On the way from the airport, Roger, my taxi driver, tells me he first came through Las Vegas in 1939. “About 8,000 people here then,” he says. He relocated to the town a few years later when the population was around 40,000. “And there were only two clubs – El Rancho Vegas, which was the old Club 91, and the Frontier. But they were just Western-type places. Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo (now the Flamingo Hilton) was the first of the modern-style casinos.”
“Do you miss Las Vegas being a small town?” I ask. (The current population is 850,000.)
“Sure,” Roger replies. “When it was 40,000, everybody knew everybody.”
As we cruise the Strip, I tell Roger I’m taking a poll. “Whaddya think,” I say, “is it a city, a sculpture, or the world’s largest mind-altering drug?”
He lets out a smoker’s bark as he waves to one of his 39,999 old friends. “Maybe all three. I don’t know.”
I don’t either, but those questions bounce around my head as I wonder at how the city that just can’t say no has transformed itself in mere decades from a gangster’s brainchild – where no one would dream of bringing children – into a family fun park. Many who come here consider the place heaven on Earth, others say it’s a vision of hell, and the rest of us just want to find a decent meal and some light entertainment.
Heaven, hell or what-have-you, the eternal work-in-progress known as Las Vegas is fast metamorphosing into something way beyond a gambling mecca. These days, it’s more like a multidimensional science fiction illustration come to life: hundreds of acres of virtual realities that defy all categorization and most adjectives.
The Strip, a few miles of asphalt and casinos once synonymous with sin, is a great glowing laboratory of gaiety and mirth where new billion-dollar entertainment constructs are being prototyped: massive, total-immersion, mega-resort amalgamations of shopping centers, restaurants, night clubs, casinos, video arcades and theme park rides that converge as giant, pulsating, temperature-controlled pleasure centers.
(The first major post-greenhouse-effect attraction, Circus Circus’ Grand Slam Canyon, reassuringly advertises that its pink glass dome “lets through only 19 percent of sunlight.” And the 5,009-room MGM Grand due to open Dec. 18 promotes the fact that it will feature “18,000 tons of air-conditioning…enough to cool a small town of 5,500 homes.”)
Navigating this neon river of recreation is like strolling through the innards of a mammoth pinball machine. And the rapidly expanding suburbs of hacienda-style homes that are filling up the flat, arid land encircling Las Vegas attest to the area’s ferocious growth.
Yet it is encouraging to find that despite the amphetamine pace and monumental developments, there is still room for a crazy little thing called love. In the first 24 hours I see a dozen brides in lush white gowns accompanied by their dusky-suited men, winding through mazes of slot machines and roulette tables, past pai gow games and crapshooters, the rustle of satin and beaded lace overpowered by the ding, ping and clank of quarter jackpots and the calls of wild croupiers (“Ten, ten, the big one on the end. Ten the hard way – tough ten …”).
I ask the ethereal blonde in charge of the door at the Tropicana’s tropical garden wedding chapel how many weddings they have lined up. “We have 19 or 20 today,” she tells me.
“Nineteen or 20!” I bellow. “What do you do – bring ‘em through on a conveyor?”
“No, no,” she whispers. “And we vacuum between each ceremony.” To prove it, she pulls open the chapel door so I can peek inside, where a woman behind a gurgling Hoover nods and smiles at me while she pushes the dust-sucking appliance up and back over the jungle-green carpet. It’s Lovestock Las Vegas style. And though its casino-owned cathedrals may be an odd location for the exchange of marriage vows, one can’t deny that this mutating wonderland still throbs with the vigor of creation.
Speaking of which, I get down to the Mirage just in time to see the volcano go off. The Mirage is an amplified version of the Tropicana – your basic Polynesian theme minus the tikis, macaws and other less subtle elements, and with a bunch of waterfalls, rare white tigers, bottlenose dolphins and a humongous fire-belching volcano added in.
Signs posted in front of the volcano carefully explain that “This volcano erupts every 15 minutes after dark until midnight, except in inclement weather. The red flashing light denotes inclement weather.” Inside, walking through the flower arbor entryway, I overhear one woman say, “It’s pretty here. It reminds me of Hawaii.” Her husband replies, “Yeah, it’s hot though, but not as hot as Detroit.”
Later, in search of a passable Chinese lunch, I hike down the sweltering Strip – it’s 102 at 1 p.m. – to the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino. But I get sidetracked looking at their automobile collection -- $50 million worth of glorious Model J Duesenbergs, not to mention 200 other gasoline-powered artifacts including Mussolini’s mistress’ 1939 Alfa Romeo, Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz, a purple Rolls-Royce town car once owned by Tsar Nicholas II, and the 1937 pale yellow Cord 812 in which cowboy movie star Tom Mix took the long wrong turn of his life.
The fifth-floor warehouse that houses the collection – complete with a catwalk and a uniformed guard – also has one of the Strip’s least crowded bars. If you can put up with being stared at by a mournful stuffed buffalo head while you drink your Singapore Sling, it’s a good quiet corner for cooling out. Downstairs, however, is quite a different scene.
There are bigger casinos and there are grander casinos, but there is certainly no spookier casino than the Imperial Palace. The main room looks like some smoky back corridor in the Forbidden City. Carved dragon heads with flaring nostrils and wagging forked tongues hang from the ornate rafters along with the topaz hemispheres housing the video surveillance cameras. Hauntingly hideous Lucite chandeliers complete the decor.
At any moment one expects the makeup-caked Dowager Empress, draped in silk brocade, trailed by eunuch courtiers, to emerge from the crowd and fling a pair of ruby dice the length of the craps table, raking the green felt with her crimson claws, and then stalk off in a royal sulk when the dice refuse to obey her hissed command for “boxcars!”
Unnerved and still hungry, I escape across the street to Caesars Palace, where I step aboard the black rubber motorized walkway that carries me to the entrance of the Forum Shops. (Why they don’t use an apostrophe in Caesars, as is the convention with possessive nouns, is another of those crazy Las Vegas conundrums.)
The Forum Shops at Caesars might have happened years ago, and on the other side of the world, if contemporary kitschmeister Jeff Koons could have collaborated with Third Reich architect Albert Speer. But like nuclear testing and rattlesnakes, it’s probably just as well that it is isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. Built to evoke a boulevard in ancient Rome, the Forum Shops is a collection of pricey boutiques and fashionable restaurants – Armani, Versace, Spago and (soon) Planet Hollywood.
In addition to the grandiose, ersatz classical architecture, this Dionysian temple of trade has three large fountains. While one has the usual winged horses, another features giant statues of Bacchus and his colleagues that every hour open their eyes and come to life, just like the palace gargoyles in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” – but these statues talk at you while a light and laser show takes place overhead. (For the life of me I can’t understand anything they say.) But don’t worry, the whole thing is over in 10 minutes or so, and then everyone gets back to shopping.
I view the spectacle from my seat at La Salsa, a Mexican fast food restaurant where I down three passionless tacos along with tepid black beans, and a margarita that is so cold my teeth itch for the next hour. Still, in defense of the Forum Shops, I should point out that it may be one of the few places on Earth where the seemingly incongruous combination of ancient Rome, soft tacos and laser beams make perfect sense. You’ll see what I mean when you get here.
Nowhere has reality been toyed with in odder fashion than in Las Vegas. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the Strip becomes a national monument. Lord knows this well-lit ribbon of commerce is a better representation of American spirit and ingenuity than, say, Mount Rushmore. And just when you think the parameters have been pushed about as far as possible, the city’s resourceful hoteliers come up with something even stranger – or at least bigger.
At present there are three new hallucinations-in-the-making along the Strip, all scheduled for completion over the next few months: the previously mentioned MGM Grand (opening Dec. 18), which will be the largest hotel in the world, with a 33-acre theme park and a seven-story replica of Oz’s Emerald City; Circus Circus’ Egyptian-themed Luxor, a glass pyramid with a facsimile of the Sphinx at its entrance (opening Oct. 15); and Mirage Resorts’ Treasure Island (opening Oct. 27), said to be inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name (Mr. Stevenson would no doubt be flattered).
As a means of securing their place in the nation’s mythology, Luxor and the MGM Grand have started a trend which promises to create a new Monument Valley. Late in the afternoon, I stand on the hot gravel median strip running down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard and watch a man in a cherry picker carve the sphinx’s face out of foam. Big white splinters slowly float to the ground as the man does his work. Once the hand contouring is complete, a synthetic plaster mixed with paint will be used to seal and color the surface. Nearby, the face of the MGM lion is being reproduced in a similar fashion.
Where this new technology for building heroic statues will take us is anybody’s guess. But I think we can be sure it is a trend casino builders will embrace with gusto.
To prevent the MGM Grand and Luxor from grabbing all the attention, word has it that Treasure Island plans to blow up the now defunct Dunes several blocks away as part of its opening celebration. I call their publicity office to confirm the story. “I’ve heard a rumor that you’re going to shoot off a cannon on one of the ships in the Treasure Island lagoon and blow up the Dunes.”
“That’s no rumor. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. But it’s a mock cannon. Some people have thought we were going to shoot off a real cannon.”
“Oh, I see,” I say. “So how are you going to blow up the Dunes?”
“A company called Controlled Demolition Incorporated is doing it.”
“I guess they’re professionals, huh?” I say.
“Yes, they are.”
I always tell Las Vegas novitiates that it’s a 24-hour city. “You want to get in and get out,” I recommend. Otherwise the crowds, the climate, the tuna melts and the sensory overload start to fry your central nervous system and you begin to feel like a logic bomb has been dropped into your braincase. Besides, if you gamble using my system, 24 hours can seriously excavate your bank account.
By evening my feet are blistered and I’m ready for the decent meal and light entertainment I set out in search of so long ago. At the Stardust I walk through the casino behind a fully uniformed bride and groom and their attendants. The bride is smoking a Virginia Slim and her soon-to-be husband is complaining about it vehemently. I don’t have a good feeling about this marriage. Stop your bickering, I want to say, stop in the name of love.
Instead I leave the wedding party and slip into Ralph’s Diner. I sit in a booth and study the menu, gulp ice water and gawk at the ’50s decor. Out the window are the pool, palms and, beyond, a two-story strip of rooms that look like they could date back to the ‘60s or earlier. For the first time I get a sense of what Vegas must have been like in the early days. Peering down the time tunnel, I glimpse its oasis appeal. Just for a moment I see Bugsy’s screwy, over-cooked vision.
Then all of a sudden the juke box comes alive. It’s Jerry Lee Lewis – “Cum honovah baby, whoo lotta shakin’ goin on.” All eight waitresses – tall and slender, short and plump, rhythm-filled and rhythm-less – form a line and start singing along with “The Killer.” They’ve got a whole choreography going too. Forget the smoke and lasers and the big production numbers: This is the best floor show in Vegas, and the only instance of flat-out fun I’ve witnessed since I got here.
When Jerry Lee quiets down, the waitresses go back to their duties. One walks over to me. “What’s it gonna be?” she asks.
“Meatloaf,” I answer, “with lotsa gravy.”
“Sounds good to me,” she says with a wink and walks off.