When I think of Armenians in Las Vegas, three individuals stand out in my mind. The first is Kirk Kerkorian, the Armenian billionaire and philanthropist who was one of the key figures in shaping the city of Las Vegas, and who is considered to be the godfather of Las Vegas’ casinos.
The other two are the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, and the champion tennis player and philanthropist Andre Agassi, whose father is Armenian. Today, however, these individuals no longer live within the Vegas Armenian community. Put it this way: Kerkorian and Tarkenian have died, and Agassi, while an advocate for children’s education, is not involved in the Armenian cause.
Recently, I took a trip to Las Vegas to get more information about the Armenian community there. When I arrived I met with Adroushan (Andy) Armenian.
After pursuing a very successful career path that included various positions with the International Division of Procter & Gamble Co., Armenian decided to retire in Las Vegas. In 2005, he and his wife, Nora, and their two daughters settled in Las Vegas. Ten years later, in 2015, he was appointed as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia in Las Vegas. Today, Armenian is a real estate broker. He owns a commercial real estate office in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. His office serves as a meeting place for the Armenian consulate.
I met Armenian at his office, where he gave me a quick rundown on the history of Armenians in Las Vegas. He said Armenians arrived in Las Vegas in a series of waves. The first surge happened in 1978, when about 50 families, mostly from Detroit, moved to Las Vegas. The second influx was in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake, when many Armenians lost their homes in the greater Los Angeles area. A third migration took place in 2014.
“One of the main reasons for people to move to Las Vegas is the low cost of living and no income tax,” noted Armenian.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Armenian is no stranger to his Armenian heritage. As soon as he settled into his newly adopted city, he quickly became a devoted fixture in the local Armenian-American community.
We had a good chat about the various aspects of Armenian life. Today, 15 to 20,000 Armenians live in Las Vegas. One of the first Armenian organizations to exist in the area was the Armenian American Cultural Society of Las Vegas, which was founded in 1978. He then gave me a printout of the different Armenian organizations. He went over the list and explained them to me, one by one. After spending some time together in his office, he took me to visit the genocide memorial—in remembrance of the 1.5 million Armenian victims assassinated by the Turks.
The monument’s construction was unanimously approved by Clark County commissioners. On March 22, 2015, a fundraising effort started with a picnic. 400 people attended, and $25,000 was raised on that very day. The following month, on April 24, 2015—during the Centennial Commemoration of the Genocide—the monument’s ground breaking took place. The ground blessing was done by local clergy, and about 1,200 people attended the event.
The memorial is located in Sunset Park, the largest park in Central Nevada. The unveiling and the dedication of the monument took place on November 14, 2015, where Armenians from Las Vegas and beyond gathered at the park to witness the opening. The final project cost came to $194,661, which was about the amount that the community had raised within seven months.
After the visit of the monument, Armenian took me to St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church. It is the first Armenian Church built and consecrated in the State of Nevada. There, I met with the Archpriest Vahan Gosdanian, who was recently transferred from Fresno to Las Vegas. “The Parish of St. Garabed was established in 1994, and it took almost 20 years for the community to build their own sanctuary,” explained Armenian.
The church was consecrated in 2013. Fr. Gosdanian told me that Kerkorian had contributed half a million dollars to the cost. Danny Tarkanian, Jerry Tarkanian’s son, also contributed some funds.
On June 9 of 2018, St. Garabed Apostolic Church celebrated its 5th anniversary with a banquet. The church and its adjacent Cultural Center serve the growing needs of the Las Vegas Armenian-American community. There are many functions held in the adjacent buildings, such as Saturday Armenian language school, Boy Scouts, and ARF gatherings. Every Sunday after the mass, the parishioners come together for coffee. Every Friday is family night, and dinner is prepared by volunteers.
There are two other Armenian churches in Las Vegas, St. Geragos’ Apostolic church and the Armenian Evangelical church. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to visit these two.
The following day, I met Izabel Martirosyan, who has an Armenian dance studio. The studio is located at a strip mall. I arrived there at around 6 in the evening. I caught her in-between her classes. About a dozen girls were in attendance.
The girls were very excited about the arrival of jugs, which they planned to use as props in their dance at the concert. I asked them to line up in their dance position so that I could take a photo of them holding their jugs.
Izabel Martirosyan, was 10-years-old when her family moved from Armenia to Glendale, California. She attended schools in the Glendale School District until graduating from high school. She participated in dance classes in Glendale, as well. Her best experience was when she joined “Hayastan Cultural Center,” which had the most amazing dance instructors—Arman and Naira Vardanyan. “They became my second family,” said Martirosyan.
A few years after graduating from high school, Martirosyan’s family moved to Las Vegas. In 2011, she started a dance group. “My little group grew quickly, so I decided to open my own dance studio in 2015,” she explained.
Since then, they have participated in many Armenian events, cultural festivals, and competitions in Las Vegas. This year, on October 19, Martirosyan’s Armenian Dance School will have its first solo annual concert at Clark County Library.
“I would love to invite Armenians from Los Angeles to join us in celebrating our rich cultural event,” said Martirosyan, who currently has about 50 students. Her students’ enthusiasm was palpable and I could clearly see their passion to learn Armenian dances. There’s also another Armenian dance studio in Las Vegas, but I was not able to visit that one.
Contrary to the popular slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” I wanted to share with you my experience of Vegas. What I heard that day, from Andy Armenian, Rev. Vahan Gosdanian, and Izabel Martirosyan was a testament to the close knit and very active society of Armenians in Las Vegas.