Viva Las Vegas (Image, 2000)

Bright lights city
Going to sing your song
Sing your song

Viva Las Vegas!
Viva
Viva
Viva Las Vegas!

–chorus from the late 1965 Las Vegas-based Hollywood film, “Viva Las Vegas!”

WHAMM! BOOM! “Excuse me, driver, is that a jackrabbit we just hit? (No response) WHOOSH!

Every morning, between two and three A.M., a small, white van packed with a dozen or so semi-comatose people who have just gotten off Amtrak’s Southwest Chief transcontinental train in Needles, California–the closest the train gets to southern Nevada looms through the desert night headed for Las Vegas.

Let me tell you: it is the only way to enter Las Vegas.

The distance between Needles, a small desert town near the California-Nevada border, is approximately 110 miles. The van, which is driven by an aging cowboy type who clearly yearns for the days when southern Nevada had no posted speed limit (outside of urban areas), gets you there–or so it seemed–in roughly an hour. I remember those days just barely. Thirty years before, I worked as a photojournalist at the National Park Service headquarters in Boulder City, Nevada, headquarters of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 40 miles outside of Las Vegas. Now I was going back to refresh my memory of the area, and to check out the so-called New Las Vegas, along with a Danish friend who would be flying in from New York later that day. And to have some fun. In the end, all of my/our strategic objectives were nicely achieved.

“Excuse me, driver, ‘when do you expect to touch down?” (No response)

So, there I was squeezed into this small van with–in my case–group of elderly and handicapped people who had schlepped all the way from Baltimore, Maryland, a full three days by rail, to make their biannual pilgrimage to the Lourdes of gambling–zooming through the dark, bumping around with a group of silent, apparently dead (or at least half-dead) strangers, one of whom has fallen asleep on my shoulder, visualizing my death in a fiery, end-over-end crash in the lonely Nevada night, cursing Amtrak, wondering why I hadn’t taken the plane from New York instead…

And then, suddenly, my cramped subsonic white van-rocket slips through an inky pass in the mountains overlooking Las Vegas Valley, and there I was, the vast, twinkling, neon carpet of Las Vegas before me–just as in the lusciously-photographed credits for the film “Leaving Las Vegas”–and as my fellow passenger-pilgrims slowly awakened, adjusting to the light now irradiating the inside of the van, including the slyly grinning driver I thought, this is the only way to enter Las Vegas. And it is.

Eventually, at the end of our pilgrimage to southern Nevada, we would wind up dancing with the ghosts of Elvis and Ann Margret and all the other fat cats by the same, sun-kissed shores of Lake Mead.

But first my Nordic friend and I had to do up Vegas. Base camp for our four day, southern Nevadan reconnaissance in force, we had decided, after flipping through The Time Out Guide to Las Vegas, would be the funky and well-sited Algiers Hotel. One of the last of the old ’50s-style “motor court” motels still in existence, the Algiers is located directly on the Strip–as Las Vegas Boulevard South, the heart of the city’s “modern” gambling district is called–catercorncr from the famed Circus Circus and a hop, skip, and jump away from the equally celebrated Rivera. As such, it seemed an ideal place for exploring the contrast between the so-called Old, Rat Pack, mobster-dominated Las Vegas and the new, putatively family-oriented one. Amongst other things, the Algiers features swag lamps, net to mention an old-style kidney-shaped pool, just like the ones Frank and Sammy and Dino used to sun themselves by the morning after they hit the lounges. It’s also very inexpensive. So it was decreed: we would stay at the Algiers.

It turned out to be a brilliant choice. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Algiers is the only place to stay in Las Vegas. It certainly is the most photogenic (as the photos I took may suggest). Today I still remember looking down from my motel room at the dream-like, vacant turquoise pool below, with the neon “VACANCY” sign reflecting off the surface, and the tall, supremely weird, obelisk-like Stratosphere hotel-casino rising in the distance.

Of course, Las Vegas has always been a weird place.

Noel Coward was quick to pick up on the city’s essential weirdness all the way back in 1955, when the popular English singer and playwright was imported by the gangsters who owned the Desert Inn to give their join some Continental class. “This is a fabulous, extraordinary madhouse,” Coward wrote in his diary. “All around is desert sand with pink and purple mountains on the horizon. All the hotels are luxe to the last degree. Even now, in the pre-Christmas slump. there arc myriads or people tearing away the fruit machines and gambling, gambling for twenty four hours a day. The lighting at night is fantastic: downtown where the Golden Nugget is and lesser dives, it is ablaze with variegated neon signs. The gangsters who run the places arc all urbane and charming. I had a feeling that if I opened a rival casino I would be battered to death with the utmost efficiency and dispatch but if I remained on my own as a highly paid entertainer that I could trust them all the way.”

Those gangsters began f1ooding into Las Vegas after World War II, following the lead of the celebrated New York mobster, Bugsy Siegel. Loaded with cash they had earned from bootlegging and black marketeering before and during the war, mobsters were ready to take over Vegas-hitherto a small desert town where legal gambling and prostitution had already been established–after V -E Day. All they needed was someone to lead the way.

That someone was Bugsy Siegel. Tall, handsome, fearless, and partnered by powerful underworld bosses, the New York gangster arrived in Las Vegas in the early 1940s, setting up shop at the El Cortez hotel-casino, then one of the classiest joints in town, now one of the oldest remnants of the Old Vegas. As portrayed by Warren Beatty in the 1992 film “Bugsy,” Siegel was a man obsessed with a vision of what Las Vegas could be. The name of his vision was The Fabulous Flamingo, an opulent hotel-casino Siegel founded with Mob money in 1946. Unfortunately, as viewers of the film will recall, the Fabulous Flamingo was dogged by cost overruns and got off to a flat-footed start, and Bugsy was subsequently murdered by his criminal overlords, who had lost patience with his spendthrift ways.

But Bugsy’s legacy, the Flamingo, soon started showing a large profit. The die was cast; within a few years syndicate money was pouring into Las Vegas from all directions and the once sleepy resort town’s first major building boom was underway. Between 1951 and 1958 11 major hotel casinos opened in Las Vegas, nine on the Strip and two Downtown: all but two were financed by underworld cash. Vegas had become a Mob city. As Noel Coward was quick to ascertain, everything that went on or went down in town–gambling, entertainment, prostitution, and the occasional hit–went down under the watchful eyes of the greedy, if well-decked out Mob bosses or their equally well decked-out and murderous henchmen. It would take twenty years before the FBI, local police, and state and federal investigators would be able to rid Las Vegas of their baleful influence.

It was also during this time that Frank Sinatra’s myth-enshrouded band of singers and entertainers known as the Rat Pack–including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford–performed in the famous Copa Room at the Sands, then later invaded other lounges around town as their Mob friends looked on with knowing amusement.

It was also during this time that Las Vegas also acquired the dubious distinctions of being the largest American city near an overground atomic test site. A mere 70 miles northwest of the city, the Nuclear Test Site was the scene of approximately 120 nuclear explosions during the 1950s. Most Las Vegans reveled in the notoriety of the bomb blasts–some casino openings were actually timed to coincide with the explosions, and there were festive “bomb picnics” at which locals downed “atomburgers” and gossiped about the latest beauty to be crowned Miss Atomic Blast (yes, there was such a thing)–until the not so benign effects of the radiation emanating from these blasts was belatedly revealed, and Uncle Sam took his atomic act underground.

A fun time, a swank time, a louche time, a weird time–that was the so-called Old Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, many of the locals and visitors who are old enough to remember those days ate nostalgic for them. For one thing, Las Vegas was extremely safe–if you don’t count nuclear radiation, as the publisher of Las Vegas Style, a local listings magazine noted in a recent issue. “Many feel that Vegas was a hell of a lot safer in the ’50s and ’60s. Robbers and down-and-dirty bad guys wouldn’t dare rob or attack a customer at a local casino. Truth is, they were afraid and rightly so; they knew what would happen to them if they were found out. Customers could walk to the parking lot at night and not worry about a thing. Casinos had no security lights covering the entire lot, or security guards at every walkway in those days.”

A half-century on, the gangsters who used to run the places are gone, replaced by corporate accountants, and so, thank goodness, is The Bomb. But the weird afterglow of those wild years remains.

Indeed Las Vegas–in addition to being America’s fastest growing city, with no less than 5,000-6,000 people moving to Clark County, every month in order to take advantage of the plentiful employment opportunities provided by the mushrooming casino industry, as well as the absence of state tax–is also, bless its contrarian heart, still America’s weirdest and more unpredictable city. And still, perhaps, has a soft spot for those selfsame gangsters.

The good citizens of Las Vegas proved this beyond a doubt in 1999 when–just as everybody thought the old Sin City was going all touchy-feely and theme parkish, and to the complete and utter horror of the local Chamber of Commerce which had labored so long to rid the city of its Mafia past Las Vegans elected as their major one Oscar Goodman, a local attorney best known for his successful defense of Frank Rosenthal and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, the mob don at the heart of Martin Scorcese’s violent, but gripping film Casino in which the brazen shyster reprised his dubious role in Las Vegas’s history by playing himself representing Rosenthal (who was played in the movie by Robert de Niro)…

A Mob lawyer as major! Talk about chutzpah! Talk about crazy! (Incidentally, it must be said, the same Goodman, who, despite his associations with known killers and the like has himself never been accused of breaking any laws, and who insisted—truthfully, it would appear–that he wanted to become mayor of Las Vegas in order to give something back to the city that made him rich and infamous, has since gone on to be an excellent mayor).

Of course, Las Vegas is crazy! How could it be otherwise in a city where the fundamental unit of activity remains all the “bring the family” trappings notwithstanding one google-eyed sucker inserting coin after coin into an inanimate machine and waiting, praying for three cherries (or the like) to line up?

I was deeply impressed with this basic truth about Las Vegas shortly after my arrival, when, after a fitful few hours of sleep in my wonderfully retro room at the Algiers, I traipsed across the Strip to check out the breakfast at Westward Ho!, a Western-theme style casino just up the road which, with over 1,000 rooms, prides itself on being the largest motel in the world. A sign outside had advertised a complete American breakfast–coffee, bacon and eggs, doughnuts, the works–for only $2.95–or 17 markka. Of course, bargain meals-and bargain rooms (the average price of a room at even the plusher casinos is less than $1OO)–are a traditional part of the Las Vegas hospitality formula. i.e. the means by which hungry passers-by are suckered into playing the slots.

There’s only one catch. I realized belatedly: first you have to find the damn Westward Ho! Cafe, which is located all the way to the rear of the vast–and I mean vast–place.

Then you have to go there. This means having to walk past rows of people (suckers) of all ages, glommed to slots, listening to crazed inner voices whispering, muttering, or shouting: “Come on,’,” “I’m your lucky baby,” “What the heck, take a chance,” “This is PAYDAY Mac! [or Matti],” and so on. Suddenly, you are lost in a new dimension where there is no time–partly because of the absence of clocks, a deliberate ploy by the casino operators to make you forget about time–a radically different, and someone disorienting sense of space. Here and there, as you walk along, a machine pays out with a jingle and a bang, but most of the players remain completely impassive except for their perpetually pivoting arms.

This–an army of robots glued to the slots, stretching as far as the eye can see, a scene that we would later encounter in gameroom after gameroom, casino after casino–is the true face of Las Vegas. This has always been the true face of Las Vegas, all the blather about the new, family-oriented Vegas notwithstanding.

And it is mostly blather. Although there are more things for children to see and do–the Magical Empire haunted underground empire at Caesars Palace is said to be popular with youngsters, and the Ethel M Chocolates Factory has proven to be a hit (don’t think you would catch the Rat Pack snacking there)–how much can there be for them to see and do when the “Main Event,” i.e., gambling, is still (thankfully) off-limits to them? Or as Time Out put it. “Let’s face it. Las Vegas is not a child-friendly place. How friendly can it be when kids aren’t allowed on the casino floor, which is where most people spend most of their time?”) The much-mooted attempts by various hotel-casinos to attract the family market. which began in the early 1980s, have turned out to be largely half-hearted, with some casinos definitely moving in the opposite direction.”

What really distinguishes the gleaming, theme-parkish New Vegas from its more raffish older incarnation is the astonishing size and dimensions of the place, especially the number and variety of slot machines that take up the majority of their casino f1oors. Even at the plushier new mega-casinos which gave gone up during the building boom of the past decade–a period that has seen no fewer than 23 hotel-casinos rise up along the Strip, making Las Vegas the site of 15 or of 16 oft he world’s largest hotels–it’s the slots that pay the rent. And there are a lot of them.

At last count, according to Las Vegas Style, a local promotion-minded rag, the state of Nevada boasted no less than 183, 064 slot machines at its manifold gambling sites, with about a quarter of those located at the Strip alone, or roughly one slot machine for every hotel room.

All told, the magazine breathlessly continued, those nickel dime, collar, etc., “one-armed bandits” accounted for no less than an aggregate win of $1.9 billion for the Strip megacasinos in 1999, and a S4.2 billion win for the great Clark County area “casino community,” or a little more than two thirds of the total that all the estimated 30 million odd visitors to the southern Nevadan county lost on gambling, far overshadowing what they dropped on blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, keno, sports, betting, and other available games of chance.

To be sure, the heart of Las Vegas is still–and always will be–three spinning cherries.

Breakfast was fine, once I finally found the Westward Ho! Cafe: bacon. Eggs, two doughnuts, and coffee–except that all the seats faced the gaming area. I also couldn’t help but notice the heavy security presence at the casino. Two armed security men walked by my scat within five minutes of my sitting down to eat. Not exactly good for the digestion. In the old “Casino” days, those guards would more than likely have been wearing sharkskin suits with small bulges in the shoulder area. Today they wear police uniforms and very visible sidearms and ammunition. The cops, whose main function is to stave off the robberies that frequently take place on the Strip (although I personally saw no evidence of them), are also needed at that early hour of the day, as some of the more obsessive gamblers who have been working the slots all night begin to crack somewhat like the hapless slot player in the celebrated “Twilight Zone” episode who, after reluctantly resisting his wife’s entreaty to play, becomes slowly enslaved by the voices emanating from one especially seductive one armed bandit, which takes his last dollar and then “deliberately” shuts itself down, whereupon he physically attacks the machine.

Soon enough, those spinning cherries, with their concomitant jingles and bangs, would also envelop me.

Thus nutritionally empowered, I pedaled outside, out of Westward Ho!, with its 1,000 rooms and 3.000 slot machines, and onto the Strip. As I strode northward, on this, my initial reconnaissance, I stopped to gaze at each of the mega-casinos rising heavenward, each seemingly more garish than the other, each vying for the attention, and the dollars, of the parade of visitors which had already begun to form up, many of whom, I noticed, wore money belts and were ready for gaming action!

So I strode into the blinding Nevada sunlight., past Circus Circus, and its massive, wonderfully inane Lucy the Clown sign, waiting for the night to come so he could show oil his 1,232 fluorescent lamps, 14,498 incandescent bulbs and over two kilometers of neon tubing…Past the venerable, classic-looking “Stardust,” where “casino” was filmed, as well as the ineffable “Showgirl”‘ was that Elizabeth Berkley running out of the premises in a gold lamé dress and Jumping into a Jaguar, driven by her gigolo-in-waiting?…Past the garish, $430 million, pirate-themed Treasure Island, where every evening crowds gather LO watch two fully rigged ships, a pirate galleon and a British frigate, play out a mock sea battle.

Finally, I stopped in front of the titanic, shimmering Mirage, the $730 million tropical themed hotel, opened in 1989 by “visionary” gambling entrepreneur Steve Wynn, who is considered godfather of The New Las Vegas. The Mirage is perhaps best known as the home of the “secret garden” of Siegfried and Roy, where the veteran Germany illusionists, who are a Las Vegas landmark, magically make a covey of white tigers disappear several times a day right before the very eyes of thousands of astonished visitors and prospective gamblers. It also is the site of an authentic looking and sounding volcano that calls attention to the casino by erupting at regular intervals at night. The tropical atrium inside the entrance is filled with 60 foot palm trees, waterfalls, and lush foliage. There is also a 20,000 gallon fish tank behind the reservation desk to keep you entertained while you check in.

In front of the Mirage there is also a hideous “landmark” sculpture of Siegfried and Roy and one of their tigers set amongst fake quartz crystals. In front of the sculpture. on that first eye-opening day, a somber-looking priest was collecting money for the homeless. The expensive shoes give him away: that was no priest, I said to myself. I asked the “priest” whether I could take his picture. He nodded somberly. Carefully putting the placard advertising his “homeless fund” perpendicular to the camera so it could not be photographed, just in case the photo ended up in the wrong hands. Careful operator.

I felt dizzy. It was time to head back to the reassuringly retro, tiger-free, pirate-free sanctuary of the Algiers. Besides, my friend from New York was due any minute.

And sure enough. when I got back, there he was, standing in the middle of the motel’s neon-lit doorway, Jacob was ready to rock–

More importantly. Jacob was ready to eat. So was I.

The buffet dinner at Circus Circus. across the street, seemed a good bet. Off we went, nodding at lucky the Clown, who by now was in his full neon regalia. Striding through the first floor gaming room, we found the massive downstairs dining room without too much difficulty. Then, we had to wait to be seated, a strange, very American, remarkably efficient mass production ballet involving people waving pennants to each other from one end of the massive space to the other when a table became available and the next waiting party zooming into the just vacated spot that reminded me vaguely of a U.S. aircraft carrier in operation: I swear I could hem one of the buffet people say into her walky talky: NEXT PARTY CLEARED TO EAT AT TABLE 267, GO GO GO!

So, after a ten minute wait, were guided to our table. Jacob and I were the only ones wearing black. Everyone else was wearing baseball caps and university sweaters. We stuck out, like the Blues Brothers at a gigantic family picnic. Of course. you can’t help
But stick out when you’re seated across the table from a six foot, eight inch bald man. We could sense the Sears & Roebuck-adorned families at the adjoining tables staring at us. No matter. Jacob, who is used to the attention by now, was happy. He was eating. Finally, after three servings of roast beef, two of turkey, and two (I think) of the better-than-average shrimp tempura, Jacob pronounced himself sated. The dinner buffet at the Circus Circus, Jacob and I can attest, is an excellent buy. As well as an aerodynamic experience.

Of course, the moment you emerge from the dining room you are surrounded by slot machines, waiting, beckoning, pleading with you to play. “Come on, Gordy!” one with Elvis on top whispered to me. “Hey, I’m your lucky baby!” said a neighbor with a King Kong logo. “What the heck, take a chance on me!” intoned another.

What the heck, I said to myself. I decided to play. What the heck. It’s Vegas. What’s Vegas without playing the slots? I tried one dollar-a-play machine, immediately lost ten dollars. I then decided to try my luck on another machine. Jacob, who frowns upon gambling. wanted no part of it. He offered to watch. “I’ll watch,” he said.

Machine #2 quickly sucked up another fifteen dollars. Jacob shook his head. “Let’s go,” he said. But I wanted to stay. I sensed something different about this machine. Sure enough, after losing another ten dollars, I was suddenly I was up by twenty. Then I was up by forty. Down ten. Up again to fifty five. Down. Up. Up! Down. Up. Finally, after about twenty minutes, I decided to cash out. I had won sixty dollars–all in twenty minutes–or so I thought. I had become lost in the Vegas space-time dimension. Jacob adjusted his g]asses and patiently corrected me. “You were playing that machine for an hour and a half” he said. I had b(‘~n mesmerized It would not be the last time.

Time to cruise. Back we strode–and when you’re accompanying a man of Jacob’s size (he is six foot eight, quite tall for a Dane) the only walking option open to you is to stride, unless you want to be left behind–into the glowing, Vegas night. Up the Strip; past the glittering Stardust, with its cinematic associates–hey, wasn’t that Robert de Niro jumping into a Thunderbird? We passed Treasure Island, where a pirate galleon and a British frigate were playing out their mock sea battle with cannons blazing, masts toppling, powder kegs exploding, and stunt actors leaping into the moonlit lagoon to the delight of a crowd of adults and children.

Finally, we came to perhaps the most Over The Top mega-casino of them all, the 2,500 room, multi-pillared, Roman Empire-themed Caesar’s Palace. Amongst other things, Caesar’s features Pompeian fantasy suites in its hotel annex, and, in the casino area, a high-stakes baccarat pit where wagers of $100,000 a hand arc not uncommon, as well as a $500 slot with a $1 million payout that uses gold-plated tokens.

But we weren’t interested in gambling. We wanted to shop. So Jacob and I ducked into the fabulous Caesar’s Forum Shop, the soaringly high ceilinged, multi-shop-lined, Rodeo Drive of Las Vegas. More than just a mall, the Forum Shops claims to offer an experience.

And it does. As The Time Out Guide to Las Vegas (which I wholeheartedly recommend) tellingly puts it: “Costumed staff. be-pillared decor, ever-changing skies, huge fountains, lush fountains–it’s enough to make you believe they really did have chichi stopping in Ancient Rome.” The Gap, Banana Republic, DKNY, Diesel, Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, name the store–it’s there. Shopping is a significant dimension of the New Vegas–all the major mega-casinos offer their own shopping arcades, but none of them compares to Caesars Forum. Let me tell you. You can’t walk through the Forum Shops without buying something. Myself. I decided to buy some sneakers. I tried on a pair at Roman Sandals (or something like that), while Jacob hovered outside, drawing stares from the more average-looking shoppers.

The culmination of the Forum Shops experience is something called Atlantis, a huge, roaring, light-filled “anamatronic” show which is located at one juncture of the seemingly endless arcade, and which purports to tell the story of the making and demise of the mythic undersea civilization. Film screens flash, life-like looking dolls appear and disappear, giant flames roar, realistic boulders move. It’s an eyeful and an earful. Then the names die down, and the multiple film screens fade to black. And the browsers and shoppers who have been ooh-aahing for twenty minutes dutifully move on and continue with their shopping.

Jacob and I decided that it was time to leave. We had had our fill of the New Las Vegas, at least for the moment. It was time to get down and dirty. Time to go to a strip show.

Now, I had never been to a strip show before in my life, but I very much wanted to go then. Sure enough, there are a number of Strip shows in Las Vegas, places where you can get down and dirty, chintzy vestiges of the Old Vegas. Our cab driver knew just the place: the Kit Kat Club, all the way over on Industrial Road.

So off we went to the Kit Kat Club, an all-nude strip club on the far side of the Strip. Sleazy place, no question about it. I enjoyed it immensely.

Afterwards we headed back to the Algiers and the comforting darkness of the retro Algiers Bar and our campy room, with its shag carpet and the neon sign flashing in the window, just like in a movie.

The next morning, rather than head out immediately onto the Strip, I decided to hang back at the Algiers’ cozy restaurant in order to write and, perhaps, commune with the ghosts of the almost palpable ghost of the Old Las Vegas. It’s the sort of place where you can see some old-lime gangster types having an early breakfast after a long night working the lounges. The photos on the walls of the restaurant attest to the motel’s Old Vegas credentials. There was one of Howard Hughes, the mad magnate and former aviation hero who descended on Las Vegas in 1966, turned the Desert Inn into his personal, light-free, heavily-guarded fortress, and spent the next three years holed up there, buying up half the town before leaving as suddenly and as mysteriously as he came. There, in another corner of the half-deserted restaurant was a fading photo of Marlene Dietrich, the actress-singer whose appearance at the old Sands Hotel helped to legitimize the Strip back in the 1940s. And so on. The whole history of Old Las Vegas is on those walls.

Afterwards I headed over to the kidney-shaped, turquoise pool and sunned myself, feeling every inch like Dean Martin the morning after a long night sometime back in 1058. Only my friend Jacob’s Martian-like appearance when he came over to pick me up for the day’s action disturbed the wonderful illusion.

And so it went for four days. Relax by the pool by day, then head out Strip by night. By the end of our Nevadan sortie we had sampled the wares–and the continually freshened air of most of the huge, garish, “family oriented” casinos. Of the latter the most noteworthy were the $650 million, Egyptian-themed Luxor, with its massive black pyramid and laser beam shooting skywards from its apex and looming Sphinx-replica squatting at the entrance, and “inclinators,” or high-grade escalators, taking guests to their rooms. With their interior balconies facing out onto the hieroglyph-adorned, slot-filled casino area (at least one bankrupted gambler has taken a suicide dive), and its very un-Egyptian mezzanine full of shops), the just-opened Venetian, billionaire William Weidner’s titanic, surprisingly authentic 63-acre homage to the Italian city, complete with all impressively lifesize Grand Canal and singing gondola drivers, gilded bathrooms, and 100 table games and 2,500 (count ‘em) slots; and most striking of all, Steve Wynn’s latest and most ambitious creation, the Bellagio, a $l.8 billion, 1,000 room complex featuring a nine-acre lake, choreographed fountain and light shows, and an expensive gallery of modern art prove that the New Las Vegas is not just about gambling.

The sheer size and dimensions of these places simply must been seen to be believed. I had the feeling as we wandered along the Strip, lurching from one strobe-lit monster mega-casino to another, that we were strolling around a kind of architectural Jurassic Park. Will the behemoth hotel-casinos become actual dinosaurs? Will people tire of the special effects and, most of all, the gambling? Already at least one writer, David Thomsen, the noted English film critic. and author of the recently published In Nevada, has suggested that Las Vegas had best find a new form of entertainment to replace traditional gambling, lest it eventually extinct.

Nevertheless, from what we could tell, the New Las Vegas was as popular as ever. And the kids we saw, toting the toys their parents had bought for them with their slot winnings, seemed to be happy, too–although to me, the proximity of children to gambling seemed to make the place seem all the weirder. If Vegas used to be a tightly controlled (by the Mob), slick, adults-only resort, it is now a full blast carnival–and, at least because of its outlandish architecture, truly one of the wonders of the modern day world.

Perhaps the most striking piece of Las Vegas architecture is the Stratosphere, the 1,149 foot casino with a revolving restaurant on top that looms over the Strip. My friend and I decided to take our last dinner there. From the spinning restaurant, we could see Vegas, in all its unplanned, neon glory, stretching far out into the desert night. We peered down, as we spun around, trying to Spot the Algiers. Sure enough. there it was. And there was Lucky the Clown. And the Stardust. And the MGM Grand. And New York, New York, and all the other glistening monsters. I ordered a Krakatoa, a dangerous rum concoction which I imbibe once every few years when I am in the proper gonzo mood. Just imagine, I thought as the rum began to take effect, as I gazed out up on the strange, twinkling tapestry, forty years ago this would have been the perfect place to have a “bomb picnic.”

Afterwards I played the slots one last time. I actually won $300–enough to pay for our hotel, and a midnight feast at New York, New York.

There was one more Old Vegas sort of thing we had to do before we left town. We had to go to the Liberace Museum, the museum dedicated to the amazing accomplishments–and accoutrements–of the singer-pianist they called Mr. Showmanship and a popular attraction with young visitors and old. The stage jewelry. the glitzy suits, the rhinestone encrusted pianos, the gold Rolls Royce. They’re all there in their fabulous, blinding Liberacian glory for the enlightenment of both young and old. Liberace’s star-spangled, rhinestone-encrusted hot pants made a deep impression on me.

Then we jumped into a cab and sped out into the desert.

And the next night, there we were, communing with the ghosts of Elvis and Ann Margret by the shores of Lake Mead, where, as a hippieish young Park Service photojournalist, my career, and my consciousness, had been ignited all those many years before.

And then the night came on and we looked up at the massive, clean sugar on velvet sky, looking just the way I remembered it. And in the distance we could see the planes, one after another, heading into McCarran Airport, bringing thousands of modern day pilgrims and their children to wander along the Strip and tear away at the merciless fruit machines.

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