Anniversaries preserve public’s interest in history

Clark County came into existence 100 years ago this month. Before its creation, Las Vegas was in Lincoln County, with the county seat 175 miles away in Pioche. Las Vegas civic leaders, upset by Lincoln County’s shenanigans and eager to control their own destiny, organized a campaign to carve out a new southern county with Las Vegas at its epicenter. The Las Vegas contingent persuaded the Nevada Legislature to split Lincoln County, creating Clark County on July 1, 1909.

The Clark County centennial, which is being celebrated this summer with a variety of events, is a great example of America’s love affair with anniversaries. Anniversaries have become the primary way through which people absorb history.

Consider the hot anniversary of this past week: men walking on the moon. Forty years ago, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon’s surface. The extensive media coverage has no doubt exposed many young people to the details of this historic achievement for the first time.

Two books published this year make the case that 1959 — 50 years ago — and 1969 — 40 years ago — were huge turning points in modern history.

“1959: The Year That Changed Everything,” by Fred Kaplan, argues that an array of hugely significant things happened in that largely unheralded year. Among others, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Berry Gordy started Motown Records, Texas Instruments invented the microchip and the Federal Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. Kaplan says 1959 was “when the world as we now know it began to take form.”

It turns out 1959 was a pretty interesting year in Las Vegas as well. Most significantly, the Las Vegas Convention Center opened, creating a major new revenue stream for Las Vegas and triggering a dramatic expansion in visitor volume. Also, Sunrise Hospital opened, signaling a new commitment to health care in the young community. The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign went up at the Strip’s south end, soon becoming an internationally recognized icon.

Three other 1959 events of note: A 15-year-old singer named Wayne Newton made his Las Vegas debut at the Fremont Hotel. Newton, of course, went on to become one of the biggest entertainment figures in Las Vegas history. Also, Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn met on an ocean liner and decided to team up on a magic and animal act. Siegfried and Roy would make their Las Vegas debut in 1967.

Rob Kirkpatrick, author of “1969: The Year Everything Changed,” makes the case that 1969 was the real turning point of the modern era. Echoing Kaplan, he contends that 1969 represented “the death of the old and the birth of the new — the birth, I would argue, of modern America.”

Kirkpatrick’s book covers the moon landing, of course, as well as the Boeing 747’s inaugural flight, violent protests on college campuses, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the revelation of the My Lai Massacre, Woodstock, the New York Jets’ Super Bowl upset of the Baltimore Colts, the release of several immortal rock ‘n’ roll albums and the rise of nudity in film and theater.

Well, 1969 was a significant year in Las Vegas, too. The biggest story surely was the opening of Kirk Kerkorian’s International Hotel, the city’s first megaresort. Not only did the International (now the Las Vegas Hilton) represent a new direction for Las Vegas in terms of size and grandeur, but it hosted the musical comeback of Elvis Presley.

Presley had focused almost entirely on making movies from 1960-68, but when his box office appeal dwindled, he returned to the studio and the stage. He debuted at the International on July 31, 1969, to a sold-out crowd. The King was back, and Las Vegas was his primary venue for several years before his tragic fall.

It seems like the ninth year of any decade is a significant one. For Las Vegas, at least, 1989 was another big one with the opening of Steve Wynn’s Mirage Hotel, which had an even more paradigm-shifting impact than the International.

At first glance, 1979 did not seem to follow the trend. But a little research revealed that my first impression was wrong. In fact, 1979 was a big year of growth for Las Vegas, with the openings of the Sam’s Town, Barbary Coast, Vegas World and Sundance hotel-casinos. The Barbary Coast is now Bill’s Gambling Hall, Vegas World was replaced by the Stratosphere Tower and the Sundance is now Fitzgerald’s.

In addition, 1979 saw the opening of the Liberace Museum, which remains a fixture of Las Vegas kitsch culture. Last but not least, ’79 marked the arrival of George Knapp in Las Vegas. Knapp, the award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS-TV, Channel 8, started his Las Vegas odyssey as a cab driver.

Will 2009 go down in history as a notable year? It’s too early to tell, but with the opening of MGM Mirage’s City Center project this fall, it’s fairly certain it will be highlighted in future Las Vegas history books.

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Friday.

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