Wednesday, June 23, 2004 | 9:08 a.m.
The image of a mushroom cloud bursting into the air after a nuclear blast came to symbolize the atomic age in the last half of the 20th century, but nowhere more so than in Las Vegas.
The United States conducted more than 1,000 nuclear weapons experiments 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas from 1951 until September 1992. Residents and visitors watched the blasts and drank "atomic cocktails," and women had their hair done in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
Dina Titus, a state senator since 1989 and a University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor, has chronicled the rise and fall of the mushroom cloud in pop culture for the past 25 years.
Titus spoke about the symbolism to about 50 people at the Atomic Testing Museum Tuesday night
The atomic cloud's image adorned posters, mugs, T-shirts, jewelry, films, music albums and advertising throughout the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s, she said.
In Las Vegas during the 1950s, atomic hairdos, atomic cocktails, postcards with the mushroom clouds and advertisements carried the familiar symbol, Titus said.
The mushroom cloud emerged as a powerful symbol of American power in beautiful colors that instilled awe and fear in citizens, Titus said. Nuclear scientists who pioneered the atomic bomb spoke of it in religious tones -- "doomsday," "shatterer of worlds" -- not scientific, she said.
"Popular media assisted the government in the spread of the mushroom cloud and its image," she said.
Life, Newsweek, and Walter Cronkite all reported on the awesome sight of the towering pillar of dust and smoke that glossed over dangers from radiation exposure.
Hairstylist Gigi at the Flamingo hotel whipped up an atomic cloud of hair by pulling strands over a wire tower and accenting the hair with glitter, Titus said.
"Atomic cocktails were some godawful concoction poured over dry ice" in Las Vegas hotel bars, Titus said. Today there is a book available called "Atomic Cocktails" advertising itself as full of recipes for hot drinks.
After the Soviet Union fell, mushroom clouds brought a nostalgic tinge to American culture.
In the '90s, Congress passed compensation for atomic veterans, nuclear workers and those living downwind from the fallout of the mushroom cloud.
"The offensive aspects from the mushroom cloud were glossed over," Titus said.
Then, Titus said, "Just as the mushroom cloud was settling down on the knickknack shelf of American nostalgia, along came 9-11."
Missing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, the nuclear weapons race between India and Pakistan and the weapons of mass destruction talk by President Bush has turned the optimism of the 1990s back toward a Cold War mindset, Titus said.
Today the Bureau of Atomic Tourism promotes locations around the world where nuclear experiments occurred. Conde Nast, the upscale travel magazine, did a story on a tour of Bikini Island, where early U.S. nuclear blasts exploded.
Author William Fox even suggested turning the Nevada Test Site, where more than 200 atomic bombs blasted into the skies, into a theme park.
Titus said she did not know how the mushroom cloud will fare in the next round of culture and counter culture. She advised those with T-shirts, coffee mugs or earrings sporting the atomic cloud to keep them.
"Hang on to them. They may become valuable again."