originally published February 19, 2013
In honor of this week marking the anniversary of my first visit to Las Vegas as an adult – for a romantic post-Valentine’s weekend with my wife, who at the time was simply this chick I was shagging (hi, honey!) – and possibly as a testament to the fact that I haven’t left this city in over a year and a half, I have decided to pay tribute to Sin City for the rest of this week. This will no doubt make me yearn for escape, to taste the stale peanuts of liberating air travel, to feel that flaccid foam of a WestJet complimentary pillow, to watch a ten-month-old Hollywood blockbuster on a six-inch screen on the back of some belching redneck’s seat in front of me, all while sipping bubbly Sprite from a plastic cup.
So why Vegas?
Because no other city has packed so much activity into a mere 72 years of history as a vacation spot. Because nowhere else can you cram a weekend vacation into a two-hour layover. Because it’s Las Vegas: tacky and touristy, a gambling mecca, a city-wide den of debauchery, and a cultural inferno. You can make the biggest mistake of your life, marry the girl of your dreams and watch a Cher impersonator vomit on a duck beside an enormous man-made lake, all within the course of an hour or less.
The first time my retinas were seduced by the come-hither flash of Las Vegas lights was Christmas, 1985. I was eleven years old, and my father was producing a show at the Riviera Hotel. It was called the Hollywood Game Show, because my dad’s astute marketing mind knew that the word ‘Hollywood’ would pique the interest of the geriatric Bermuda-shortsed keepers of the nickel-slot torch. Playing slots gave out credits for ‘Riviera Dollars’, which could be exchanged for valuable prizes at the show. Or maybe you’d win Riviera Dollars at the show, to be used in their slot machines. I honestly don’t remember.
As an eleven-year-old in Vegas at the tail-end of the gangster era and before the modern age of waterparks, roller coasters and virtual-motion rides, there wasn’t much to do. It was made very clear that even pausing to tie my shoe or to jar loose a stubborn, wayward booger in the midst of the casino floor could lead to trouble. So most of my days were spent doing this:
At night, I spent a lot of time in my suite – my parents had one across the hall…I was just barely old enough to realize how incredibly awesome this was – staring out my window at the surreal landscape, forever solidifying my loyalty to the beauty of modern urbanity over the splendor of nature.
I was on the 15th floor, with a view facing south down the Las Vegas Strip. The numerous photos I took may be lost, but I’ll never forget the highlights of that view. Those glorious neon totems are seared into my retina walls. Their majesty may have vanished forever – indeed, the Riviera is literally the only hotel from the north part of the Strip that still stands, not thirty years later – but thankfully I still have the memories. And Google Image Search. That helps, because my childhood memories of TV are just as strong, and the two get intertwined sometimes. I’m still not sure if I met Scott Baio in Vegas or if I just watched a lot of Charles In Charge while my parents played cards downstairs.
The Frontier hotel, which stood on the site where the initial Vegas Strip nightclub, the Pair-O-Dice, had attracted Depression-era gamblers hoping to change their fortunes, was glorious. I never set foot in the place, but the sign outside was the largest free-standing sign in the world, and its brilliant glimmer echoed off the walls of my suite. Las Vegas is infamous for demolishing its history though, which makes sense as the hotels are profit-driven, and there’s little money to be made on memories of old resorts built to our parents’ standards.
The Frontier was blasted apart in 2007, and its iconic sign – which lit up Las Vegas Boulevard for over 40 years – was dismantled and destroyed at the request of Steve Wynn. Like I said, Vegas ain’t about its own history.
Directly across the street from where I was perched sat the 188-foot Stardust Hotel sign, which still had its classic space-age lettering. The stars around the letters would twinkle as each letter would ignite one by one. When I’d return home to the banality of an Edmonton winter a few days later, these twinkling bulbs would still be cascading off the insides of my eyelids for months afterward. Six years later some knuckle-dragging half-wit would opt to replace that funky font with Futura, the flavorless beige oatmeal of the typography world.
The Stardust was, of course, where Lefty Rosenthal, the focus of Martin Scorcese’s Casino, ran the show. When it opened in 1958, the Stardust was the largest hotel in Vegas, with the biggest swimming pool and casino in the state. Dynamite took the building to the ground in 2006, and where at least the Frontier has a chunk of Trump’s new tower on its former premises, the Stardust is home to… well, nothing. A stalled project that got derailed by a weak economy. Magic swapped out for nada.
Off to my left was the flying-saucer-on-a-stick known as the Landmark Hotel. It was nowhere near the Strip, but it was a visual peppermint splash among the candy assortment of twinkling hotels, flickering motels and brilliantly-lit wedding chapels in my field of view. We never made it anywhere near the place though, and long before I would venture back to the bright lights of Vegas fourteen years later, it would get turned into a parking lot for the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Now the most common photo of the place is this one:
The Riviera, Caesar’s Palace, Imperial Palace, the Flamingo and the Tropicana. Almost nothing else from that trip I took when I was eleven still stands along the Las Vegas Strip – at least not under the same name. The city has been built, then re-built, then re-re-built several times since the Pair-O-Dice opened up back in 1931. Perhaps that explains my fascination with the city’s history.
Perhaps that’s why I want to devote my next few thousand words to the enigma that is Las Vegas. Maybe I’m hoping for some kind of understanding, an insight into a city that aims to reinvent itself for every generation.
Or maybe I just want to get the hell back there and hit the buffet.