Sign Up

Living the High and Lows in Las Vegas

Is Las Vegas more than bright lights, gambling and fancy hotels?

September 30, 2005

Is Las Vegas more than bright lights, gambling and fancy hotels?

I can also see the Great Pyramid, the Statue of Liberty and the Bridge of Sighs. As I gawk, I'm sipping a breakfast bracer, described on the room service menu as a Corpse Reviver. No kidding.

It contains gin, Pernod, Lillet, Cointreau and lemon juice. Where am I? Well, it certainly ain't Dubuque, Jack. And it's not Muskogee, either.

It's Las Vegas, of course. Unlike your ordinary city, this is an enterprise built entirely upon excess, where subtlety and understatement are orphans and nothing is quite what it seems.

Travel a block or two from the gaudy rialto called the Strip and you come upon dilapidated motels, seedy apartments and raw, undeveloped land.

From that vantage point, you see the hotel-casinos for what they are — gigantic movie sets built in the Nevada desert.

Las Vegas sells escapism to ordinary folk who save their pennies for an annual spree of slot machines, hotel buffets — ten bucks or so for all you can eat or, for that matter, lift — and a show or two.

"The only entertainment we get all year," as one visitor from rural Iowa told me.

The city depends heavily on working people, not plutocrats — 61% of visitors, a survey showed, have no college degree.

In the words of J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of MGM-Mirage Inc, which owns several of the city's classier resorts, Las Vegas also appeals to "the guy who's got plenty of money, wants to show it, but can't get into the country club, maybe because he's in the scrap-iron business."

And it appeals mightily to the high roller from Dusseldorf or Hong Kong or Hollywood who comes here to do things he feels he cannot do at home.

"You can have a great time there," said Philip Treacy, the London milliner who makes the loopy hats women wear to Ascot, "because you never meet anyone you know."

The city's latest slogan is "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Las Vegas is a never-ending party that has gained a new sophistication in the last decade.

The trauma of 9/11 drastically but only temporarily slowed the flow of revelers. A 21st century human comedy, the city is thronged by all sorts of people — well dressed, badly dressed, barely dressed and undressed.

If you don't much like gambling, says my wife, Betsey, who doesn't, you can shut out the din and enjoy the many things that it subsidizes.

Vegas — not even hayseeds use the "Las" — pulls them in these days with golf, tennis, swimming pools, luxury shopping worthy of Rodeo Drive and world-class restaurants that move millions of dollars' worth of world-class wine a year.

Gambling — or "gaming," to use the local euphemism — which once accounted for two-thirds of tourist revenue, now brings in less than half, although 85% of people who set foot in Vegas gamble at least a little.

Rooms and food, once loss leaders, are now profit centers. Of course, they still build hotels with no chairs in the lobbies, no clocks in the restaurants, no windows in the casinos and no easy route from the front door to the elevators except past the slot machines.

In addition to 37 million visitors a year — "like loading the whole population of Spain onto a plane," as Madrid-born Julian Serrano, the city's reigning chef, remarked wonderingly — Las Vegas also attracts an endless stream of new residents, drawn by low taxes, inexpensive housing, dependable sunshine and the promise of jobs.

For many, the pot at the end of the rainbow is empty. They can be found living in cinder-block budget motels, where sheets and blankets cost extra, sometimes four to a room. Some give up and move away, but others arrive to take their places.

Nevada has been the nation's fastest-growing state and Las Vegas its fastest-growing city for some years now.

The city's population in 1940 was 8,422. By 2000, 1.6 million people lived in the 235-square-mile metropolitan area, about 22 % of them Hispanic.

The newcomers come from everywhere. In a single weekend, I met a bellman from Cranbury, New Jersey, near Princeton, a casino cashier from Shanghai, and a taxi driver from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

"People come to Las Vegas and the slate is clean," said a well-known local television anchor, Paula Francis, in a plainspoken article in "Las Vegas Life" magazine.

"Whether you were high and mighty before, or lowdown and scratching for a living, you come here and start over again. No one looks at your pedigree or your jail record. You start anew."

By now, Las Vegas has more than five hundred churches, seven Full-fledged hospitals with dozens of doctors specializing in breast augmentation, nascent youth gangs and the highest suicide rate in the nation — 18.91 per 100,000 people.

It also has one of the busiest airports in the country, a vigorous young symphony orchestra and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which aggressively pursues young men good at putting a basketball into a net.

Las Vegas also affords opportunities for visits to reality. Formed by the 726-foot-high Hoover Dam, which took 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete to build, Lake Mead is the largest fresh water reservoir in the world and is ideal for boating and fishing. However, it is 75 feet less deep after years of drought.

The Grand Canyon, not far beyond, can be visited by helicopter. In the other direction, Death Valley beckons, not dead at all but washed with surreal color and platinum-bright light.

Sure, Vegas is the capital of bad taste — gaudy and garish, tacky and trashy, bedizened with gilt and rouge and spangles. It is as cheesy as Gorgonzola. It is so far over the top that it occasionally laughs at itself. Excess rules.

The singer Celine Dion, for whom Caesars Palace built a theater, earns $80,000 a show. Priscilla Presley had her Lincoln Continental flown to Vegas from Beverly Hills for her high school reunion a few years ago.

But high culture is slowly sticking its head above the parapet in Vegas — if you know where to search for it, and providing you're not too fastidious in defining your terms.

Take the Las Vegas Philharmonic. When we went on a shopping expedition to the Fashion Show Mall, the strains of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" led us to a string ensemble drawn from the orchestra's ranks. Saks, it turned out, was sponsoring an afternoon concert in the atrium.

"Las Vegas has a reputation for having no culture," said Susan Tompkins, one of the five-year-old orchestra's founders, along with Harold Weller, its music director. “We're trying to change that. But most people don't know about us, so we go to them. Besides our regular schedule, we play here and we play in schools."

Or take "O" — the extraordinary show at the Bellagio hotel, which fills 1,800 seats ten times a week. An unlikely combination of circus and ballet, theater and pantomime, with synchronized swimming thrown in —"O" is a production of the prodigious Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil that is performed in, around, and above an enormous water tank. "O" equals eau — right?

Pucci-like costumes, wondrous stage machinery and propulsive music lend it the same superb sense of spectacle that "Miss Saigon" brought to Broadway. Only an irredeemable snob could deny that this is a theatrical triumph.

Growth has its darker side — traffic jams, temporarily eased by a new monorail, long lines at the supermarket, crowded schools and an inadequate tax base.

Retirees are the largest group among those moving to the city — some buy million-dollar make-believe Mediterranean villas on 320-acre Lake Las Vegas, a few miles east of the Strip — but having paid their dues in states where they spent their working lives, they are loath to pay more than the bare minimum in property taxes in Nevada.

Then there is water. This is the desert, after all. While there is water beneath the city, Lake Mead no longer offers countless gallons close at hand. Las Vegas is currently confident of adequate supplies only until 2030, and it is already restricting car washes, turning off fountains and offering to pay people to rip out their lawns.

The city still consumes the stuff with abandon, not only on lawns and in showers but as an integral part of Vegas dazzle. The tank in which the damsels of "O" swim holds 1.5 million gallons, no less.

Early on, Vegas flaunted its hot, dry climate with hotels named the Dunes, the Sands and the Sahara.

But the ultimate illusion, perhaps, is bringing the sea to the desert, so now you will find a "rainforest" and several waterfalls at the Mirage — whose name is no accident.

There is a "shark reef" aquarium at Mandalay Bay, a “Grand Canal" at the Venetian and of course the fountains at the Bellagio. Two new multibillion-dollar- projects are on the drawing boards. They like to gamble in Vegas.