`Old' Las Vegan shows casino collection
By Damon Hodge View staff writer
Wednesday, September 22, 1999
Pete Rizzo pines for the Las Vegas of yesteryear: When men were cats, women were dames and a candy-coated quartet of Rat Packers captivated both during hot summer nights. He dreams of the '50s when he strolls downtown for a dose of casino nostalgia. Something about the time-worn honor of the Golden Gate and the Horseshoe warm the Connecticut native. Downtown's a throwback to a simpler, friendlier Las Vegas, Rizzo said, with its chatty bartenders, affordable eats and sidewalk shops. Then, the city was less bawdy and had more body.
Rizzo began salvaging what he could of "old" Las Vegas six years ago. He visited hotels, scoured swap meets, talked to long-time dealers, hit yard sales, scored relics from friends and logged onto E-Bay, an Internet auction Web site.
He's built a casino-themed collection of more than 600 items -- chips, ashtrays, tokens, cards, dice, matches, aprons, ties, jackets and more.
Part of that collection is on display through September at the Summerlin Library, 1771 Inner Circle Drive. "I've always been attracted to Old Vegas and to the interesting history of gambling in this town," the Summerlin resident said. The display mixes old and new. There's a menu dated April 24, 1950, announcing a gala celebration featuring Edgar Bergen at Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn; a 1960 Desert Inn credit card; a $1 chip celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jackie Gaughan Plaza; and a voided check from the Dunes. There are also faded dealer ties from the Golden Gate, El Rancho and Silver Slipper and other casinos captured in pictures and postcards such as the Golden Nugget, Flamingo, Frontier and Pioneer. New casinos get short shrift, but those represented via room keys, slot cards and other items include the MGM, Mandalay Bay and the Mirage.
Shortly after earning an associate's degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University, Rizzo moved to Los Angeles and became a chef, working at several Sunset Boulevard establishments. He moved to Las Vegas in 1992 in search of a change of scenery and began amassing casino memorabilia.
His first chips came courtesy of his parents who'd visited Las Vegas in the early 1980s and brought him $1 chips from the Dunes, Frontier, Hacienda and Las Vegas Hilton. "I still have those chips, I won't give them away," Rizzo said. Rizzo began collecting anything time-worn, interesting or novel. He got colorful dealer ties and aprons, embossed ashtrays and casino chips with the names of former executives -- he says casino bosses used the chips as business cards. "I was fascinated by the old stuff," Rizzo said. "I really liked downtown. There's real history there. When you go into one of the old casinos, you can feel the history." Rizzo enjoyed the stories of rich and of the infamous told by long-time locals and nosy casino staff.
He convinced more than a few to toss him a relic. He sold his growing collection in 1993 for a down payment on a new home. "It hurt me, but I had to prioritize," he said.
Since restarting his hobby last year, he's collected more than 600 items, including every item he had sold. While Rizzo enjoys collecting, he prefers discovery. Anything obsolete or old tickles his fancy. His oldest item is a 1940s-era El Rancho Vegas chip he got from a fellow collector who produced pamphlets on the history of Southern Nevada gaming for tourists, transplants and schoolchildren. The man hoarded items from now-defunct casinos. Rizzo also has several Thunderbird Hotel chips from the 1950s, a Stardust name tag from a guy named John, a record of Johnny Ray's live performance at the Desert Inn and early photos of earlier casinos.
One chip that's successfully eluded him is a $1 chip given to his friend's Mom by Sammy Davis Jr., a Rat Pack member, along with Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. "I'll get one eventually. I'll wear on her," he said. Rizzo said searching for the past has become increasingly hard with the city's constantly shifting skyline and tacit concern about downtown preservation. He thinks the city is so bent on what's new, no thought is given to protecting what's old. He praised Aladdin officials for rebuilding the hotel, but wished the Venetian could have kept some of the Sands mystique. Thus, Rizzo's treasure hunt continues.
"I read all the books
I can on Old Vegas and I circle the names I see," he said. "I look those people
up in the phone book and call them only to find that most of them have passed."
That leaves other avenues, namely yard sales, which he visits weekly, and
taking a trip back in time. "There's nothing like going downtown and talking
to the old-timers," he said. "They have stories about the way it used to be
here. Many of them have items from Old Vegas, some of which help you visualize
how it used to be."