Las Vegas is an unrepentant city–unpretentious, unashamed. It is a city of bad choices in all directions: environmental, city planning, economic, personal. Vegas is pure plastic. Think of plastic as a verb, malleable, capable of taking any shape, any form to fit the volume or fill the need. This is Las Vegas, fulfilling the need of the American public for fantasy and entertainment, perhaps courting with self-immolation.City Center, half-way through construction with an 11+ billion dollar budget, is poised to open luxury condos at a time when the market is looking like a four week old tangerine at the bottom of the fruit-bowl. Walk the strip and observe the 20-year-old woman, belted by too many hurricanes,glass in hand. In her five-inch heels and band-aid dress, she is draped over a short, shaved-head, heavily tattooed date. As she flops over his arms, neck and shoulder I can’t help but think that the very best thing that can come of the evening is her waking up the next morning with the worst hang-over of her life. This is Vegas. Look in the mirror. This is your city. You are the architect, the planner and the entertainment director.
The streets are littered and plastered with ample ads hoping to lure you to the newest casino, the latest in total entertainment. But something among the mega watts of signs is amiss. Siegfried and Roy are gone and the Folies Bergere are history. The big shows with big budgets replaced by a slew of magicians and comedians with smaller payrolls which can be easily converted to an early family show.
After fifty years, acres of bare breasts, miles of legs, rivers of boas and forests of feathers (forgive me, but this is Vegas and one can afford to be over the top), The Folies are closed.Yet there are other ways to see Las Vegas. It might entail going a bit off the beaten path, the path I love.
Begin on the strip, Las Vegas Boulevard. Start at O’Sheas Casino, next to the Flamingo. Head upstairs, 2nd floor, to the “Museum of Movie Magic,“ the polar opposite of all things upscale and slick. Here you can find one of the largest collections of ventriloquists’ dummies in the world. They sit mute, no magic hands behind them to articulate their still mouths. Hundreds of them sit, now shelved, consoled by their numbers and memories. Edgar Bergen’s puppet Mortimer Snerd sits beside a classroom of a dozen wide-eyed pupils, the original blockheads. A minstrel in black-face waits for his musical cue. All that’s missing is a lock turning in a door, a bolt being thrown shut, and a Rod Serling’s voice-over, “You are about to enter another dimension…”
Farther up the strip is Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym. The Ringside Gym is a three room gym built in the 50’s consisting of three heavy bags bandaged with silver duct tape and more ancient speed bags hanging in the corners. A three rope ring is compressed between a dropped acoustic ceiling and a stained red shag carpet. This is definitely not Gold’s. No contenders here, just marginal guys who remember the ring from the 50’s and 60s. Theirs was a different Vegas. The glitter of the heavyweight championships is testified to in the original cardboard posters and flyers tacked to the wall–Marciano, Benny “Kid” Peret, LaMotta. There are no Stairmasters here, only weights and bags. This is a gym from a black and white film, populated with boxers from a very distant past. Here, Marlon could be in the parking lot saying he could have been a contender to Lee J Cobb. It’s worth a visit. But remember, although there is no entry fee this is not an “attraction” so it could take some effort to gain access.
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum shares a home with the Guggenheim Museum’s annex in the Venetian Hotel. This might be the most polar marriage between a high and low brow institution on the planet under one roof. At Tussauds you are greeted by Little Richard and his larger-than-life heart. Wander the halls and bump into Harrison Ford–“Whoops, sorry Harry” and Don King–“Nice hair”, Marilyn, Arnold and even Wolfgang. The hands have to be repaired regularly as tourists can’t help but stop and shake hands with their wax heroes and heroines. The unwitting mannequins have their images captured in tourist cameras and are taken back to Texas, Illinois, New York and California. A testament to the celebrity encounter. The wax celebrities eternally gracious about having their photograph taken with a grinning spouse, girlfriend, brother.
Save the best for last. In a small corner mall, in a cinder-block building, is the museum of an endless parade ofcostumes, adorned with fields of sequins and feathers. What could sum up a Vegas trip better than a visit to the Liberace Museum. Where else can you see the world’s largest rhinestone, the largest imitation of a diamond on the planet? It’s not fake anything—it’s real rhinestone. The costumes are surrounded by pianos plated in mirrors and glass. The potential of these objects would make Busby Berkeley weep. Opposite the costumes are the cars–Bentleys, Rolls and Cadillacs. Here a lifetime of ostentation is packaged and presented as the ultimate in world showmanship, accompanied by ubiquitous baroque piano music. It’s not fake anything. It’s real Las Vegas.
If you are finally exhausted by this tour, and you will be, make your last stop the Peppermill Inn. Here the seats and tables, reds and blues competing, collide with the flames spurting from the pool of water that serves as the base of the fireplace–all while you nurse a drink and dine on a meal. If your senses were not numbed already, there are television sets suspended from the ceiling to barrage you with the latest in basketball, football or racing. The food isn’t bad. The atmosphere is Madonna Inn East- just a hair beyond kitsch.
You can head to the Venetian or the Bellagio and never leave. These are self-contained, adult theme parks holding a multitude of experiences and flavors within their immense walls. But push Vegas a bit and see what you find. There is a purer Las Vegas, where colors explode, the casinos fade away, and the Vegas underbelly wafts up with all the subtlety of a scratch and sniff strip. It is 340 miles, but it might as well be another country, another planet. Las Vegas, “It’s so plastic.”Look again into that mirror. No one could have invented this city but you.
Liberace Museum, 1775 East Tropicana Ave
Museum of Movie Magic, O’Sheas Casino, 2nd floor
3555 Las Vegas Boulevard
Peppermill Inn 2985 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym, 9 West Charleston Blvd.
Madame Tussauds, Venetian Hotel
Las Vegas Boulevard
America West (Mesa Airlines) 800-235-9292 www.americawest.com America West has an occasional non-stop but it might be easier to fly out of Burbank and go SouthWest Airlines, who service LV on a more frequent non stop schedule.