Las Vegas, January 11, 1951 – The US Department of Energy establishes the Nevada Proving Ground (now known as the Nevada Test Site) 65 miles northwest of the city for the testing of nuclear devices. Little was known about the effects of nuclear blasts at the time, and above ground, or atmospheric, testing was seen as a necessary step towards the development of our atomic future. Mushroom clouds from these tests could be seen for almost 100 miles, especially from the glamorous hotels and casinos along Fremont Street.
Horrifying? In retrospect, yes. At the time, though, it was greeted with a potent mixture of apprehension and fascination. The risks of fallout weren’t in the popular consciousness yet, and the general feeling at the time was that the government would never subject their citizens to anything dangerous and untested. The Atomic Energy Commission assured the public that the ‘experimental detonations’ posed no danger to tourists or residents, and the press followed suit with headlines such as “Don’t Worry Folks, Bomb Blast Won’t Bother You.” The tests attracted thousands of visitors to downtown Las Vegas, and hotels began organizing picnics for their guests to watch the blasts. By the spring of 1952, an average of 19,000 people a day were coming to the city for the tests. The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas pays tribute to this freewheeling era.
The atomic age had arrived, and Las Vegas embraced it like only it can, as chronicled by Charles Phoenix in his wonderful book Fabulous Las Vegas in the 50s: Glitz, Glamour & Games. Atomic hairdos, atomburgers, and bikini clad ‘prospectors’ sporting Geiger counters sprung up almost overnight. Pianist Ted Mossman played his signature “Atom Bomb Bounce.” Images of mushroom clouds were everywhere you looked. It was only a matter of time before an enterprising bartender invented the Atomic Cocktail.
- 1 1/2 oz vodka (Ketel One or Grey Goose work well)
- 1 1/2 oz brandy (XO or VSOP are fine)
- 1 tsp sherry (Amontillado is a good choice)
- 1 1/2 oz brut champagne (you can’t go wrong with Veuve Clicquot)
Shake the vodka, brandy and sherry with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top off with cold, very cold, brut champagne. Serve while listening to Slim Gaillard’s recording “Atomic Cocktail.”
I’ve tested this recipe with some friends, and we found that the more you increase the ratio of champagne, the better it tastes. This is one of those drinks that will knock your socks off without you even knowing it – until you go to stand up! Obviously, if you’re sitting in a Las Vegas cocktail lounge in 1951 anxiously awaiting a detonation, you want to be drinking a cocktail of equal power. One serving and you can really appreciate the beauty of the mushroom cloud.
Filmmaker Robert Fantinatto has made what looks like a fascinating feature-length documentary about this era. He writes,”Atomic Lounge is a 90 minute documentary that looks back at the Space-Age inspired architecture, design, fashion, and lifestyle of post-WWII America. The film will explore the conditions that led to a unique time in history when Americans experienced a dual sense of optimism for the future and fear of impeding nuclear holocaust. This period represents the critical point in the Western world when a culture of sincerity, confidence and conformity gave way to a general atmosphere of irony and pessimism.” Check out one of the trailers for it below: