Posts Tagged ‘literature’

by John Thorpe, Contributing Editor(The Pod Bay Door Show)

A few podcasts ago, I mentioned an essay about Las Vegas, written in 1964 by the American author Tom Wolfe. Before I get to the essay, I need to set the record straight: Tom Wolfe is an excellent writer. His novel Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of novels. Tom Wolfe is also a pretentious prick. In fact, if you look up “douche bag” in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 6th edition this is what you’ll see:

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Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at his essay, “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!.” You can find it in his collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, published in 1965. (You can read the entire Las Vegas essay on Google Books here: https://books.google.com/books?id=QwyU4YsvLsEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false)

As I mentioned on the podcast, Wolfe describes a Las Vegas that no longer exists. It did at one time, but like no other city that I know of, Las Vegas reinvents itself every generation. It tears itself down and then rebuilds itself anew, rising from the rubble like the mythical Phoenix. Sure, other cities remodel and renovate, but they don’t fundamentally change their identity. Kim Kardashian can dye her hair or change the style of clothes she wears, but she’s still the same sexy but inherently skanky-trashy-slutty celebrity that many people, for whatever reason, find fascinating. Las Vegas isn’t like Kim Kardashian. Las Vegas is more like Caitlin Jenner. Whatever happened to Bruce? He existed at one time, but he’s gone now. Yeah, Caitlin Jenner sure looks like Bruce Jenner in drag, but the Bruce Jenner who competed in the 1976 Olympics lives only in the memories of those of us old enough to remember him.

Here is one paragraph from Wolfe’s essay worth examining. There are countless others, but this one will do:

He had been rolling up and down the incredible electric-sign gauntlet of Las Vegas’ Strip, U.S. Route 91, where the neon and the par lamps—bubbling, spiraling, rocketing, and exploding in sunbursts ten stories high out in the middle of the desert—celebrate one-story casinos. He had been gambling and drinking and eating now and again at the buffet tables the casinos keep heaped with food day and night, but mostly hopping himself up with good old amphetamine, cooling himself down with meprobamate, then hooking down more alcohol, until now, after sixty hours, he was slipping into the symptoms of toxic schizophrenia.

My how the hotels and their guests have changed since Wolfe wrote this back in February 1964! Although Las Vegas Boulevard is still bright beyond belief—I can easily discern which hotel is which late at night from the veranda of my house, some 12 miles away—the flashing neon we associate with Las Vegas of yesteryear (and which still exists in downtown Las Vegas) is largely gone, either blown up, torn down, thrown out, or carted off to the Neon Museum boneyard. Also gone, of course, are the “one-story casinos.” It’s interesting that Wolfe refers to them as “one-story casinos” and not “one-story hotels” because today the emphasis is on the hotel, not on the casino. When I worked at the Venetian, the maps and brochures bore the name, The Venetian Resort * Hotel * Casino, clearly placing the focus on the hotel and its resort aspects—the rooms, the restaurants, the spa and fitness facilities—more so than on the casino, which gets third billing.

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A business card from the Venetian. Notice the order listed: resort, hotel, and then casino.

Stefan Al, professor of urban design at the University of Pennsylvania, has made the interesting observation that the architecture of the Las Vegas Strip reflects the history of recreation and social change in the United States. Al notes that the post-World War II years marked the emergence of the suburbs, as returning GIs sought to ditch crowded urban areas. This trend helped secure the single-story family home with a swimming pool as the frontispiece of the American Dream, and influenced the architecture of the Strip during this period. Hotels and casinos were shaped, in Al’s words, like “bungalow[s] on steroids,” and all competed with one another to see who could create the most elaborate, spectacular swimming pool.

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The swimming pool at the old Desert Inn in 1951. Check out the broads!

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“A one-story casino.” The Flamingo in the early days.

As Americans eventually woke up from this sepia-toned wet dream and whipped up a new one, the architecture on the Strip changed as well. Baby boomers were no longer babies. They had grown up and had kids of their own. In response, Las Vegas developers scrambled to cash in on this family traveler demographic. The result? The 1990s version of Las Vegas that brought us a fairy tale-like castle (Excalibur), a pirate cove (Treasure Island), and an amusement park (Grand Adventure at MGM). Even the venerable Sahara, long in the tooth and ripe for the bulldozer, tried to join the fruit punch-only party by opening the NASCAR Café and spending in excess of $6 million on a rollercoaster, just in case the grease bomb served hot off the griddle wasn’t enough to make Mom, Dad, and offspring heave their guts out. To the broken down, incorrigible and chronic gambler like the one Tom Wolfe describes, the Family Values Vegas was a sacrilege, the equivalent, in reverse, of seeing Mr. Rogers throw aside his red knit sweater in favor of a studded jacket and leather jockstrap.

Over time, the hotels’ bottom lines showed the dolts in management that people who travel with their kids do two things that people shouldn’t do when they travel to Las Vegas: behave themselves and pinch their pennies. These two behaviors—or rather, lack thereof—are partners on a tandem bicycle: one gives impetus to the other, and the hotels, casinos, strip clubs, and bars in Las Vegas have historically thrived when this bike kicks into high gear and crosses the intersection of Loose Morals and Loose Wallet. Tighten them up and the city chokes.

Once it became clear that the family-oriented iteration of Las Vegas was a flop, Cinderella and her ilk, thankfully, were kicked to the pavement and tossed out of town on their ear, and the whores and the drunks welcomed back with open arms.

The most recent wave of hotel construction—the wave that started just after the massive economic crash in 2008—brought us the Aria, the Cosmopolitan, and the Vdara. All of these hotels have downplayed their casinos (the Vdara doesn’t even have one) and have instead focused on restaurants, high-end shops, and clubs. That’s because millennials—a favorite and frequent whipping boy on the Podbay Door—don’t gamble like their parents did, and what money they do spend, they spend on food, frou-frou drinks, and assorted trendy shit.

Personally, I’m sick of the current iteration and a new round of death and resurrection cannot come fast enough. I just hope that the result is something not built on the current trend of nickel-and-dime, Mickey Mouse bullshit that seeks to wring every possible dollar out of everything that breathes. If the last marketing motto was “What Happens in ‘Vegas Stays in ‘Vegas,” the new one, unstated but exemplified through hidden “resort fees” and increased parking/valet fees, would be “I’ll fuck anything that mooooves!!” (If you don’t know or can’t place the movie reference, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N755jvOUCNI).

-John Thorpe, contributing editor(The Pod Bay Door Show)

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