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November 23, 2014

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Life Is Beautiful throws open door to new downtown Las Vegas

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Fred Morledge

Imagine Dragons performed a homecoming set on the Downtown stage during LIB Day 1.

2013 Life is Beautiful: Day 1, Part 1

Childish Gambino performs during day one of the Life is Beautiful festival in downtown Las Vegas, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Launch slideshow »

2013 Life Is Beautiful: Day 2, Part 1

Life Is Beautiful festival attendees walk by a lit-up Downtown Container Park on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. Launch slideshow »
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“Zarkana” cast members perform on Fremont Street during Life Is Beautiful Day 1 on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

In January 2007, I met Michael Cornthwaite at a speakeasy he was about to open just off Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. He said to just walk in through the front door, and he’d be at the bar.

Not a problem.

When I arrived, I tried pushing against the tall glass window at the front of Downtown Cocktail Room, smearing the surface with hand prints. Feeling it was still locked, I walked around the back of the building, into the alley and snooped around for a back entrance.

Cornthwaite found me there, and he was laughing. He led me back to the entrance, to the unmarked, silver-metal door that is actually the club’s front entrance but looks more like a portion of painted wall. We pushed, and that door easily opened to the darkened DCR.

The idea behind this design of entry, which is well known these days, is you needed to understand how to get into DCR before you tried to walk inside. It was exclusive to those who lived in the area. If you were a tourist, or were uninitiated, and somehow waded off the corner of L.V. Boulevard and Fremont Street, you might not figure it out. And it would be your loss.

That night, Cornthwaite led me on a short tour of Fremont Street east of the Fremont Street Experience canopy. He described an entertainment district filled with an outcropping of bars and restaurants, and, in the middle of the stretch of Fremont Street leading to 6th Street, we’d see a line of refurbished neon signs from Las Vegas’ yesteryear.

This was before the multimillion-dollar renovation of El Cortez had been finished, before the opening of such taverns as the Griffin and Don’t Tell Mama, and before the Cornthwaites (Michael and his wife, Jennifer) had taken over management of the old Fremont Medical Center building. The term “Fremont East” as a description for that region was just budding at that time, but Cornthwaite insisted that this area would be a galvanizing district for Las Vegans.

People would want to hang out there and, more important, live nearby.

Nearly seven years later, we know what Fremont East looks like, largely rejuvenated by Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and employees from Zappos. I thought of that time Saturday night when the Life Is Beautiful cultural festival opened across downtown Las Vegas. An estimated 20,000 people converged on the region for the first day and night of LIB, curiously roaming the festival grounds that swallow up 15 city blocks.

Life Is Beautiful has been described as wholly unique, for the amount of territory it spans in the core of the city. It is different for that reason, and planning is crucial for anyone who has become accustomed to simply parking on the street or even the FSE parking garage and moving around unimpeded.

Even walking into and out of El Cortez requires the scanning of a wristband in both directions. Las Vegans might not be appreciative of the $40-per-vehicle shuttle system devised to deliver folks from World Market Center to Downtown Las Vegas, but that has been a reliable means to get in and out of LIB. For a comparison, the same attention to preparation is required for LIB as the Electric Daisy Carnival at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or any other major event at LVMS.

How LIB is different from EDC is that the downtown event is far more relaxed and measured than the sensory assault that is EDC. On my way out of Saturday's LIB festival, I ran into a longtime Las Vegan who has seen all variety of events in the city, including EDC. Gripping a mixed cocktail in each hand, he said that he was unclear of the very point of Life Is Beautiful. He pointed toward La Comida restaurant and said it was a good thing that establishment was open during the festival. Otherwise, he said he that would have been "bored."

LIB is a pedestrian experience, no question. You are pretty much free to roam as you like, casually asking such questions as, “Should I have another plate of pasta from Bratalian or hit Beck on the Downtown Stage?” The first night was spent toggling between the Culinary Village, teeming with the city’s top chefs and restaurateurs, and that stage. The Learning Program at Triple B’s and Fremont Country Club and the art exhibits will have to happen today. It’s a good thing this festival runs over two days to take it all in or at least try.

During Saturday’s spree of bands on the Downtown Stage, Imagine Dragons performed for an hour to a crowd that filled that vast asphalt lot. The band that took form in Las Vegas about five years ago is now a real force in contemporary music. Frontman Dan Reynolds shouted out a few of the venues the band had played in its development, including the since-closed O’Shea’s and the Bunkhouse. Thousands of fans roared back, and the band closed its set with an unannounced visit from costumed artists from Cirque du Soleil slamming away on a battery of drums during the set-closing “Radioactive.”

As the scene pulsated with a locally bred superstar rock band boosted by the city’s predominant artistic production company, it was obvious that this scene could happen only in Las Vegas. Specifically, it could happen only in downtown Las Vegas, where the door has swung way wide open.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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