07/08/2004 12:00AM

Vegas turning 100 with a bang


Las Vegas was a "destination city" long before the phrase entered the language, any language for that matter.

Archaeologists have found 20,000- to 30,000-year-old bones of mammoths, prehistoric horses, bison, camels, and other creatures in the Tule Springs region northwest of modern-day Vegas. The theory is that these animals found their way to this area because it was an oasis in the desert. Even then, the drinks were free.

Modern man showed up around 10,000 years ago, lured by the plentiful buffet of food. However, historians say the area became too arid and inhospitable - too hot, even if it was a dry heat - and didn't start attracting more visitors until Native Americans occupied the area around 2000 B.C. But they were mostly nomadic tribes, or our earliest transient residents.

Las Vegas literally was put on the map in the 1700's and 1800's by explorers to the West. The Spanish Trail ran from Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles, and even though the Mojave Desert was nicknamed "jornada de muerte" (journey of death), the Las Vegas area became a main stop because of its plentiful water supply. Rafael Rivera, a scout, was the one to name the area Las Vegas (or "the meadows"). Explorer John Fremont wrote about Las Vegas in 1844 and brought the area to the attention of prospectors from coast to coast.

These are all interesting tidbits, but they don't lend themselves to a celebration of the birth of Las Vegas. It's hard to pinpoint an exact date that Rivera or Fremont made their contributions. Besides, neither of them actually created or incorporated the city.

That occurred on May 15, 1905, when 110 acres were auctioned off in the area that is now downtown Las Vegas. This occurred shortly after the railroad from Salt Lake City to Southern California was completed and established Las Vegas again as a convenient stop. The legalization of gambling in 1931 and the building of the Boulder Dam, later renamed after President Hoover, really made Vegas a 20th century boomtown, but that auction is when the modern era began.

To commemorate the date, Las Vegas is holding a mammoth (sorry, there's no more appropriate word) celebration of its centennial on May 15, 2005. That's the key date, but the festivities will last much longer, starting with an official kick-off on New Year's Eve. Organizers are promising a fireworks show that will exceed the one at the turn of the century, as well as the Strip and downtown being lit up like never before with more than 200 light cannons.

Starting in January, a Las Vegas walk of fame will be created along the area by the Fremont Street Experience with 18-inch bronze gaming chips honoring legends such as Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, and Liberace. Every month, from January through December 2005, eight to 10 new chips will be added, and then afterward it will be an annual ceremony.

The centennial will also be a chance for renewal of some Vegas traditions. On May 14, the downtown post office will be reopened as a museum, and the Helldorado Days carnival and parades that ran from 1935 to 1997 will resume. Helldorado tradition dictates three separate parades, with one parade for kids, one for old-timers, and one put on by the hotels and casinos.

The big day - May 15 - will feature citywide festivities, including a re-creation of the land auction downtown and a Guinness world record birthday cake (more than 130,000 pounds) under the Fremont Street Experience.

The festivities continue the rest of the year with a Mormon celebration from June 15-18 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a short-lived settlement on Las Vegas Boulevard north of downtown, a "city of 100 murals" project to be built all over town, a quilt into which residents can have their names stitched for a small fee, and a time capsule to be closed in December. In addition, annual events such as CineVegas and the Nellis Air Force Base Show will also have centennial tie-ins.

The Centennial Celebration Committee has an official website at www.lasvegas2005.org for further information, including ways to volunteer, sponsor an event, and buy specialty license plates to help fund the activities.

Memorabilia search

Are you a longtime resident of Las Vegas, or a longtime visitor? If so, and you have memorabilia and especially old footage of vintage Las Vegas, a film production crew from Insignia Films is looking for you. The show will be called simply "Las Vegas" and is scheduled to air in October 2005 as part of PBS's "American Experience" series.

If you watch the endless stream of Vegas-related shows on the Travel Channel and other networks, you've probably seen a lot of the stock footage that seems to get used over and over: the atomic blasts from the nearby Nevada Test Sites in the 1950's, the "floating craps game" in the Sands pool, the Rat Pack footage. But this documentary is looking for fresh material, and the stories to go with them. A licensing fee will be paid for items used, as well as on-screen credit - plus Insignia might interview you to be part of the show.

The items should be sent by Aug. 31 to Insignia Films Archival Submission, 33 Howard St., P.O. Box 3, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10013. Old-style film reels must be converted to VHS or Beta formats, and copies of historic photos are suggested because submissions will not be returned. Contact information should be included, as well as the subject matter's names, dates, and other relevant or anecdotal information.