BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was way late in Las Vegas one breezy summer night,
and I couldn't sleep. Not that this is a problem in Vegas --
sleeping is uniformly discouraged in that mecca of mayhem
and momentum — but it was a predicament for me. My intrepid
party and I had spent the day riding an actual roller
coaster around the New York, New York Hotel and Casino
complex and a virtual roller coaster in the IMAX "Race for
Atlantis" ride in the Caesar's Palace mall. There was also
the harrowing bungee ride atop the Stratosphere tower and
the swooping simulation of Star Trek: The Experience. I'd
seen a lot of action, I smelled of muscle cream and the
after-dinner coffee at the all-you-can-gorge buffet was
furthering my punishment by holding my eyes open.
I padded downstairs to the lobby of our hotel, the
Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. Unlike the other glitzy
amusement-park hotels in Vegas, you can actually pad into
the lobby of Debbie's place. There's a homier air to the
place, and we'd even run into Mama Reynolds herself in the
halls before. She'd begun referring to my companion and I
as "the boys."
Two elderly women were in the tiny casino, maintaining
looks of fierce determination and making a couple of nickel
slots sing their siren song. A lonely, bored bartender
slumped over the waitress stand watching ESPN across the
tables in Bogie's Bar. It was unusually sedate for 2 a.m.
in a Vegas hotel, and I didn't mind a bit.
I wound up in the movie theater, a small screen and
about 50 seats that was kept running 24/7. I sat down in
the middle of "The Tender Trap" and chuckled my way through
that wild party scene. After that, there was some
documentary footage of Bing Crosby. Reporters were asking
him questions as he walked into a Hollywood studio office
one sunny day in a crisp baby-blue suit and a neat straw
hat. He was talking about a new film project that would get
under way as soon as his co-stars finished their "gig in
Vegas." He was waiting on them because "Vegas is more fun
These days, the idea that Vegas is more fun than
Hollywood is a debate drawn on generational lines. The old
guard laments the recent Disneyfication of the Strip, the
blasting of landmark casinos to build live pirate ship
shows, and the odd transformation of gambling into "gaming."
The young families of the '90s, though, cheer the
family-friendly attractions and the covering up of the
city's inherent sleaze element. You can still have fun in
Vegas, but in vastly different ways.
Debbie Reynolds' hotel is a good example of the desert
city's molting. The dumpy little building still looks like
an excavated Holiday Inn and still stands on Convention
Center Drive just a block off Vegas' famed Strip, but it's
out of Debbie's hands and into a Bulgarian head-lock. A
debt-plagued Reynolds sold the struggling hotel and casino
at auction this summer, weeks after my charming visit. The
buyer: the World Wrestling Federation. We visited again
just before Christmas, and the switch from "Singin' in the
Rain" to "Wrath in the Ring" had already begun.
The once colorful staff has vamoosed, replaced by
neckless security men and empty floors where Hollywood
movie memorabilia had been gathered, its memories
flourishing in this humble cranny. The photos of classic
film stars that lined each floor's hallways were up for
grabs. Debbie's magnificent Hollywood Movie Museum was
vacant. When warm weather returns to the valley this
spring, an entirely new tower will be constructed over the
existing casino, which will be enlarged and remodeled. The
whole structure will be covered in black glass and boast a
giant neon lightning bolt running from the roof to the
entrance. Wrestlers and wrestling fans of every dimension
and shade soon will hoot and growl and yee-hah up and down
the formerly dignified hallways. There will be much ooh-ing
Which is not a bad thing. Vegas is all about ooh-ing and
ahh-ing, and the transformation of Las Vegas — from frenzied
flophouse to family-friendly funhouse — has rescued the city
from a slow slide into extinction. With hotel owners
constantly trying to one-up each other, the displays and
attractions are the most bold and dazzling you're likely to
find anywhere in the world. Vegas is now the most
iconoclastic city in history, determined to provide its
visitors with a one-of-a-kind experience.
Still, while Vegas erects an enormous replica of the
Great Sphinx, builds a sparkling new casino with a richly
Italian theme and opens countless buffets offering food
from around the globe, the city's uniquely American
heritage is disappearing faster than a roll of quarters at
the Wheel of Fortune slot machines. It's great to spend a
day or two wandering through the wonders of the southern
Strip, but even the most bubbly traveler eventually suffers
from stimulus overload. After a few days of costumed
chambermaids and animatronic waiters, you'll probably start
hunting someplace you can get a drink without an Egyptian
barge hanging over the bar. Such remnants of a more
grounded Vegas still exist. In fact, we found our favorite
across from the Debbie Reynolds hotel: the Silver City
Casino. Sure, it's got a theme, but unless you look up at
the dirty Western wallpaper over the gaming tables, you'd
never know it. The carpet and the change ladies have been
there since the '70s, and it's worth braving the entrance
for the cheap and tasty food alone (esp. the 99-cent
breakfast after 11 p.m.). The Silver City, on Las Vegas
Boulevard just north of Convention Center Drive, has a
compact floor of slot machines that pay off better than
most of the name-brand casinos. There are no attractions or
dazzling displays here, save the colorful blend of frat
boys and grizzled old-timers at the craps table. Drinks are
even cheap when they're not free to gamblers. The Silver
City is nothing but clean, hard gambling with nothing to
distract you from the simple and perilous joys therein.
Just south down the Strip is the elegant Desert Inn.
Aside from booking quality musical entertainment, the
Desert Inn sports the ultimate Vegas casino. Again, no
gimmicks or amusements here — just a beautifully decorated
room full of pricey tables. You'll see the vacationers in
Bermuda shorts at tables next to the oil barons in tuxes.
Nearby is the Sahara, one of the first hotel and casinos
built on the Strip. The casino there is pretty shabby, but
the breakfast buffet is an inexpensive lifesaver when the
harsh light of day rouses you from your hotel bed. Unlike
most of the city's notorious buffets, the Sahara's morning
spread is simple and hearty.
Most of the casinos downtown retain their former dignity
despite Fremont Street being turned into a pedestrian mall
covered for several blocks by an arched ceiling with hourly
light shows. This is where much of the city's hard-line
bettors have retreated — plenty of plaid sports jackets and
Foster Grants murmuring into payphones. The Gulch and the
Nugget still boast slots and tables worth the investment.
While you're downtown, enjoy a bountiful but affordable
continental meal at the Plaza. The entire Fremont strip is
your atrium view.
When the tables have taken you for granted, blow the
rest of your cash on shows. This is the real pleasure of
Vegas. Skip the overblown fads of "Lord of the Dance" and
impersonator Danny Gans and take in the classics before
retirement takes them away. Siegfried and Roy are still
taming tigers at The Mirage, and Lance Burton, Master
Magician, still tricks the eye at the Monte Carlo.
Two of the best shows involve the kicking up of heels.
"The Great Radio City Spectacular" at the Flamingo Hilton is
a classic Vegas extravaganza, full of feathers and thighs
and sequins. It stars the Radio City Rockettes plus Susan
Anton or Paige O'Hara, and it's running indefinitely with a
dinner show and cocktail show every night except, oddly
enough, Fridays. The other show features just as many
fabulous dresses even though the stars are really men.
"Boy-lesuqe" with Kenny Kerr is the longest running
headlining show in Vegas, and the drag is phenomenal.
Kerr's bawdy repartee with the audience and his crew will
have you in stitches, and if you're lucky he'll do
Streisand. "Boy-lesque" runs Tuesdays through Saturdays at
Jackie Gaughan's Plaza.
Also not to be missed is the Liberace Museum. Drive east
on Tropicana in search of it, but don't be hunting for a
palacial estate. The museum is housed in four different
spaces of an east Vegas strip mall, the main building is
probably an old IHOP. The cheap admission is worth the
chance to see the gaudy leftovers of this enormously
popular late performer. The rhinestone jumpsuits are one
thing, but the rhinestone Rolls Royce is a sight to
Check schedules for Debbie Reynolds, too — her show is a
spunky set of singing, dancing and movie memories. She'll
pop up for performances every now and then because she
still lives in Vegas, even though commercially — as the
wrestlers take hold — there's not much of a home for her
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.