By Mike Henle
Long before Fremont Street became a barrel vault canopy called Fremont Street Experience with its multi-media production, the sounds of high-powered engines dominated the scene while complementing the hotel casinos on the main drag.
Cruising Fremont Street in your favorite vehicle was very cool and very welcome in the 1960s. Those with any kind of a car found that two-way Fremont Street was the perfect place to socialize especially on the weekends.
And if your car had a high-powered engine along with a throaty exhaust system, you were even more apt to (a) see your friends and (b) make new friends.
“I used to cruise Fremont Street all the time,” recalled Mike Williams, who owned a ’67 Pontiac GTO powered by a 400 cubic inch powerplant that could just about rattle the windows of the buildings on Fremont.
The 63 year-old Williams, a 1970 graduate of Rancho High School in North Las Vegas, raved about the innocent days of Southern Nevada when cars and kids went together. On Friday and Saturday nights, Fremont Street was the go-to place.
“We had three of us who used to cruise Fremont Street,” recalled Williams, who with his wife, Joanie (a 1975 graduate of Las Vegas High) owns and operates a pair of independent grocery stores in the Bay Area of Northern California. “Gary Menaker had a ’67 Chevelle with a 396 engine and Bill Miller cruised on a Harley Sportster.”
However, Fremont Street was more than just a gathering spot for young people in hot cars.
John and Mary Keiser, who arrived in Las Vegas from Tucson, Ariz., in 1963, utilized the cruise because of their four pre-teen children who enjoyed seeing the motorized sign Vegas Vic saying “Howdy Partner” on top of The Pioneer Club.
The Keiser family happily cruised in a station wagon.
“The kids loved it,” said Mrs. Keiser, now a retired psychotherapist. “To them, seeing Vegas Vic was like going to the park.”
Vegas Vic became a tragedy of sorts when in 1966 famed actor Lee Marvin shot an arrow from his Mint Hotel room into the chest of the electronic moving character. Marvin apparently felt Vegas Vic was making too much noise.
According to a bio, Marvin had plenty to drink one night and grabbed the bow and arrow he had been using while filming the movie The Professionals.
David Jacks, a 1973 graduate of Western High School, had a 1966 Ford Mustang that he took to the cruises on Fremont Street. Now a resident of Washington State, his memories of cruising Fremont Street are engrained in his memory bank.
“My dad bought it for $200 off a Nellis pilot who lived up the street,” recalled Jacks, who would eventually retire from the North Las Vegas Police Department where he worked with SWAT. “If only we could go back to the good old days.
“The only thing that didn’t work was the gas gauge.”
Chuck Swift, who grew up in Henderson, remembers the glory days of Fremont Street.
“We used to go all the way up to the Union Plaza railroad station before making a U turn and going back,” said Swift, who is now 69. “I had a ’53 Chevy Bellaire and ended up getting a ’56 Chevy 210. “Fremont Street would get so crowded that you didn’t move very fast. It was non-stop during the 1960s. Those were good old days. You could talk to the girls and the guys in our cars. We’d get back to the Blue Onion drive-in where they had girls on skates who would serve you.”
Bo Sanders was another of the young people who frequented Fremont Street.
“My sister and I would drag Fremont in her white ’63 Impala with red interior in the ‘70s,” she recalled. “The reverse gear went out so we had to get imaginative when selecting a parking place. Otherwise, you would see two teenage girls wearing platform shoes pushing a car. It was great memories.”
Southern Nevada psychologist Dennis Stock recalls cruising Fremont Street in his 1963 Old Cutlass powered by a radical small block Chevrolet engine capable of pulling the front wheels off of the ground under full acceleration.
“It was the scene Friday and Saturday nights,” said Stock, now 64 and a 1969 graduate of Rancho High School with college degrees from California School of Professional Psychology in Fresno, Calif. “Kids cruised from all the different high schools. The route was from the Union Pacific roundabout at the head of Fremont Street down to the Blue Onion. Back and forth we went with power shifting and burnouts.
“There was a lot of impressive iron that cruised Fremont Street.”
Stock said racers went up and down Fremont Street looking for drag race showdowns later on Mohave Road in eastern Las Vegas. It was all straight out of American Graffiti. It was amazing. Fremont Street was a special thing.
“There was a special pecking order based on how much horsepower you brought to the cruise,” Stock said. “You had the car culture crowd that was blending with the hippies that were starting to show up.”
Candy Schneider, vice president of education and outreach at the Smith Center not far from Fremont Street, and her husband of 42 years Mike cruised Fremont Street on their first date in 1967.
“We were in a 1965 Studebaker,” recalled the 64 year-old Mr. Schneider, a former 20 year member of the Nevada legislature. “We used to cruise Norris Avenue in McCook, Nebraska, The street was named after Republican U.S. Senator George Norris.
“Cruising Fremont Street and turning around at the depot was a lot like Norris Avenue because we also turned around in a train depot in McCook. The only difference was that Norris Avenue didn’t have the lights like Fremont Street.
Cruising on Fremont Street in the 1960s was cool although long-time Southern Nevada attorney Joe W. Brown does recall a bit of a downside to the practice
“I was judge (Special Master in Juvenile Court from 1968-1970 and used to handle the teenagers who cruised and got tickets for “Exhibition of Power,” Brown said. “Several prominent citizens who are now in their sixties appeared in court!”
The five-block section of Fremont Street was closed to automobile traffic Sept. 7, 1994. Ground breaking for the Fremont Street Experience was conducted Sept. 16. The FSE project opened in December of 1995.
Fremont Street has certainly changed, but the memories of hot cars, cool kids and great times will live forever. +