Hal Rothman, 48; writer took academic approach to modern Las Vegas

Times Staff Writer

Hal Rothman, a widely quoted writer, historian and expert on modern Las Vegas who brought an academic approach to a bastion of popular culture, died Sunday at his home in Henderson, Nev. He was 48.

Rothman had battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, since being diagnosed with the degenerative neuromuscular disorder in December 2005.

The chairman of the history department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas from 2002 to 2005, Rothman wrote or edited more than a dozen books on the American West, including “Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West” (1998), “The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas” (2002, edited with Mike Davis) and “Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century” (2002).


“Las Vegas and Hal Rothman were a marriage made in heaven,” Andy Kirk, a UNLV history professor, said Tuesday. “He was this brash prodigy with incredible energy who wasn’t afraid to express his ideas.... He was a great spokesman for the city. He embraced it and made it his own.”

At the beginning of his academic career, Rothman focused on environmental history and the National Park Service. But after arriving at UNLV in 1992, he began studying the effect of tourism on the economy, society, culture and environment of the booming desert metropolis, which attracted an estimated 38.9 million visitors last year.

“Neon Metropolis” made him a favorite source for reporters seeking a scholar who could clearly explain the transformation of a dusty gambling town into an international tourist destination surrounded by sprawling suburbs.

“He didn’t dismiss it,” Kirk said. “He understood that some people loved it, others hated it, and you had to take Las Vegas seriously as a subject for study.”

Rothman also discussed social issues on a local public radio station, wrote a regular column for the Las Vegas Sun and contributed freelance commentaries to national newspapers and websites.

One of his final opinion pieces, published last October in The Times, examined the appeal of the southern Nevada mecca: “From its roots in sin, Las Vegas has grown into the most malleable tourist destination on the planet. It makes the visitor, however ordinary, the center of the story, holding up a figurative mirror and asking: ‘What do you want to be, and what will you pay to be it?’ Who you were or what you were yesterday makes little difference. All tourist towns reflect desire -- but Las Vegas anticipates it.”

Rothman was born Aug. 11, 1958, in Baton Rouge, La. His father, Neal Jules Rothman, was a math professor and his mother, Rozann Cole Rothman, a political science professor.

He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but, bored by school, left for Los Angeles, where he became a roadie for rock ‘n’ roll bands.

“I was a kid, it was the ‘70s,” he told the Las Vegas Review Journal in 2002. “I had a bad case of the ‘70s.”

But by 1980 he had returned to Illinois and earned a bachelor’s degree in history. After receiving his master’s and doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin, he taught for five years at Wichita State University in Kansas.

Then it was on to UNLV, where last summer he was named a distinguished professor, the university’s highest honor. In 2004 he received the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award for significant scholarship related to Nevada and a place in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

They weren’t all highbrow honors, though. Slate magazine gives the Hal Rothman Award to anyone who dreams up a serious-sounding reason to ogle naked women, in honor of the professor’s studious examination of trends involving Las Vegas showgirls.

“He was passionate about life,” said Eugene Moehring, the current chairman of UNLV’s history department.

Rothman helped found the Midbar Kodesh Temple, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Henderson, and was involved in Little League and a local cycling group.

“Truthfully, I got 47 perfect years,” Rothman told UNLV Magazine last summer, soon after he had taught his last on-campus course. “Everything broke my way. That’s a hell of a lot more than most people get. The gods reached down and put ideas in my head. Even better, they let them come out my fingers -- and at a pretty good clip. Not everybody gets that.”

Among Rothman’s survivors are his wife, Lauralee, and their children, Talia and Brent.