In Loving Memory of One of New Zealand's Oldest Strip Clubs

For 53 years, Las Vegas was the seedy, beating heart of Auckland's K Road. We talked to the filmmaker who made a short documentary about its final days.

by Julian Morgans
29 January 2016, 6:00am

Las Vegas as it looked in the 1970s. All images courtesy Tom Levesque.

Las Vegas was a strip club on Karangahape Road for 53 years. It was a garish, oddball establishment with a giant mural of a topless woman over the upper story façade. It wasn't classy, but for city residents it came to represent Auckland's bohemian subculture.

In September last year Las Vegas closed. The owners sold it off to make way for a bar, which is a sad process being repeated all along the strip. For many, the day Las Vegas closed was the day K Road's heart stopped beating.

One such individual is Tom Levesque. He and producer Eva Trebilco made a short documentary about the final days of of the beloved venue. We spoke to Tom about the film, Leaving Las Vegas, and nostalgia for a simpler, seedier era.

Las Vegas before it closed

VICE: Why did people love this place?
Tom Levesque: I think it was a few things. The music was different; there was more of a bohemian feel. Also the interior design hadn't changed for its entire life. It was those things that drew creative people who could go there, meet, and socialize with, I suppose, quite seedy people. It was always this relationship that would create a sense of innovation.

What about for you, personally?
You see the Vegas girl on the front of the building? Before you even knew what sex was as a kid, you would drive past as a four- or five-year-old and see this big naked chick. I think a lot of Aucklanders would have gone through that as well. There have obviously been complaints, but it's a protected piece now. It will stay up forever because it's been declared a part of our national heritage.

Old photo boards give a sense of the characters

How did you become involved?
We were asked by a musician who is prevalent in the rockabilly/folk Auckland scene. She asked us to document this, and we said, "Yeah, definitely." So we just went in there over two evenings, did our interviews, shot some footage, and then crafted it out. Personally, I wanted to do it because it's a historic building within Auckland, and I suppose we identify ourselves within that creative subculture as well. Also, just to have some kind of video to give back to the people who were involved over the years.

John Nicholson and friend

Tell me about the characters.
The original owner was a guy called John Nicholson. He's actually dead now but everyone says that he was a very—I wouldn't say humble—but a wholesome, kind person. He let the sound technician live in Las Vegas for some time because he had nowhere to stay, and generous acts like that were quite common, from what I've heard.

Envy, Suzy Wong, Princess Melinka, Pussy Galore

What was one of the best things you heard about the place?
You know, apparently there was a dedicated area for police officers after their shifts. I think that says something about the area's history. You know police procedure, bending the relationship between drugs, cops, and criminals.

Interior design in the bathrooms

How is the feeling now that it's gone?
It's mixed. For the musicians who played there in the past and developed friendships over the years, they're obviously really upset by it. It's really a cultural home for a lot of creatives. Then on the other side is an older generation, the sort of richer population of Auckland. They're all like good riddance. You know, that thing was awful, and represented a lot of wrongs, like selling women. I suppose their perspective is that getting rid of it cleaned the area up.

Inside the venue

I'm playing devil's advocate here, but maybe the old people are right. Strip joints exploit women. How do you balance that reality with its cultural benefits?
It's a catch-22, isn't it? Bernie Griffin, one of the guys we interviewed, said exactly that. He said he hates strip clubs but that environment really helped him with his own music. I'm not sure what the answer is either, but I'm a fan of seedy joints.

A collage of Las Vegas through a few developments

What do you think Auckland will look like in 15 to 20 years?
I think it's going to have more of what's going on with Las Vegas. I mean if you look at the city plans, even down that one strip of K Road, there are the developments for many more apartment buildings. I can just see the slow creep of gentrification coming along. I think it's a very sad thing.

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