by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - January 16, 2006) Las Vegas is the most morbid city in America. It dotes on the dead and aggressively resurrects them on stages and nightclubs all along the Strip. Being a dead headliner is no detriment in Las Vegas; in fact, in many cases it continues to swell the income of the deceased's estates and, in some bizarre way, confirms their immortality. Fact is, the dead are everywhere in Vegas, and they are thriving.
For instance, should you be one of the baby boomers who never got over the demise of the Beatles, you can see the "Fab Four" reanimated at the Aladdin Hotel with all their original arrangements in tact. If you don't look too closely, you may be able to delude yourself that John, Paul, George, and Ringo are truly reincarnated despite the fact that the four faces gleaming from under the Beatle cuts bear no resemblance whatsoever to the iconic quartet and the renditions are merely hyperventilated imitations of music that is essentially inimitable.
If you are one of those who mourned the passing of the Rat Pack, you can make tracks to the Greek Isles Club where reasonable facsimiles of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin invite you to booze and horse around until your 1960s nostalgia becomes tangible. No matter that this "Frankie" is devoid of his easygoing charm and subtle phrasing, Sammy lacks his glass eye, Joey is not particularly droll, and Dean is some 20 pounds overweight, the patina of the boisterous foursome is still ting-a-lingingly alive.
Should you prefer to concentrate only on Dino himself, Tom Stevens at "Dean's Lounge" at the Barbary Coast Hotel will, with appropriate alcoholic wooziness, trot you through the main items in Martin's repertoire. If your preference is for "Frankie," partnered by that now unobtainable superstar Barbra Streisand, you can find both the living and the dead together at the Riviera performing in something titled: "The Concert That Never Was" (and which, in a literal sense, still isn't.)
Depending on schedules, "Legends in Concert" at the Imperial Palace permits you to re-encounter Liza Minnelli decked out in her "Cabaret" underwear and tilted derby. And, of course, the town is crawling with Elvises. He remains the most cloned wraith on the Strip; a kind of unquenchable Orpheus in glittering toreador pants and perfectly contoured quiff -- "pelvising" away as of old.
Not all the reincarnations are super-duper stars from the past. For instance, Frank Marino astonishingly clones Joan Rivers, "the bitch-goddess," in "An Evening at La Cage" -- (although I must confess the idea of two Joan Rivers is a little like being pissed on from a great height and then falling into an open sewer.) However, it is comforting to see that nonentities are right up there along with the charismatic superstars of yesteryear. (Surely, if Joan Rivers can be cloned then Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton are not far behind.)
Then there are those Vegas favorites who are actually there -- Neil Sedaka, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Valli, and The Four Seasons -- although some deep-seated skepticism makes one believe they must be apparitions. At the Flamingo, for instance, one can encounter the real Wayne Newton but one has this nagging suspicion that he is only a projected image conjured up by laser technology. It is as if the mummified body of Lenin in Red Square was actually Lenin himself reclining on a pedestal posing for pictures with giggling tourists. At The Sahara, we are told we can find The Coasters, The Drifters, and the Platters although some archival sense tells us those groups disintegrated many moons ago. Still, survivors from the past have been called on to reassemble them and rekindle the sensations we all experienced in the 1960s.
Could it be the scarcity of contemporary artists that feeds this obsessive nostalgia for the Greats of the Past -- those whose fame frequently lasted thirty and forty years instead of the scant Warholian "fifteen minutes" now doled out to our current idols? No one has truly inherited Sinatra's mantle, or Presley's or Garland's.
Today's "greats" flap hurriedly through the panes of quickly-revolving doors. Fame replaced by transient notoriety.
At various night spots around Vegas, male and female impersonators are assiduously recreating Cher, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Diane Ross, and Judy Garland. The need for the actual entertainers is utterly superfluous -- the traits, semblances, and mannerisms that define them are so well known, it is sufficient for them simply to be referred to for the "personality" to be evoked.
The Artificial is preferable to the Real in Vegas and the city has managed to do what no drug or scientific invention has yet succeeded in doing -- viz. annihilating reality.
Top-flight designers, architects, and lighting experts have colluded in this sorcery. The Paris Hotel is Paris to a T -- it even has a faux Arc de Triomphe at its gateway -- and if that doesn't make you feel as if you're in Paris, the astronomic prices in the shops and restaurants will remove all doubt. Caesar's Palace is every Roman movie you have ever seen, from "Cleopatra" to "Gladiator." It is a Disneyesque version of Rome, which, if you are familiar with the city, is in many ways an improvement on the real thing. It is certainly cleaner and less turbulent, free of parking problems, replete with toga'd legionnaires, pizza parlors and that unmistakable air of petty criminality that hovers over The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. The giant Hotel-Casino, stutteringly named "New York, New York," has refurbished the grotty splendor of the Great Metropolis and it too is a notch above the real thing. Far less dangerous than the Big Apple and, at the height of the season, its hordes of bumptious shoppers and mesmerized sightseers cause much less congestion. Everything is faux but familiar and therefore credible. We know we are not in the major cities of Europe or in the midst of vanished ancient civilizations but, pummeled by dreams, we willingly yield to suspended animation.
Las Vegas, as we know it today, was officially inaugurated on December 26, 1946. On that night, Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo, the first luxury resort hotel and gambling casino on what would eventually be called "the Strip." A lieutenant of East Coast heavies such as Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Lepke Buchwalter, Vito Genovese, and Al Capone, Siegel would shortly be liquidated by Luciano (after being indiscreet enough to have threatened him at a "board meeting" in Havana). But in that festive Christmas season of 1946, Siegel was a hood with a dream. In his finest custom-made tux, he hosted a formidable Flamingo floor show that featured the comedy of Jimmy Durante, the orchestra of Xavier Cugat and a glittering array of guests especially flown in from Hollywood which included Georgie Jessell, Lucille Ball, Peter Lawford, William Holden, George Raft, George Sanders, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Vivian Blaine, and Sonny Tufts. Within two or three years, plans for The Riviera, The Desert Inn, The Dunes and The Sands were on the drawing-board and "the town that Bugsy built" was on its way to surpassing that more legendary "pleasure dome" which "in Xanadu did Kubla Khan decree." (Indeed, had Bugsy been around then, Kubla would have forked over 25% of the take like everyone else.)
There were three distinct phases of development in Vegas with a certain dark consistency running through all of them. The city was pioneered by the mob, then actively appropriated by Howard Hughes who, though he brought a slightly more respectable image than Siegel and Murder Inc., was nevertheless a wheeler-dealer and as dictatorial as Al Capone ever was. Finally, in the 1980s, the corporations took over the city and, being aggressive capitalists wedded to the bottom line, were just as ruthless as the pioneer hoodlums. Like their forbears, the "suits" saw the city as a cash cow that needed constant milking. Once they took charge, the city became a front for capitalist expansion -- no matter what unions got busted and now matter how many workers fell victim to their greenbacked notion of "manifest destiny."
Although now sanitized on the surface and optimistically forward looking, I am told by insiders that that kickbacks and "skimming" are still de rigueur and that political corruption, albeit unostentatious, is as rife as ever. You can't deal daily in millions of dollars and millions of tourists, in gambling and prostitution, without a criminal element seeping into the woodworks. But it is precisely this patina of danger and diciness that gives Vegas its glamour -- just as those 1920s and '30s night clubs in Chicago and New York, discreetly run by the mob, generated a kind of sleazy glamour that added to the city's original gloss.
Vegas is a Baroque masterpiece -- ornate, glitzy, extravagant, and unashamedly overdone. The opposite of small town America -- which is why people from every small town America flock to the place. It is everything Broadway glitter used to be and, now that it is importing the most garish and successful Broadway shows into theatres especially built for such transfers, it may well outdo New York as a tourist attractions just as it has unquestionably superseded Los Angeles. "Avenue Q," "Mamma Mia," and "Cirque du Soleil" are already perfectly transplanted with "Hairspray" and "Spamalot" waiting in the wings. The city's technology is superior to anything one might find in a Broadway theatre, its glitter is ten times more glittery. Visiting Vegas is like taking up residence inside of an enthralling, high-tech video game. It is everything America now cherishes -- ostentation, sensuality, flamboyance, greed, hedonism, materialism, and vulgarity -- plus the titillating fantasy that almost anyone, at any moment of the night or day, can strike it rich. The whole of this theatrical panoply is there, of course, to insure the perpetuity of the Casinos.
Gambling is a metaphor for life. It is predicated on hope, driven by risk, and subject to disasters, only some of which are predictable. The excitement it generates in the pursuit of adventure is Odysseus-like. The gambler is capable of staggering victories and abysmal defeats. All he really needs to do is "stay in the game." Luck is, for the gambler, what grace is for the devout Christian -- that exclusive, paradisiacal state to which all mortals aspire and which, once attained, brings untold happiness. Is it any wonder it is addicting? There is nothing in the tangible world to match the intensity of the gambler's inner exploits. The fall of an arbitrary card or a roll of the dice is the perfect metaphor for the Hand of Fate. The great difference is that the gambler can subject himself to it as often as he likes. In Vegas, he can be stoned for 24 hours a day -- subject to the kind of experiential highs and lows that most people spread over a lifetime.
Though obsessed by the magical idea of sudden windfalls, the gambler doggedly accepts loss and defeat as the normal way of life and Vegas is the only place I know to which dissatisfied customers regularly return. In one sense, nobody wins in Vegas -- the odds are always stacked against you. In another sense, nobody ever loses either, because Americans, encased in that shimmering context of false glamour, are lured into breathtaking internal adventures: some of the most abysmal experiences of the spirit occurring in what is effectively disguised as "the best of all possible worlds." Did Bugsy Siegel, I wonder, in those prophetic days of '46 sense all of this when he decided to build the Flamingo Hotel and turn Vegas into a temple for buccaneers and dreamers?
We cannot knock Las Vegas because it epitomizes the Great American Dream. We cannot ignore it because it sprouts from the genes that made America great; a citadel hacked out of a desert. All we can do is look at it -- "as in a mirror brightly" -- and ask ourselves: Is this truly a reflection of ourselves, and if so, do we want it to be?
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