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August 30, 2014

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LIVING LAS VEGAS:

Renewed sense of community rekindles spirit of Rat Pack days in Las Vegas neighborhood

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Leila Navidi

Dan Stafford participates in the putting contest during a Paradise Palms cocktail party at Las Vegas National Golf Club on Friday, January 18, 2013.

Paradise Palms

Patrons tour a home that is for sale on Spencer Street in the Paradise Palms neighborhood during a midcentury modern bus tour of homes in Las Vegas on Sunday, October 28, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Map of Las Vegas National Golf Club

Las Vegas National Golf Club

1911 E. Desert Inn Road, Las Vegas

As the sun set over the empty green fairways and sandy bunkers of Las Vegas National Golf Club on a Friday evening, its clubhouse came alive.

A banner that reads “Welcome to Paradise Palms” is hung from the unvarnished wood rafters to greet neighbors who live in the area surrounding the golf course. Golf club manager Coy Wood stands at the entrance with raffle tickets, prompting neighbors to pick two tickets: a “winner” to toss into the raffle and a “loser” to hold on to.

People trickle in at first, but soon the clubhouse’s bar and tables are filled. Cocktails and beer are served liberally as the din of laughter and chatter fills the air. At the bar, one asks his neighbor how his dog is doing; at a table, a neighbor chats about a recent date.

There was a time in the 1960s when residents in this neighborhood had the clubhouse packed to the brim almost every day. Then, members of the Rat Pack would play a round on the course before going inside for a few different rounds.

The golf club was a happening place, surrounded by Las Vegas’ version of the Hollywood Hills, filled with entertainers and celebrities from the Strip. Now all that remains from those days are their photos on the clubhouse wall and plaques with their names on the bar.

It is fitting that residents in today’s Paradise Palms party once a month in a hallowed hall of Las Vegas’ yesteryear. In a city that would rather demolish and rebuild than preserve and restore, these residents are fighting to hold on to what makes their neighborhood special.

•••

Driving around Paradise Palms is like time traveling to the 1960s. The neighborhood’s streets spread out like roots in an area stretching roughly from Maryland Parkway to Eastern Avenue and Desert Inn Road to Flamingo Road. Its streets are lined with midcentury modern homes.

Each house is like a piece of art, at once futuristic and a relic. Some are flat and all boxy angles, with a butterfly roof and decorative stone screens made popular during that time. Others are placed on angles from the street, with pebble-stoned roofs and carports on the side. They are painted lime greens and sky blues and other pastels popular in the 1960s.

“People put their own personality in their homes,” resident George Gilbert said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter neighborhood.”

Back in the day, the community was the popular place to live in Las Vegas. Comedian Buddy Hackett, singers Diana Ross and Engelbert Humperdinck, and pretty much every other Strip entertainer lived or stayed in this neighborhood. Many of the homes were owned by the casinos and used by visiting performers.

Gilbert remembers the neighborhood’s past fondly. He still has his father’s metal community card from 1963 when they moved into Paradise Palms. His parents were comedians who performed on the Strip and made several appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

When the Strip’s showrooms closed for the evening, the entertainers often went to the Gilberts’ home for a nightcap. It was a place where they could be themselves, away from the demands of being a celebrity. Gilbert doesn’t have any mementos from those parties because, to him, the visitors were just neighbors and family friends, not celebrities.

“I kind of miss the old days,” Gilbert said. “Entertainers used to call my mother up (on the golf course) and she’d have cocktails for them on the 17th fairway, bringing mimosas to comedians.”

Resident Dan Stafford, who also grew up in the neighborhood, said Paradise Palms was the type of community where everyone knew one another, kids played in the street and neighbors baby-sat.

Yet as time passed into the 1990s and 2000s and Las Vegas expanded, the once-vibrant community began to change. Entertainers and past residents aged or moved; homes were either neglected or remodeled and lost their unique characteristics.

All that history almost disappeared until about three years ago, when Clay and Denise Heximer moved into Paradise Palms.

•••

Most residents in Paradise Palms consider the Heximers the de facto mayors of the neighborhood. If any two people can be credited as the catalysts for the neighborhood’s resurrection, community members point to them.

“I’ve watched Paradise Palms from the start to its decline,” Stafford said. “The one magical spark has been Clay and Denise Heximer.”

Clay Heximer idolized the neighborhood as a child in Henderson. He loved Paradise Palms’ character and “Jetsons-esque” juxtaposition between past and future. So when a home became available, he and his wife, Denise, pounced on the chance to move in.

Yet when they arrived, they were shocked by how little neighbors interacted.

“To me the concept of not knowing your neighbor was weird,” Denise Heximer said. “So that was my goal when we moved in.”

Rather than complain, the Heximers decided to change the neighborhood’s culture. They began with organizing a simple neighborhood watch program. They played host to cleanup events and created a community Facebook page where residents now retell stories of the previous night’s parties, share warnings about burglars, and ask for assistance to watch a pet or home.

Those neighborhood watch meetings have evolved into monthly themed cocktail parties where people can show off their homes. Clay Heximer said neighbors now know one another’s names and often wave.

He said it is impossible to go to the nearby grocery store without seeing somebody he knows.

“This is unlike most of Las Vegas,” Clay Heximer said. “There’s a real feeling of community. I’ve never lived anywhere else where I’ve had this sense of community.”

People also began restoring their homes to their original 1960s designs. Inside, walls are decorated in bright-colored polka-dot wallpaper, and rooms are filled with 1960s-styled furniture and knickknacks.

Several residents have even bought cars from the past, including Denise Heximer, who owns a 1964 Ford Thunderbird.

“Now when you walk into houses, it’s like walking back in time 50 years,” Stafford said. “Some people may be concerned about living in the past, but these people live in the present. They’re not confused about what timeline they live in.”

•••

The highlights of every Paradise Palms party at the golf club are the raffle and the putting contest. Wood cuts through the chatter and laughter to introduce this month’s prizes.

“This month we have a special hat,” Wood says.

“Why? Is there money in it?” a resident interrupts.

“No, these are sunglass hats. The latest thing in hats,” Wood deadpans as the room erupts in laughter.

After the raffle, residents cap the night with a putting contest in which participants either hold a drink in one hand and putt with the other or putt in the traditional style.

Everyone in the room teases one another as they miss their shots on the raised practice putting mat. It’s the type of teasing that only occurs with people who know one another, and it never would have happened five years ago.

A lot has changed since the Rat Pack made the clubhouse famous and the neighborhood was filled with stars, but residents of today’s Paradise Palms won’t soon forget their historic origins.

As time marches on, they’re working to turn back the clock.

“With the sprawling growth in Las Vegas, things changed. They went to gated communities and cul-de-sacs, where people don’t know their neighbors,” Stafford said. “Here we’re developing a community through activism. There’s been a resurgence back to life.”

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  1. Wonderful neighborhood with great houses and cool people. Thanks to the efforts of folks like the Heximers in neighborhoods like Paradise Palms, McNeil and John S. Park, pockets of Las Vegas are regaining a sense of true community that had been lost as the city grew so quickly. With Paradise Palms at one end and plans for redevelopment of the UNLV area into "Midtown" at the other, Maryland Parkway might once again become a high quality retail area, as it once was. Here's to building the future by learning from (and respecting) the past!