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May 5, 2015

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Raising a glass to an Atomic history


John Glionna/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Derek Stonebarger, from left, Lance Johns and Kent Johns, pictured April 29, 2013, closed their purchase of The Atomic in downtown Las Vegas in June of 2013. County records show it was sold to Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project on July 17, 2014.

Atomic Bomb Testing

In this June 24,1957 photo from the Las Vegas News Bureau, photographers are seen lined up to shoot the above ground detonation of a bomb at the Nevada test site. Launch slideshow »

On a nearly deserted downtown Las Vegas block, a small brick building fronted by a curvy neon sign heralds a bygone era here: That’s when the big bombs went boom and awestruck Las Vegas residents watched the mushroom clouds billow into the bright desert sky.

At the start of the Cold War, in the 1950s and early ’60s, people timed their days to watch the U.S. government’s nuclear explosions at what was then known as the Nevada Test Site. Think of it as a small-town fair with 10,000-pound bombs serving as fireworks displays.

At Joe and Stella Sobchik’s liquor store and bar on Fremont Street, downtown denizens walked up to the roof, cocktails in hand, most without protective goggles, for a better view of the sky show. The Sobchiks eventually renamed their former restaurant Atomic Liquors to capture the oddball flavor of the events.

The place outlived the Cold War, stubbornly staying open until the couple died a few years ago. Now after a two-year hiatus, Atomic Liquors, 917 Fremont St., is back in business with new owners who plan to mark the bar’s role in the history of the town that once called itself America’s Atomic City.

A trio of investors — brothers Lance and Kent Johns, and filmmaker Derek Stonebarger — bought the bar in 2011 from the Sobchiks’ only son. Their new “bar-seum” will feature artifacts such as Geiger counters and posters from the National Atomic Testing Museum at 755 E. Flamingo Road.

The Atomic was once an atmospheric 24-hour hangout for the city’s brightest lights, including mobsters and performers who dropped in for nightcaps after their shows at downtown casinos. Regulars included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Roy Rogers and the Smothers Brothers, the owners say.

The place made cameo appearances in TV shows and films, including the original “Twilight Zone” series, Clint Eastwood’s 1977 movie “The Gauntlet,” and “The Hangover” with Bradley Cooper. In the 1995 film “Casino,” it was the setting for a scene in which Joe Pesci’s character kills a man with a pen.

“People tell us wild stories about this place,” said Lance Johns, adding that the bar had hosted a few parties and will open next month. “One guy said he was a local driver for Jimmy Hoffa and took him to the Atomic whenever he was in town. Another said Joe Sobchik was getting shaken down by a local thug until he called in Frank Sinatra. After that, the guy gave Joe all his money back.”

But the Atomic is most known for its role in nuclear tourism.

“So much history is torn down here,” Stonebarger said. “It’s nice to be part of preserving such a colorful chapter of Las Vegas’ past.”

In 1951, the U.S. government began experimenting with bombs more than twice as large as the ones dropped on Japan to end World War II. A year later, the government invited reporters to the test site, 65 miles outside Las Vegas, including a Washington journalist who described the first televised test blast.

“A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella,” he observed moments after the drop of a 31-kiloton bomb nicknamed “Big Boy.” “You brace yourself for the shock wave that follows an atomic explosion. A heat wave comes first, then the shock, strong enough to knock an unprepared man down. Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

An atomic frenzy soon swept the nation, with Las Vegas at its epicenter. Casino operators led by Benny Binion, never one to miss a promotional opportunity, printed calendars with the dates and times of the explosions. The new nuclear tourism push included atomic-themed postcards and even showgirls’ headdresses. The Flamingo and the Sands advertised atomic cocktails, the atomic hairdo and Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contests.

Click to enlarge photo

Atomic Liquor Store and Bar; 917 Fremont St.Las Vegas, NV 89101

“Benny Binion felt if they’re going to give us lemons, let’s make lemonade,” said Karen Green, curator at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. “He coined the phrase ‘atomic tourism.’”

Joe Sobchik also cashed in.

“My dad renamed his place Atomic Liquors in 1952,” said son Ron, an aerospace engineer who lives in Fullerton, Calif. “It was in the news. People talked about it everywhere.”

For 12 years, the government detonated a bomb every three weeks, for a total of 235 massive explosions whose flashes could reportedly be seen as far away as Montana, Green said. Scientists assured residents that any harmful radiation would dissipate once it reached Las Vegas.

Yet, critics said the blasts blew out windows, rattled stacks of chips at the casinos and left livestock with burns and other ailments. Billionaire Howard Hughes once complained to President Lyndon Johnson that the tests damaged the water supply, Green said. Each time a bomb went off, tremors shook Hughes’ penthouse suite atop the Desert Inn.

Finally, the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty stopped above-ground testing in Nevada. The blasts moved underground until 1992.

The new Atomic Liquors owners say they want to celebrate the glory days of the joint that Joe and Stella Sobchik ran for more than half a century. After the couple died in 2010 within weeks of one another, their memorial service was held at the Atomic.

On a recent evening at the bar, the trio talked of such touches as installing bike racks nicknamed for the infamous hydrogen bombs “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stonebarger produces a business card that, instead of an electron revolving around a nucleus, shows an olive circling the word “Atomic.”

They discuss serving a new-generation Atomic cocktail when Realtor Kent Johns mentions the song of the same name. He whips out his iPhone to pull up the 1946 ditty by the Slim Gaillard Quartet that features such lyrics as:

That’s the drink that you don’t pour

When you take one sip you won’t need any more

You’re small as a beetle or big as a whale

BOOM Atomic Cocktail.

“That’s a terrible song,” Lance Johns says.

“Well,” Stonebarger adds, “we’re going to play it here.”

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  1. Nostalgic look into the past. US vs Russia. Now we're back to the future. The Guardian/Observer reports (this morning) how the spy issue (reported last week) may start getting worse on account Russia has named the top US Spy in their country.

  2. I love the "Atomic Liquors" sign. My hobby is photography. I take pix of classic signs and such. I'll have to go take a photo of this place.

  3. "People tell us wild stories about this place," said Lance Johns, adding that the bar had hosted a few parties and will open next month."

    Riiigght .... Kent told me last February the Atomic was opening "next month." He even gave me a quarter for the vintage 1955 jukebox. The Platters 45 sounded just as scratchy as it should!

    With the Bunkhouse bought by Hseih's Downtown Collective -- "you will be assimilated, resistance is futile" -- and surely to change its unique dive bar ambience we locals have come to love and adore, here's to hoping Atomic doesn't eventually revert to the local street drunks' bar it once was.

    "Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life." -- George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, 1925 Nobel Prize winner