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This year, Las Vegas celebrates itself

Centennial plan befits a glitzy city

LAS VEGAS -- The yearlong celebration kicked off on New Year's Day with a 20,000-flower Rose Bowl float in the shape of a giant cake topped with showgirls, re-creations of iconic neon signs, and a bottle of champagne.

It will hit its stride by midyear, when 100 couples will be flown here gratis by Southwest Airlines from around the United States for a mass wedding event and when the city will attempt to break the Guinness record by wheeling out the world's largest birthday cake.

It will build to a frenzy on Fourth of July weekend with a mammoth, star-studded rock concert and will not end until New Year's Eve with a massive fireworks display.

Guess who is celebrating a centennial this year?

The once-a-century birthdays of other cities are frequently somnolent affairs complete with speeches and the burying of a time capsule that future generations often can't find, but Las Vegas is doing what it does best -- it's throwing a 365-day party.

''We don't do anything the way they do it in other places," Mayor Oscar Goodman said. ''That's what makes us unique. We're Las Vegans."

That means the commemoration of an event of historical import -- a 110-acre land auction on May 15, 1905, seen as the birth of Las Vegas as a town -- becomes a major marketing and branding experience. There's even a city-sanctioned website,, where folks can buy everything from muscle shirts to coasters emblazoned with the centennial logo.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., the radio and special-events giant, designed the merchandise and is spending more than $4 million to promote and arrange Vegas centennial events this year. The company's involvement climaxes with a free rock concert over Fourth of July weekend.

Catering to tourists and residents alike was the seminal challenge for the planners, said Stacy Allsbrook, executive director of the Commission for the Las Vegas Centennial Celebration. In addition to the big tourist-related events, Allsbrook noted, there are dozens of so-called ''signature" events for locals such as a city parade and the placement of historical markers around town to denote the site of the first telephone and other landmarks.

''You can't hold a centennial for the tourists without the locals being involved and you can't hold a centennial for locals without tourists being involved," Allsbrook said. ''The Centennial quilt, for instance, is a patchwork of history of the Las Vegas community. Is someone from Boston going to fly in to go to the library and see the quilt? Probably not."

There also will be some serious scholarly efforts, too. Boston's WGBH-TV is producing a two-part, three-hour episode of its acclaimed ''American Experience" series on the city to air in October. The idea came to documentarian Stephen Ives when a pair of his friends went to Vegas for a drive-through wedding.

''I just thought something interesting culturally must be going on if a couple who I never would expect in a million years would go there to get married," the Boston native said. ''I took a fresh look at the city and it seemed like a fascinating place."

As entertained as the city is by itself, it struggled in planning the centennial to figure out how to present a history that includes such incompatible themes as the story of Mormons who first settled here in the 1800s and that of the Chicago gangsters who spent the 1940s and 1950s transforming Vegas into a refuge for gambling and prostitution.

At one point, the mayor, himself a former defense attorney to several major organized crime figures, suggested that an old downtown post office be converted into a ''mob museum" complete with rooms where visitors could wiretap one another. The Mormon establishment was so offended at the prospect of glamorizing that behavior that Goodman quipped he had intended to say ''mop museum."

Both sides of that history are represented now, with a museum exhibit that recalls the federal hearings on organized crime that took place in Las Vegas in the 1950s, and a three-day festival in June to commemorate the founding of the Old Mormon Fort in 1855.

Ultimately, Goodman hopes the centennial will be a bonding experience for locals, half of whom have moved here since the 1980s. This is the only US city founded in the 20th century to grow to more than 1 million residents, and the explosive growth has created a community of people who view themselves as being from elsewhere, the mayor said.

It's also time for Vegas to shine nationally, the mayor said, adding that that, too, is a tribute to its history. He's so excited about the celebration that he admitted he helped ensure it would occur in 2005 instead of 2011, when the city was incorporated, so he could preside over the festivities.

''Who knows whether I will be around then?" asked Goodman, who has a reputation as a guy who loves a party. ''I'll be at every single event," he added, ''and during the evenings, certainly with a large glass of gin in my hand. And probably during the day, I'll sneak in a few, too."

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