When Fran Zug (now Fran Wallace) moved to the Las Vegas area in 1940, the entire Las Vegas valley had a population of 8000 people. Fran’s father, Hugh, a carpenter, built their home in North Las Vegas and worked for Pop Nelson’s gold mine in Nelson, NV.
The Johns family moved to town in 1942 because a war was on and Raymond Mark Johns, a teacher who wanted to help the war effort, secured a position as a Civilian Trainer at an airfield near Las Vegas. His wife Helen, also a teacher, was a stay-at-home mother for several years before returning to teaching, Helen’s mother, Pearl, also moved to Las Vegas and initially got a job making parachutes.
Fran and three of the Johns’ five children, Larry (a writer friend), his twin sister Linda and older brother Alan, sat down with this reporter recently to talk about growing up in Las Vegas.
Did they have stories of gangsters living next door? Or of parents with gambling problems?
Not at all.
Their stories were of schools and churches, sports and parades. “We played outside and rode bicycles and walked to school,” said Fran. “We had trees for shade, and in the heat of summer when school was out, we cooled off by using hoses and dousing ourselves with water.”
The Johns brothers chimed in. Said Alan, “Outside, we would have contests to see who could walk across the hot asphalt barefooted. But barefoot had other problems: sand burrs. We had a friend who could step on sand burs and was impervious to the pain. I was amazed. ”
Larry remembers another childhood activity: that his older brother had an ability to read and memorize poems. Alan then began to write poems which he has done for every family party since his
Television came to Las Vegas in the 1950s with one channel, Channel 2, that ultimately became CBS. “Our family spent summers in Colorado,” Larry said, “and I remember when we returned home and discovered, some time in 1953, that our neighbors had a TV. We spent hours at the neighbors’ house watching wrestling. When my mother discovered why we spent so much time next door, our family got a TV.”
“Yes, when television arrived, we spent a good deal of time just mindlessly watching the small screen… because it was so new,” Fran added.
“Many of the homes were like ours, surrounded by desert,” says Larry. “My dad put up a basketball hoop in our yard and if we missed a basket, the ball could be rolling for quite a while before we caught up.”
Fran played basketball in school and didn’t like it because “girls playing guard could not go beyond middle court”.
Larry and Alan each had paper routes, some of which included downtown businesses. “We got up at the crack of dawn and received our papers. Then we would fold the papers into small squares so we could toss them a long way from our bikes,” Larry recalled. The boys also stood on street corners and sold papers as well.
Larry learned to drive in the parking lot of the new Las Vegas Convention Center, and served as a Shamrock Usher at circuses, rodeos and other events after the convention center opened in 1959.
Because both of their parents were teachers, Alan and Larry were expected to go to college and expected, like their parents, to go beyond just a bachelor’s degree. The times then were the cold war. The Russians and Sputnik were in the news, and many high school graduates of the time went on to become engineers. Three of the Johns children became teachers, but Larry and Alan, in the TV age of Perry Mason, saw the law as a profession that was appealing. While many of Alan’s high school classmates chose engineering as a career, ten of Larry’s high school friends chose to become attorneys. (The Johns brothers eventually became law partners and are co-authors of a book The Baneberry Disaster detailing their decades of work on one law case.)
Alan points out, with a grin, that their profession has been seen in some circles as less admirable than that of used card salesmen, “but today another profession is even lower on the scale,” he says, “politicians!” (He then admits that many politicians are lawyers as well.)
Music was part of children’s lives in Las Vegas. Larry and Linda were in their high school chorus, and Larry was chosen for the all-city chorus directed by Marge Dickinson, well known in Las Vegas at the time. (The UNLV James R. Dickinson Library is named after her husband, the first full-time faculty member of the University of Nevada assigned to Las Vegas.)
Fran played the piano and played for her church, eventually learning to play every hymn in the hymnal. As an adult, Fran was involved in the Musical Arts Workshop that gave concerts locally. At one time she was membership secretary for the Community Concerts Organization that brought concerts to Las Vegas which were held in the Las Vegas High School Auditorium. She attended the luncheon of the organizing committee that established the Las Vegas Symphony which later became the Las Vegas Philharmonic.
The weather was always part of Las Vegas, but to children, it was not a big deal. When Dad Raymond Johns bought a 1954 Chevy, he let his oldest daughter, Judy, chose between two options: a heater or a radio. Judy chose the radio.
Air conditioning in the 50s was “evaporative cooling” or “swamp cooling”. The temperature of dry air was dropped significantly through the transition of liquid water to water vapor. Water dripped on excelsior pads and a motor drew outside air through the pads. Larry remembered the “wonderful smell” of new excelsior pads.
Children who wanted to swim went to the Mormon Fort to swim … until the polio scare … when mothers were afraid to have their children mix with others who might be spreading the polio virus. When the polio vaccine was introduced “the shots hurt” said the Johns’ representatives, but of course, the vaccine was very welcome.
The quality of schools in Las Vegas in the 1950s was good, said the group. Alan pointed out that when children moved to Nevada from California in those days, they generally had to stay back a grade because they weren’t up to the level of Las Vegas students.
Church was a center of activity for many families in Las Vegas. In fact, Las Vegas residents were often told that their city had more churches per capita than any other city in this country. When the Johns’ children went away to college, they repeated the church information while explaining that they did not live in casino hotels and did not know any prostitutes.
A highlight of Larry’s young life was that in ninth grade, he was chosen to be a stand-in for a young actor in the 1959 Louis Prima Keely Smith movie,”Hey Boy, Hey girl”. He was present during filming and got to see the two Las Vegas icons in action, calling Louis Prima “an absolute character”.
“We were very civilized” says Linda, although it may not seem so when stories are told of young people cruising Fremont Street or hanging out at Sil’s Drive-in. The big event of the year was Heldorado Days.
As Fran described it, “We had three parades, each on a different day: The Old-timers (Western) Parade. the Beauty Parade and the Children’s Parade”. Larry remembers once wearing a barrel as he and his classmates marched in one of the Children’s Parades.
When not in a parade, the Johns children used to go to their grandmother’s house on 13th street to watch the marchers. Fran once rode on the North Las Vegas float in the beauty parade. (Lots of local organizations then had beauty queens.) Fran had come in fourth in the Miss North Las Vegas beauty pageant, but the girl who came in third got sick, so Fran had the opportunity to ride in the parade.
In the 1950s every organization, politician and many businesses in Las Vegas participated in the parades. A rodeo and carnival were also part of the action,
Casinos were not a menace or a big deal to most Las Vegas youngsters. “Our family would take us to dinner at casinos because they were so much cheaper than regular restaurants,” said Linda.
“When we had school functions or graduations at casinos we were treated royally,” added Fran. “Yet, we never were warned about casino life and never considered entering it.”
Were youngsters in Las Vegas jealous of other cities where they could have lived? “We did travel to California where we had relatives,” said Larry, “but the smog was so bad, we couldn’t wait to come home. We went to Colorado in the summer, but we didn’t want to encounter the cold weather in the winter. Our home was Las Vegas.”
Fran adds, “When I read in the newspaper about hurricanes, tornadoes and fires, I’m glad to be living away from all that.”
Alan adds, “We may be the entertainment capital of the world, but I think we are also the scenic capital of the world. The highest and lowest points in the country are within driving distance; we have the Grand Canyon, Boulder Dam, Red Rock, Mt Charleston and surrounding national parks. Las Vegas is a great place to live.”
Obviously, for some families, the Las Vegas valley 50 and 60 years ago was a great place to spend a childhood as well.