Sylvie Vartan and Dom Deluise headline the MGM. Over at The Sands, it's The Association and The Limelighters. In between, a lonely Shell station stands watch over a lightly trafficked Strip. It's 1979, and you can take in the whole thing, from the Sahara and El Rancho in the north to the Marina and Tropicana in the south.
In the foreground, the fountains of Caesars Palace, from whose Fantasy Tower Robert Paluzzi shot this panoramic view of Carter-era Las Vegas.
Paluzzi was by day the national director of sales at Caesars and helped turn Las Vegas into a prime destination for conventions. In his downtime, he was a self-described amateur photographer with a penchant for panoramas of the city, the Southwest, and well beyond.
Now the collection of the former executive, who died in 2006 at the age of 86, resides in UNLV Libraries Special Collections and Archives, fully digitized and archived thanks to a grant, some DIY ingenuity, and a print hanging on a bedroom wall.
Connecting with a childhood artifact
Aaron Mayes, visual materials curator, regularly archives the work of other photographers. In the course of bringing in another trove of photos to Special Collections, Mayes became aware that the Paluzzi collection was with the photographer's children, Matthew and Victoria, and they were looking for a home for the photos.
Including one notable snap from the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I actually had a print of his in my room as a high schooler," Mayes said. "Living in Reno, I was a huge UNLV fan. My grandmother and grandfather sent me a print, which was the Thomas & Mack completely filled for the first Runnin' Rebels game. When (the Paluzzi family) contacted me, it was a no-brainer."
What Mayes took in were more than 600 photos from the late 1970s through the early 2000s — some as intimate as a backyard family Thanksgiving, others as wide and sweeping as Monument Valley.
The collection includes shots of World's Fairs and World Series, massive fights like Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns, presidents, popes, and the king of pop, when Michael Jackson played the Super Bowl halftime show in 1993 — just one of 20-odd Super Bowls from 1980 through 2004 in the collection.
The snaps were captured on a series of Cirkut cameras. Debuting in 1905, the old-fashioned equipment includes a motorized base that mounts on the tripod for panning up to a full 360 degrees. (Paluzzi took advantage of that in family photos where he could appear on both sides of the panorama thanks to the slow-moving camera.)
A seed planted in war
Paluzzi became familiar with the oversized film compatible with the Cirkut cameras during World War II, when he was stationed in Iceland as an aircraft spotter for the Air Force. The film was used for planes flying reconnaissance missions where they would photograph potential targets for bombing missions.
"He was on this island and he took literally hundreds of pictures," Paluzzi's daughter, Victoria, said. "One of my favorite pictures that he took — and this was just with his little black and white camera — is a picture of Churchill reviewing the troops. He always had a curiosity about pictures and preserving history."
When it came time to incorporate the photos into Special Collections, a grant from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation paved the way. Alumna Amy Check was brought on board to help digitize the photos, but first, there was a big problem.
Adapting the latest tech to old negatives
The negatives were so large and unwieldy that Mayes and Check needed to modify existing equipment to be able to safely scan them. Fortunately, a couple of floors down from Special Collections, UNLV Libraries' Makerspace was ready to tackle the job.
RC Wonderly, who heads up the Makerspace, was able to help design and construct a negative carrier to fit the oversized film and hold the panorama negatives flat and in place over a lightbox. That allowed Mayes and Check to capture the images in individual high-resolution frames that were then digitally reassembled into the full panoramas available now. A commercial solution would have been in the thousands. Using wood that was laser-cut to fit and parts that were 3D printed, Wonderly was able to come up with an affordable solution.
"We had to think about the safety of the artifact, obviously. I took some measurements of (Mayes') light table and I worked with two (students) we had employed, a mechanical engineer and a computer science major," he said. "We had probably three or four prototypes that we tried out. Aaron was up against deadlines, but we got them to a point where it was good enough because he only needed to run this thing a hundred times. But if we were going to do this a thousand times, he and I would probably go back to the drawing board."
It helped allow digitization of photos that document, in a unique way, a sometimes forgotten slice of Las Vegas history, the decades between the go-go heyday of the Rat Pack era and the rise of corporate Vegas to the modern age.
Some of these photos wouldn't have been possible if Paluzzi hadn't been both a well-known and high-ranking figure at Caesars and armed with a load of chutzpah.
When capturing a banner celebrating Frank Sinatra at Caesars in 1980, Paluzzi wanted to get the shot from the top of Imperial Palace across the street.
"Those cameras were big and bulky and hard to carry," Victoria Paluzzi said. "We had rolling carts and all kinds of things, but he didn't ask anybody for permission to go to the roof of the Imperial Palace. He just went out there. Some security guards stopped him and said, 'You can't go up there.' And he mumbled somebody's name because my dad knew everybody. And just says, 'So-and-so said I could do this' and just kept going. (The guard) said, 'No, you can't do it.' He'd wait for them to leave and then do it anyway."
To process the pictures, Paluzzi, who also was a guest lecturer of sales at UNLV's then-Hotel College, at first would send the film back to Kodak. Eventually, he built his own darkroom to develop the film and then worked with contacts in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to print them. He'd keep printing new copies until he got the colors exactly the way he wanted them.
Not bad for a shutterbug who really dove into his hobby after he found a camera in Victorville that could be retrofitted for Polaroid portraits. He used that shoot souvenirs for his conventioneer clientele.
It turned multigenerational, too. Victoria Paluzzi's daughter, Brenda Stergiopoulos, became a professional photographer, following in her grandfather's footsteps after spending years helping him on his Cirkut shoots.
"(The photos are) one of a kind," Victoria Paluzzi said. "Nobody else was doing anything like that. Now we have our phone cameras that do the exact same thing, but not with the detail the Cirkut did. If he thought it was unique and it was going to be a one-of-a-kind thing, that's what he wanted".