Retropolis: Calamity Jayne’s Nashville Nevada

BOULDER HIGHWAY cuts through a historic area of town called Four Mile (sometimes spelled Formyle). Way back in the 1930s, it was where numerous bars, gambling joints, and brothels took root after the feds forced Downtown’s infamous Block 16 to clean up its act. Basically, all that sweet Sin City action moved from Downtown to Four Mile, so called because it was about four miles from then-Las Vegas proper.

The 4 Mile Bar, itself a relic, roughly thumbtacks this area. (Just across the highway, not far from the telltale yellow Siegel Suites Flexible-Stay Living apartments, is the site of the old Roxie’s bordello, demolished in 2019.)

But there’s another nearby dot on the map of more recent vintage that always intrigues me. It’s located at 3015 Fremont Street (which, if I may be permitted to fudge, is Boulder Highway in all but name). Today it’s home to the Monarca Nightclub. But from 1988 to 1992, it reigned as a legendary rock club that continued, in its way, Boulder Highway’s wild history, presaged the rise of alt-rock in the ’90s, and arguably lit the fuse for Vegas’ bright future as a major concert mecca — until it all fell spectacularly apart in one of the biggest drug busts ever to go down in Nevada.

That club was Calamity Jayne’s Nashville Nevada. To be sure, this spot was hopping long before Jayne’s tenure. In the early ’60s, it was simply a country joint named the Nashville Nevada Club, whose house band briefly included Merle Haggard. But Calamity Jayne would usher in a new era when she bought the dormant club. Calamity Jayne was the stage name and alter ego of Claudia Rae. Part hippie, part cowgirl, part punk, Calamity Jayne was a mystical Vegas rock ‘n’ roll renegade known for her performances at Sinbad Lounge in the Aladdin with her band The Cowpunks.

From a 1981 Review-Journal review: “She comes on stage in a patchwork jacket, danksin top, micro-mini jeans skirt, and fishnet stockings and leg-warmers stuffed into a pair of pink cowboy boots. Her guitar is slung low across her body, and she smokes a cigar while peering through her slightly-too-long bangs and a hat pushed low on her forehead.”

THE PURPLE-PAINTED Calamity Jayne’s Nashville Nevada hosted some of the coolest bands. Check this: The Melvins, STP, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana — on the same bill, August 16, 1990! (Nirvana was an opening act lolz). Other legends came through: Iggy Pop, Foghat, Social Distortion, Nine In Nails, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smithereens. Way out there on the Boulder Highway, Calamity Jayne’s Nashville Nevada was like alien hipster anti-matter to the glitz and lore of the Strip.

As you might imagine, running an alt-rock club isn’t exactly the key to untold riches, so where was the money coming from? From a generous man reported to be Jayne’s “paramour,” a pilot named Carl “Ernie” Whittenburg. He was a low-key, decidedly un-rock ‘n’ roll guy whose favorite thing to do was, hm, fly back and forth to Mexico a lot.

Surprise! Whittenburg turned out to be a drug smuggler operating via airports throughout the West, including McCarran, and newspapers at the time called his takedown the largest drug prosecution ever brought in Nevada. In May 1992, he was convicted of 29 counts of drug trafficking, money laundering, and tax evasion. Bonus: Before he could be arrested, he had to be deported from the Philippines, where he’d been on an obsessive hunt for troves of gold rumored to have been buried there by the Japanese in World War II. Whittenburg was sentenced to life in prison, no parole. Numerous associates — including Whittenburg’s wife — were ensnared in the bust.

CALAMITY JAYNE was caught in the net too. It’s fuzzy whether Whittenburg was just a generous guy or he was using Jayne’s club as a crimey-cash hidey-hole. Indicted in 1991, Jayne ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of laundering about $500,000 through the club. In May 1993, she was sentenced to two years in prison. Whittenburg died in a California prison in 2001. Calamity Jayne was released after serving 18 months.

Of course, a Vegas character like Calamity Jayne has to have a second act. After prison, she resurfaced and hung around the valley, doing a little bit of everything: releasing a rock album, running a clothing boutique, operating a small club in Boulder City. In June 2008, she held a reunion show at the original Calamity Jayne’s. By all accounts, Calamity Jayne and her Cowpunks rocked the place ‘til dawn.

Andrew Kiraly

Andrew Kiraly

Andrew Kiraly is publisher of TheList.Vegas.

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