December 6, 2009 - 10:00 pm
Somewhere out there, Hunter S. Thompson is grumbling in his grave. Above ground, K.J. Howe is nursing a helluva heartache.
The Mint hotel, which Thompson observed in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and Howe promoted for a couple decades, is going dark.
With the crescendo of coverage of the opening of CityCenter and its promise of 12,000 jobs, you might have missed the news of the downtown closing and loss of 100 jobs. Although in recent years it’s been called Binion’s hotel, most locals still recognize the tower with the penthouse restaurant as the Mint, a casino that opened in the mid-1950s, was bought by Del Webb in 1961, and in 1965 briefly became the valley’s tallest building.
The Mint was eventually bought by the Binion family and is now the property of TLC Casino Enterprises, but I never heard anyone but tourists call it Binion’s hotel.
With its glass elevator, ritzy “Top of the Mint” restaurant, Quarterdeck seafood house, and Merri Mint Lounge, it was a happening place. In its heyday, Vic Damone and Patsy Cline headlined there. The Mint 400 off-road race attracted national media to Fremont Street.
Thompson drew an assignment to write about a narcotics officers’ convention and the Mint 400 when he crossed the desert on his long, strange trip. He stayed at the Mint in Room 1850. A legend was born, but Thompson didn’t need hallucinogens to colorize the Mint’s characters. They were everywhere.
Suzi Arden and Freddie Bell were lounge favorites. Lee Greenwood dealt cards there. And singer Patti York, Howe recalls, occasionally worked as an elevator operator.
Long before Thompson made the scene, Lee Marvin and Woody Strode took a break from the 1966 shooting of “The Professionals” and made headlines when they ambushed Vegas Vic from their suite at the Mint.
Whether out of an abundance of playfulness or whiskey, Marvin and Strode got it in their minds Vegas Vic was making too much noise. Since they had a long bow at their disposal (the movie was a Western), they used it to shoot arrows at the metal cowboy famous for saying “Howdy Podner!”
Vic escaped with minor injuries, and Marvin and Strode got their archery privileges taken away.
That was tame compared to the time former Mint public relations director Howe whacked a Christmas tree and wound up on the naughty list.
At the Top of the Mint, management placed a Christmas tree to celebrate the season. Trouble was, the crowds were big and the tree kept getting in the way of customers. Howe rang in the New Year by hurling the offending evergreen off the top of the Mint and watching it twinkle out of sight.
That would have ended it if New Year’s celebrants hadn’t seen an object dropping through the darkness and assumed it was a jumper. Security was called, but Howe wasn’t fired. He was only suspended.
Howe confirms the story, but playfully adds, “There’s no truth to the rumor I was naked at the time.”
Watching the tower go dark is almost too much for this die-hard Vegas guy to take.
“When I heard, my stomach just fell out,” Howe says. “The Mint was a perfect place. It made money. It was a boutique little (365-room) hotel with a great staff and great service. We treated the $5,000 cardholder like a high roller. The Mint had a certain cachet that a lot of properties on the Strip wish they’d had. It’s a damn shame it’s gone.”
Ironically, the boutique hotel experience is part of the $8.5 billion CityCenter’s marketing strategy.
May the new Las Vegas have even half the colorful characters that place did.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.