegas neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse and his car gets stolen now and then, but he stays put.

Because, as Stacy Marsh said, his priorities have always been somewhere out there.

“He feels like he was born 100 years too late,” she said. “He loves those old towns, loves going back to the time frame when they were great. If he could, he’d stay up in Belmont all the time. At the end of a weekend, he’ll say, ‘Well, I have to get back to reality. It’s time to get back to business.’”

Soft spot for rescue animals

At the christening of the new Amargosa Valley chapel, the minister blew an elk’s horn, setting off braying by the grouchy old burro Marsh keeps nearby.

The car salesman doesn’t just use animals in his TV ads, he surrounds himself with rescue creatures — rabbits, tortoises, peacocks, horses, goats and mules — like his pet dog, Blue No. 2, a shelter hound he got after a hematoma on the animal’s side made him unadoptable.

At the Longstreet Casino, Marsh also keeps one special resident. As the story goes, two geese flew onto the Wynn casino grounds. When their eggs hatched, most of the goslings were run over along Las Vegas Boulevard. Marsh got the lone survivor from the Barn Buddies farm rescue group, which he calls Wynnie after the casino. Along with its mate, Happy, the silly goose now follows him around the property.

Inside the chapel, the ceremony was vintage Marsh. Worshippers perched on wooden pews, some distracted by sweeping views of the surrounding peaks outside the windows. The scene could have been an 1870s prairie service, complete with bothersome flies, as the minister walked the aisle banging on a small tambourine.

At one point, someone produced a collection plate. And right there, Jim Marsh, the big-city car dealer who prefers the countryside, who wields a reputation of rarely parting with his money on good terms, was the first to reach for his wallet.

John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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