Tuesday, May 11, 2010

History of a Shopping Center Casino 1963-1981

The Bonanza Gift Store is located on the north-west corner of the Strip and Sahara Avenue. It has thousands of great Vegas souvenirs, interesting items for any den, living room, bedroom or kitchen...plus clothes, postcards, gaming supplies, dice and used decks of cards from some major casinos like the Mirage, Golden Nugget and Riviera.

I've always been interested in the history of this location, being that it once was the largest shopping center on the Strip and I like to try imagining what it was like in its 1950s heyday.

I've had a hard time trying to find more info about this location. It pre-dates the 1960 Commercial Center and may have opened up in 1954 under the name Vegas Plaza - though I'm still not certain of that.

One thing, for sure, is that it's lasted a long time and will quite likely become the site of some notable future Las Vegas landmark or hotel-casino.

This Bonanza Shopping Center was once actually the location for four early casinos from 1963-1981, so I decided to make that this Now & Then Blogsite's topic for today.

This circa 1960 aerial photo shows the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue, looking north. The Sahara Hotel is seen on the right. The vacant lot across from the Sahara (with trees) was the northern-most edge of the 1941-1960 El Rancho Hotel property (though the actual El Rancho complex was about 150 yards south of the Sahara).

Diagonally across from the Sahara was the shopping center mentioned above - where the Bonanza Gift Store is currently located. You can click on this photo to enlarge it. There is a yellow star that shows the exact spot where the Bonanza store is now located (mid-left in the photo). During the 1950s it may have been a grocery store. Later it became the site for a few popular, Las Vegas shopping center casinos.

This is a closer view of the shopping center lot. In 1974, Bob Stupak would open his Million Dollar Casino just a few blocks north of this shopping center, and later, his 1979 Vegas World and 1995 Stratosphere casinos.

In 1963 a casino was placed into the shopping center with the name Honest John's. The Honest John Casino would remain open until sometime between 1978-1981. In 1971 the Big Wheel casino opened just next to Honest John's. The circular sign now advertises the Bonanza Gift Store. Sometime after 1974, the Big Wheel Casino became the Centerfold Casino.

The Big Wheel became the Centerfold Casino from 1975-1977. Their sign advertised "Girls! Girls! Naked But Nice". I'm not quite sure how naked girls were allowed to work in a casino (given the Nevada Gaming Commission's rules prohibiting such a thing). According to some sources, the Centerfold was strictly a 'topless dancing strip-club' - so, I'm not too sure why its sign also says "21-Casino-Poker".

The closest thing to "naked" women working in a casino (that I've ever heard of) were the 1966 graveyard-shift, topless dealers that worked for a short time at the Silver Nugget Casino. These dealers wore sheer, see-thru tops and wore pasties on their bare breasts. They were soon prohibited from working in this type of apparel - so I don't think the Centerfold Casino could have allowed "Naked But Nice" women to work in their casino. Quite surely, the naked, Centerfold Women were completely separated from any casino gaming activity.

In 1977 the Centerfold Casino became known as the Jolly Trolley Restaurant, Saloon and Dining Depot. The circular sign now announced "Casino - Burlesque is Back - Naked But Nice". Valet parking was provided as well.

The Jolly Trolley remained at this location from 1977-1981. At this point the entire former shopping center seems to have become one big casino and entertainment center. The original 1963 Honest John's Casino was still operating (just to the left of the of the Jolly Trolley and its circular sign - though not shown in this photo).

There was a 24 hour adult bookstore & movie arcade located in the center of this stretch of buildings. During this time the Jolly Trolley expanded all the way to the other (east-end) of the shopping center - where it now advertised "Macho Male Strippers - Ladies Only - Hotties Male Revue".

Meanwhile, the marquee underneath the circular Jolly Trolley sign announced "Centerfold Revue - Disco Dollies - Naked But Nice - Continuous Entertainment - Noon thru 6am".

Other marquee advertisements announced "$1 Single Deck Black-Jack" - "Las Vegas' Biggest Hamburger" plus a very low-priced "Breakfast Special - Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Toast and Coffee - 69 Cents". I don't suppose the 69 cent price had any pun intended, even if it was located just next to the Adult Store. (By the way: the adult bookstore now operates as Bonanza Naughty Town and advertises "Naughty Stuff & Party Favors").

The Jolly Trolley Casino closed in 1981. If walls could talk it seems these walls would have plenty to say after operating for over 55 years - first as a mainstream, Fifties shopping center and then as a 1963-1981 casino-strip-club and adult bookstore-movie arcade.

The Bonanza Gift & Souvenir Shops advertise themselves as "The World's Largest Gift Shop". How true that is, I just don't know...but the place IS quite large and offers great products.

One thing that's comforting is Bonanza's motto (seen in red letters above) that proudly announces "If It's In Stock, We Have It".