• U.S.

Las Vegas, U.S.A.

24 minute read
Kurt Andersen

How can a large-spirited American not like Las Vegas, or at least smile at the notion of it? On the other hand, how can any civilized person not loathe Las Vegas, or at least recoil at its relentlessness?

How can you not love and hate a city so crazily go-go that three different, colossally theme-park-like casino-hotels (the $375 million Luxor, Steve Wynn’s $475 million Treasure Island and now the $1 billion MGM Grand, the largest hotel on earth and the venue last weekend for Barbra Streisand’s multimillion- dollar return to live, paid performing) have opened on the Strip in just the past three months? How can you not love and hate a city so freakishly democratic that at a hotel called the Mirage, futuristic-looking infomercial star Susan Powter and a premodern Mennonite family can pass in a corridor, neither taking note of the other? How can you not love and hate a city where the $100,000 paintings for sale at an art gallery appended to Caesars Palace (Patron: “He’s a genius.” Gallery employee: “Yes, he’s so creative.” Patron: “It gives me goose bumps”) are the work of Anthony Quinn?

In no other peacetime locale are the metaphors and ironies so impossibly juicy, so ripe for the plucking. And there are always new crops of redolent, suggestive Vegas facts, of which any several — for instance: the Mirage has a $500-a-pull slot-machine salon; the lung-cancer death rate here is the second highest in the country; the suicide rate and cellular-phone usage are the highest — constitute a vivid, up-to-date sketch of the place.

But it used to be that while Las Vegas was unfailingly piquant and over the top, it was sui generis, its own highly peculiar self. Vegas in none of its various phases (ersatz Old West outpost in the 1930s and ’40s, gangsters-meet- Hollywood high-life oasis in the ’50s and ’60s, uncool polyester dump in the ’70s and early ’80s) was really an accurate prism through which to regard the nation as a whole.

Now, however, as the city ricochets through its biggest boom since the Frank-and-Dino Rat Pack days of the ’50s and ’60s — the tourist inflow has nearly doubled over the past decade, and the area remains among America’s fastest growing — the hypereclectic 24-hour-a-day fantasy-themed party machine no longer seems so very exotic or extreme. High-tech spectacle, convenience, classlessness, loose money, a Nikes-and-T-shirt dress code: that’s why immigrants flock to the U.S.; that’s why some 20 million Americans (and 2 million foreigners) went to Vegas in 1992. “Las Vegas exists because it is a perfect reflection of America,” says Steve Wynn, the city’s most important and interesting resident. “You say ‘Las Vegas’ in Osaka or Johannesburg, anywhere in the world, and people smile, they understand. It represents all the things people in every city in America like. Here they can get it in one gulp.” There is a Jorge Luis Borges story called The Aleph that describes the magical point where all places are seen from every angle. Las Vegas has become that place in America, less because of its own transformation in the past decade than because of the transformation of the nation. Las Vegas has become Americanized, and, even more, America has become Las Vegasized.

With its ecologically pious displays of white tigers and dolphins — and no topless show girls — the almost tasteful Mirage has profoundly enlarged and updated the notion of Vegas amusement since it opened in 1989. The general Las Vegas marketing spin today is that the city is fun for the whole family. It seems to be an effective p.r. line, but it’s an idea that the owners of the new Luxor and MGM Grand may have taken too much to heart.

Inside the Luxor is a fake river and barges, plus several huge “participatory adventure” areas, an ersatz archaeological ride, as well as a two-story Sega virtual-reality video-game arcade. The joint has acres of casino space — but the slots and blackjack tables are, astoundingly, quite separate from and mostly concealed by the Disneyesque fun and games. The bells and whistles are more prominent and accessible than the casino itself, and are not merely a cute, quick way to divert people as they proceed into the fleecing pen. The MGM Grand has gone further: it spent hundreds of millions of | dollars extra to build an adjacent but entirely separate amusement park, cramming seven rides (three involving fake rivers) and eight “themed areas” onto 33 acres, less than a 10th the size of Disney World.

The smart operators, such as Wynn, understand the proper Vegas meaning of family fun: people who won’t take vacations without their children now have places to stick the kids while Mom and Dad pursue the essentially unwholesome act of squandering the family savings on cards and dice. “It’s one thing for the place to be user-friendly to the whole family because the family travels together,” Wynn says. “It’s quite a different thing to sit down and dedicate creative design energy to build for children. I’m not, ain’t gonna, not interested. I’m after Mom and Dad.” Wynn’s dolphins are just a ’90s form of free Scotch and sodas, a cheap, subtler means of inducing people to leave their room and lose money.

But even if Vegas is not squeaky clean, even if its raison d’etre remains something other than provoking a childlike sense of wonder, the place is no longer considered racy or naughty by most people. It seems incredible today that a book in the ’60s about the city was called Las Vegas, City of Sin? The change in perception is mainly because Americans’ collective tolerance for vulgarity has gone way, way up. Just a decade ago, “hell” and “damn” were the most offensive words permitted on broadcast TV; today the colloquialisms “butt” and “sucks” are in daily currency on all major networks. Characters on Fox sitcoms and MTV cartoon shows snicker about their erections, and the stars of NYPD Blue can call each other “asshole.” Look at Montel Williams and Geraldo. Listen to Howard Stern.

In Vegas, Wynn actually gets a little defensive about his nudity-free shows (“Hey, I’m not afraid of boobies”), the streets are hookerless, and the best-known Vegas strip club, the Palomino, lies discreetly beyond the city limits. Meanwhile, at 116 Hooters restaurants in 30 states, the whole point is the battalion of bosomy young waitresses in tight-fitting tank tops who exist as fantasy objects for a clientele of high-testosterone frat boys and young bubbas. No wonder middle Americans find the idea of bringing kids along to Vegas perfectly appropriate. How ironic that two decades after Hunter Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, countercultural ripple effects have so raised the American prudishness threshold that Las Vegas is considered no more unseemly than any other big city.

Sixteen years ago, Nevada was the only place in America where one could legally go to a casino, and there were just fourteen state lotteries. As recently as 1990, there were just three states with casinos, not counting those on Indian reservations; now there are nine. Lotteries have spread to 37 states. Indiana and five Mississippi River states have talked themselves into allowing gambling on riverboats — hey, it’s not immoral, it’s, you know, historical — and such floating casinos may soon be moored off Boston and in Philadelphia as well. Sensible, upright Minnesota, of all places, now has more casinos than Atlantic City. With only one state, Hawaii, retaining a ban on gambling, and with cable-TV oligarch John Malone interested in offering gambling on the information superhighway, Vegas doesn’t seem sinful, just more entertaining and shameless.

And fortunate, especially in this age of taxophobia and budget freezes. The state of Nevada now derives half its public funds from gaming-related revenues — from voluntary consumption taxes, nearly all paid by out-of-staters. Nevadans pay no state income or inheritance tax. To craven political leaders elsewhere, this looks pretty irresistible: no pain, all gain, vigorish as fiscal policy. A new report from the Center for the Study of the States concluded, however, that “gambling cannot generally produce enough tax revenue to significantly reduce reliance on other taxes or to solve a serious state fiscal problem.”

One of the defining features of Las Vegas has been its 24-hour commercial culture, which arose as a corollary to 24-hour casinos. Along with the University of Nevada’s basketball team, it is the great source of civic pride. It is the salient urban feature first mentioned by Harvard-educated physician Mindy Shapiro about her adopted city: “You can buy a Cuisinart or drop off your dry cleaning at 4 in the morning!” The comic magician Penn Jillette, who was performing at Bally’s last week, marvels, “There are no good restaurants, but at least they’re open at 3 in the morning.”

But Las Vegas’ retail ceaselessness is no longer singular. These days around-the-clock restaurants and supermarkets are unremarkable in hyperconvenient America, and the information superhighway, even in its current embryonic state, permits people everywhere to consume saucy entertainment — whether pay-per-view pornography or dating by modem with strangers — at any time of the day or night.

Las Vegas was created as the world’s first experiential duty-free zone, a place dedicated to the anti-Puritan pursuit of instant gratification — no waiting, no muss, no fuss. In the ’30s, Nevada was famous for its uniquely quick and easy marriage (and divorce) laws. And although a certain kind of demented Barbie and Ken still make it a point to stage their weddings in Las Vegas (158,470 people married there in 1992, a majority of them out-of- staters), it is now an atavistic impulse, since the marriage and divorce laws in the rest of the U.S. have long since caught up with Nevada’s pioneering looseness.

When instant gratification becomes a supreme virtue, pop culture follows. Siegfried and Roy, the ur-Vegas magicians (imagine, if you dare, a hybrid of Liberace, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Copperfield and Marlin Perkins) who perform 480 shows a year in their own theater at the Mirage, don’t seem satisfied unless every trick is a show-stopper and every moment has the feel of a finale. In front of the new Treasure Island is a Caribbean-cum- Mediterranean faux village fronting a 65-ft.-deep “lagoon” in which a full-scale British man-of-war and pirate vessel every 90 minutes stage a battle with serious fires, major explosions, 22 actors, stirring music, a sinking ship. It is very impressive, completely satisfying — and gives spectators pretty much everything in 15 minutes, for free, that they go to certain two-hour, $65-a-seat Broadway musicals for.

In the ’50s and ’60s Vegas impresarios took a dying strain of vaudeville and turned it into a highly particular Vegas style. Gamblers from Duluth and Atlanta came to see only-in-Vegas entertainments: Sinatra, Streisand, stand-up comedians, the trash rococo of Liberace, both flaunting and denying his gayness; hot-ticket singer-dancers like Ann-Margret; and shows with whiffy themes that existed as mere pretexts for bringing out brigades of suggestively costumed young women jiggling through clouds of pastel-colored smoke as overamped pop tunes blared. It was cheesy glamour, to be sure, but it was rare and one of a kind.

Precisely when did Vegas values start leaching deep into the American entertainment mainstream? Was it when Sammy Davis Jr. got his own prime-time variety show on NBC in 1966, or a year later, when both Jerry Lewis and Joey Bishop had network shows running? Or in the summer of 1969, when Elvis Presley staged his famous 14-show-a-week comeback gig in Vegas?

Whenever the change began, American show business is today so pervasively Vegasy that we hardly notice anymore. The arty, sexy French-Canadian circus Cirque du Soleil had its breakthrough run in Manhattan before decamping this year to Las Vegas, and neither venue seemed unnatural. Big rock-‘n’-roll concerts nowadays are often as much about wowie-kazowie production values — giant video walls, neon, fireworks, suggestively costumed young men and women, clouds of pastel-colored smoke — as music. Michael Jackson’s highly stylized shtick — the cosmetics, the wardrobe, the not-quite-dirty bumps and grinds, the Liberace-like gender-preference coyness — is so Vegas that the city embraced him at every turn: a Jackson impersonator is a star of the Riviera’s long-running show Splash; Jackson plays a spaceship commander in one of Sega’s new virtual-reality video games at the Luxor; and Siegfried and Roy got the real Jackson to compose and sing their show-closing theme song, Mind Is the Magic. And Madonna? Her just finished Girlie Show world tour, with its Vegas-style dancers and meretricious Vegas-style lighting, is precisely as pseudosexy in 1993 as shows at the Flamingo were in 1963 — decadence lite.

Back when the Rat Pack ruled, Jackie Mason played Vegas and Edward Albee was on Broadway. Today essentially idea-free spectacle — The Phantom of the Opera, Cats — dominates New York City’s so-called legitimate theater, and stand-up comedy is ubiquitous. In the ’90s, Friars Club comedians like Mason have hit Broadway shows, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical Starlight Express has been permanently installed in the showroom of the Las Vegas Hilton. The crossbreeding seems complete.

Penn and Teller are ultra-show-biz-savvy New York intellectuals whose act is an ironic deconstruction of magic shows in addition to being a very impressive magic show (see box). They first played Vegas a year ago. Penn Jillette’s fondness for Vegas, like every hip baby boomer’s, is sweet-and-sour, simultaneously bemused and fond. Of a traditional Vegas variety show at Bally’s called Jubilee, he rants, “In the first five minutes they destroy temples and sink a giant model of the Titanic — there are 80 topless dancing women while the Titanic sinks, blast furnaces spewing fire. You look around you, and every single person in the crowd perceives it ironically. Every single person in the show perceives it ironically. It seems like everybody in Vegas nowadays is too hip to be in Vegas.”

Serious connoisseurs of the surrealistically kitschy visit Graceland Wedding Chapel, where Norm Jones, the Elvis impersonator in residence, is both pleased and bewildered by the sudden popularity of the wedding ceremonies he performs for $250. Heavy-metal star Jon Bon Jovi got married there in 1989; Phil Joanou, director of the U2’s concert film Rattle and Hum, was not only married at the Graceland Chapel but played a tape of his wedding onstage every night of the band’s last American tour. In December 1992 three members of Def Leppard showed up at the door, one to get married and two to renew their vows.

Last year 8 million of the city’s 22 million visitors were under 40, and nearly half of those were under 30. When Soul Asylum, as part of the MTV- sponsored 1993 Alternative Nation tour, landed at its last U.S. stop in Las Vegas, the band deviated from its song list to belt out Vegasy tunes like Mandy and Rhinestone Cowboy. Luke Perry and Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills, 90210, huge Tom Jones fans, recently flew to Vegas to see their hero sing, and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers went to Las Vegas to see and meet Julio Iglesias. “Suddenly the same things I was doing five years ago that were considered pure corn are now perceived to be in,” says Wayne Newton. “It’s a wonderful satisfaction to finally be hip.”

Long before this generation of young hipsters started reveling in the Vegas gestalt, certain intellectuals were taking seriously the city’s no-holds- barred urban style. It was 25 years ago that a little-known architect and professor, Robert Venturi, returned to Yale with his two dozen student acolytes after a remarkable 10-day expedition to Las Vegas, where they stayed at the Stardust. His influential 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, immediately made Venturi famous as a heretical high-culture proponent for the ad hoc, populist design of the Strip — the giant neon signs, the kitschy architectural allusions to ancient Rome and the Old West, any zany kind of skin-deep picturesqueness. And a decade later, the fringe tendency became a full-fledged movement: Post-Modernism.

Today almost every big-city downtown has new skyscrapers that endeavor to look like old skyscrapers. Almost every suburb has a shopping center decorated with phony arches, phony pediments, phony columns. Two decades after Venturi proposed, with the intellectual’s standard perverse quasi-affection, that Vegas could be a beacon for the nation’s architecture, his manifesto had transformed America. Forget the Bauhaus and your house — it is the Vegas aesthetic, architecture as grandiose cartoon, that has become the American Establishment style. And so the splendidly pyramidal new Luxor and cubist new MGM Grand (both the work of local architect Veldon Simpson) do not seem so weird, since equally odd buildings now exist all over the place.

As it was being created in the ’50s, Vegas’ Strip was a mutant kind of American main drag, an absurdly overscaled Main Street for cars instead of people. Everywhere else in the country the shopping mall was replacing the traditional downtown. But now the Strip in Las Vegas has come full circle, its vacant stretches filling in with so many new hotels and casinos that what had been the ultimate expression of car culture has masses of tourists walking from Bally’s to Caesars to Treasure Island, and from the Luxor to the Excalibur to the MGM Grand. The Strip is virtually an old-fashioned Main Street.

Meanwhile malls, the fin-de-siecle scourge of genuine Main Streets, have become preposterous Vegasy extravaganzas themselves — themed, entertainment driven, all-inclusive, overwhelming. The West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, with its 119 acres of stores and restaurants and the world’s largest indoor amusement park, pulled in 22 million people in 1992, as many as visited Las Vegas; and the 16-month-old Mall of America outside Minneapolis, with only 96 acres of money-spending opportunity and America’s largest indoor amusement park, claimed 40 million visitors in its first year.

Yet even as the rest of America has become more and more like Las Vegas, life for Vegas residents as well as visitors is more thoroughly sugar-frosted with fantasy than anywhere else. “Our customers want a passive experience,” says Wynn, “but romantic.” Such as his ersatz South Seas restaurant, Kokomos (“Kokomos — this is better than Hawaii. There’s no place in the South Pacific where the light is so perfect, so beautiful”). At the Mediterranean- themed resort Wynn envisions for the new Dunes site down the Strip, he has talked of creating a kind of raffish virtual Nazism: at a casino-restaurant modeled on Rick’s casino-restaurant in Casablanca, scenes from the movie would seamlessly blend with live actors playing Bogart and the movie’s other characters among the paying customers.

The new Las Vegas has even fabricated a bit of ersatz old Las Vegas: along with its Oriental- and Bahamian-themed suites, the MGM offers rooms themed according to a decorator’s Vegas ideal. The Sands, one of the last intact artifacts of the Rat Pack golden era, is being remodeled to within an inch of its life. “We’re going to theme, definitely,” the hotel’s p.r. spokeswoman said as work was beginning late last year. “But we don’t know what the themes are yet.”

Even civilians must theme. At the Lakes, an upscale housing complex, the developer has built a whole tract of Gothic minicastles, one next to the other. Mountain Spa, a high-end resort and corporate retreat now being plotted on 640 acres in the city’s northwest, will have a “Mediterranean feel — more of a St. Tropez feel than a Mexican-American feel,” says developer Jack Sommer. “I have no trouble deviating from the established regional architecture. This is Las Vegas.”

The standard Las Vegas development is, like so many others throughout the country, fenced and gated — and each free-standing middle-class house is in most cases walled off from its neighbors. Such fortress domesticity, says University of Nevada at Las Vegas political scientist Bill Thompson, “makes it hard to see your neighbors. You don’t even see your neighbors to say hi. A lot of people came here to start over, to change, and they don’t want people attachments. Or rather they want to make their own people attachments, not to be thrown in with people just because their house is next door.”

The problem with immersing so completely into one’s own virtual reality is solipsism, a kind of holistic selfishness; other people don’t matter unless they are players in one’s own themed fantasy. It costs $150 a month just to keep a third of an acre green, and so the per capita water usage in Las Vegas is a gluttonous 343 gal. per day, compared with 200 in Los Angeles. The 702 area code has a higher proportion of unlisted numbers than any other. And although the per capita income is the 12th highest in the U.S., the electorate last year voted against building and improving parks. Officials say they need to build 12 new schools a year through the end of the century to accommodate the projected population influx, but they fear voters will decline to pay for them. Such civic disengagement is now a national phenomenon, but Las Vegas is at the cutting edge — and always has been. Back during the city’s first spurt of urban hypertrophy in the ’50s, when other new cities were grandly and confidently expanding their schools and social-welfare systems, Las Vegas was pointedly stingy.

Today’s casino-driven prosperity is a somewhat self-contained bubble. The state’s welfare case load has risen 54% just since 1991. “We currently have 10,500 new jobs coming online,” says welfare administrator Mila Florence, referring to the staffing of the Luxor, Treasure Island and MGM Grand. “The number of persons coming into the state seeking those jobs far exceeds the number of jobs available, so our agency becomes the safety net.”

Nor is it just social programs the locals are disinclined to fund. Last year voters defeated a series of bond issues that would have paid for 300 new police officers, seven new police substations, 500 new jail beds and improved security in the schools. Is the crime problem bad? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the rates for murder and other violent crimes are somewhat higher than for the nation generally. But then they always have been — as is typical of resort areas, where tourists skew the figures. What’s interesting is how even in its level of violence the rest of America has come to resemble Las Vegas. The city’s homicide rate was 128% higher than the nation’s as recently as 1982; today the Las Vegas homicide figure is only 56% higher than the national rate. In 1982 the local rate of violent crime — rapes, robberies, assaults, as well as homicides — was 90% higher than the national figure; today it is only 17% higher.

The theming; Liberace and Michael Jackson and Siegfried and Roy; the water gluttony; the refusal to build schools and police stations. It is fair to say that Las Vegas is in denial, which probably explains the local predilection for smarmy euphemism. From Wayne Newton on down, every man in Vegas calls every woman a lady. One of the local abortion clinics is called A Lady’s Needs. Signs all over McCarran Airport declare it a nonsmoking building, yet just as noticeable as the banks of slot machines is the reek of old cigarettes. It strikes almost no one as ironic that the patron of the M.B. Dalitz Religious School is the late Moe Dalitz, the celebrated gangster.

It is understandable that the citizens are a bit embarrassed by their criminal founding fathers (Steve Wynn calls the Dunes “the original home of tinhorns and scumbags”), but the mixed feelings go beyond the mob. Last year Davy-O Thompson got zoning-board approvals to establish his haircutting salon, A Little Off the Top, where the female stylists were dressed in frilly teddies or paste-on breast caps and panties. But the board of cosmetology denied him a license an hour before he was set to open, citing concerns over “safety” and “hygiene.” (He was eventually allowed to operate.) A similar protest contributed to the demise recently of a car wash featuring women in thong bikinis.

“We Las Vegans have been living under the stigma of Sin City for so long that we are desperate to prove that this is a very conservative, God-fearing, average American community that just happens to have gambling,” explains Under Sheriff Eric Cooper, who along with his boss, Sheriff John Moran, has been waging a 10-year antivice campaign. “The best thing that ever happened was when the Baptists had their convention here four years ago.” The category of “Escort Services” is no longer listed in the local Yellow Pages.

It isn’t just sex. Las Vegans are even ambivalent about gambling. Political discourse often revolves around keeping casinos away from decent people’s homes. The promotional video produced by the Nevada Development Authority makes no mention at all of casinos. Even when a casino is a part of a new development, it is described as something else. Jack Sommer’s Mountain Spa, the posh pseudo-Mediterranean resort about to start construction, will have a small “European-style” casino. But, says Sommer, “it’s not really a casino. I call it a gaming amenity.”

Semantic nuance, it turns out, is important. “They don’t see themselves as gamblers,” says Steve Wynn of the new tourists he is attracting. “They think of themselves as folks who are on vacation, and while they are there — hey, let’s put some money in the slot machine.” Wynn hired screenwriter Jim Hart (Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to write a one-hour family-adventure TV movie (NBC, Jan. 23) set at Treasure Island, and while Hart says the movie reaffirms family values and he flew his children out during production, he understands the place has an intrinsically dark edge. “You can come out for 24 hours and lose the tuition,” he says. “There are a lot of desperate characters here.”

For while the city is no longer the “Genet vision of hell” that John Gregory Dunne described in his book Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season 20 years ago, it is still, for the moment, a stranger place than Omaha or Sacramento or Worcester or even Atlantic City, if only because there are so many cheerfully offered temptations to lose the tuition and so many normal-looking people flirting feverishly with that risk. The mobs on the casino floors are in a kind of murmuring trance, each middle-aged housewife or young lawyer at the slots or the poker tables mentally grappling with a nonstop flow of insane hunches and wishful superstitions, continuously driven to unworthy leaps of faith that result in unwarranted bursts of self-esteem (Blackjack!) or self- loathing (Craps!).

Wynn understands the shadowy core of Las Vegas. “There will never come a day when ((potential visitors)) say, ‘Should it be Orlando or should it be Las Vegas?’ Those are two different moods. We think of our vacation in more romantic, personal terms. We’re looking for sensual, extended gratification.” In other words, Disney World is about tightly scripted smile-button fun for the kids; Las Vegas, despite the new theme-park accessories, remains the epicenter of the American id, still desperate to overpay schmaltzy superstars like Barbra Streisand, still focused on the darker stirrings of chance and liquor and sex.

If it is now acceptable for the whole family to come along to Las Vegas, that’s because the values of America have changed, not those of Las Vegas. Deviancy really has been defined down. The new hang-loose all-American embrace of Las Vegas is either a sign that Americans have liberated themselves from troublesome old repressions and moralist hypocrisies, or else one more symptom of the decline of Western civilization. Or maybe both.

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