The Las Vegas-based hospitality company announced its plan to dump plastic straws immediately in June, with a marketing campaign fronted by resident headliner Calvin Harris.
“My friend and tour photographer Conor McDonnell has been working closely with the World Wildlife Fund and has been sharing his first-hand experience of the damage plastic waste is doing to the environment,” Harris explained in the announcement. “We want to reduce the impact of harmful plastics, so we decided to take action.”
Harris added that he hoped Hakkasan’s move would inspire other nightlife venues to follow suit.
In Las Vegas nightclubs, plastic straws are commonplace—two per cocktail, in most cases, with a plastic pick to hold a fruit garnish. When the drink is finished, it’s replaced with a new glass, new straws, and a new pick.
“In the fast paced environment in which we operate, it’s easy to lose sight of wider social issues on which we have an impact,” says Hakkasan Group CEO Nick McCabe. “We’re incredibly proud to partner with Calvin on this initiative to reduce our consumption of single use plastics.”
Hakkasan operates three of Las Vegas’ largest nightclubs: Jewel at Aria, Omnia at Caesars Palace, and its namesake club at MGM Grand. It is also in the midst of global expansion, with recently opened Omnia dayclubs in Los Cabos, Mexico and Bali, Indonesia.
The karaoke stage is small but the spotlight looms large.
To your left is the DJ, carefully watching your performance and hoping it justifies the decision to call you to the stage. To your right is a booth of revelers, who might make you an Insta-celebrity on their stories if you’re good enough. In front of you is a lounge full of patrons ready to sing along or possibly boo you off the stage—but mostly, they’re just waiting their turn.
Even for a Tuesday night, this is no place for amateurs. This is Ellis Island.
The best of the best local talent, and many Las Vegas headliners, have proven themselves on the stage at this small, off-Strip casino. Once surrounded by apartment buildings and small businesses, the now 50-year-old Ellis Island has survived one Vegas building boom after another. Next door, The Platinum tower stands as a reminder of the prerecession condo craze, while the undeveloped lot directly across Koval Lane is a reminder of all that was proposed yet never saw the light of day.
Ellis Island itself was nearly swept up in the city’s short-lived “Manhattanization” period of the mid-aughts. Yet it survived and now thrives—partly because the karaoke stage is still a draw, but largely because it remains a family business in a town dominated by corporate decision-making.
Built by realtor Frank Ellis, the casino was originally the first Village Pub, a brand that has expanded throughout Las Vegas (there’s one inside Ellis Island and even at McCarran Airport) since Ellis passed the company to his son, Gary.
In April 2018, Ellis Island acquired the Mt. Charleston Lodge, while back at “home base” on Koval Lane, the original property has undergone numerous renovations and additions since the 1990s, including the takeover and remodel of the neighboring Super 8 motel.
Soon, the family business that dubs itself “Las Vegas’ Best Kept Secret” will debut its most ambitious concept: a two-story streetside outdoor entertainment venue dubbed The Front Yard, that will inject a party vibe along the normally quiet block between Flamingo Road and Harmon Avenue.
With construction well under way, the Ellis family and some longtime Ellis Island employees sat down with Vegas Seven to discuss—among other topics—how the karaoke stage came to be what is, why Michael Jordan’s name could have been attached to the casino (had the economy gone a different way) and how far the property has come from a small bar that Frank Ellis primarily used as his office.
Gary Ellis, owner: In 1968, Koval Lane was practically a dirt road. My father and a partner bought the original 1.65 acres with the intention to build a strip mall with several different businesses. One was a bar they had planned to lease out. They were asking 25 cents a foot. Nobody would take it. He said, “I’ll take it, I can run it”—and that’s the bar that’s out there, the karaoke bar.
Brian Chausmer, vice president of finance and IT: He used this place as his office; he was in the real estate business. This became a hangout for local businessmen. All the UNLV people would come over here, sit and have their lunch and drink their martinis.
Gary Ellis: I was 8 years old then. On opening night, it was a private party and I was bartending. I mean, bartending, pouring soft drinks and whatever, behind the bar.
Chausmer: I actually started here in 1972. I was friends with the family and it was a rite of passage that all of us kids had to work here as busboys or dishwashers.
Gary Ellis: Cooks, waiter, bookkeeping, pretty much everything that had to be done here through the years.
Chausmer: The original pub was just this, just what we call the lounge—just a small restaurant, basically. Flamingo was a two-lane road; the MGM, which is now Bally’s, wasn’t even there.
Gary Ellis: I always liked the business. [My father] started thinking about selling in ’81 or ’82, and I had an interest in it. My goal was to get a nonrestricted gaming license because I was born and raised in this town. In order to do that, you had to have 300 rooms. Coincidentally, about the time that I was making it clear to my father that I'd like to buy him out, I got a call from a local real estate broker. He said, “I've got some guys that want to build a Super 8. They want to build 225 or 250 rooms.” So we met, I asked them if they would do 300 rooms and we could try to merge the properties and get the resort-hotel zoning, which you need in order to have a nonrestricted gaming license. We put that deal together and got the nonrestricted zoning, and then got the state and county liquor and gaming license and opened up.
I changed the name because Village Pub didn't really fit to let the public—the tourists— know it was a casino. I had a guy that was doing some advertising for me that came up with the [Ellis Island] name, and I said, "Hey, that's kind of fun." Ties back to my roots and our last name, so I renamed it and kept the Village Pub name registered under our ownership.
Marcus Zavala, vice president and general manager: I started in August of ’89. I was a kid. I worked a full-time job and a part-time job. I was riding my bike to 7-11, and I had a fake ID. I went to 7-11 and bought a case of beer, and I was on my way back when the chef saw me and said, “Hey, kid, lemme have a beer,” and I said, “Well, lemme have a job.” He said, “Sit down, let’s talk a minute.” We started talking. I told him I need a job, and he said, “I got three days a week washing dishes.” So I said, “OK,” and that's where I started.
Karen Dorsey, president: Gary had just built the hotel shortly before I came, so the hotel was here when I came in 1990. Other than that, it took you five minutes to get down Koval Lane. Now it takes a little longer.
Zavala: It was like a little strip mall: There was Ellis Island, and then there was a little liquor store and deli and a beauty salon.
Dorsey: [Gary] didn't have an assistant. He didn't have anyone helping him with the challenges of the growth of this property. In 1990, it was a third of its size. There were no small satellite properties. There were no Village Pubs. It was just this Ellis Island casino. We had no live gaming.
Gary Ellis: I opened a casino in ’89 under a slot route operator's license.
Dorsey: We had no live gaming, no brewery. We did have karaoke—the only ones to have it every night of the week.
Inspired by a Japanese bar he’d visited on the city’s west side, Gary Ellis brought karaoke to Ellis Island, seeing it as the answer to the question: How do you create buzz at a Las Vegas venue without any headliners?
Gary Ellis: With resort-hotel zoning and license, you needed to have live entertainment at the time. There was a little Japanese bar, I think it was called Kabuki, I can't remember 100 percent. But I stopped in there one night and the karaoke had a stool and a screen—kind of like a computer screen right next to the person sitting on the stool. It was the wildest thing and I was fascinated, the Japanese clientele, they were singing American songs. Frank Sinatra was the most popular.
The guy that had put the system in was there working on it. I confirmed with the county that it would qualify as entertainment. I asked the guy to come over the next day. He put the system in; he said, "Well, just see if you like it." I bought it that next day because I knew it worked.
Zavala: I remember unpacking the very first karaoke machine we bought. It was a new thing. It was great. It hit right away, people started coming for it. Karaoke, there weren’t very many karaoke places around town.
Gary Ellis: It was so new to everybody back then, and being so close to the Strip, you would get some typical karaoke singers that have had a few too many and can't really sing. And then you get a lounge act coming in and would just blow everybody's mind, just some awesome singers.
Chausmer: I can remember [Gary] saying, “Yeah, I'm going to add karaoke to the lounge.” I thought to myself, “Huh?” But it's still, after 30 years, super-popular. You can't get in this lounge at night. People absolutely love it.
Gary Ellis: Of course, that's a really small area in there, so it didn't take much to fill it up. You know 100, 120 people.
Christina Ellis, director of marketing: Everybody has an Ellis Island karaoke story. Whether it's “I'm in a business meeting” or “I'm meeting somebody at a bar,” it's like everyone has a story. I have friends who, when they were in college, were rowdy and got kicked out of here. I have friends who met their boyfriend or husband here.
Zavala: We used to do the Christmas parties: He would have the employee Christmas party in the lounge, and those were always fun. I'm a terrible singer. I remember somehow somebody bribed me to get up there to sing, and I was up there just tearing this song apart. Gary comes up, he's got the hook, and he hooks me off, and I was so happy to get off the stage.
Gary Ellis: If I tried to take it out and replace it with something, I'd be in trouble. I'd have a mutiny.
Buoyed by interest in the karaoke lounge, Ellis Island continued to expand throughout the ’90s and early aughts, adding a microbrewery, new games, a Metro Pizza and the indoor barbecue (with its beloved baked beans and corn on the cob sides), as Gary Ellis simultaneously grew the Village Pub franchise. Entering Las Vegas’ prerecession building boom, it wasn’t long until the first “tire-kickers” approached him about selling the casino and making way for the next big thing.
Gary Ellis: We had a lot of them back then, a lot of people trying to purchase our property. We actually had a deal we structured, it was a conservative deal for us in that it wasn’t giving up control, before it became a reality.
Chausmer: That was back when you could do a deal on a napkin. But then, of course, in ’05 and ’06 the economy sort of tanked all over, especially here, that “funny money” dried up.
The proposed deal was the aforementioned Michael Jordan project, in which the former NBA star would have been the face of a condo-hotel development dubbed Aqua Blue. Ellis would have operated the casino, while Jordan would have lent his star power to a pair of restaurants.
Gary Ellis: Michael Jordan’s involved in restaurants in Chicago. He was a friend of the guy that developed [Aqua Blue]. It preserved the casino, there was a lot of upside, and we were going to try and get it done—and obviously times got tough, and [Aqua Blue] didn’t get the financing, and couldn’t get it done. That all went away, which was fine.
Dorsey: [Gary] is one who is never afraid to gamble, so to speak, and he never expresses any downturn in the business.
Gary Ellis: The key was that, if everything failed, then we could just get on and do what we do in our small casino, and everything would be preserved. That's kind of what happened.
Chausmer: Eventually it'll all build up. You know, when I got here, we were sort of out in the middle of nowhere and there were a couple of competitors around us. One across the street, even, but older properties, you know? So it's changed as the Strip has grown and expanded toward us, and Flamingo has became a major thoroughfare, obviously.
Having survived the market crash while keeping his casino intact, Gary Ellis brought in some new familial faces to join his longtime employees: daughters Christina and Anamarie. It seemed the natural move for a family that had grown up discussing Ellis Island at the dinner table.
Christina Ellis: We have Sunday night dinner, still, and talk about Ellis Island nonstop. It's our favorite topic.
Anamarie Ellis, director of player development: I think it takes a very special family. You have to have a very close bond with your family and great communication and a good balance of the two, working in a formal business. There really is no line of separation with work in our family. That's why I think it worked so well with us. That's the part that I love the most: We can talk about anything, from a family matter to a specific player, in one conversation.
Christina Ellis: I actually started working here when I was 12 years old, as a hostess with a mouthful of braces, seating people during summer break, and then just grew up, really, in the business. Every summer, I would work in a different department, so whether that was in the restaurant or I was in HR a couple of times, in accounting, even when I was at college, I was probably the only fine-arts student coming home and doing cage audit for their summer job, you know?
Anamarie Ellis: I did hostessing first. [Dad] just threw us right in for the summers when we were here. Then I did busing. I do have specific memories of me, since I was the only busser in this section, and I'd look up and my dad would just be watching with a grin on his face, watching me run around, cleaning up all the tables and lugging the big bucket around.
Christina Ellis: I think that every single one of my cousins has worked here, and I'm on the younger end of the cousin spectrum. My cousin is in the promotions department. My other cousin's a bartender.
Dorsey: The girls couldn't wait to come to work for their father. They're very bright, and I guess this sounds a little funny but, for me, when I do ultimately retire—which I joked about, “When I'm 103!” because this environment keeps you very young, but sincerely—when I do retire, I feel so comfortable that this legacy is going to continue.
Gary Ellis: The greatest story I have is family. My immediate family and having them work with me. That is the greatest thing that I think anybody could want. To have them want to come back to this family business is the greatest thing that could happen to me as a father and as a businessman.
Ellis Island will open The Front Yard in late 2018. The karaoke lounge opens every night at 9 p.m.
There was a time in her life when Lois Tarkanian, a Las Vegas City Councilwoman, was suffering from a mysterious illness. Southern Nevada didn’t have the resources to properly research and diagnose her symptoms, leaving her to seek medical care at UCLA. Years later, she knows that wouldn’t have happened if health care options had been better here, which is one of many reasons there have been increased efforts to create a Las Vegas Medical District.
“Having a medical district will elevate the quality of health care for the Valley,” says Scott Adams, the city manager for the City of Las Vegas. “It will also bring jobs and taxes, and that is going to be good for economic development.”
The shape of Las Vegas has been changing over the last few years, and that includes the developments happening in Downtown as the Las Vegas Medical District comes into its own. The district was established by the City of Las Vegas in 2002 as a way to bring health care and medical development to the Southwest. Health facilities from Valley Hospital Medical Center and University Medical Center to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health operated within the district’s boundaries for years. Despite their presence, expanding the area was never a top priority. Adams says that changed after the recession hit Southern Nevada. Of all the industries that took a loss, medical and health care businesses remained strong.
Coming out of the recession, there was more of a discussion about growing the medical district because of the benefits it would have on diversifying the local economy. “That’s when an advisory council was formed and started working on a number of things,” Adams says. Since then, the Las Vegas Medical District adopted its master plan in December 2015. The city began pouring millions of dollars into development and marketing. More recently, Adams says, Project Neon and construction to the surrounding streets are contributing to restructuring the face of the district.
In the near future, Adams says, the city is looking at meeting the immediate needs of the growing area, such as constructing a parking garage within the district. “There are a lot of land issues we have to deal with,” he adds. “That’s why we have to grow the district vertically.”
When everything is said and done, Adams says, this will have a lasting impact on the area, whether it’s opening the door to medical tourism within the district or boosting the housing market. He adds that if the medical district is attracting talented health care professionals, they may want to live nearby.
Beyond the economic benefits, Southern Nevada has long lagged in health care. Adams says that in the past, the running joke was the best health care system is McCarran International Airport. Tarkanian can attest to that. “My story is the story of many people,” she says. It’s not just because of the lack of medical resources. “Southern Nevada needs more doctors,” says Paul Joncich, a spokesman with the School of Medicine. The creation of the UNLV School of Medicine, which is finishing up its first year, is hoping to offer a solution.
“We’ve gone from zero to operational in four years,” Adams says. “It’s almost unbelievable.”
Joncich says a building for the school will be constructed across from Valley Hospital. “Optimistically, it would be done in 2021,” he says. “Pragmatically, it will probably be 2022.” The timetable has been pushed back as the school continues to raise money for the facility. For now, the Clinical Simulation Center of Las Vegas off Shadow Lane serves as a place where students learn and practice (the center has been used by UNLV and Nevada State College nursing students for years).
Tarkanian says that while the school will train future doctors who would potentially stay in the area, the district itself could attract more medical professionals and talent here. “There are specialties we don’t have in Las Vegas that we could attract, like immunology,” she adds. “The point would be that we would have [all the specialists] here and you wouldn’t need to travel to find them.”
Tarkanian even envisions a day when the medical district hosts physicians on the forefront of the latest advancements in the field. It won’t happen overnight, but one day. “We started a little behind,” she says. “But we are catching up as best as we can.”
EMINENT AUTHOR Christopher Hitchens wished he were anywhere else as he cruised the vestiges of Route 66 near the Mojave. It’s almost frightening, he wrote. “No—it is frightening … annihilating heat … the grim, dirty hues of the rock and the soil … ruthless monotony … dreamlike and hypnotic, but not in a relaxing way … the turnoffs on the map are to vanished places that are only names.” Had such a T-bone existed in Ludlow, in 2002, Hitch might have been piqued to steer his rented red Corvette right and discover the place behind the crazy label, and given it a degree of apotheosis in Vanity Fair. Instead he whizzed by, just as the Troups had done decades earlier.
John C. Van Dyke did hang around, and he captured its heat and monotony in his 1901 nature classic The Desert. “The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation … the beauty of the ugly.” But Van Dyke had benefited from the comforts of his brother’s desert ranch in addition to that sibling’s journals.
By contrast, the Zzyzx proprietor has merged with his environs. That gave him pause. It’s a patented formula for misanthropy. Not many people could do this, Robert Fulton admits. That wasn’t just a throwaway line during another demanding day of another demanding week managing the intolerant oasis. That introspection will be addressed.
Fulton was born and raised in Fullerton, Calif. His father ran a stationery store, his mother taught piano. He has a younger sister and brother. As a kid he enjoyed working with wood, building model cars and racing them. He fancied the sciences at Fullerton Union High. He majored in zoology for a bachelor of science degree at UC Irvine. At Cal State Fullerton, he sought a master’s degree in biology, hoping to teach at a community college. A grandparent’s inheritance helped fund his education. That first week of his advanced studies, in the fall of 1979, Fulton found, on a department bulletin board, an index card seeking factotums.
A man called Al arranged transportation, in two trucks, from a campus loading dock to somewhere out past Barstow. Zy-what? The desert was the subject of Fulton’s thesis, so he was eager to both explore and earn money. That first trip, Fulton was given sewer-line duties with the caretaker Jerry Gates, the lone holdover from the Springer era who had served in the Navy. He was rail-thin with a billy-goat beard, wore denim from neck to ankles, a cowboy hat with a feather in the side. A damaged tongue—cancer, Fulton believed—made his speech staccato. To this day, Fulton relies upon a sturdy clipboard, JERRY etched in thick blue ink along its bottom, to stay organized; Gates had used it to keep his days in order.
That first day, the 4-foot-deep sewer trench topped the itinerary. It needed to be dug all the way down the Boulevard of Dreams to a semicircle of palms where, improbably, a bleached-out, splintering Liberty lifeboat still lists against a palm tree. To the west, Lake Tuendae—Springer claimed it was an Indian term meaning “where the waters come together”—sparkles. Springer created it by tapping into the underground Mojave.
In the middle of Tuendae, a somewhat ornate stone and concrete fount gurgles where it formerly spewed magnificent arcs worthy of Bellagio’s front yard; Fulton regrets plucking discharge-concentrating algae from those bronze spigots. Caruso Fountain commemorates its craftsman’s supposed lineage to the great Neapolitan operatic tenor. Some erroneously call it Crusoe, a false nod to the shipwrecked island loner created by Daniel Defoe 300 years ago.
The lake contains 3,500 Mojave tui chubs, an ornery, mud-sucking endangered species—“that miserable, little freaky fish,” Casebier says—that Springer had plucked from a nearby spring. Their population, Fulton confirms, has stabilized. He surveys the lake every few years. Another lies across the boulevard. Springer invited guests to bring fishing poles. He had intended to excavate two more lakes and connect all four, the lifeboats offering guests tranquil sunset voyages.
Back to the trench. The temperature was triple digits. Fulton did not ponder hydration, but water was readily available from a 500-gallon container that was refilled in Baker. He wore a T-shirt and shorts, but the jean-clad roughneck was soon pulling Fulton out of the ditch and plopping him onto a couch in a room beside the library.
“I didn’t last very long,” Fulton says. “I just about passed out.” He recovered and was relegated to chipping paint off floors the rest of the day. On subsequent visits, Fulton found empty liquor bottles all over the premises. Let me tell you how it really was, the grizzled Gates told Fulton. (Today booze is not disallowed, with discretion. Fulton wasn’t so genial when he confronted a drunken Brit, to settle down or spend the night in the big house in Baker; the git wisely chose the former option.)
Over three years of weekends and summertime adventure, Fulton worked with shovels and cinder blocks and plaster and mortar and pipes and electrical lines. The coed crews worked hard, he says, and played hard. beer was consumed around midnight campfires; dips in Tuendae were clothing optional; something other than Viceroys could have been toked; and there might have been some hijinks in the communal showers.
To protest Springer’s removal and a chain across the Zzyzx entrance, Casebier contributed, in 1982, to a San Bernardino Sun critique about the compound’s future. Casebier beams about flying, in a light aircraft, over the area to take photographs of alleged shenanigans. He says he dispatched two moles to unearth misdeeds. He giggles today about such antics.
Fulton says Zzyzx was “in a shambles,” that much had to be done to meet certain building codes and safety standards, and tools and other valuables had to be protected in off-hours; thus, the chain. Casebier terms those conflicts the “Zywars,” but they were long ago. “It’s a place of great importance to me,” Casebier says. “I just don’t go there anymore. I think I’m welcome.” Fulton nods.
Fulton had a master’s but poor prospects; a horrible economy sapped public education in California when he tried entering its workforce. He could find only part-time teaching gigs at three different junior colleges, instructing a single biology lab at one institution, a lone lecture at another. In January 1985, he received a phone call from Gerald Sherba, the director of the research center. A handyman had broken a shoulder in a fall, prohibiting him from fulfilling the remaining six months of a contract. Sherba had heard of Fulton and asked if he could finish the terms of that pact.
Guaranteed money for six months? Fulton, who had long pondered staying at Zzyzx more than a weekend, accepted. He settled into an uninsulated 10-by-50-foot trailer. He became acquainted with the terrain. That June, Sherba met with Fulton in the curved-wall storage room.
Asked what Zzyzx needed to become a viable, efficient research facility, Fulton was frank. Someone needs to be here full time, he said, not just as a janitor or custodian, and it’s imperative that he or she possesses a wide background in the natural sciences, to relate to what everyone would be doing here, and know the lay of the land.
A laboratory, with modern equipment, would be essential for physiologists. A library—right here, where four levels of shelves already existed on the curved wall—would be mandatory, as would updated and dependable energy sources, clean overnight accommodations, an inviting dining room. And the candidate had better be damn curious.
He was unaware that he had just auditioned for the job. Sherba called a week later to offer him the post, and Fulton was installed as the first permanent Zzyzx manager, with a one-year contract that they would address the following summer.
“That led to another year, and another year … things started developing that I became involved and invested in,” Fulton says. “Then, at some point, I began to realize that I’d locked myself into this.” Pigeonholing might be the proper professional term. However, returning to the hamster wheel of civilization in Orange County had become anathema to his soul.
Married to the Desert
Epoxy-coating the water-storage tank—it sits atop the compound’s central hill and, by gravity, feeds two spouts—and improving the reverse-osmosis purification system were next on his to-do list, after ditching that windsock. For personal use, he stores water in 3- or 5-gallon jugs; well water facilitates plumbing functions. Early on he got downright spooked by floating orange orbs in the southern night … until learning they were part of classified maneuvers at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 65 miles away in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Orange County, Calif., teachers Bill and Helen Gillette were among the audience of 100 who had trekked to Zzyzx to view the faint tail of Halley’s Comet at 4 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1986, through telescopes hauled in by astronomers. It will again pass Earth in 2061. “You could see it, but it wasn’t clear; it was shadowy,” Helen says. The Gillettes had been visiting Las Vegas since the 1950s, always wondering what lurked behind that funky sign. “Just the name draws your attention,” Helen says. “We read about the comet in the paper and decided to do it.”
Beginning in 1990, with what Fulton called “The Inmate Program,” the Baker Community Correctional Facility supplied him with a workforce that brought its own lunches and provided about 120 hours of free labor a week. That cozy arrangement ended with the closure of the minimum-security prison in 2009. Fulton’s only aid now comes from assistants Jason Wallace and Brock Pennington. The scramble to prioritize hauling trash, maintaining and cleaning rooms and facilities and thoroughfares, and landscaping is a weekly as-needed affair, hectic when occupancy is high.
Red foxes visit frequently. Sidewinders, speckled rattlesnakes and the dreaded Mojave Green, with venom nine times more potent than the average rattler, have dropped by lately, requiring attentive strolling. Fulton sports a smartphone video, filmed at a Zzyzx Road curve, of two bighorn sheep slamming horns; the defeated outside agitator skulked away after losing the sheaf of his right horn in the attack.
More than 20 years ago, he discovered, around another bend, an ivory-shelled snail with a tar-black body. It proved elusive, only exposing itself in specific damp winter conditions every few years or so. Fulton rang an expert, igniting years of study. In 2012, the gastropod mollusk—which does not possess a dart sac (don’t ask) or certain mucus membranes—was determined to exist only by that off-ramp. A malacologist dutifully named it after Fulton, creating a full-circle Zzyzx species symmetry that might have delighted Linnaeus.
Zyzzyx chilensis to Cahuillus fultoni.
Fulton, understandably, is somewhat dubious about this naming business, which is governed globally by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature in London. He described a flat, black lizard that had always been known as Sauromalus obesus being altered to Sauromalus ater—fat, mean lizard, to black, mean lizard. He shakes his head at such inanity.
He did smile when a colleague informed him of a species of tarantula found in the foothills of the Western Sierras, near Folsom Prison, being named Aphonopelma johnnycashi. Yes, it’s black. (A Uruguayan entomologist and Beatles fan named a large, red Amazonian tarantula Bumba lennoni, after John Lennon.)
By 1989, a girlfriend and her two young sons—who snoozed in bunk beds and attended the Baker elementary school—had been living with Fulton in that trailer for a couple of years. Rationing diesel fuel provided four daily hours of generator power. In an annual written evaluation, Fulton implored Sherba to make permanent housing a priority. Now. Within two months the 1,200-square-foot double-wide arrived; the girlfriend and her boys, however, had bolted. Only the heartiest of breeds can weather such traumatic desiccation.
Perhaps Zzyzx is only fit for a Martian. That gal pal could only take so much, same with a wife. Fulton was married from 2000—when the university granted him full-time status—through 2010; their union diminished as she steadily rebooted her career in Redlands, Calif. They remain friends. During a barbecue by his pergola, friends presented Fulton with a silver ring of intertwined snakes. They said, “You are married to the desert.” He did not object.
GENERATORS, POWERED BY propane and diesel, had long powered the compound. But when I visited him in early 2014, Fulton had just boosted the operation by installing 10 rows of solar panels, 28 per row, connected to shelves of batteries housed in a small cinder-block building. In summer, the building’s air conditioning is kept at 78 degrees, with allowable fluctuations of six or seven degrees. In winter, the batteries and equipment produce heat whose billows of steam escape through vents. A windmill also provides power, mainly to a well. “Backups, backups, backups,” Fulton says. “We are off the grid.”
On that trip, Joe Constance and his wife, Marilyn, septuagenarian retirees, munched on ham, cheese and tomato on mayo-slathered sourdough. She sat inside their white Chinook E350 on the gravel berm just past the off-ramp. Joe strolled around the periphery, kicking a Lanzhou cigarette butt by a cracked porcelain toilet. They’d never been this way; they winter in Los Cabos, Mexico, and were taking a circuitous new route to friends and relatives in the Great Northwest.
“Well, we’re curious,” Joe said of that sign. “We thought we’d see what’s here.” He pressed his curiosity, following me to the end of the road, and marveled over the reverse-osmosis mechanics. He vowed to improve a similar plant at home in Baja. Fulton seemed to welcome the unexpected company and attention.
Fulton has overseen the installation, or rehabilitation, of three different sewage systems, four underground plumbing structures and four types, or mixtures, of power grids that have either evolved or been completely swapped out. He spent most of the final day of 2015 mending the water configuration. Until reparations were made, Zzyzx had no water access. He had it working before midnight. He went to bed. Happy New Year! Nobody else was around, so he didn’t consider it an emergency. While those tanks were refilling on Jan. 1, he did consider running around naked, he wrote in an email, if only the mercury had climbed above 48 degrees.
During his tenure it once hit 125 out here. In early 2017, it reached 93, a record—by seven degrees—for a winter day. The record winter low is 8, and 72 hours is the longest below-freezing stretch he has endured at Zzyzx. On April 1, 2017, a record 75 mph wind (a new standard by 7 mph) whipped anything not tied down into everything that was tied down. Debris took out the rear window of his vehicle, which had been tucked into a carport. The compound lost another carport, whose fragments might have settled in Utah. Those gusts also took out an entire row of solar panels, which took months to repair.
From either Baker or Barstow, he can return to Zzyzx in his Cruiser without using I-15 when congestion—generally eastbound to Las Vegas on Friday afternoons, westbound to L.A. on Sunday—is as pitiless as a midsummer sewer trench on the Boulevard of Dreams. He changes basic fluids and filters on his 8-year-old whip and tweaks its brakes in Barstow, where he gets his teeth cleaned and undergoes routine medical checkups.
The Cruiser also boasts nine speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer, vital to a man who might have pursued a music career. As it turns out, he plugs his electric guitar into an amplifier and creates reverb, off Mount Zzyzx, that McCartney would envy. The installation of a satellite dish in the early ’90s allowed Fulton to keep up with The Sopranos,Breaking Bad, 60 Minutes and whatever might be on the History Channel.
The compound, though, allows for scant relaxation. In the spring of 2016, Fulton upgraded the Wi-Fi network, which required new underground wiring. He reviewed decades of blueprints and drawings. Lines from electrical charts that predated even Fulton had to be calculated and traversed. He had Pennington run a trencher only 8 inches deep to be extra safe. Fulton went about his business elsewhere.
When he heard, “Oh, crap!” he ran to Pennington and saw wires and a conduit above the ground. “They’re still hot, going bzzzzzzz.” V.S.L. Pate knew that din. The durable roots of a tamarisk tree had foisted those wires up over the years; they were lying in wait for Pennington’s machine. Fulton killed a breaker, fortunately had a spare concrete junction box in storage, and forged a commercial-grade splice on aged high-tension cables, part of his vast array of skills.
“Like when someone asks me, ‘Where can I find Peromyscus crinitus [a canyon mouse] around here?’ ‘Uh, they’re common up in the draws. Here’s where you want to set your traps.’ So, it’s a weird job.”
What the Future Might Hold
AFTER THE DIVORCE, in 2010, Fulton somewhat withdrew, like his namesake snail. He curtailed hanging out with guests at campfires. Twice the age of some of them, he didn’t care to be viewed as the lonely old guy hanging out with college kids, telling stale tales. He never morphed into Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but cabin fever was unavoidable when hot August days restricted him to hours of office paperwork.
The ennui evaporated in 2015. He engaged with visitors. He became invigorated. He sat at campfires. In May 2016, a group studying bats inquired about the various species in the area; he connected them with a chiropterologist recording such data on the other side of the preserve. Both parties spent quality time learning about Townsend’s big-eared bats—just before the springtime dawn, insects hatching out set the stage for a feeding frenzy.
Fulton ponders retirement, likely by the end of 2018. He has bought land in Idyllwild, Calif.—at 3,900 residents, a megalopolis compared to Zzyzx —on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains from Palm Springs. Friends reside there, and he is partial to its artistic spirit.
Of average height and build when I first met him more than three years earlier, he seems to have thinned. As he discusses his future, he shifts in a metal chair every 15 seconds, a combination of sciatica and scoliosis and spinal compression that will likely require epidural attention.
His professional concerns include those solar batteries. He and his helpers turned three banks of uneven storage into two dependable banks, but two hours of usage drains 80 percent of their energy, pressing the entire system. So Zzyzx relies on diesel fuel too often; in the summer of 2016, 380 gallons were being delivered weekly. That’s inexcusable for a compound whose major aim is to operate on 90 percent solar and wind, whose superiors have used words like “green” and “sustainable” in conferences.
Fulton knows better. Federal aid might split, with the Cal State system, the $250,000 cost for new batteries, but negotiations have been moving slower than that snail. The morning of my final meeting with him, he and Wallace, his main lieutenant, had another discussion about what they term AS—Abandon Ship. In the heat of a summer day, if the power in those solar batteries drops to zero, and backups fail, they will grab what they can and scat.
He has also long rued a remuneration fissure, but Fulton opts for discretion. In August 2016, Darren Sandquist replaced William Presch, a 70-something largely absentee caretaker since 1992, as DSC director, based at CSUF. (When Presch emceed a 40th anniversary celebration of the Cal State governorship of Zzyzx, Fulton went on a rare holiday—to New Zealand.)
In an email, Sandquist confirms that the battery issue is “indeed urgent,” but progress, albeit slow, was being made. He hailed Fulton as “the MVP” of Zzyzx. “A list of all the things he has added to [Zzyzx] would be incredibly long, but what stands out most to me is his depth of knowledge on virtually anything ‘desert,’ be it science, facilities or arts,” Sandquist says. “The beauty of this is that he can contribute to practically any conversation. It’s impressive.”
In 1992, Zzyzx played host to visitors who spent a combined total of 6,000 user days for the first time in a fiscal year. It remains popular. In the fiscal year that ended in June, nearly 1,000 visitors logged 5,477 user days. (A party of six staying three nights equals 18 user days.) Those numbers were a bit higher than the annual average since 2010. Visitors affiliated with the Cal State system pay nine bucks for an overnight stay, outsiders pay double. A catering service in Barstow delivers three daily squares, for $50 per head.
That Zzyzx does not pay for itself, Fulton knows, concerns some in the ivory tower, but he tries to impress upon them the worldwide recognition value of the oasis.
When patrons press Fulton about his time here, he’s prepared for peculiar gazes. He says he thinks he’s viewed as odd because he’s been here so long, and it is such an eccentric, unconventional post. A wasted career, he sometimes believed. He would rebuke himself. What have I really done? What’s my legacy? And the resentment, “for what it’s taken out of me, the challenges it’s placed on my life.”
When he retires, will he completely cut the Zzyzx cord or, as Sandquist suggests, serve as consultant emeritus? Will Zzyzx revert to the stewardship of a part-time janitor or custodian? He utters the universal four-letter expletive, only to later request that it be deleted so as not to expose to his mother her son’s base tongue.
“After I leave, there won’t be anyone working here that has a love for the job, or cares. … My circumstance will have been unique in the history of this place. I do look back and smile, and feel really good. It’s a life’s calling.”
SIT-DOWN MEALS are atypical for Fulton. Breakfast consists of yogurt, or an English muffin covered in guacamole and coffee, a daily joe fix that..
THE NATION anguished over conflicts far beyond both coasts when Springer scrammed west, to Hollywood, slipping AMA and BBB gumshoes. At a used bookstore, he bought, for 25 cents, a tome about mineral springs of the Pacific Coast that told of such a fountainhead out at Fort Soda. (Pacific Press had published such a 143-page Bentley’s hand-book in 1884.) With Jack Renié, whom Springer called his father, and fiancée Helen LeGerda, Springer drove 200 miles east on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1944.
He secured excavation claims, via the General Mining Act of 1872, for 12,800 acres. Mining, however, was never on Springer’s mind. (And shouldn’t have been, since Frank and Sarah Riggs’ mining efforts proved futile in 1900.) With the lure of sketchy room and board and meager pay, Springer bused in skid-row laborers every Wednesday morning from the Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles to build the compound. He professed its name to be the last word in the English language, or the last word in medicine, or the phone book, or the atlas or some such folly. He said he invented, copyrighted and patented the word.
A colorful Chilean sand wasp knew better.
The U.S. Board of Geographic Names would approve unincorporated Zzyzx, Calif., as a place-name in June 1984. (It uses Baker ZIP code 92309.) The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in Maryland, lists Zzyzx as the last populated city, alphabetically, on Earth, which must have disquieted 600 or so Zygians—inhabitants of Zygi on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus—when they heard. Fulton favors Zzyzxtani as a personal demonym that might enchant aficionado John McPhee, the acclaimed author who is partial to Vallisoletano (a citizen of Valladolid, Spain) as a favored resident-name.
McPhee described the violent tectonics around Zzyzx in Basin and Range Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), the general name of the region’s undulating topography. It emanated from his piece that ran in consecutive issues of The New Yorker in October 1980—“wild weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades … its strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volcanics, its extensional disassembling of the earth.”
(In 2014, Anthony R. Kampf, curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, failed to coax the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification to name an unusual mineral Zzyzxite. Mostly copper and tellurium, with streaks of sky blue and greenish aqua, it can be found in the Soda Mountains. Based in Stockholm, the CNMNC settled on Mojaveite.)
Renié served as an accomplice to Springer by plugging “Zzyzx Springs” on the maps for which he would win acclaim. His first guides, of Los Angeles streets and Southern California routes, appeared in 1942 and 1943; they were renowned for their striking graphic artistry and hand-drawn, single-line crispness. On one from the late 1940s, Zzyzx Spgs at E-15, on the left-edge index—in the Pacific Ocean—is the last word.
That the cartographer was, in fact, Springer’s father is one more yarn, since Renié was born in 1900, just four years after the prevaricator extraordinaire. Soon after the trio had arrived at the site, Renié went to work connecting it to the highway. He later certified his position—that in 1945 he was “retained as a location engineer by The Dr. Curtis H. Springer Foundation to locate, blaze and construct” Zzyzx Road—in a letter dated Sept.16, 1964. He and a crew used two bulldozers, a giant earth mover, scrapers and graders. Twenty thousand gallons of propane and 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel were stored in large tanks. Five Caterpillar generators could produce 350 kilowatts of energy.
Springer planted thousands of shade trees, palms and flowering bushes. He angled a deal with ports in San Pedro and Long Beach to obtain wooden lifeboats from WW II-era Liberty Ships to use as building material. For a dime on the dollar, says Fulton, Springer obtained excess rebar at Los Angeles construction sites. The Riverside Cement Co. supplied him with 15,000 sacks of cement at cost. Within a few miles of the then-Highway 91 off-ramp, Springer planted large blue metal signs, with ZZYZX in red letters inside yellow arrows, to announce his spa.
A further inducement to go west could have been the relocation of his parents, Walter and Mildred, to San Bernardino, where his actual father died in 1947, his mother in 1953.
Some of those poor laborers, however, might have been marooned, for Fulton has heard tales of derelicts darting out from the tumbleweeds, startling departing spa visitors and begging for rides back to the Figueroa. Select visitors were purportedly exposed to deviousness, too, Bruce Clark said in Le Hayes’ “Pilgrims in the Desert” (Mojave Historical Society, 2005). Springer would feed and house older guests, and he would somehow steal their Social Security checks at the Baker post office, Clark reported, “and charge them whatever they had coming. He made his living, to some extent, that way.”
Bruce and his wife, Barbara, grew up in Baker, and they were surprised to find an unopened can of Desert Manna—Springer’s mixture of fruit and vegetable juices—on a shelf in Hayes’ home. The Clarks recalled eating ice cream made from goat milk with Charles, Terry, Lollie and Helen, some of Springer’s children, at Zzyzx. Bruce recalled the patriarch as “quite a preacher,” who always wore a white shirt, white pants and white shoes.
In May 1948, Springer hauled, in a mammoth eight-door Chevy superwagon that publicized Zzyzx on both sides, those six kids and a dozen more from the Baker grade school to Death Valley to watch John Sturges direct The Walking Hills. Clark said seeing John Wayne was a big deal, but the Duke might have just been visiting; Randolph Scott and Ella Raines starred in the film.
He also remembered the tragic death of the young Charles Springer, who had inadvertently shot himself while hunting rabbits. Fulton believes it might have been Terry who, many years ago, dropped by Zzyzx to wax idyllic of many happy campers and gospel music serenading all from the metal speaker on the hill in the middle of the compound. Terry died in North Carolina in 2012. Another son, Curtis Jr., served in WW II and became a longtime municipal court judge in Alabama. He died in 2006.
A raft of Zzyzx legalese began in July 1951, when the elder Springer first attempted to obtain deed to, or non-mining possession of, the land. He landed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as the government tried to discern what was happening out in the Mojave. His final attempt at ownership was dismissed in November 1964. He soldiered on.
Springer called a two-story residence The Castle. Today, 80 visitors can be housed in four buildings, whose ceilings are short and double rooms are narrow. A large commissary features stainless-steel amenities and receives A-ratings by the state’s health department. A pool house contained showers and changing rooms. Adirondack chairs were situated on the deck around the cross-shaped “mineral” spa and soaking tubs. A photograph from the halcyon days shows hospital beds on that deck, too. Today, the decrepit spa’s secret—underground piping, connected to a boiler—is exposed like an open wound.
The End of Springer
The AMA tagged Springer “the King of Quacks.” There is no legal gray area regarding the pilfering of Social Security funds, but quackery can be a vague charge. In 1899, obstetrician T.W. Eden told a conference of colleagues at Charing Cross Hospital in England, “Speaking loosely, any boastful pretender to healing knowledge and skill which he does not in reality possess may fairly be called a ‘quack.’” Paracelsus is regarded as the father of quackery; in Switzerland, in the early 16th century, he had an allergy to books and a panacea for all diseases. Paracelsus wore “the ornament of several universities,” The British Medical Journal reported in November 1892, and “in the art of blowing his own trumpet he remains without equal.” It called him the patron saint of self-advertisers and noted his motto, cribbed from Danton, of toujours de l’audace—always audacity.
That could have been Springer’s maxim. Legal action regarding Zzyzx’s business affairs began in 1966. Two years later, the Southern California Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Food and Drug Inspectors charged Springer with 65 counts of false advertising and misrepresentation. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of violating state business and health codes. He fished a roll from a pocket and peeled away 25 $100 bills, for the fine, as if he were tipping the paperboy.
A court order, to halt all advertising and activity at Zzyzx, went unheeded. Chuck Campbell, an official with the state’s public health department, went undercover, with his wife and two kids, to gather information in 1968. He took many Zzyzx photographs; one shows Springer with Mrs. Campbell and the children near a short porch outside what is now the library. But Fulton says Mr. Campbell is reserving those, and notes, for a book project. Springer would claim to have earned $750,000 in 1968.
Los AngelesTimes writer Charles Hillinger first wrote about Springer, in a critical piece, on July 14, 1967, a Friday that desert historian, author and Springer ally Dennis Casebier remembers. “I’ve always said that was the beginning of the end for Springer,” says Casebier, in his early 80s. “Hillinger and Springer did not get along, I think, because in many ways they might have been alike; both were smooth-talking snake-oil salesmen.”
Steven V. Roberts of TheNew York Times missed that report and all jurisprudence regarding Springer. He visited Zzyzx in the summer of 1970. “An American original—part preacher, part doctor, part entertainer, part builder, part philanthropist and part free wheeling [sic] entrepreneur,” Roberts wrote. Springer told Roberts the mineral baths “really don’t help much, except psychologically.” He called it, “Suggestotherapy.” An 89-year-old woman bemoaned of her arthritic condition to Roberts before espousing the benefits of the spa and flexing a gnarled hand with ease.
Roberts underscored the 27 varieties of Zzyzx health products, including:
Dango (cures dandruff).
Alleroids (rich in Vitamin A).
Embroids (rich in Vitamin E).
Ban-O-Whey (appetite discourager).
Mo-Hair (hair-growth assistant).
Cosmo (an Indian remedy “for lovely skin!”).
Those items, like room and board at Zzyzx, were theoretically gratis, but Springer always appreciated—knowing precisely how to coerce—a tax-deductible donation to either his foundation or the Zzyzx Community Church, when Social Security funds weren’t within reach.
On a computer file, Fulton shows photos of five old buses—side by side in what is now the visitors’ parking lot, containing mechanical contraptions and boxes and labels—where Springer’s crew mixed and bagged product.
His radio preaching and self-promotion reached 400 radio stations in all 50 states, he claimed, and 120 foreign markets. The government upgraded its postal branch in Baker, from fourth to third-class, because of Springer’s brisk business alone. It gave him P.O. Box 1. When it became available a few years ago, the branch manager offered it to Fulton. It’s only fitting, Fulton was told. He accepted immediately. Springer told Roberts, “If you play the game fair, I believe the big boss upstairs will level things out. That’s my religion.”
Beginning in January 1966, Springer would be involved in at least 14 legal actions over the ensuing six and a half years. He was represented by the flamboyant Gladys Towles Root, who wore furs and feathers—often purple—and outsize costume jewelry in court. Her mother had influenced her to help “loose spokes on the wheel of life.” Her clientele included the three men who, in 1963, were convicted of kidnapping Frank Sinatra Jr.
Springer appeared at a hearing at the U.S. Department of Interior in Sacramento on July 6, 1972. Judge Graydon E. Holt called Springer a person “with considerable zeal and personal magnetism.”
Springer wrote “One of the Strangest Stories Ever Told,” a plea tagged Exhibit G, as evidence. When he first went to California he had retired, he penned, having accumulated “all he needed in life,” but Zzyzx wooed him. He said Navajo Indians—oddly, for the Chemehuevi and Mohave have left the major indigenous footprints in the area—had helped him form, by hand, the first concrete building blocks of the compound. He wrote,
We simply cannot let this beautiful place to the enemy and become leased out as a nightclub, golf club or any other type of worldly place … We will win this battle but need your prayers … Have you heard of anything like this before? … By simple stroke of a pen, the land could be ours as a grant.
The Bureau of Land Management leveled its Zzyzx account in April 1974, booting the loose spoke off the land for squatting and false health food claims. Springer offered BLM officials $34,187 for back rent. They declined. He spent 49 days in jail.
Federal marshals evicted each guest and resident, dragging some elderly patrons by their hair, Pilgrims reported When Springer was released, he was given 72 hours to gather personal items from the compound. In Baker, friends with trucks hauled away 200 tons of belongings. They had firearms, as did marshals; everyone crouched and drew when a vehicle’s tire blew. Mayhem was narrowly averted. That, however, was not Doc’s denouement; he retreated to Las Vegas, acquired P.O. Box 4700 and continued hawking the manna.
Post-Springer, a Place of Study
In 1976, the BLM created a 25-year co-op agreement that enabled the Cal State seven to use the compound as their Desert Studies Center In 1994, the Desert Protection Act created the Mojave National Preserve—Zzyzx lies in the northwest corner of its 1.6 million acres—and a revised five-year rollover agreement between the DSC and the National Park Service. California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) crews service the off-ramp and its berm, with regular sweeps, and remove stickers and other graffiti from the four green ZZYZX ROAD signs—at each off-ramp and a mile in advance of both. Alas, the bullet holes can’t be patched.
When university officials gathered to survey the grounds, formulate plans and converse with media, a primer-gray station wagon crawled into the Boulevard of Dreams. Its original weaver emerged with thin white hair, dark sunglasses, a blue three-piece suit, tie tight. The scene was captured in a feature, with old-time gospel piano music tinkling in the background, by Jim Brown of NBC’s Los Angeles news affiliate.
Preserved on YouTube, Springer slips into JFK-speak. “I have my Ph.D. / in psychology.” He highlights the hundreds of thousands of meals and beds that Zzyzx had provided to the needy and infirm, without taking a penny from county, state or federal coffers. He says he and Helen had spent $3 million building and preserving Zzyzx. In his “King of Quacks” book proposal, Christopher Zoukis claimed Springer made $20 million at Zzyzx. The man’s carriage, though, reflected parsimony.
A reporter inquires how they financed it all. “That’s none of your business,” Springer snaps. He says documents in his vehicle verify that he tried to “give this property back to the government,” for university work, in 1966, “and they wouldn’t take it.” He defiantly waves his sunglasses but makes no attempt to retrieve the evidence. “I’m 80 years old, and I can’t carry on too much longer.” He was pleased that “splendid folks” striving to make this a better world would be managing Zzyzx. “I’m with you a million percent. God bless you!”
On Oct. 18, 1984, the Baker ValleyNews ran an extensive article—supposedly written by Springer but whose true author, Fulton believes, was Casebier—under the headline “The Legal Rape of Zzyzx.” It detailed how Springer had been so wronged by the government.
Ten months later, at 88, the King of Quacks died in Las Vegas. Casebier denies writing that article. His anger about the 1967 Times exposé turned to fury, he says, when that paper glossed itself for outing Springer. “They said, in unequivocal terms, that they had blown the whistle on him … and they wanted credit for his demise, in print.”
Casebier refers to the old-time medicine man as “Brother Springer.” In the four years before Springer’s death, Casebier says he interviewed him 54 times, accumulating 400,000 words. “He wanted me to do a book on him.” He asked Curtis Jr. for his blessing on such a project, after the passing of his father, and says he was told, “You know, Dennis, [widow] Helen is the one who put up with that crazy bastard all these years; it’s up to her.” Casebier rang her and says he was told, “Dennis, we had something very special there at Zzyzx, and something terrible happened to it. I don’t think anyone will be able to represent it correctly, so I would not give my approval.”
Curiosity had propelled Casebier, in his Jeep, to the end of Zzyzx, what he calls “the end of the alphabet,” in the early 1960s. He became friends with Springer, and they would discuss life over refreshments at the 24-hour Bun Boy restaurant in Baker. Casebier met his wife, Jo Ann, at Zzyzx when he was lecturing a group of Cal Poly Pomona students there in 1980. He cherishes Baker artist Lois Clark’s oil painting of Springer standing by a car and waving. It hangs on a wall in the Casebier residence in Bullhead City, Ariz.
Staunchly anti-government, Casebier is congenial but curt on the phone, his distaste for Zzyzx-inquiring media occasionally surfacing. “You have to denigrate [Springer]—that’s what guys like you usually wind up with … he helped a lot more people than people like you give him credit for.”
He dismisses the fact that Springer never earned any of the degrees he claimed. He says his pal made a fateful decision in the early 1960s. “The biggest mistake of his life. I discussed this with him. They actually offered him 40 acres as a settlement. He thought he needed a thousand. The 40 would have included the springs. He should have taken it. He didn’t. That’s where he screwed up. They hunkered down and went after him.”
Casebier overlooks federal officials commencing action against Springer 18 months before that initial Times piece by Hillinger. When informed that the writer had passed away, at 82, in April 2008, Casebier says, softly but tersely, “Justified.”
A Role in Pop Culture
IF ONLY SPRINGER had possessed the prescience to have Jack Renié extend the road to Ludlow, Calif. In February 1946, Bobby Troup might have made the connection when his wife, Cynthia, leaned into his right ear from the passenger seat of their 5-year-old Buick and whispered, “Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six,” as they motored west on the Mother Road.
Cynthia’s coy susurration inspired Troup to write his classic road ditty “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.” It was only half-finished when Nat (King) Cole sat at the piano of the Trocadero Club, on Sunset Boulevard, to try it out on March 16, 1946. He recorded it five months later on a King Cole Trio album, and it made him a star. Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, Buddy Greco, Rosemary Clooney, Mick Jagger and Depeche Mode, among many, would have perplexed fans with a catchy lyrical twist. Cole, of course, would have rhymed it with “Route Six Six.” (Two years later, future Springer attorney Gladys Towles Root refused to sign a petition to keep Cole out of her plush Hancock Park neighborhood, where locals named their mansions.)
Just like Springer, Bobby Troup was a wannabe doc. Unlike Springer, Troup’s illegitimacy was transparent, as Dr. Joe Early—opposite his second wife, the torch singer and actress Julie London—in the popular ’70s TV show Emergency! Fulton laughs deeply. “I remember Bobby Troup! Get your kicks / at Zzyzx!” If only …
Still, it has been represented well in the arts and even by an eccentric group of mothers. A 2014 internet poll established Zzyzx as the oddest-ever name for a baby, and a Social Security Administration review determined that five newborns over the previous 15 years had been so deigned; a Texas woman wrote that the reason had to be “pure torture, or revenge.”
It is the name of a band and songs—all dark and sullen—by no fewer than five groups. “A place both beautiful and blistering / innocent blood is crying from the ground,” croons Stavesacre. “We speak in riddles and talk in code / on our way to Zzyzx Road,” howl the Condors. The cover of the Norwegian musical troupe Zeromancer’s third studio album, in 2003, is an apocalyptic white glow behind a yellow-diamond Zzyzx sign.
Zzyzx Road Band member Tammy Peer confirms, in an email, that the peculiar sign inspired the group that’s based in Visalia, Calif. “It had everything to do with our name; we pass [the sign] going to Vegas … therefore [we] were born.” The all-saxophone Zzyzx Quartet took that name in 2007 because its members, according to its website, wanted something “catchy but meaningful.”
The demon prison in the Fablehaven literature series is called Zzyzx. In 1992, Michael Petracca published Captain Zzyzx, a ribald romantic-comedy novel with a guitarist protagonist. A few years ago, ABC Family’s Kyle XY incorporated Zzyzx as the name of a clandestine underground research company. Four movies have adopted the off-ramp, or bug, in their titles or themes. The one that borrowed the genus grossed 30 bucks, an all-time low Hollywood take, during its six-day release at a Dallas cinema in 2006. Just $1,199,970 more and investors would have broken even.
The compound itself, in 2009, became the blood-splattered, low-budget location shoot for The Last Resort, starring the sultry America Olivo. A bachelorette party unfolds at a supposed Mexican playground, “where mischief and nefarious things happen,” Fulton says. “It’s so bad, it’s good.” The crew so trashed the grounds the production company was..
When the Intergalactic Art Car Festival makes first contact in Las Vegas this Saturday night, June 9, it will be an otherworldly experience. Created by Lyft and Fired Up Management, the event boasts 25 art cars—“mobile, fire-breathing sculptures built on the bases of vehicle,” as Lyft Nevada marketing lead Kris Cuaresma-Primm puts it—along with a procession down the Las Vegas Strip, music, food trucks, fire dancers and more.
[caption id="attachment_170324" width="500"] Host: The Mantis[/caption]
Here’s why you should add the festival to your weekend itinerary.
The festival supports a great cause.
Proceeds from the Intergalactic Art Car Festival will help fund local arts programs. “The arts are under attack. Art programs have been cut from schools, museum funding has been stripped away and Nevada may lose $700,000 in local funding for local arts programs. We thought something needed to be done,” Cuaresma-Primm says.
The funds raised will benefit the First Friday Foundation, which in turn works with schools, youth groups and various nonprofits across the Las Vegas Valley. If all goes well at the Las Vegas event, Cuaresma-Primm says it could spread to other markets, sparking creativity and helping communities in need across the country.
The festival is all-ages, so bring the kids. You may have to give them a pass on that bedtime, though. The event kicks off with a parade at 7 p.m. starting at the Llama Lot at Ogden Avenue and 9th Street, down Las Vegas Boulevard to Harmon Avenue and back, culminating in an immersive festival that rages on from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
It’s the largest collection of art cars outside of Burning Man.
For those who haven’t made the trek to the playa, the festival will be an opportunity to witness these hulking structures up close and interact with them all in one place. There will be 25 art cars in total taking the shapes of aliens, monsters, rhinos, swans, alligators and more. Some are more than 25-feet long and 35-feet high, such as BalanceVille, an LED-covered scissor lift car built on the base of a fire truck that raises people more than 30 feet in the air.
There are a few familiar “guests,” too. The Park on Fremont Swan will make an appearance, as well as ForestHouse, a school bus converted into a roving soundstage that served as a DJ booth during last year’s Life is Beautiful. The most notable figure is the gathering’s “host”: the praying mantis who hangs out in front of Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas. “The mantis is inviting her friends from across the galaxy to save the arts,” Cuaresma-Primm says.
Lyft is giving away free admission for the first 10,000 people who RSVP.
“We want to include as many people as possible,” Cuaresma-Primm explains. While proceeds from food and drink sales are sure to generate significant funds for local art programs, Lyft is also seeking donations. Your generosity won’t go unrewarded…
The “philanthropist” ticket package comes with awesome perks.
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DIM WITS, MACHISMO and myopia launched the driver and copilot of the monster four-by-four into the sallow slough. Wheels spinning. Zero traction. From afar, the mellow Robert Fulton grinned. The scene became slapstick when the duo hired a bulldozer to liberate the rig; the dense tractor soon became stuck in the muck, too. The dolts had to employ two 20-ton cranes to jimmy the dozer free, then the truck. The roster of dopes duped by the ostensibly dry Soda Lake, hard by Zzyzx Road in the Mojave Desert, had just increased by two.
The serpentine pathway leads to a hidden research compound the 63-year-old Fulton has managed more than half his life. He has witnessed maybe 30 vehicles, eight dozers and an immense earth grader sink into that bog. He ponders its merciless grip on him. With a wry grin, Fulton tells inquisitors that he worked the place for 10 years “before it started working me.”
Seven miles southwest of Baker, Exit 239—Zzyzx Road—has mystified and beguiled Interstate 15 travelers for decades. About 15 million vehicles pass it annually. Just past Zzyzx, heading to Baker, Calif., when the highway bends north, the view east—of the dastardly lakebed of alkaline evaporites, lava flows and cinder cones, Old Dad Mountain, the dunes of Devils Playground and the Granite, Ivanpah, New York and Providence ranges—can be bas-relief resplendence.
In his four-wheel-drive olive-drab Toyota FJ Cruiser, with the ZY6DUDE license plates and 130,000 miles of arid wear and tear, Fulton retrieves mail and temporary provisions in Baker (population: 750). He scales the freeway overpass and turns left, or westbound, onto I-15 to fetch long-term supplies an hour away in Barstow (population: 22,600). There have been long stretches, primarily early in his tenure, that the population of Zzyzx, Calif., has been one him. When I first met Fulton, in early 2014, he made a singular declaration: His home rhymes with RYE-six.
Zzyzx Road is 4.5 miles of jagged asphalt and potholes. It parallels the south side of I-15, heading east, and bends around the eastern edge of the southern ridge of the Soda Mountains. A clump of green eventually appears to the southeast, a vague thicket masking a dozen or so buildings. Those mountain nooks and crannies are full of life.
Death, too. Atop the unofficially dubbed Mount Zzyzx, the man who once planted a wooden cross on its peak had his ashes sprinkled around it. He was not slight. Fulton swears he has spotted a chunk or two of the man’s remains in crevices, mixed with pebbles and sand and brittlebush. Wind long ago felled the transverse bar and post. Fulton is mum about other such final requests.
The massive red Engine 53 of the San Bernardino (Calif.) County Fire Department’s Baker station once greeted me at the end of a long corridor of mesquite, where a left from Zzyzx becomes the Boulevard of Dreams. All of which was the conjuring of inexorable huckster Curtis Howe (Doc) Springer. The veteran firemen had only been showing the alien land to a greenhorn. On another occasion, Fulton played tour guide in a golf cart. The craggy, uneven dark surface snapped and crackled with each tire rotation.
We were traversing the 3,000-foot runway that protrudes over the lakebed, due north from the compound. It was built in the 1940s, over the old Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, by Springer, who called it his Zyport. Having possessed only mining rights, he constructed the buildings and invited all to his Zzyzx Mineral Springs Spa. He peddled Zy Mud for a premium facial that, in fact, was common wet dirt. Basic sodium comprised Zzyzx Crystals, for “poor, tired feet.” Springer claimed—in print and in person, from behind a pulpit in his low-ceilinged chapel or in a cramped adjacent radio studio—that his potions and elixirs and bread healed hemorrhoids and arthritis, even cured cancer. The New York Times took the bait. Many did. Springer made millions over 30 years. A strange story, he would admit about his life.
Fulton, with a little help from convicts, would legitimize Zzyzx. As permanent proprietor, his first order of business involved this runway. He watched a single-engine Cessna bump and grind to the end, flip its tail around and labor back down the rubber-grabbing track—toward the compound—and barely clear stubby California fan palms and tall, skinny Mexican palms. Fulton promptly disengaged the orange windsock that had flapped on a metal pole, halfway down the west side of the runway, and stuck it in a closet. His knowledge and experiences make him indispensable, the de facto Zzyzxpert. They’ve also vexed him, an internal struggle that would surface.
Zzyzx culminates at the Desert Studies Center (DSC), a field station treasure that Fulton nurtures for seven California State University campuses, overseen by Cal State Fullerton (CSUF). It is a world-class destination for the study of desert flora and fauna, if not the earth itself. Says a promotional video: “Nowhere is it easier to see evidence of the shifting earth layers, its folding, uplifts, stretching, expansions and contractions.” Geographers, geologists, climatologists, biologists, astronomers and archaeologists from all over descend on Zzyzx. Academics from many universities—including Bristol, Sussex, Sheffield and Northampton in the U.K.—are regulars.
On one visit, three cars traveled the other way; one passed as I departed. A score of interlopers a day snoop down the street from his double-wide, Fulton says. Visitors are stocked with erroneous information. Many think it’s a ghost town. He shakes his head. Where’d you get that? The internet. Fulton shrugs. One guy posted a YouTube video of his drive down Zzyzx, his voice-over detailing generics he poached from … the internet. Another online report claimed its first syllable rhymes with biz, self-indicting sloth.
This scorched tract is laced with truths and tales, orange UFOs, a South American sand wasp and a special snail. Magical and mystical, Fulton says. It has niches in cinema and literature, and a near-nexus with a famous song could have bestowed upon it immortality. “This is Zzyzx. As far as I can tell, it is the asshole of the universe,” the character Dei says in Michael Connelly’s 2004 novel The Narrows. Wearing a straw cowboy hat and silvery goatee, with a pachyderm choker of a neck, Fulton says he’s aware of Connelly’s reference to the outré off-ramp.
“But he missed it by seven miles. Baker is the asshole, thus [its] big rectal thermometer,” Fulton says of the 134-foot temperature gauge, billed as the world’s tallest, that stands sentry in Baker and has been working intermittently since 1991. “There’s the reality here, and then … the whole idea of Zzyzx and the mineral springs and Springer, it’s become like a legendary mythology. It’s completely valid. It’s an offshoot of something that started with interesting ideas.”
Transcendent Geography and History
THE GLACIAL EPOCH, Pleistocene shifting, Triassic meta-volcanic upheavals and Holocene disruptions blasted, cut, layered and strangled this merciless, infernal moonscape of loam and Permian limestone and Mesozoic granite, lex talionis.
It exists in a corner of a rough triangular noose, a vortex of opposite and like actions that make it exceptional, hydrogeologist Aaron Bierman says. The Garlock and San Andreas faults are some of the right- and left-lateral and slip-strike antagonists, along with no fewer than seven other fault lines. From the outside in, Bierman labels the concentric, oblong lake rings calcite, gypsum, halite and sylvite.
“You need a very unique environment for these sedimentary deposits to occur,” he says. Kindred turf? “Mars.”
That’s apropos, since NASA has tapped Fulton for Mars-like geomorphic conditions around Zzyzx to test Rover prototypes. Its harsh topography—along with Kauai, Hawaii; Salten Skov in Denmark; the Atacama Desert in South America; Arequipa, Peru; and Rio Tinto in Spain—is conducive for Red Planet experiments.
Snaking from the San Bernardino Mountains, about 110 miles to the southwest, the Mojave River culminates in an alluvial fan at Zzyzx, emptying into the lakebed, maybe 9 miles long and 4 miles at its widest, that seduces off-road enthusiasts. The river largely flows in subterranean fashion, and it floods—from the disintegration of a sill during the Ice Age, says Fulton—into Silver Lake just north of Baker, all of which once fed the Colorado River, 80 miles to the east.
Surface water tends to accumulate by the compound. Two spearheads—one big and opaque, the other smaller, reddish-brown and sharper—were discovered by two Sussex students in that alluvial wash. Tests determined that they are about 2,800 years old. Much younger arrowheads have also been found on the lakeshore.
More recently, in March 1776, Francisco Garcés, a Spanish friar called Father Pancho, is believed to have been the first person of European descent to trek by Soda Lake. (In downtown Las Vegas, east-west byways are named after prominent North American explorers; among them Frémont, Carson and Garcés avenues.) A crude brick-and-mortar wall, once a part of a small mid-19th-century U.S. Army fort dubbed Hancock’s Redoubt, is now a load-bearing partition in the Zzyzx library. Charles T. Russell, the founder of a sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a group of expat Germans were here in the early 1910s and left five concrete frame-house foundations.
The Tonopah and Tidewater, known as the T&T, laid tracks that ran roughly 250 miles from Tonopah to Ludlow—25 miles south of Zzyzx, on what is now Interstate 40—in 1905. When Francis Marion Smith went bankrupt, British partner Richard C. Baker took over a mining and shipping conglomerate, and a tiny outpost adopted his surname. The railroad had been struggling when a flood closed the Ludlow station in 1933. In the early ’40s, its rails were sold as material for the war effort.
Birth of a Charlatan
That’s when Doc Springer, from Pennsylvania, fled west. Born in Alabama in 1896, he was an Army private who putatively taught boxing Stateside during World War I. He worked at a school in Florida, flitted around the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. He would be forever influenced by the bombastic oratory of William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the sauce and lambasted Darwinism in the epic 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.
Springer also pushed sheet music in the aisles of Billy Sunday’s exuberant crusades. He melded their bluster and lexicon into his manner and fabric. The blue-eyed Springer had a high forehead, reddish-brown hair that flared at the ears and pursed lips, approximating the scowl of actor Bruce Dern in an old Western. Duplicity, the good lord and mineral springs would define him.
The American Medical Association (AMA) put Springer on its radar in October 1929. In a newspaper ad in Davenport, Iowa, he called himself the Dean of Greer College, a defunct automotive trade school. He migrated to Scranton, Pa., and lectured on banishing disease and the joy of living, representing the Extension Department of the National Academy, which, like the Springer School of Humanism, was pure fiction. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) would compile its own dossier on Springer.
In December 1930, he printed Vol. 1, No. 1, of Symposium Creative Psychologic magazine—bearing PICKING A HUSBAND FOR “KEEPS,” WHY NOT BE HEALTHY, HAPPY SUCCESSFUL [sic] and A MAGAZINE FOR THINKERS WHO THINK on its cover. He also published The Elucidator. Magazines ruled that era. Radio was an infant. Magazine content, however, could be shady. Even the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog fell prey to ambiguity. Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker in 1925, tried stemming the falsehood tide. On his pages, Lucky Strike cigarettes vowed to be “easy on your throat,” Viceroys promised “pearly white” teeth. Thomas Kunkel, in his Genius in Disguise (Random House, 1995) biography of Ross, says the publisher tried valiantly to deflect blatant and moral lies.
Others didn’t. Springer, with first wife, Mary Louise, bopped around Pennsylvania and Maryland, visiting Chicago occasionally to work his chicanery. He tried to buy radio airtime on WGN and was successful at WCFL. He started a Temple of Health in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and a Haven of Rest in Maple Glen, 15 minutes north of Philadelphia. He bought resort land in Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. He peddled Springer’s Health Bread and other concoctions through his Basic Foods, or Basic Food Products.
He filched the titles M.D., N.D., D.O. and Ph.D. In its Journal of Sept. 14, 1935, the AMA detailed three tiny-type pages of allegations, compiled by its Bureau of Investigation, against Springer. It reported, “A most thorough search fails to show that Springer was ever graduated by any reputable college or university, medical or otherwise.” Fulton says Springer failed to advance beyond the sixth grade, in West Virginia. Springer professed to have mined coal, which might lend veracity to his whereabouts when he should have been in the seventh grade.
Before being exposed so publicly, Springer marched brazenly into the AMA headquarters in Chicago to visit the director of its investigative unit. He tried to explain that his M.D. status was obtained at something called the First National University of Naturopathy. Rubbish, responded the AMA. He skipped out of the meeting.
Six months later, at BBB offices in Chicago, officials grilled him over alleged connections to an American College of Doctors and Surgeons in Washington, D.C.; an osteopathic college in Meyersdale, Pa.; and the Westlake West Virginia College, none of which ever existed. He claimed to have obtained a Ph.D. from a New Jersey school of osteopathy, but his lips remained pursed when told that such a school could not legally confer such a degree. He trumpeted 1933 earnings of $76,000 from the sale of his Antediluvian Tea and Re-Hib mixture. He fled from the BBB building, too.
He stayed a step ahead of the cuffs. In April 1935, the Philadelphia County Medical Society inquired with AMA investigators about Springer’s Re-Hib and tea products; it was told that the man was not a physician, that “the [bureau] considered him a blatant faker,” the Re-Hib was mostly baking soda, the tea was a crude blend of laxative herbs. The Journal equated Springer with loquacious fakers and faddists, and it cited radio’s burgeoning popularity as a source that could multiply his opportunities to further confound the public with misinformation. It continued,
Springer is but one more example of what to the thoughtful citizen must appear as one of the most dangerous social phenomena of the American city life; the person with an ignorance of the human body and its processes that is wide and deep, who by virtue of an unblushing effrontery combined with a flair for garrulity dupes an ignorant public.
A Wasp Gets a New Name
As Springer fine-tuned his chutzpah around north-central Pennsylvania, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., entomologist V.S.L. Pate was informing students of a yellow-legged wasp, bearing key lime rings around its black body, whose genus name he had recently altered.
The German entomologist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz had first discovered the arthropod, according to his Entomographien and other scientific journals, in central Chile in 1822. He called it Stictia chilensis. The wasp’s genus would be tweaked to Monedula, then Therapon, by J.B. Parker. In 1937, Pate upstaged Parker when he heard the critter before he saw it, providing him with the impetus to rename it Zyzzyx chilensis. A finer onomatopoeia might not exist.
The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia ran with Pate’s findings. Springer might have read about Pate and his insect in that newsletter, or in a local paper, or heard about the buzz on the radio. Maybe he even sat in on a Cornell lecture.
Perhaps Springer picked up the 103-page issue of Pate’s American Entomological Society Journal, No. 9, dated July 23, 1937. There’s a long list of species and genera, and Zyzzyx chilensis, is in there. “Confusion,” is the first word of the article. Then, “ … a plethora of fixations.” Pate wrote of Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century Swede known as the Father of Taxonomy, who formalized the modern system of naming organisms, called binomial nomenclature. The fixation on altering this arthropod’s name might have confounded even Linnaeus.
It is no stretch to envisage a certain evangelical charlatan, adept at snatching a name or idea or recipe for his own future wont, storing such a distinctive buzzword in the recesses of his imagination for potential appropriation down the road, maybe even a dusty, desert road.
About the Author of the Definitive History of Zzyzx
Rob Miech has been a journalist for more than 30 years, much of that as a sportswriter covering college basketball, and his work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, the Pasadena Star-News, Las Vegas Sun and other publications. He has authored three books—The Last Natural (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), Eleventh Heaven (Booklocker.com, 2014), Of Cowards and True Men (Booklocker.com, 2015). Zzyzx Road first bit him in the fall of 1985 and, well, it still hasn’t unlocked its clench.
This is sponsored content produced by WENDOH Brand Studio, the brand marketing unit of WENDOH Media.
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