Frontier oral history preserves precious memories of devoted workers | NevadaAppeal.com

Frontier oral history preserves precious memories of devoted workers

by John L. Smith

Did you hear the one about the Frontier casino guest who didn’t like his mattress?

Barbara Tabach has.

She’s heard that one and dozens more. When Tabach learned the Frontier was scheduled to close, the local freelance writer and personal history enthusiast saw an important part of the great Las Vegas story about to slip away. So she took it upon herself to interview as many of the Frontier’s loyal employees as possible before the last drink was served and the final card was flipped.

Armed with a tape recorder and notebook, she presented her idea to the Frontier’s human resources director, Mike Nelson, who secured management’s approval during the chaotic final weeks of the legendary hotel-casino’s operation.

Before long, she was walking the halls at the Frontier, asking everyone from bellhops to presidents about their memories of the place.

In slightly less than a month, she compiled 50 lengthy employee interviews and added 50 other briefer interviews for her evolving oral history project.

Tabach quickly discovered many of the Frontier’s employees were experiencing a kind of melancholy, not just for the impending loss of their jobs but also over being forced to leave a place they had grown fond of.

What? Casino employees actually loving where they work?

It’s true. They developed an affection for the blackjack pit and the help’s hall, for manicured garden areas and shadowed showrooms and especially the people who brought the place to life for generations.

The Hotel Last Frontier opened in October 1942 with its “Early West in Modern Splendor” theme. The property was renamed the New Frontier in 1955.

In 1967, Howard Hughes added the resort to his list of Strip acquisitions and shortened the name to simply The Frontier. By the time Phil Ruffin bought the property in 1998, it was once again called the New Frontier.

When Elad Properties, owners of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, announced its $1.2 billion purchase of the Frontier, yet another Strip icon was slated for the boneyard.

But not before the intrepid Tabach spoke to the workers who were the gambling joint’s heart and soul.

Tabach had co-authored a book and written magazine articles and scripts, but nothing prepared her for the heartfelt outpouring of sentiment about the place.

One of her favorite people was a security guard named Jimmie “The Preacher” Johnson, who had worked at the Frontier for more than 22 years. Johnson, Tabach learned, took it upon himself to console those who had gone too far at the bar or the table games.

“He tried to be helpful when people were down and out,” she said.

Johnson guided Tabach and husband Barney on a behind-the-scenes tour that led them from the basement to the rooftop.

By the time the Frontier closed July 16, Tabach had access to the casino floor and was interviewing dealers at their tables.

Some employees had an almost spiritual connection to the place. Some workers took hotel jobs the day after graduating from high school and never left.

“They really, genuinely liked the people they worked with,” Tabach said. “And they loved their customers.”

That kind of loyalty is impossible to buy. Tabach is planning to capture some of the voices of the Frontier in a memory book.

Now, about that guest with the lumpy mattress. During her interviews, Tabach encountered Cuban-born front desk clerk Raquel Sontolongo, who spoke in accented English about the time not long before the Frontier closed when she was asked to solve a problem.

Sontolongo celebrated her U.S. citizenship on the day the Frontier closed.

“The first night I was working at graveyard booking rooms,” Sontolongo said. “I book one guy for the sofa-bed room. When he went to the room, the mattress was very bad. I explained to him he can’t change the room until another day.

“When we can’t change the room for him he bring the mattress to the front desk. I was alone when I saw the guy in line. He was there with the mattress. He said, ‘You don’t change my room. This is the mattress.'”

Sontolongo called maintenance and granted the guest’s wish for a restful night.

Fans of Las Vegas history will sleep better knowing Barbara Tabach has helped preserve the spirit of the Frontier for all time.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.