Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Chihuly Ceiling, Bellagio
Dale Chihuly glassworks ceiling, Bellagio lobby.

...mostly stays in Vegas.  But a few tidbits of information, on occasion, may be permitted to escape.

Las Vegas, which bills itself as the Entertainment Capital of the World, is America’s original Sin City.  It’s a freewheeling adult Theme Park that would make Walt Disney blush (and probably did on several occasions).  In years long past, Vegas was where you’d go if you wanted to drink, whore, and gamble.  Then the Mob moved in and invented the idea of the conjoint Hotel and Casino with the best entertainment Hollywood had to offer.  The place exploded... and not just because the AEC was busily testing atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site a mere 65 miles away.  Meanwhile, other gambling hotspots such as Galveston, Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas withered on the vine.

I first visited the fabled city in the summer of 1974 as a newly minted college graduate off on a cross-country road trip.  My traveling companion and I bunked in at a cheap motel in nearby Henderson, which was fine since we spent almost no time there, choosing instead to stay up all night pissing away dollar blackjack bets in the cheesy casinos in downtown Vegas.  The rest of the time was spent exploring the locales mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson’s just-published magnum opus of Gonzo Journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Circus Circus, in particular, was a must-see: what Thompson described as “what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”  Indeed.

When I returned in 1993, almost two decades later, it was to a vastly different Las Vegas.  The venerable old hotels on the Strip were gradually being demolished, replaced with newer, larger ones like the Mirage, Luxor, and Excalibur.  Treasure Island was a week away from opening; the new MGM Grand was under construction.  At one point I dragged the Missus and kids off to see Circus Circus, which had, in the intervening years, become even cheesier - a sad parody of its (already ridiculous) earlier self.  The whole place - the Strip, anyway - was beginning to take on the air of a Bizarro World theme park.

This past week, after another two-decade gap, we (along with a small army of friends) returned to Las Vegas for an early celebration of SWMBO’s sixtieth birthday.  The place had changed to the point of being almost unrecognizable.  The luxury hotel-casino building boom that had been kicked off in the late 1980’s with Steve Wynn’s innovation of financing with junk bonds had, if anything, picked up steam, and the entire Strip was lined with glitzy new properties: The Wynn and sister hotel Encore; the Venetian and sister Palazzo; the Cosmopolitan; the Bellagio; Mandalay Bay; Paris.  The venerable Flamingo was still there, though we did not set foot in it.  Bally’s (formerly the old MGM Grand, the one that suffered a devastating fire in 1980) and Harrah’s were still there too, a bit tired and worn.  New York New York was just plain loud and obnoxious, in what some might say was an attempt to be faithful to its namesake city. And Caesar’s was still Caesar’s... bigger and more bombastic than ever.

Casino at Encore
The relatively sedate casino at the Encore... quite unlike the zoo at New York New York.

One other noticeable change from twenty years ago: Slot machines (which I typically avoid) have gotten ever more gaudy and complex, thanks to advances in Ars Electronica.  No longer do you see elderly women running around with cups of loose quarters - it’s now a coinless business, which to me removes much of the charm of the old One-Armed Bandit.  Now the machines have a myriad of ridiculous over-the-top graphics and themes, and you need an advanced degree to figure out how to play ’em.

Downtown Vegas, well north of the Strip, is still downtown Vegas.  Older and grittier, it’s still where the serious old-school gamblers go - the ones who aren’t there for the shows and glitz.  They want action, and the only food they need is your basic Cheap-Ass Buffet.  For them, it’s the Four Queens, the Golden Nugget, and the legendary Binion’s, and they don’t give Shit One that Fremont Street (the first paved street in Las Vegas) has been converted into a covered pedestrian mall - with ziplines, yet. 

We had selected Vegas as our destination because it is the only place where one might see Cirque du Soleil’s Love, a show based on the collected works of the Beatles that uses as its soundtrack a marvelous remix of the original audiotapes by George Martin, the Beatles’ original producer, and his son Giles.  (The show was brilliant - my favorite Cirque du Soleil performance ever and well up on my personal list of Best Shows Ever.)  During our stay we were also able to see Jersey Boys and Jubilee! - the former a Broadway jukebox musical-cum-documentary, the latter an old-school Vegas  Big Production burlesque show complete with elaborate headdresses, feathers, rhinestones, and titties.  Lotsa, lotsa titties - eighty-five sets of ’em. Good Gawd Awmighty.  And we even got to see SWMBO’s stepbrother Craig perform at La Scala Restaurant, where he does a regular Saturday evening lounge gig, a favorite with the locals.

The Ridiculous Lion.
As for our home base, we stayed at the stupendous! colossal! humongous! MGM Grand, the second largest hotel in the world (there’s one in Moscow that’s bigger) and home to what Elder Daughter dubbed “The Ridiculous Lion.”  If you cared to, you could spend an entire vacation without ever leaving the MGM property: it was a whole fucking city under one roof, complete with whatever kind of entertainment your shriveled little heart might desire.  But we did indeed leave the property, at one point even walking across the street to check out the Hooters Casino-Hotel (yes, it really exists) and its tasty, low-rent provender.

We did take the time to look at some of the surrounding area, heading out to Red Rock Canyon on our last day to take in the scenery... just as a record-setting heat wave came sliding in.  It amazes me how a landscape so desolate and desiccated can, at the same time, be so beautiful.

Red Rock Canyon HDR
Red Rock Canyon.

As the weekend approached with temperatures creeping up north of 115°F and the onslaught of a mob of young Beliebers attending a Justin Bieber concert at our hotel (yeef!), we knew it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Our week-long stay was the longest single stretch we’ve ever spent in Sin City, but we enjoyed it all.  Where else can you experience that weird Theme-Parky Vibe, see the strange mixture of slobs and toffs, the hordes of young women in their ink and muff-revealing short dresses, the drunks and revelers, the shiny surfaces, the top-flight food and entertainment, the Adult Gaming?  Where else, indeed.

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