Believing Las vegas


National Geographic Magazine, December 1996

“This is a nice little place,” said my host, sliding a key card into the hotel suite door.  Hey, I told myself. This is Las Vegas. I’m ready for anything.   

I was not.  

We stood in the living room of Villa Verona, a 15,400 square foot palazzo perched atop the Las Vegas Hilton. Gilded domes, frescoed in towering perspective with sweeping clouds and hanging gardens, framed chandeliers of 24-karat gold and crystal. Their opulence was reflected in the marble floors, polished to mirror perfection. A broad arch opened to a landscaped garden with private pool and putting green. Goldfish cruised lazily in a rock-rimmed pond. In one of the two bedrooms, painted cherubim smiled down on a massive raised bed, and a 60-channel projection TV screen dropped from the ceiling. Hanging in the bathrooms of Italian marble and French onyx were Egyptian cotton towels, robes and slippers.  

“Let’s see,” muttered my guide, Gary Gregg, the hotel president. “There’s a control for the drapes around here somewhere.”  

A gentle whir, and a set of red satin draperies parted. Squinting into the harsh desert light, my eyes rose past thousands of newly built homes to the snowcapped mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley.   

Three miles to the north were the tall hotels of Downtown Las Vegas, where at night Fremont Street erupts into a strobing flash of neon. There is the home of the Golden Nugget, Binion’s Horseshoe, and Vegas Vic, the 60-foot-high neon cowboy.   

I glanced south. There stretched The Strip--officially Las Vegas Boulevard--a street where neighboring casinos take keeping-up-with-the-Jonses to nuclear arms race extremes. Gleaming green in the sunlight was the massive glass-and-girder block of the MGM Grand Hotel, at 5,005 rooms the largest hotel in the known universe. In fact, of the world’s 11 biggest hotels, 10 were within eyesight. Temples of extravagance all.  

“I’ll take it,” I told my host. “How much?”  

Gregg smiled. “I couldn’t rent you this place,” he said. “It’s a complimentary accommodation for our very special visitors.” Translation: If you’re one of the handful of people living on planet Earth who have the wherewithal and inclination to drop a few million dollars at the Hilton’s baccarat table, Mi casa es su casa. Needless to say, I didn’t qualify.  

The Hilton spent $40 million to build this and two adjacent villas. Across town, Caesars Palace recently laid down millions for its own pair of penthouse suites.  

“And as lavish as this suite is,” Gregg observed, “as we speak, there’s someone, somewhere, bent over a set of blueprints creating something even more extravagant.”  

Some would call it excess or one-upmanship. But in a month of wandering through the casinos and neighborhoods of Las Vegas I began to see that the quest for the Next Big Thing is shared by virtually everyone there, from the casino owners to the politicians and small businessmen, even to the churches. It is a community’s affirmation of its success, and confidence in its future.    

“I’m working that machine, honey!” barked a pant suited New Yorker (from the accent) with a freshly dyed head of fire engine red hair. I was settling down at a Caesars Palace slot machine a good five stations away from where she was methodically pushing the spin button on a Jungle Fever slot machine. I didn’t argue. I’d seen this before. Like generals marshaling their troops, slot players commandeer entire banks of machines. They play mesmerized as above their heads the jackpot total compounds by the second on an electronic display, the numbers whizzing by like an odometer on the Space Shuttle.  

It seems all Vegas casinos are a variation on a theme: card and dice tables in the middle, roulette near the periphery, a solitary wheel of fortune near the entrance, and everywhere else, row upon row of blinking, bonging slot machines. The lights are low, the drinks are free. Off to the side, often in walled-off parlors, the truly high rollers indulge in baccarat, a game I still don’t understand despite the best efforts of several tutors, all of whom kept insisting, “It’s so easy.”  

Downtown, the atmosphere is determinedly seedy, the gaming tables nearly piled atop each other or spilling out to the sidewalk where hawkers stop barely short of dragging patrons in by the ears. But on the Strip, a curious claustrophobic spaciousness is the rule. In hangar-sized gaming halls, the hotels not only position tables and slot machines between the front door and the restaurants, elevators, pool, and anywhere else guests might want to go, but they also configure them like mazes, doubling and tripling the distance traveled by the unwary.   

Standing at his post overlooking the Desert Inn poker room, J.R. Rose is a study in ovals: A great balding round head, a prominent girth grudgingly held at bay by wide suspenders. Surveying each of the half dozen or so tables in his domain, his glinty eyes reveal the attention to detail that has earned his poker room a place on the list of America’s 10 best. Ear pressed to a phone, fingers rifling a notebook, he monitors guests’ credit, bestows sought-after casino “comps” of free room and meals, and generally makes of himself a presence that ensures an orderly transfer of funds from losers to winners. This corner of the casino has been J.R.’s for 18 years.   

“I was born with a deck of cards, played solitaire when I was 4,” says J.R.  At one table, a losing player catches J.R.’s eye. 

“You can always tell a person’s in trouble,” he says. “Slowly shaking the head, closing the eyes, like they’re saying ‘What’ll I do? What’ll I do?’ I’ve had ‘em tell me ‘I’m gonna go out and kill myself.’ And that’s when I say, ‘Let’s go out back and talk.’”  It’s then that J.R. Rose pulls from his pocket a spiral-bound New Testament.  

“I tell them , ‘The Lord sent you over here for a reason. That’s only money. There’s someone who went on a cross and died for you.’ And you know, more often than not they end up crying. I invite them to the church where I’m an usher--and one fellow even stayed in town an extra day just to come by.”  

The next Sunday I, too, dropped by Liberty Baptist Church. It sits near the highway just outside the sprawl of Summerlin, 22,000 acres of tiled roofs that stretch like a great kitchen floor from highway 95 to the mountains four miles distant. At the church door was J.R., greeting the faithful as earnestly as he presides over his charges at the Desert Inn.  

“They nicknamed me the Poker Man Preacher,” he told me. “It’s true I work in gambling, but it’s a nine to five job. I don’t force anybody to make a bet. I do know that when The Lord tells me he wants me out, I’m ready to go.”  Liberty Baptist is one of some 500 churches in Las Vegas, many of them springing up overnight in strip malls, office parks, and private homes. Denominations abound, but virtually every neighborhood in the valley has a Mormon chapel.   

“This town needs its churches,” observed J.R. “Vegas can be a very cruel town. I’ve seen so many marriages break up because the man can’t stay away from gaming. And of course prostitution’s legal up in Pahrump, 90 miles from town. You’ve always got Satan pulling your chain someplace, but Vegas seems to have a lot more chains for him to get ahold of.”    

Some complain about the reach of development in the Las Vegas Valley, but the place came pretty much pre-paved to begin with. A concrete-like crust of caliche--the sun-dried lakebed of an earlier, wetter era--stretches from foothill to foothill. It discourages builders from digging basements and pushes up the price of a swimming pool.   

“They need dynamite to plant trees,” said Margaret Kurtz, a staff member showing me around the manicured grounds and retro-Roman statuary of Caesars Palace. But beneath that bone-dry lakebed is a honeycomb of aquifers. Backstage at Caesars’ Circus Maximus showroom she showed me a huge elevator mechanism.  

“At the bottom of the elevator shaft there’s a sump pump that runs 24 hours a day,” she said. “Caesars is on top of an underground river.”  

The first European explorers circled around the parched Las Vegas valley. But when the Spanish Trail from Salt Lake City cut through in the early 1800s, they found Paiute Indians living along an artesian spring oasis of tall grasses, mesquite and cottonwoods. They named it Las Vegas, The Meadows. Mormons made an abortive effort to colonize the site in 1851, gave up seven years later, but returned with the railroad in 1905. Nearby Hoover Dam brought the next boom as some 5,000 workers filled hotels, bars, and casinos--legalized by the state just in time, in 1931. They stayed to work at nearby military installations during World War II.  

There was already one fancy hotel out on the Strip when New York mobster Bugsy Siegel built his plush Flamingo Hotel there in 1946. Bugsy got rubbed out by his business partners the following year. Within a decade, a dizzying number of casino hotels had sprung up on the Strip and Downtown, virtually all of them with underworld ties.  

That’s the way things stayed until early one morning in November 1966, when a train made an unscheduled stop along Industrial Road, a block west of the Strip. An ambulance hastily loaded a passenger from the train, then sped to the Desert Inn. A draped gurney was rolled through the lobby and into an elevator.  

“The doors slid closed, and that was the last any of us saw of Howard Hughes,” recalled Harry Williams, the Desert Inn vice-president who was the manager on duty that morning. 

The billionaire snapped up the Desert Inn for $13.2 million, then went on a casino shopping spree that included the Sands, the Frontier, The Castaways, the Silver Slipper, and the Landmark. Following Hughes’ lead, MGM, Hilton and Holiday Inn quickly became casino owners, too. The mob wasn’t run out of Las Vegas; Howard Hughes bought it out.    

“Hughes stayed nine years to the day,” Williams said. “Ducked out through a fire exit and caught a plane to the Bahamas from Nellis Air Force Base. After he left I entered his suite, went to open the drapes, and they came crashing down on me. It was all dry rotted. In nine years, they’d never been opened.”   

The city can be ruthless when it comes to forsaking its landmarks. Hughes’ old aerie is just another top floor Desert Inn Suite. And the Flamingo Hilton seems downright proud of having torn down Bugsy’s private apartment to make way for a new wedding chapel.  

“Las Vegas is new all the time,” explains Joey Ciadella, for 27 years known around Caesars as the Singing Bellman. 

“Three and a half years ago I built my dream home, the home I would retire in. Then they decided to build a new beltway right through it. They gave me fair market value, so I can’t complain. But my wife, now she can complain!”    

Like a cruise ship on a sea of sand, Las Vegas blazes with a riot of lights, music, and 20 million annual visitors desperate to have the time of their lives. 

They fly in, they drive in, they jostle through crowded casinos for 5 1/2 days--up from an average of 3 1/2 just a few years ago--in search of that statistical lightning bolt known as a jackpot.  “Vegas now has 85,000 hotel and motel rooms,” said Gary Gregg of the Hilton. “It will have 20,000 more in the next 2 1/2 years. And you know what? I’ll bet you our occupancy rates won’t drop one bit.”  

When Atlantic City, New Jersey, became the first US city outside Nevada to have casino gaming in 1978, the chill could be felt from the Strip all the way up Vegas Vic’s spine. But the negative impact on Vegas was so slight that people forgot to worry when state after state began sanctioning casino gaming. In fact, all of that seems only to have whetted America’s appetite for Vegas.   

“The greatest period of growth in this town began the day the first dice rolled in Atlantic City,” said Bob Maxey, CEO of the MGM Grand. “This is the only place where gaming is the basic industry, like the automobile industry in Michigan and the software manufacturers in Silicon Valley. No one instituted gaming here as a cure for bad fiscal planning.” Outside Maxey’s office window, a jackhammer pounded away at the sidewalk to make way for a new monorail system that would soon connect the MGM with another megaresort, Ballys, a half-mile up the street.   

A growth spurt of heroic proportions occurred in 1994, when, with the opening of the MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and the Excalibur, Vegas added more hotel rooms than there are in all of San Francisco. 

The following year saw the pyramid-shaped Luxor, with its indoor Nile river cruise overlooked by a New York City skyline (King Kong hangs from a miniature Chrysler Building).  For every 100,000 people who come to Las Vegas to play, 250 come to stay. That adds up to nearly 50,000 new residents a year. Unemployment is the lowest in the country. Home prices are the lowest in the West. There’s no corporate or personal income tax. Retirees who can’t afford Phoenix, families who can’t bear the natural calamities of Los Angeles, Rust Belters in search of the sun have made Las Vegas the fastest growing city in America. The phone company has to issue a new local directory twice a year. A few years ago planners predicted that the Las Vegas valley would be home to 1 million people by the year 2000. That milestone was reached last summer. The latest prediction: 2 million by 2005.   

“It will happen sooner than that,” declared Jan Loverty Jones, mayor of Las Vegas.   

The City of Las Vegas encompasses the oldest part of town, including the honky tonks of Fremont Street. To the north the city includes both depressed black and Hispanic enclaves and the rapidly expanding luxury housing developments of Summerlin. What the City of Las Vegas does not include is the Strip, an unincorporated portion of Clark County and the epicenter of the region’s decade-old gaming and tourist boom.   

Jones--a longtime TV pitchwoman for a local car dealer--worries about the region’s economic reliance on the business that built Las Vegas. 

“I believe we have a five-year window to take this area’s total economic focus off gaming, or our very future is in jeopardy,” she told me. “Sure, gaming is booming, but I think a bit of the bloom is coming off. We find businesses still don’t think Las Vegas is a place to move a family, because people think we all live in casinos and our kids don’t go to school.”  

Even companies that make the move worry about what outsiders might think. Citibank employs 1,720 people at its 250,000 square-foot credit card processing facility in one of the city’s new planned communities. The complex is responsible for 25 percent of U.S. Postal Service revenue for the entire state of Nevada. Yet after deliberation, the corporation decided to use as a mailing address not Las Vegas, but The Lakes, after a nearby housing development.  

One thing the region must not do, the mayor added, is in any way depend on local residents to prop up the gaming industry when and if lean times come. “I am no fan of local gaming. It feeds on the community. That’s money that should go to schools and roads and food rather than down some slot machine.”    

Friday. The 8 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to Vegas. The airplane is throbbing with a full load of pilgrims. Overwhelmingly male, they shout and punch each others’ arms. The cabin is dark save for reading lights that splash each traveler in a harsh glow.   

I am in the next to last row. Three female flight attendants cower in the galley. Inches behind my head, three well-beered gentlemen are conducting a belching contest. All agree--and I silently concur--the winner is the fellow in the middle, with a remarkably full, rounded tone that seems to come from somewhere deep in the cargo hold.   

Across the aisle, four men feverishly make plans in Spanish.   

“We will not sleep,” one tells me. Like his friends, he is wearing a bright blue patterned shirt, open halfway to the belt. “We will play cards, and roll craps, and find ourselves some women.”  

I ask a flight attendant named Amy if she makes the Friday Vegas run often. “Oh, no.” She smiles sweetly. “Thank God. The airline rotates the flight crews. These people are very nice, but they’re--uh--excited.”   

In the terminal at McCarran International Airport, some passengers fairly bound up the jetway and fling themselves at the cluster of slot machines that waits at the gate like a party of one-armed relatives. It is here that the music of Las Vegas begins. Individually, the slot machines play little electronic themes that merrily encourage players to insert more coins. In chorus, a roomful sings as if in one voice, a half-hum, half musical mantra. 

From hotel to grocery store, from laundromat to restaurant, the leitmotif of Las Vegas will follow you.  It is the slot machine that built today’s Las Vegas. In the lazier 40s and 50s, the sound of a thriving casino was the click of a roulette wheel, the flickflickflick of a deck being dealt, the felt-muffled clatter of rolling dice. Off to the side of the real action, waiting patiently to launch their coup d’etat, were the one-armed bandits.  

“They started out as something for the women to do while their husbands played in the casino,” recalls Burt Cohen, CEO of the Strip’s Desert Inn. “The women, for some reason, didn’t like the table games.”  

The old machines were mechanical, clunky, and expensive to maintain. Electronics made them more practical in the late 1950s, and by 1961 there were about 600 of them clanging away in Las Vegas. Today, says Cohen, “We make more on our 25-cent slot machines than on craps, blackjack and roulette put together.”  

Slots helped make Steve Wynn the most powerful man in Vegas--a 1910 antique model stands in his office--but on this day, to Wynn they were a mere distraction.  

“The last thing this town needs is more slot machines,” he growled. “There are 101,000 in Clark County alone. What we do need is the value added feature, the thing that will bring people from all over the world to talk about this place.”  

Wynn was speaking specifically of the new show he’s going to mount in his luxurious new hotel, Beau Rivage. In 1994 Wynn blew up the old Dunes Hotel, which he’d bought for a song, and on this day he was fussing over drawings of the resort that would replace it.  

For a guy who started out running a bingo game in Maryland, then found a job in the gaming pit at the Golden Nugget in downtown Vegas, Wynn has done okay for himself. He now owns the Nugget. He opened his Mirage hotel on the strip--with its famous streetside volcano--in 1990. Next door a couple of years later came his Treasure Island, where a full-scale pirate ship battle is waged every 45 minutes each night. A week before our meeting, he’d been granted a billion dollar line of credit for the construction of Beau Rivage.  

“The Mirage is the finest hotel in Las Vegas,” said Wynn without fear of contradiction or humility. “But Beau Rivage will be the most wonderful, most exquisite, most lovely hotel anywhere.”   

Nearly knocking over his coffee, Wynn leaned forward and passionately enumerated the features of his new creation. 

”The rooms are huuuuuge! A typical room in this town is 380 square feet. We’re going to 510. And the bathrooms...” Now he was waxing rhapsodic. He might well have been speaking of a Rembrandt, or a sunset... ”the bathrooms have a separate john...with a door!”  Soon Wynn confessed what I already sensed. “The sickness here is that I’m not in a hurry to break ground. I love this part the best! All the magic is now, in the planning.”  

It is Wynn--with his volcano, pirate battles, and a spectacular magic show at the Mirage--who is generally credited with Las Vegas’ blossoming image as a family resort. In the wake of his success, casino theme parks and family-oriented shows have become the rage along the Strip.  

“Those guys are confused,” Wynn insisted. “It was never about children, it was about putting on a show for our guests. Despite all of the fanfare, Vegas visitors are still less than 5 percent kids. Thank God! I don’t want any more. This is no place for children.”  

Wynn’s wife Elaine takes the point even farther: The city itself is, in some ways, no place for youngsters. A longtime crusader for public education--a Las Vegas elementary school is named after her--she worries about the one-two punch of Vegas’ skyrocketing growth and its anything goes image. She points to some of the nation’s highest rates of dropouts, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism among kids.  

“You can’t hide your head in the sand and say the environment has nothing to do with it. It’s so unwholesome. So unwholesome.”    

Don King gripped the ropes in one corner of the Caesars Palace boxing ring, his flawlessly shined shoes planted in blood. The preacher in his pulpit.  

 “All I can do is just stand here and smile!” he said. “I love it! I love America!”  

From his vantage point, King--promoter of some 350 championship boxing matches, including three on the card this night--beheld a sea of glamorous people, scary looking people, rich people, sexy people. Astonishingly sculpted women draped themselves over ponytailed punks, guys weighed down by gold chains, pendants, and rings that easily outweighed their dates’ baubles by a factor of ten. Between rounds in the $500 seats, cellular phones were brandished like sabres.   

I headed up to the stands, up to the $50 seats. Here there was enough space for some folks, mostly locals, to stretch their legs out. In the outdoor arena, with the purples of sunset and the lights on and the halfhearted cheers of the crowd rising into the slightly breezy sky, the atmosphere was not unlike a well-attended twilight softball game.  

“Lots of towns identify with their professional teams,” said a fellow in shorts and a T-shirt that read “Ask Me About My Beer.” “They have a football home team and a baseball home team. Here, our home team is two guys beating each others’ brains out.”  

Below, the thud of leather gloves drew a cheer. A flurry of boos followed as the fighters fell into a clinch. The ref pushed them apart.   

I recognized that same referee, Richard Steele, a few days later when I dropped in on a North Las Vegas community center. As I watched a few local kids duke it out in two raised boxing rings, Steele introduced himself. He spoke with the same quiet authority that has seen him officiate more than 100 title fights. His true calling, he confessed, is to help Las Vegas youngsters wage heavyweight bouts against drugs, booze, and violent crime.  

“A kid comes in here,” he told me, “and he knows he’s gonna stay clean or else he’s out. As long as he stays, he’s gonna learn about boxing, and he’s gonna learn about life.”   

Down the hall from the gym is a corridor of classrooms, where local kids are taught practical skills for finding and keeping jobs: standards of appearance and behavior, interview strategies, resume preparation.  Surrounding the center--built by a partnership of government, civic, and casino groups--is a neighborhood that went up in flames during race riots in 1992. A block or so away are the boarded-up cinderblock boxes of Madison Terrace, a public housing project that became such a basket case HUD closed it down.   

Vegas copes with poverty, drugs, violence, and the influx of more than 3,000 homeless people. It is the less flattering face of any sunbelt city--only in Las Vegas, the universal ravages of poverty stand in shocking relief against a billion casino lightbulbs.  

And there is hope. With a racial mix comparable to the nation at large, Las Vegas’ minority middle class is growing at a healthy pace, says Yvonne Atkinson Gates, head of the Board of County Commissioners.  

“As many African Americans live outside our traditional black neighborhoods as live inside them,” she told me.  

We drove to the northern reaches of the city. Across the street from the blindingly stuccoed wall surrounding a new residential community rambled a rustic old ranch house, shaded by a few forlorn trees. In the yard, a horse pulled at the grass. Just five years ago, that old fella could have galloped off for miles in any direction. 

“A lot of people moved out to these ranches in the middle of nowhere years ago just so they could ride their horses,” said Gates. “Well, now the developers have built right around them.”  

By car you can orbit many of the valley’s new commnities--with wistful names like Crystal Bay and Club Pacific--but you need an invitation from a resident to get inside. Almost all have electronic gates and, in the more pricey neighborhoods, uniformed guards in reflective sunglasses. Visible through the bars are children on roller blades, retirees out for walks. On weekends, barbecue smoke wafts over the walls.   The gated community craze has even taken hold in the valley’s low-income districts, where entire apartment complexes are fenced in.  

“I like the gated developments,” said Gates. “The city is growing so fast, they give people a sense of community.”   

We circumnavigated The Lakes, a hilltop development west of town where sailboats skim a 30-acre manmade lake. 

The water comes from a shallow, undrinkable aquifer. As the desert region becomes more water conscious, such lakes have been outlawed. 

The valley’s last planned lake is Lake Las Vegas, east of town. But it’s a doozy: 320 acres with 10 miles of shoreline and lots starting at $185,000. Its 18-story-high earthen dam holds back waters pumped in from nearby Lake Mead.  

Visitors tend to run for air conditioned cover as soon as they arrive in town, so they seldom see the local folks heading off for weekends in the mountains, or gingerly navigating their boats onto crowded Lake Mead. Of course, outdoor recreation does take on some bizarre permutations in a 24-hour town, as the Hilton’s Gary Gregg discovered when he joined a softball league.  

“The games started 5 a.m., at the community college. Half the guys were drinking coffee, trying to wake up, and the rest were having a couple of beers to unwind after a night shift. About the fifth inning the sun came up, and the lights went off. It was like living backwards.”    

I drove up Bonanza Road, which leads from downtown, rises several hundred feet, and dead-ends at the foot of Sunrise Mountain with a commanding view of the whole valley. This used to be a popular lovers’ lane spot--until the Mormons built their spired temple at the end of the road. At night, the temple watches over the valley like a bemused guardian angel. The lights of the valley appear as in a galaxy. Downtown and the Strip glow at the thick center, with great arms of starry lights spinning outward from it.  

I was reminded of the competing theories on the fate of the universe: expansion to the point of oblivion; eventual collapse under its own weight; or a delicate balance resulting in permanent equilibrium. 

Las Vegas faces a similar set of possibilities. And for the city of the Next Big Thing, that may well be the biggest thing of all.  

A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the December 1996 issue of National Geographic Magazine