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August 2, 2015

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A curator’s vision for a Neonopolis revival

At a time when Harry Reid actually believes “when the dust settles the Republicans will no longer want to stop everything and we’ll work together” and Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval thinks he can balance a budget that’s $3 billion short without A) raising taxes, and B) starting a new Stone Age, I don’t feel even slightly sheepish about indulging another crazy dreamer.

Brian Paco Alvarez is a local curator who has worked on many historical exhibits. He’s a vocal and visible booster of downtown and, useful for the purposes of this discussion, a member of the Liberace Foundation’s board. As you may have heard, the Liberace people had a little problem recently.

Likewise, Wayne Newton has run into trouble with his plans to build a museum in his honor on Sunset Road. Residents of the area have opposed it and the Paradise Town Advisory Board has recommended against it. (The Clark County Commission will take up the matter Nov. 17.)

Why not, Alvarez reasons, pile the Liberace collection, the Newton museum and a critical mass of other entertainment memorabilia into an otherwise useless downtown eyesore — Neonopolis, in case you hadn’t guessed — then pack in some interactive attractions and create an entire complex devoted to the history of Las Vegas entertainment?

“This has been swimming in my brain for a while,” he says.

Yeah, I know. Crazy idea. Who is this guy, anyway? Etc., etc. But think about it for a sec. For one thing, there would be no shortage of stuff. Alvarez ticks off a few collections he’d like to see in there: Liberace and Newton, of course, plus Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield, the nascent gaming history museum, the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Plus miscellaneous Rat Packery, material from some of the comedians who’ve lived here — who among us doesn’t want to see what Redd Foxx kept in his rumpus room? — and maybe even a square foot or two devoted to Jumpsuit Elvis.

It’s the mass that’s important. Celebrity attractions are cool, but — see: Liberace — as interest in a star wanes, so does his or her revenue-generating ability. “I look at what Wayne Newton is doing with a little concern,” Alvarez says. “It’s like a repeat. In the end, even Wayne Newton’s star will fade.”

Together, they can help each other. For tourists lukewarm about a long drive to see Liberace’s rhinestones, the chance to ogle a Siegfried costume or Copperfield’s blow dryer might get them to go. Not to mention that, properly curated, a facility like this could be a strong and useful history of Las Vegas entertainment.

On top of all that, it would at long last give Neonopolis a reason to exist.

Since it opened in 2002, with stores, a food court and a movie multiplex, among other amenities, Neonopolis has dwindled through a series of stalled Big Ideas — when’s the last time anyone believed Star Trek: The Experience will actually open there? — to the intermittent sputter of activity you see there now. That’s left a sad void in what should be one of downtown’s key spots.

“Some people see it as an eyesore,” he says. “I see it as having potential. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see that building sitting empty.”

There is potential in the location, if not the building itself. On one side is the tourist cacophony of the Fremont Street Experience; on the other, the lively bounce of the East Fremont district. Since Las Vegas entertainment is local and international, presumably the complex would complement both sides.

“It can’t be a mall,” Alvarez says of Neonopolis. “People aren’t interested in malls. You want a mall, go to the Fashion Show. Every hotel has a mall. People are interested in attractions.”

Of course, as with bipartisan unity in Congress and smooth budgeting in Carson City, it ain’t likely to happen. Too many large, impractical hurdles. The building itself is an architectural trauma; and the current owner, Wirrulla Hayward, fronted by the colorful Rohit Joshi, hasn’t proven able to make much progress with the property. If anything galvanizing is to happen there, my guess is it’ll be under a different owner.

And then we can unveil Museumopolis.

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