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Andy Samuelson

Thousands watch as historic casino imploded

14 November 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- BOOM!

A mere five seconds after a flurry of fireworks ended early Tuesday morning, the Las Vegas Preservation Society did what it does best - pulverizing yet another legendary landmark.

At 2:37 a.m., the 65-year-old New Frontier met its final resting place in its own parking lot at 3120 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

"It's going to be explosive," quipped Brett "Gank" Jungblut, a professional card player, who gathered with more than 20 of his friends to tailgate on the roof of the Wynn's parking garage.

"Tequila and beer is exactly what a night like this calls for," continued a festive Jungblut, who reminisced about personal memories of the Frontier's country-western bar known for its bikini bull riding.

But not everyone in the crowd of a couple thousand revelers was quite as ecstatic to see the second-oldest property on the Las Vegas Strip go down.

"It's kind of sad," said Bambi Mitchell, who was on vacation from Iowa. "Sometimes I miss the old casinos, you know the ones where you can actually hear the coins coming out of the slot machines.

"But that's the way it goes. History has to move out of the way. It's kind of exciting at the same time. It's not every day that you get to see an implosion."

Unless your name is Freddy Rankin, the superintendent for Claus Construction, who has helped implode four Las Vegas casinos.

"This was kind of a little guy," joked Rankin of the 16-story-high building. "But anytime you have an implosion, there's a lot that can go wrong. I didn't smile until it was all on the ground.

"It was an outstanding implosion."

The New Frontier, which will be replaced by the multi-billion-dollar Plaza-branded resort, does not elicit the same nostalgia that the demolition of the historic Stardust, Desert Inn or Sands casinos did before it.

Visitors associate these more-famous hotels with the vintage glamour of Las Vegas before the Strip was bought up by corporations and promoted globally with the help of hundreds of millions' worth of marketing campaigns and Vegas-related media and entertainment. Despite being the destination where Elvis Presley made his Las Vegas debut, or hosting other popular acts like Siegfried and Roy and Wayne Newton, the New Frontier, for many tourists, was just another cheap room on the Strip.

And yet, this implosion was an emotional experience for many locals familiar with the property's more distant past.

The Frontier began life in the 1930s as the Pair O' Dice casino, built by British theater owner R.E. Griffith. It was reborn in 1942 with a Western theme as the Last Frontier, becoming one of the first themed casinos on the Strip before the Flamingo was even a gleam in Bugsy Siegel's eye.

The name changed to the New Frontier in 1955, but the Western theme was dropped in 1967, when it was rebuilt again as the Frontier - sleek and modern for its day. Years later it would again bear the name of the New Frontier.

It was the last standing property once owned by tycoon Howard Hughes - his other properties having long succumbed to the wrecking ball. Hughes, irritated by the view of the casino's immense neon marquee from his hotel suite across the street at his Desert Inn, added the property to his growing casino empire in December 1967.

Earlier that year, attorney and hotel operator Burton Cohen arrived in Las Vegas from Florida to run the Frontier, moving to the Desert Inn after Hughes purchased the property.

"It wasn't what you'd call a grind joint," Cohen said of the Frontier. "It was a first class facility" that shared entertainers with the Desert Inn, then a high-roller property.

But maintaining that cachet as more expensive and luxurious properties opened nearby proved elusive.

"The property didn't really change - the world around it changed," said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. "The New Frontier never captured anyone's consciousness the way the other historic hotels did."

In recent years, the property has been little more than a land holding for its owner, receiving little investment and serving as a place for tourists to bed down after taking in the sights elsewhere.

The New Frontier became a symbol of a reinvigorated labor movement in the 1990s when Culinary Union workers - upset by management's tampering with wages and benefit packages - went on a strike that ended up lasting six years and four months. The strike ended in February 1998 after attracting national attention from politicians and has remained a strong rallying cry for the union, motivating countless organizing sessions and demonstrations, ever since.

"It was a huge victory for the labor movement," said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, Culinary Union president and an organizer during the New Frontier strike. "These workers fought for themselves and their families. And they sent a message that this was going to be a union town."

While that event established Las Vegas as a national union success story, the property's next incarnation begins a new chapter that will prove even more significant for the Strip's future.

The owners of the Plaza Las Vegas are Israeli billionaires with vast business holdings that have nothing to do with casinos. They represent a new generation of starry-eyed owners on the Strip - foreign conglomerates with not millions but billions to spend owning a piece of one of the hottest stretches of real estate in the world. They bought the land for a record $1.2 billion, which is more than seller Phil Ruffin or anyone in Las Vegas could have dreamed of even a year ago.

The implosion of the New Frontier, a property casino bosses have called an eyesore on their rapidly gentrifying boulevard and a reminder of the threatening power of the Culinary Union, couldn't have come soon enough for some. For others, the demolition was bittersweet.

"This is somewhat emotional but I'm also a realist," Cohen said. "In the tourist business, if things stay the same you die."

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