Haunted Las Vegas: The Motels of East Fremont Street
I don’t know how to break this to you, but Elvis Presley is dead. Ditto Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Dr. Gonzo. You can waste half your Las Vegas vacation trying to hunt them down, but you shouldn’t bother, really, for the city’s best-known restive spirits exist only in myth. The Vegas they knew has been demolished, built over and demolished again. If the ghosts of these Vegas legends were still with us, they’d probably feel intimidated and annoyed by the way Las Vegas has outgrown even their wildest imaginings and they’d probably beat a path to Branson, which — as far as I know — still has just one traffic light. There, in the neon-soaked wilds of Missiouri, a man can stretch his legs.
But Sin City isn’t without ghosts. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve felt the excitement and dread one associates with a good, solid haunting. I’ve felt it in the projection booth of the now-defunct Huntridge Theatre, a 65-year-old movie house that once hosted premieres for the likes of Abbott & Costello and Marlene Dietrich. I’ve felt in the stripped-down penthouse suites of the old Aladdin Hotel, shortly before it was demolished in in April 1998.
But I’ve felt the presence of the supernatural most strongly while walking down East Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. And unlike my previous examples, you can actually still visit this haunted strip of largely dessicated motels.
East Fremont Street begins well enough. When you come to the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont, you’ll see the Fremont Street Experience on your left — the godawful light canopy that’s robbed the hotels of “Glitter Gulch” of most of their charm — and a handful of nightclubs to your right, including the Downtown Cocktail Room, Beauty Bar and the Griffin. But if you walk past those clubs and the recently revitalized El Cortez Hotel and Casino, you’ll find yourself overlooking a Las Vegas that’s both a heartbreak and a challenge to developers and city planners who would like to see Downtown Vegas pull a larger share of the pedestrian traffic that crowds the “uptown” joints.
I don’t recommend that you visit there without a car, and I certainly don’t recommend that you visit there after dark. Though police vigilantly patrol the area, I’ve seen drug deals and have been accosted by angry drunks on East Fremont as recently as two years ago. Nevertheless, I recommend that you visit East Fremont, for one reason and one reason only: Some of Vegas’ most beautiful neon signs are here, in various states of decomposition. More than half of them don’t even light up at night, but that’s okay: You can look of them in the bright sun and easily imagine what they looked like when they beckoned visitors to fulfill their Vegas destinies — some happy, some forgettable, some terribly sad.
By the way, the lady in the top photo is the Blue Angel. She lives atop the Blue Angel Motel and is something of a patron saint to Las Vegas’ perpetually-struggling arts community. When last I heard even she had fallen to the elements, and she had been removed from her post; other friends have said that her disappearance was only temporarily and she’s once again standing serenely over the junction where East Fremont becomes Boulder Highway, turning silently to and fro in the high desert winds. I can’t say for sure, because I’m afraid to find out. If she’s not there, where is she? She’s not in Branson, is she? Tell me she’s not in Branson.
This probably isn’t the kind of haunting you expected from the title of this piece, and I’m sorry about that. But you have to understand something: Aside from East Fremont Street, Las Vegas has no dark corners. It has no abandoned houses behind wrought-iron gates, and few truly venerable hotels where the ghost of a brokenhearted spinster or of an alcoholic lounge pianist can find solitude. Every other inch of the city’s resort corridor is covered with fanny pack-clad humanity and lit like ten million Christmases.
On East Fremont Street, though, a lonesome spirit can make its last stand against luxury timeshares, against bustling nightclubs, and against light itself. You can split paranormal hairs with me over what constitutes a “haunting,” but if ever you should stagger drunkenly out of Beauty Bar and lose your bearings, I hope you’ll remember which way to turn.