When the Circus Came to a Ghost Town

Since the days of the gold rush, dreamers hoping to strike it rich have been staking their claim to a dusty 80-acre town in the Mojave Desert called Nipton. For nearly all of them, those dreams have been fool’s gold.

A buyer who envisioned turning the California ghost town into a testing ground for solar power died before getting his green energy idea off the ground. An attempt by a cannabis company to create a weed-themed resort was impeded by legislation that banned marijuana sales there.

Ross Mollison is the most recent badlands baron. His company, Spiegelworld, bought the town on a whim last year for $2.5 million — a million or so shy of what he paid for his six-bed, five-bath apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

As the founder of Spiegelworld, a live entertainment company producing sybaritic adult circuses in Las Vegas, Mr. Mollison specializes in spectacle and calls himself an “Impresario Extraordinaire.” But even hedonists must occasionally fast. In the desert sun of Nipton, where visitors now can find little beyond a peeling one-room schoolhouse, an empty general store, a five-bed hotel and a small cluster of forgotten cabins, he is trying to build an oasis of escape — a circus sanctuary.

This unincorporated town, with no local government and a penchant for attracting homesteaders who prefer to stay off the grid, can become a retreat for circus performers to workshop new acts and a luxury attraction for tourists who could stop there on the way to Las Vegas, Mr. Mollison said.

“I’m not approaching it like a developer. I want Nipton to look like it does now, but more beautified, with a globally significant, interesting restaurant that is somewhere between Francis Mallmann and the French Laundry,” he said, referencing well-known restaurateurs as he described plans for multiple eateries, a hotel, solar panels and a runway for small planes, all with a big top twist. “Maybe we stick a trapeze in the middle, or a high wire that’s 1,000 feet off the ground. Or is that too P.T. Barnum?”

The resurrection plan has not gone unnoticed by the town’s handful of locals, who have watched men like Mr. Mollison come and go. Like his circus attractions, Mr. Mollison is a bit of a curiosity. He has a fondness for foul language, especially the word that begins with the letter F. He is unabashed about his taste for the refined, and his distaste for the conventional. His employees say he pushes them to constantly go weirder and wilder in their thinking, and is often willing to make huge investments of both time and money to see how that thinking plays out.

“My first week on the job, we had coffee, and he said, ‘Look, I want to hear every stupid idea you’ve got,’” said David Anthony, general manager of “Atomic Saloon Show,” a Spiegelworld production at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. “Of all the people I know who would have bought a town, Ross makes sense.”

Mr. Mollison grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and Nipton’s topography — studded with eucalyptus, a tree mostly native to the Land Down Under — reminds him of home. “It smells like Australia,” he said.

Perhaps the man is meeting the town. There is only one paved road, and little aside from sand, shrubs and cholla cactuses for miles. The Union Pacific railroad train regularly barrels down the tracks that border the town, its whistle splitting the air. The nearest hospital is an hour away; to send or pick up mail, residents must drive to post office boxes across the Nevada border. Without taxation for city management services, fire and police support, while technically available from other nearby towns in San Bernardino county, can be spotty.

It takes a certain kind of person to live so remotely. “It’s a very small town,” said Alex Strebel, who along with her husband, Frank, was tapped as Nipton’s caretaker shortly after Spiegelworld’s purchase. “If you sneeze when you’re driving by, you’re going to miss it.”

Nipton currently has fewer than two dozen residents, primarily clustered in a small RV park. Most are seasonal miners who stay for a few months at a time and keep to themselves; others, like Jim Eslinger, have lived there since 2009 and are offering themselves as informal partners to Spiegelworld.

“This is my idea of paradise out here,” said Mr. Eslinger, 66, a former long-haul trucker who grew up in Washington State and came to Nipton in 2009 after 18 years on the road. “It’s like Hotel California — I checked in and I never plan to leave.”

He refers to himself as Nipton’s Mayor Jim. “I’m excited to see what Spiegelworld has in store, and to help them make their dreams come true. I don’t care, I just enjoy living out here.”

Nathan Will, 30, an industrial construction worker from Plain City, Ohio, came to Nipton last January to take a job at the nearby rare earth mineral mines. His wife and 1.5-year-old son are waiting for him back home, and nights in his camper with his two dogs, Max and Honey, can be quiet.

When Spiegelworld first took over, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“At first, I was just thinking, what does a circus want with an old town in the middle of nowhere?” Mr. Will said. “The first time they brought all the performers out here, in their outfits and costumes, it was a culture shock. But it’s gotten cleaner and more dependable, and you have someone here if something goes wrong.”

Mr. Mollison said he has made it a priority to include the local residents in his plans for Nipton, and in a smattering of small events that Spiegelworld has held on the grounds so far, he has made sure to invite them.

In late February, Mr. Mollison decided to give a party in Nipton. Two dozen Spiegelworld performers and employees drove in from Las Vegas. And as they gathered in Nipton’s abandoned saloon for a festive sukiyaki dinner, inspired by a hot pot soup Mr. Mollison had recently enjoyed in Japan, Mr. Will and Mr. Eslinger were guests at the table.

“My biggest hope for Nipton is you don’t forget what makes us special,” Mr. Will said, raising a beer in a toast while everyone else sipped sake cocktails. “Family comes from a lot of places other than blood, so if Nipton keeps this, sticking together with the people, it will thrive.”

First a gold rush outpost in the early 1900s, Nipton later served as a bolt-hole for silent film stars looking for a respite from Hollywood, and even the setting for a postapocalyptic video game. But after the gold rush stalled and the mining industry declined, Nipton’s appeal, rooted largely in having a general store and a rail station, faded. The boomtown went bust by the middle of the 20th century.

Nipton’s latest chapter begins in the 1980s, when Gerald Freeman, a gold miner eager to make the shift to renewable energy, purchased the town. After decades of disuse, it was largely abandoned. He fixed up its store and cafe into an old-timey destination for tourists seeking a taste of the American West and began installing solar arrays amid the yucca and gum trees.

But he was only about halfway to that goal when he died in 2016. His wife, Jennifer Lang, then sold Nipton for $5 million to American Green, a cannabis company with plans to turn the town into a weed-themed resort geared toward Instagram marijuana influencers. But after only a year, American Green sold Nipton to a subsidiary, who ended up defaulting in payments. Ms. Lang forced a foreclosure and put the town back on the market. In 2021, Mr. Mollison stepped forward.

Mr. Mollison, who signed a $75 million deal with Caesar’s Entertainment in 2021 and reportedly dropped $30 million just on the artwork for his Las Vegas restaurant Superfrico, brings an immense amount of muscle to a town long accustomed to fending for itself.

In every Spiegelworld production — there are currently four on the Las Vegas Strip, with two more in the works, and two headed soon for Atlantic City — he is notoriously detail oriented, furiously sweating the small stuff. He’s just as hands-on in Nipton, where on a recent visit he was found jumping excitedly inside a recently converted Spartan Imperial Mansion trailer to review the craftsmanship and map out precisely where future overnight guests would sit and sleep.

Alex and Frank Strebel are production managers, the back-of-house crew who keep theater performances running behind the scenes. They met Mr. Mollison three years ago when he hired them to build props for OPM, Spiegelworld’s space-age themed variety show at The Cosmopolitan hotel. Mr. Mollison liked their handiwork, and he also liked their lifestyle: The couple, both 35, met at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and were living largely off the land of their home in Pahrump, Nev., a town of 40,000 straddling the California border.

They had what it takes, he felt, to turn Nipton around.

“We rolled up our sleeves and fired up the tractor,” Mr. Strebel said. “Our contractors are two hours away, but we have experience in doing things locally since we built our own house.”

The couple have been living full-time in Nipton since last May, sharing a camper van with their five chickens and two dogs and performing cleanup work that includes repairing septic systems and fixing electric lines.

They’ve also hauled out trash — a lot of it. At only 80 acres, Nipton has one real road and a smaller footprint than the Mall of America. But Mr. and Ms. Strebel found rotting mattresses, pieces of an old stagecoach, a clogged septic tank and 300 tons of assorted junk when they arrived. After months of cleanup by both tractor and golf cart, they’re now focusing on low-water landscaping and rehabbing the funky public art and rusting aluminum trailers left behind by previous owners.

They’ve taken care to preserve some of the town’s wackier art pieces, including Fly By, a 24-foot-high glass manta ray by Peter Hazel, and Perpetual Consumption, a 26-foot-high sculpture by Clayton Blake in which stacked shopping carts form loop-the-loops meant to symbolize American consumerism. That piece was originally created for Burning Man and brought to Nipton in 2018 by American Green.

Next on the docket is the repurposing of the town’s vacant general store, which was once a destination for Nevada drivers looking to purchase California lottery tickets (thanks to its powerful casino industry, the lottery is prohibited in Nevada), as well as its saloon, where Mr. Mollison threw his dinner party in February.

The town has several one-room cabins that also lack plumbing and are heated in the cold desert nights by freestanding potbellied stoves. Mr. Mollison plans to move those to the other side of Nipton’s main road and allow his performers to individually design and outfit them. The result will be an artist’s village, tentatively named Spiegelville, where performers can stay when coming to Nipton to workshop performances. For tourists, tricked-out aluminum trailers and a planned luxury hotel will, he says, offer plusher accommodations.

Gypsy Wood, an Australian burlesque dancer who performs in OPM, arrived at the February dinner party in her red convertible with her dog Marcello. Like many of Spiegelworld’s artists, circus life was handed down to her by her parents, who were traveling performers in her hometown Adelaide, Australia.

Gypsy is her given name — “I wouldn’t have chosen this as my stage name. I would have chosen something else, like Annabella,” she said — and she said she is counting the days until the dream of Spiegelville is a reality.

“Circus life is like being on a bus trip that you can’t get off. Vegas is so seductive in that way. But you can’t leave, and there are like three coffee shops so you see everyone all the time. Nipton might be an escape from the drama,” she said. “It will help you get yourself together.”

That’s certainly been the case for Niko Novick, who has been living in one of those toiletless cabins since last July. Mr. Novick, 32, who refers to himself as Spiegelworld’s “cocktail clown,” runs the beverage program for the company, designing for the multiple bars at each of the company’s three shows, as well as Superfrico, their twisted, debaucherous take on dinner theater where Italian dishes are served with a side of strippers, acrobats and raunchy comedy.

He has a house in Los Angeles, three hours away by car, but prefers to be at Nipton with the company of Mala, his 13-year-old dog. He uses an outdoor shower and restroom, or pops into one of the two bathrooms at the town’s tiny Hotel California, where the actress Clara Bow often stayed in the 1920s. Today, its five bedrooms serve as guest quarters for friends of Spiegelworld who stay the night.

“Deep down, I love solitude,” he said. “Coming here allows me to recharge. And that’s when creativity is most rampant.”

Mr. Mollison is committed to fostering that creativity, so much so that he estimates he’ll spend around $20 million to make his dreams for Nipton come true. But he isn’t rushing the process. “People come to Las Vegas, and dinner theater is like, someone pretending to be Frank Sinatra and you’ve got to sit there for 30 minutes waiting for it to end,” he said. “The thing about this place is that it’s a surprise, and it’s different from what’s out there. We’re in no hurry.”

A few hours before the dinner party was set to begin, Mr. Mollison got into his Cirrus airplane and flew over the town, grinning while surveying his purchase from the sky.

He wasn’t thinking about the town’s history of failed endeavors. He was only thinking about his delight in planning its future.

“I want Nipton to be growing as long as we have great ideas,” he said. “And I’m so excited about this idea. It’s just so much fun.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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