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VIDEO VAULT: New spot off Las Vegas Strip awakens old memories

Mint Tavern Entrance.jpg

A new drinking, gaming and entertainment spot just up the street from the SLS has a sign that is eye-catching in its own right, but for long-timers, it will evoke a wave of nostalgia.

"Both my partner and I are big history buffs," says Todd Worz in front of Mint Tavern with its startlingly familiar facade. "We love the colorful history behind Las Vegas. So we wanted to pay tribute to that by opening the Mint."

The gentle parabola with an upswept vertical segment on the left harkens back to a casino that opened on Fremont Street in 1957 and expanded three years later, acquiring the next door Bird Cage.

Then in 1965, a 22-story tower was completed -- the tallest building in Nevada at the time.

The sign -- manufactured by YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company) -- was different from anything Las Vegas had seen before. It was displayed in a newspaper photograph before the casino even opened, and was featured prominently in print and billboard advertising.

"The Mint, I think, is an amazing example of sign as architecture or architecture as sign," noted urban scholar Martin Treu while lecturing at the Neon Museum last year. "You really can't draw a boundary between the two."

The new business has a similar look on a smaller scale. But it's not exact.

"We are the Mint Tavern," notes Worz. "We aren't the Mint Hotel and Casino. The sign is a variation based off the original. The original was 40 feet tall. It was pink and yellow, which were not colors that I particularly wanted to use with this concept."

Instead, Worz went with a light blue, which he says provides more of the vintage atmosphere he was seeking.

"We wanted to take it back to a late 50s, early 60s vibe on the interior. Kind of tie-in with the historical significance of our neighborhood."

That extends to an old-fashioned pay-phone on display, as well as a manual typewriter on which can be found the first page of Hunter S. Thompson's most famous book, conceived while on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 off-road race.

"When he was here, he went on an eccentric weekend, to put it lightly," elaborates Worz. "Which led to him writing 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', which has always been a tribute to the Mint Hotel and Casino. It's where he stayed."

The Mint Hotel had been next door to the older Binion's Horseshoe. Then in 1988, the smaller property bought the neighboring high-rise, but found a loophole to call it an expansion instead of an acquisition.

"In gaming, luck is the name of the game. And no one denies that the Binions are one of the luckiest families in the state of Nevada," News 3's Scott Andrus told viewers while walking through a new entrance from one casino to the other.

"Overnight, the Binions knocked a hole in the wall which separated the Horseshoe club from the old Mint. By doing so, the Binions avoided a lengthy and costly gaming investigation, but also more than doubled the size of their casino."

Part of the reason for the takeover came from a new federal law that required reporting of very large financial transactions.

"Ever since the government put that $10,000 thing on, you know," drawled founder Benny Binion. "About you had to people had to sign a ... use a social security card. Well, it hurt our business. We used to gamble high all the time, so we had to have a little more volume. Very glad to have the Mint."

With the sudden changeover, customers were left to sort out their loyalties.

"Well I was a gambler at the Mint, but I guess I'm a gambler at the Horseshoe now," reasoned a man perched at a 21 table and flipping over some cards. "I got the very first house blackjack."

Three decades later, the new Mint reawakens some memories.

"The most rewarding part of it for me are the people who stop in because of the sign," says Worz. "They tell me all of their stories about their parents working there, or they themselves working there. I've had two people moved to tears by it."

The Mint Tavern is open 24/7 on Sahara between I-15 and the Strip.

The old Mint tower has been a part of Binion's since 1988, with the Horseshoe portion of the name dropped in 2004 as part of a sale to Harrah's. The property is now operated by TLC Casino Management.

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