A Tale of Two Cities (But Mostly Las Vegas)
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
On Christmas Eve in 1928, a baby girl was abandoned in a movie theater in Pittsburgh. This last weekend in Las Vegas, four wheelchair-bound children got to ride on a swing for the first time in their lives. What links a long-past winter night in Pennsylvania with a hot September weekend in Nevada is a fascinating piece of local history.
The baby in the theater was discovered by members of the Variety Club, a social group for people in show business. While their main interest at the time was hanging out and playing cards, they decided to adopt the child, whose family was never located. As the years passed, the club began helping other children in need. Now an international organization with 43 “tents” (chapters) in 13 countries, Variety is, as the group’s mission statement declares, “dedicated to promoting and protecting the health and well-being of children around the world.” In particular, the group focuses on providing financial assistance and services to children with special needs and the organizations that support them.
Not surprisingly, the local Variety Club’s social side was wildly popular in the early heyday of the Las Vegas Strip. Chartered in 1950, Tent 39, along with its members and activities, was a staple on the newspaper’s society pages. I had the privilege of taking a peek at the scrapbooks maintained by Variety members during those glory years. Packed with photos of local headliners enjoying themselves at lavish galas and delighting the public with celebrity-studded parades, the books also sported pictures of visiting superstars like Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor. Through the ‘60s, the Variety Club was the social nexus for entertainers in Las Vegas.
Because affiliation with the Variety Club connoted top-drawer social status, the group not surprisingly counted other members of the Las Vegas ruling classes among its members. One such member was Moe Dalitz, the bootlegger-turned-casino-owner who many believe merits all the credit Bugsy Siegel gets for shaping modern-day Las Vegas. Whether you consider Dalitz a “mobbed up” bad guy or a founding father, he was definitely part of the reason so many Vegas old timers still say “things were so much better back when the mob was in charge.” If “the mob” was abandoning the odd body out in the desert, the old timers say, it was also taking care of widows and orphans in far larger numbers. Moe Dalitz was a perfect example of this “benevolent godfather” archetype, and Las Vegas is still reaping the benefits of his charitable generosity.
In the early 1950s, Dalitz decided that it was high time Las Vegas had a school for children with special needs. Founded with support from the Variety Club and funded by Dalitz and other donors he rallied, Variety School opened its doors in 1952. A year later, the club deeded the school to the Clark County School District, and today, the school is still in operation on its original campus near the junction of Eastern Avenue and Highway 95. The Variety Club, which is now called Variety, the Children’s Charity and no longer operates as a social club, still supports the school—and two others—on an ongoing basis. The charity also raises funds for other organizations in town that support children with special needs and even makes individual grants on occasion. The term “special needs” is interpreted in the broadest sense possible. The group has provided needy children with bicycles, paid for field trips, underwritten a garden, built a swimming pool, provided home care equipment, and funded a host of other projects all over the Las Vegas valley.
Which brings me to last weekend, when the biannual San Gennaro Feast welcomed thousands of locals to a weekend of Italian food and entertainment. For kids, the big draw is always carnival rides. Sadly, children in wheelchairs have always been relegated to the sidelines—until this year. Thanks to Variety, they, too, could enjoy rides—on the brand-new, first-of-its-kind-in-the-U.S.A., mobile Liberty Swing.
Liberty Swings are an Australian innovation whose popularity has spread worldwide. A Liberty Swing works like an ordinary swing, but it can safely accommodate a wheelchair. The swing also has a fold-down chair of its own for those who don’t use wheelchairs but who are unable to use conventional swings.
While an able-bodied youngster might consider a ride on a swing somewhat mundane, a child who’s always been relegated to observer status has a completely different outlook. As Lauri Thompson, President of Variety, put it, “Through the mobile Liberty Swing, we are hoping to give children with physical disabilities the opportunity to enjoy a common childhood activity.”
If you saw the smile on the face of a former sideliner at the San Gennaro Feast last weekend, you can easily understand the value of Liberty Swings, and you can appreciate why Variety, aided by the Due North Civitan Club, North Las Vegas Chapter, the Las Vegas office of the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, and the Engelstad Family Foundation, has spent $100,000 to bring four of them to Las Vegas. Three will take up permanent residence at schools, and the fourth—the mobile unit—will make the rounds to public events.
So there you have it, from an abandoned baby in Pittsburgh to a swing in Las Vegas, by way of a racketeering philanthropist and a couple of decades of star-studded parties. It’s an all-American tale, but it’s also all Vegas, baby. And quite a Variety.