Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2018

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Former big-band leader, community activist Van dies

In the early 1940s and '50s visitors to the Las Vegas Strip were dancing to the big-band sound, and many were tapping away to the orchestra of Garwood Van "the Music Man."

Van, who worked with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Vic Damone, Andy Williams and Liberace, died at the age of 88 on Sunday.

Van first played Las Vegas in 1942 at the Hotel El Rancho Vegas and later conducted orchestras at the Last Frontier, Flamingo, Thunderbird, Dunes and New Frontier hotels.

G. Barney Rawlings, a former Strip performer and singing emcee who logged more than 3,000 consecutive performances at the Thunderbird, remembers Van's talents and his distinctive voice.

"He was one of the last big-band leaders in the old days, and he always had the top players," Rawlings said. "I must have met him the first week after he moved to town, and I still remember his low, scratchy voice.

"He always talked like he had a sore throat, but he sure knew how to lead that band."

In 1952 Van met his wife, Joan, in Lake Tahoe where she was working as a dancer. They were married and moved to Las Vegas the same year.

Joan Van saw her husband play his style of music for many, including President Ronald Reagan.

"His band just had a sweet dance sound," Van said of her husband. "It was melodic and maybe a little like the sound of Lester Lannon's band."

In 1959 the Vans opened Garwood Van's Musicland, and quickly built it into one of Nevada's largest music stores.

Van took time away from his business and music to give to his community, Rawlings said.

"We were cut from the same pattern of becoming part of the community that we were performing in," Rawlings said. "He didn't just go to work and forget about the community when he was done performing.

"He didn't just ride along. He was out supporting the city."

In 1976 Van, a Republican, unsuccessfully ran for the County Commission. He had touted his business experience and sensitivity to issues.

"One promise I can make right now is to run an entirely open campaign and, if elected, serve my constituents with integrity and dedication," Van said in an August 1979 Sun story.

Van held several administrative positions in various Las Vegas groups and organizations.

He served as a director and song leader for the Las Vegas Rotary Club, was a member of the Civilian Military Council, a president of the Merchants Bureau of Greater Las Vegas and a member of the Chamber of Commerce.

Van, who was an avid golfer, was a member of the Las Vegas Country Club and was vice president of the Desert Inn Country Club.

"He loved to golf and was out on the course as much as he could be," Joan Van said. "He wasn't able to get out as much after he had a hip operation a couple years ago, and he missed golf."

Van was also a member of the Musicians Locals 47 and 369.

Van is survived by his wife and son, Gary Van, both of Las Vegas.

Services will be 11 a.m. Friday at Palm Mortuary, 7600 S. Eastern Ave.

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