Sunday, February 8, 2009

(No.12) What happens in Vegas ....

Pat and I recently revisited Las Vegas to see some shows and experience what is a unique American monument to excess. 

We stayed at the Flamingo Hotel located on the central part of what is referred to as 'the Strip', the heart of this Nevada destination for millions of punters every year. The Flamingo is the successor to the first of the Las Vegas 'destination' hotel/casinos. It was conceived and built with mob money in the 1940s by the gangster Bugsy Siegel, an event given prominence in Warren Beatty's movie "Bugsy".

The Flamingo has a feature unusual among today's Strip hotels: it retains large outdoor gardens with waterfalls and pools  (enclosed on 3 sides by wings of the hotel). These are populated by various birds including Chilean pink flamingos, Australian black swans, African crowned cranes plus several Sacred Ibis. Given its location in the heart of the Strip it is a surprisingly quiet and pleasant oasis.

We enjoy theatre and Pat's wide-ranging interests include the Cirque du Soleil shows which are, in their size, inventiveness, technology as well as the new theatres in which they are staged, unique to Las Vegas. Currently there are 5 Cirque shows playing in purpose-built theatres at 5 different hotels on the Strip. Each of the shows is markedly different. The engineering and technology required for and on display in each of the shows is not only impressive but could not be accommodated in ordinary theatres, no matter how large. They are spectacular entertainment and, as the hotels intend, are a magnet helping to attract millions to the city. Unlike the old days, when organized crime ran the Strip hotels/casinos, only half of Vegas hotel revenues now come from gambling.

Of the Cirque shows we have attended Pat rates as equally impressive (for different reasons)"O" at the Bellagio Hotel, "Ka" at the MGM Grand and "Love" at the Mirage. I agree. The latter is the newest Cirque show with the Beatles and their music as the theme. "Le Reve" at Wynn's is a Cirque-style show designed by an ex-Cirque chap who seems to have set out to incorporate into a single show as many different effects as possible derived from the Cirque shows. It is staged in a large pool but does not quite achieve the Cirque standard.

The broadway hit some years ago, "Phantom of the Opera", has been remounted by its English creators at the Venetian Hotel but at the usual Las Vegas show length of 90 minutes (hence time to do 2 shows per evening). The Las Vegas "Phantom" is publicized as a more expensive and impressive staging of the Broadway version which also played for several years in Toronto. It isn't but it is still worth seeing.

There are many other types of shows to see in Vegas, large and small, for every interest: from standup comics of whom one has never heard to 'name' show business entertainers through burlesque shows and 'tribute' performers. In this latter category the city must offer at least a dozen Elvis Presley imitators performing in various venues at any particular time. 

The "Legends" show at the Imperial Hotel on the strip is entirely a 'tribute' show, a long running one, with performers (backed by dancers and singers) doing their versions of people like Ann Margaret, Jay Leno,Elton John and Cher  and -- of course -- Elvis. It is so-so entertainment in what is more of a nightclub setting.

The "Jubilee" stage show at Bally's has been a fixture for 25 years. It is the last of the big, Paris-inspired Vegas stage shows, formerly a staple of the Vegas entertainment scene pre-Cirque, featuring platoons of showgirls with various acts sprinkled between the musical numbers. "Jubilee" is a clear echo of the very impressive stage shows one can still see in Paris at the Lido and the Moulin Rouge. The Vegas version is worth seeing but is not of the same calibre as the Parisian shows it imitates.

Las Vegas also overflows with entertainers of greater and lesser fame and followings presenting shows large and small.  After 5 years with Celine Dion performing in the 4000 seat theatre Caesar's Palace built for her, the hotel replaced Dion with (primarily) Bette Midler who gets time off periodically and is relieved by Elton John or Cher. Midler's show is flashy and fast-paced, features backup singers and dancers but is mainly a showcase for Midler's considerable talent as a singer and comedian. The night we were there the audience, including Pat, clearly enjoyed the show very much, in fact somewhat more than I did.

Among the curious social features of Las Vegas: some of the tourists walking up and down the Strip drinking from bottles of beer or cocktails from long, oddly shaped glasses sometimes suspended from their necks. Also, while the city has put in place a ban on smoking it exempted the casinos in response to their argument that a total ban would hurt gambling since so many who play the slots also smoke. Hence in the hotels one walks through the casino areas (and hotels are laid out so one has no choice but to walk through the casino to get from almost anywhere to anywhere) with smoke wafting around. Except for the casinos the ban seems fairly tightly enforced.

There is a widely held but erroneous view that prostitution is legal in Nevada and therefore in Las Vegas. That is not the case. In the state of Nevada prostitution can be legal in counties (if the county so decides) but only if the county has a population of less than 400,000. That requirement therefore excludes the cities of Reno and Las Vegas from the option of legalizing prostitution -- not that the absence of that permission seems to have interfered all that much with the conduct of the world's oldest profession. 

The example of this reality most visible to us was the tolerance of open solicitation along the sidewalksof the central Strip, not by prostitutes themselves but by curious teams or crews of 10-15 Latinos hired by some entity or other. They line up side by side along the sidewalk and try to get passing males (with or without female spouses or companions) to accept from EACH of them 2 or 3 cards about the size of playing cards. On both sides of each card is a colour picture of a young woman with little or nothing on but with a telephone number imprinted.  

As one walks along a stretch of such activity each member of the crew snaps his cards and if one so much as glances in his direction the cards are thrust forward. Most wear t-shirts promising female companionship "within 20 minutes".  One Las Vegas resident told us the city had tried to prohibit this activity but, if so, with no apparent effect. 

The handing out of the cards is not intimidating to passersby or even hard to ignore. On one occasion, much to Pat's amusement, I set out to accept with spoken thanks all the cards offered to me, in turn, by each member of a crew as I walked past them. One after another they were only too happy to share so many cards with me, presumably because they get paid only if they manage to hand out all the cards they are given to distribute that day. By the end of my 'passage' in front of them I had received the equivalent of at least 3 decks of playing cards. 

This curious feature of Las Vegas, like others one encounters, may be tolerated or even encouraged by the Las Vegas establishment perhaps because its members believe it contributes to the promotion of the current 'naughty' Las Vegas brand and slogan: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".