"HOWDY PARDNER, WELCOME TO DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS", was once the most well known and quoted line in Las Vegas.
Vegas Vic is still standing above the now-closed Pioneer Club in downtown Las Vegas, comfortably out of the sun under the Fremont Street Experience, still separated from the love of his life, Sassy Sally, the sign across the street above Sassy Sally's slot joint and represents Las Vegas proudly as he's done since 1942. But the real story of Vegas Vic seems to elude even the experts in town. But the expert I ran across is as interesting a story as the story behind the famous sign and the real life man who played the role of Vegas Vic. The boys saw him as great publicity and didn't miss a chance to promote the town. But to Las Vegans, Vic was like an old friend with his huge smile and the tip of his hat.
I was recently on vacation on the California coast, driving down Highway 1 from Eureka to Morro Bay then back to Las Vegas. The entire trip was perfect. The weather couldn't have been better until I got down to Big Sur. From there down to Morro Bay was 145 miles of twisting Highway 1 and the fog was rolling in from the ocean and, although I was about the only car on the highway, I couldn't manage faster than 25 mph. In the distance I saw the light from a lighthouse and when I reached the Cambria lighthouse I hopped out, took a couple of shots of fog and decided to head into the town of Cambria to grab a cup of coffee and wait for the sun to burn through the fog, which usually happens by noon. Cambria, California is a really charming little coastal town just north of Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo on Highway 1; a quaint European/Western style town divided into a smaller eastern uptown area and slightly larger downtown area. There are no stop lights and dogs have the right-of-way to the cars. I wandered the streets, just window shopping for a gift for my nephews' upcoming wedding in Chicago when I noticed a beautiful little wine and gift store called Fermentations that sits just off the main street in a small wooden house. There in the window was the gift I wanted to buy. I moseyed around the store testing their wines and picking out the gift I wanted. Martha was a big help, she packed the picnic basket/backpack in boxes for shipping back to Chicago and she asked in passing where I was from.
"Well, I'm from Chicago but I live in Las Vegas", I replied
"Really? My dad lived in Las Vegas, he worked for the Pioneer Club."
Well, the Pioneer Club had closed a few years ago but back in the 60's and 70's was one of the better gambling clubs downtown along with the Horseshoe and the Mint. You had to play at the Pioneer Club before you left town just because everyone in the world heard of the Pioneer. I had a girlfriend back in the early 80's that was a bartender there as well as a couple of dealers that were pool playing team mates in my 9 Ball league, so I knew some of the names.
"What was his name, maybe I knew him."
What was to come out of this unassuming lady in this out-of-the-way gift store in this out-of-the-way town was to floor me.
"He was A.K.(Austin Kermit) Wright", she said.
"Doesn't sound familiar."
"Well maybe you remember him as Vegas Vic," she said.
"I believe Vegas Vic was just a sign above the Pioneer Club wasn't it?" I replied. Then it dawned on me, I think I did once hear a story about a real live "Vegas Vic".
"Yes, but my dad was the live version of Vegas Vic." And the story begins:
The year was 1956. The "Strip" back then was the casinos on Fremont Street. The Las Vegas Club, the Golden Gate, the Mint, the Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget and the Fremont , and of course, the Pioneer Club. On Highway 6 from L.A. stood a few dusty casinos like the El Rancho, the Frontier and the Desert Inn, miles away was the Flamingo. The original Las Vegas airport had been moved from what is now the corner of Paradise Road and Sahara (there's a brass plaque in the sidewalk commemorating the airport in front of the Texaco Station) to miles away where it stands today, south of Tropicana, which at the time was Bon Aire street. It was renamed McCarran Field and above the entrance to the passenger terminal from the field side was a huge wooden cowboy, cigarette in his mouth with a huge smile while tipping his cowboy hat welcoming the gamblers to Las Vegas and reminding them that despite this oasis in the desert, we are out west after all. On the ride from the airport to downtown you would see mostly sage brush, cactus, and horse ranches. Gamblers nicknamed the cowboy Vegas Vic and they'd tip their hats or wave back to the huge wooden cowboy and say "Wish me luck Vic" while walking into the terminal. (Why the hell do they call an airport a "terminal"? Isn't that the last word you would want to hear before boarding the airplane?) Tutor Shore was the owner of the Pioneer Club, but his friends called him Toots. He and his wife were returning from a meeting back east, when walking into the airport he saw all the other passengers waving to the damn sign. Toots turned to his wife Mitzie and said, "Shit, are you kidding me, let's buy this sign and move him to the casino, then everyone will come down to the Pioneer Club to wish themselves good luck." And the owners of the airport were glad to get rid of him since they were planning some renovations and were going to get rid of him anyway.
The first few months the sign stood above the Pioneer Club, the business was phenomenal. Everyone in town would make the trek to the Pioneer Club just to see the sign and wave back to it. It was then the owners came up with another bright idea. Yessco Sign Company was a virgining company back then and when the proposal to build a new sign came their way, they jumped at the chance. Vegas Vic was to be built even taller, now the cigarette would blow smoke and even the arm that once stood motionless in an endless hat-tipping gesture, would move from his side up to tip his hat, and the most important renovation would be the voice box. This was new technology at the time since they needed it to repeat the same saying time after time. As the sign was being built, they decided on using a tape recorder spooled in an endless loop. They went to a radio station in Los Angeles to find an announcer with the right voice to say, "Welcome to Las Vegas." They received over thirty different audition tapes and finally settled for the closest voice they could find.
It was only a few days later that Mitzie was playing in the ladies' Pan tournament at the Sahara Hotel when she and a girlfriend walked up to the bar for a cup of coffee. The bartender, a very tall, good looking guy approached and said in a deep and thunderous voice: "Howdy ladies, welcome to the Sahara Hotel, what can I get you?" And that was all she had to hear. He didn't just sound right, this guy was almost 7 feet tall, dark and handsome, with a Texas drawl, this WAS Vegas Vic. She made a date with him to come down to the Pioneer Club for dinner that night and when her husband saw him mosey into the restaurant he was sold. "Just say one thing for me" said Toots, say "Welcome to Las Vegas" and he repeated "Welcome to Las Vegas" but it wasn't quite right. "Say it like you say it at the bar with that Texas drawl of yours" said his wife. He gave his best smile and in his deepest Texas drawl said "Howdy Pardner, welcome to Las Vegas" Toots looked at Mitzie, they looked at each other and nodded at the same time, hands were shaken (a binding contract in the old days), a deal was made and Vegas Vic was born.
His name was A.K. Wright. Born in 1912 in Abilene Texas, the son of a long line of fire and brimstone Church of Christ ministers. He was clean cut and an immaculate dresser with a great Texas drawl. He was just right for the job but this was a job that was to be defined on Toots' terms. There had never been a real Vegas Vic so it was up to A.K. to make himself into Vegas Vic. They needed to promote this guy and they reached into their pockets to make it work. The first thing they had to do was to make him "look" like Vegas Vic, only better. He tried on one cowboy suit after another and none made him look right, so a tailor was commissioned to make a sequined cowboy suit. When they were done there, they headed to the local boot store but as it turned out, they didn't have the size 14 boot he wore. A.K. was '6ft.10 ½ inches tall in his stocking feet. They would have to order a special pair, so they picked out three pair, each one nicer than the other. One had sequins to match the suit, another had 45 pistols stitched on the side, and the third pair said "Vegas" embroidered on one boot and "Vic" on the other. Then to top it off they bought a couple of Stetson hats, the largest size they had. When the package was put together and A.K. marched into Toots Shore's office, he just said, "Howdy pardner, welcome to the Pioneer Club."
Standing there at over 7 feet tall in his boots, he was an inspiring figure. But they couldn't just have him sit at the door greeting people; they wanted him to circulate around town, gain a reputation so people would recognize him and want to see him when they came to town. So Toots ordered two Cadillacs. One was a huge white convertible with a red interior and a set of bull horns on the front. The other was also a convertible-stretched version with a full bar in back so Vic could entertain while showing off his town. He was given a working stake of $1,000 a week to spread around town to promote the Pioneer Club. He would walk into the casinos around town and buy in for $100 on the craps game and when people would ask who he was, he would just say, "Howdy pardner, I'm Vegas Vic" And he would hand out a few comp tickets for drinks at the Pioneer Club. After a few hours of going from casino to casino, by the time he checked back in at 8 p.m., there would be thirty to fifty people there all gambling at their tables waiting to have a drink with Vic.
Vegas Vic was an instant hit, and everywhere he went in his convertible Cadillac he would be recognized. In fact, he was quickly becoming more popular than the Mayor or even the governor of the state. The year before Governor Rex Bell's election, he was approached by the Governor's publicity team and asked him to sign on as his running mate. Vic refused because he knew he wasn't a politician and was only being asked on the basis of his popularity and recognition. Vic didn't believe his own hype until Christmas of 1956, when he rode in the parade in his open Cadillac behind the Governor of Nevada's car and behind the Mayor of Las Vegas's car and the crowd applauded politely until Vic's Cadillac came around the corner on 6th street and then the crowds went crazy and waved and cheered as he made his appearance. All he had to do was to stick a lit cigarette in his mouth, wave his hand and tip his Stetson and said "Howdy Pardner, welcome to Las Vegas." And the crowds went crazy again.
Now, every casino wanted to use Vic for their own promotions but Toots would have nothing to do with that. Vegas Vic was the property of the Pioneer Club and that was that. One day, only a few weeks after starting the campaign, he was mobbed walking out of the lounge show at the Desert Inn by a bunch of young girls. They all wanted to meet him, and more, they wanted to make it with him just so they could tell their friends. They offered him room keys, money, you name it. Vic was more sought after than any celebrity in town at the time. Vic (Toots insisted he never use his real name) would drive down to Kelso, the last stop on the gambling train from L.A. to Las Vegas and board the train to play poker and blackjack with the riders and that doubled the ridership on the train. He would hand out drink tickets and dinner tickets but people were more interested in just shaking his hand.
One day while working Fremont St., Benny Binion snagged him up and brought him over to the Horseshoe. He handed him $5,000 and told him to enjoy himself on the craps tables. "Spend a couple hours in my joint and I'll give you that five grand as a gift, and anything you win over that, you keep too." Vic was tall, he was handsome, he had it all, but the one thing he also had was a knack for Craps. He filled the crap tables at the Horseshoe in minutes, everyone wanted to play at his table. But for the first time ever in the history of the Horseshoe, there were more women playing craps then men. When Toots heard the commotion he walked over to see Vic taking Benny's tables off for over $15,000. "Alright, you cash out when you start to lose it back, but take as much as you can of that bastards money."
"And if I was losin'?" Vic asked. Toots said. "You'd be fired by now if you weren't taking Binion's money." When he saw all the ladies flaunting over him, Toots decided it was time to revise his contract. Now Vegas Vic was not to date or marry any one at any time while still playing the role. He could schmooze with the ladies all he wanted, kiss their hands and buy them drinks, but that was it. They didn't want any of his lady admirers to think Vic was taken. If they thought they might have a shot at him, they would keep coming back. And they did keep coming back. One day he had walked into the Riviera to promote a slot contest at the Pioneer Club. He bought $200 in chips at the blackjack table and the dealer got tapped out and in his place was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. He dropped the "Howdy Pardner" stuff and got serious. He asked her to dinner and she accepted. He put on his normal clothes and they went to the best restaurant in Las Vegas which, at that time, was on the top floor of the Horseshoe. At 7 feet tall, he was hard to ignore and the word quickly got back to Toots, but it was too late. Vic was in love and she was so crazy about Vic that they decided not to waste anymore time and headed down to the Little Chapel of the West in the Pioneer's stretched white Cadillac and tied the knot. They both decided he had a great job and would keep the wedding quiet. They headed to the Flamingo Hotel for a short honeymoon; they gave the keys to the valet and headed to the honeymoon suite.
The next day they came out to get the car but the Cadillac was gone. When he asked where the car was, the valet handed him a note. The note said he could find the car on south Las Vegas Blvd. Just hop in a cab, head south and he'd have no problem finding it. The cab driver drove the strip as far as he could, then just a few miles south of the Flamingo they found the car. It was buried up to its front seat sticking straight out of the ground, burned to a crisp. This was Toots' way of showing his displeasure. He found out they were wed and that would mark the end of Vegas Vic. And though he was still retained for a couple of weeks afterwards, no one wanted to meet a married Vegas Vic, and so A.K. Wright slipped back into obscurity with the love of his life. He got a job as a security guard at the Sahara and was seldom even recognized as the once famous Vegas Vic. A short time later they'd both had enough of the Vegas lifestyle and they finally left town and headed to Avila Beach, California to live his life in relative obscurity as a restaurateur on the beach. Then he moved back to his hometown of Abilene, Texas where he died peacefully in 1980.
I asked his daughter, Martha Graham, who now lives with her husband in Cambria, California how she felt about her dad's life as Vegas Vic. "I'm proud of my dad. He could have just been another bartender, another security guard in Las Vegas and just come and gone unnoticed like everyone else, but because of his good looks and personality and a little Las Vegas luck, he got to do what no one else had ever done, he got to play a real live cowboy in Las Vegas. He had his fifteen minutes of fame, his moment in the sun, and how many people in Las Vegas, hell, anywhere, can say that?"
So now when you go downtown, there under the canopy, still guarding the old Pioneer Club, Vegas Vic keeps his eye on Fremont Street and he still welcomes visitors to town the same way he did almost fifty years ago: "Howdy pardner, welcome to Las Vegas."
Thanks for the memories, Martha.
Courtesy of The GameMaster Online, Inc.
During my research for my post about Vegas Vic, I came across this interesting story about A. K. Wright, supposedly the original Vegas Vic. This is a story I found on an archive of From The Felt Top columns written by Ken Pearlman. I can't vouch for the authenticity of this account, but I am including it here because it is a fun story and offers a glimpse of what Las Vegas was like 50 years ago.
Can anyone confirm this story? Does anyone have any recollection of seeing a live Vegas Vic? This would have been during the early 50s. Your comments are welcome.