Sunday, Nov. 20, 2005 | 7:23 a.m.
When the delightfully distinctive Boardwalk hotel closes Jan. 9 to make way for a gigantic Strip development, they'd better let the lady in the gift shop be the one who turns off the lights for the last time.
Her husband, Norm Jansen, created the Boardwalk, with its roller-coaster facade and the big, looming clown's face. After Norm passed away eight years ago, his widow, Avis, continued to run her little gift store, selling exquisite dolls and refrigerator magnets, aspirin and bottled water and postcards and so many coffee mugs.
Mrs. J, as Boardwalk employees affectionately call her, has three things on her to-do list before bulldozers begin transforming the property into a high-rise village.
Because she is a businesswoman, she dearly hopes to sell as much merchandise as possible before the door closes the final time.
"I'm surprised people buy all this stuff," said Mrs. J, who operated gift shops at her husband's hotels for years.
Because she is sentimental, she hopes to find a home for the mahogany conference table and 10 leather chairs that served the Boardwalk's board of directors. It's a little scuffed but still very impressive.
"Do you know anybody who might want it?" she asked me. "It's probably worth three- to five-thousand dollars." (Did I mention that Mrs. J is also a businesswoman?)
And because she dearly loves her Norm, Mrs. J will lift the gold-framed portrait of her late husband off the lobby wall, gently place it in the back of her car and take it to her home at the Las Vegas Country Club, where it will hang prominently in her entry hall.
"His picture is coming with me," she told a reception desk clerk. "So you'll have to come to my house if you still want to talk to him."
Avis and Norm Jansen were a unique couple on the Strip during the heydays of their businesses; while he wheeled and dealed on casinos and real estate, she worked quietly in the background.
She arrived in Las Vegas from Wisconsin in 1946 as a 19-year-old and got a job as a waitress. After three weeks of throwing quarters into slots, she swore off gambling but loved the business.
She worked a handful of jobs in town, including in the slots department at the old Silver Slipper and as a cocktail waitress. She thought that would be an uneventful job until a comic's orangutan jumped off stage and onto her tray.
She worked the bingo room at the Boulder Club on Fremont Street, where she met a young Norm Jansen, who worked at Boulder Club's sports book, updating the odds lines on the big betting board.
In 1950, Avis and Norm married, and they fashioned one of the most enduring love relationships in town.
Over the years, Norm owned the Pioneer Club, part-owned the California Hotel, bought the Elwell Hotel downtown, and built the old Riverboat on the Strip, at what is now Harrah's. It was there that his wife launched her business, Holiday Gifts Inc.
The gift shop occupied her time, Avis said, as her husband buried himself in matters of hotel leases, loans and mortgages. "He lived and breathed that part of the business," she said. "I didn't have to."
In the early 1970s, the Jansens opened a gift shop next to a Holiday Inn farther south on the Strip, and then Norm took over the hotel as well. Twenty years later, he took his company public and with the infusion of cash, remade the old hotel as the Holiday Inn Boardwalk Casino.
The place got a new look, with the faux roller coaster, the big clown's face and the 17-story tower. It may have looked puny compared to the big hotels that were popping up on the Strip, but this was the place Jansen built, and the couple was proud.
After he died, the Mirage bought the property, and today it is owned by MGM Mirage. All the while, Avis has faithfully operated her gift shop.
She longs for the old days, when Las Vegas was a simpler place. "Today, everything is so big, and everyone seems so rushed," she said.
The lobby of the Boardwalk is small, cozy, unpretentious. Its most remarkable feature is Norm Jansen's portrait.
For a few more weeks, his handsome face will appear to be looking into his wife's little gift shop.
Then, she'll finally take him home.