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Viva Las Vegas with the Fremont Street Experience

It is ironic that in a city associated with luck that the number of hotel/casinos in Downtown Las Vegas amount to what some consider as an “unlucky” number - 13. In addition to Binion’s, the California, the El Cortez, Fitzgerald’s, the Four Queens, the Fremont, the Gold Spike, the Golden Gate, the Golden Nugget, the (currently closed pending completion of renovation and expansion work) Lady Luck, the Las Vegas Club, Main Street Station, and the Plaza, names to know in Downtown Las Vegas also include Viva Vision and Neonopolis.

The four-block-long Viva Vision screen covers the top of Fremont Street between Main Street and Fourth Street, and the corporation which calls itself Fremont Street Experience only extends east to Fourth Street. Fremont Street is also closed to through traffic (for pedestrians only) between Fourth Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, adding Neonopolis to the actual Fremont Street experience.

The city of Las Vegas, Nevada, was founded on May 15, 1905. At the northwest corner of Fremont Street and Main Street, the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad auctioned off lots to create the city.

The Golden Gate, at One Fremont Street, was initially the Hotel Nevada and is the oldest building. The first telephone in Las Vegas, at the southwest corner of Fremont and Main, was outside of where the Golden Gate now stands. The memorabilia inside the Golden Gate includes wood piping which held the first telephone line; that piping was discovered in the 1990s when Fremont Street was being excavated for the Fremont Street Experience.

Fremont Street would also become Las Vegas’ first paved street and the first street in the city with a traffic light. Gambling was legalized in 1931 to raise tax revenue for public schools and in the days prior to the Las Vegas Boulevard “strip,” the town’s casino activity focused on Fremont Street.

In 1941, the El Rancho Vegas at the southwest corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue became the first Strip hotel/casino. Although attention now focuses more on the Strip than on the Fremont Street Experience, the Downtown Las Vegas interests eventually carved out their own niche market for tourists seeking better values and family-oriented entertainment.

The Fremont Street Experience was dedicated in December 1995. It is capped - literally - by Viva Vision (the Elvis Presley movie and song “Viva Las Vegas” has created an identity for the town; the Toastmasters chapter which meets at Las Vegas City Hall is called “Viva Las Voices”), which consists of more than 12 million light-emitting diode bulbs and includes a 550,000-watt sound system.

At night, every hour, a brief show on the Viva Vision screen features various musical artists or possibly an animated cartoon (the screen is used for promotional activities during the rest of the hour). The corporate Fremont Street Experience is responsible for booking live entertainment as well as for the screen shows.

Nightlife at the Fremont Street Experience includes two stages off of Fremont Street featuring bands or solo musicians. Other musicians play on Fremont Street itself, and from time to time acrobatic or other acts also perform on the pedestrian street while artists offer portraits.

Interpretive signs along the Fremont Street Experience document the history of Downtown Las Vegas. Neon signs also share some of the city’s past. Some have been restored and placed along side streets while others are in the Neonopolis courtyard. Although near-term plans include converting the Neon Boneyard a few blocks from Fremont Street into a neon museum, the neon signs off Fremont Street and at Neonopolis will remain where they are after the museum opens.

The economy has affected Fremont Street businesses as well as stores and restaurants throughout Nevada, which has created vacancies at Neonopolis. The third-floor theaters are currently closed (but are expected to re-open in June) while the second-floor Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art is hosting an International Contemporary Masters exhibit.

While many first-floor buildings remain vacant, the former Jillian’s site which includes a restaurant and entertainment is now the Las Vegas Rocks Cafe. Tony Sacca, the host of the television show “Entertainment Las Vegas Style” handles the entertainment and promotion aspect of the restaurant he co-owns, Chef Josette LeBlond oversees the food, and Tony Orlando is a celebrity partner.

The Las Vegas Rocks Cafe opened in November, and Sacca references a near-term “re-awakening” of Neonopolis as new or relocated businesses replaces those who left. “It was sleeping for a while,” he said.

Souvenir shops, restaurants, and small non-hotel casinos complement Neonopolis, the Fremont Street Experience acts, and the hotels. While Fremont Street was an integral part of Las Vegas’ early history, the Fremont Street Experience’s emphasis on family entertainment and affordability creates a neon-bright and screen-bright future for Downtown Las Vegas.

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