Dec 28

The Lost Sin City

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Away for the Holiday

We went to Vegas over Thanksgiving for six days. The holiday hasn’t felt very homey for a very long time and we wanted to take good advantage of a few days off, so we found a good deal with Southwest and headed to the desert lights, – after all, nothing says, ‘homey’ like Las Vegas.

Old Shows, New Shows, Some Snooze Shows

We saw several shows, including some repeats for me: Blue Man Group (4th time), Penn & Teller (2nd time) as well as two new shows: Cirque du Soleil’s, “Zarkana” and an adult, burlesque themed show, “Absinthe” at Caesar’s.

Floating Eyeballs, pre-show, Blue Man Group at the Monte Carlo Resort, Vegas Nevada - iPhone 4 Photo by Glen Green

Floating Eyeballs, pre-show, Blue Man Group at the Monte Carlo Resort (iPhone 4 photo)

The first time I saw Blue Man Group was many years ago at The Luxor with a friend and we loved it. I saw it again two more times over the span of several years with different people and always enjoyed it. Now though, the show has moved to Monte Carlo with new updates, but I’m sad to say that I was underwhelmed. Perhaps I’ve just seen the show too many times and it also didn’t help that we had a very low energy audience that couldn’t be motivated to get off of their asses during the dance segments or the shows raucous conclusion. The best update to the show were the floating eyeballs, accompanied by strange – whale like songs, that cruise over the audience’s heads as they find their seats

Red stage currents, pre-show Zarkana at the Aria Resort, Las Vegas Nevada - iPhone 4 Photo by Glen Green

Red stage currents, pre-show Zarkana at the Aria Resort (iPhone 4 photo)

Zarkana was also a bit of a let down. It had been a traveling Cirque show and might really have impressed on the road or for first timers but it didn’t have the scale or cohesiveness of some of their other shows (my favorites being ‘O and Ka.)

Penn and Teller ticket featuring Mike Jones Duo, Rio Resort, Las Vegas Nevada - Photo by Glen Green

Penn and Teller ticket

However, Penn and Teller were once again great – they are true performers who put sincere energy into the shows that they do. Unlike Copperfield, who sleep walks through his act, P&T put energy into their show and don’t give the impression that they do hundreds each year. They also constantly add and remove acts from their sets, so even though I’d seen some of the routines before, others were brand new. It’s also worth noting that they’re decent and approachable enough to stay and greet their audience at the end of the show.

The Absinthe stage at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas Nevada - iPhone 4 Photo by Glen Green

The Absinthe stage at Caesar’s Palace (iPhone 4 photo)

Lastly, Absinthe was a small show, performed inside a “tent” on the grounds outside of the main Caesar’s Palace casino. – I’ll start with my only nag about the show which was the poor seating, which was comprised of folding chairs circling a small stage area. (The stage was no more than 15 feet in diameter I’d guess.) The chairs weren’t comfortable and didn’t afford a great view (although much of the act did occur on some sort of raised platform.) It wasn’t horrible, and the tent was small so that nobody was very far away from the action but the seating would have benefited from some risers, stair-stepping higher the further from the stage they sat and some better padding.

That complaint aside, the show was very funny with off-colored humor and high energy, intimate acts. I’m sure that the show would offend some, but I took the humor to be very self aware, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Sin – Registered, Trademarked, Patent Pending

I still love Vegas even though I’m not really a gambler. – I’ll put a few dollars in a slot machine on occasion to pass some time and to feel as if I’m participating in the experience but I think I must have been there too many times in recent years because I had a day where I was bored and more than one occasion where I was frustrated by how corporate everything has become. – It use to be that Vegas was a place where you could get a deal but that’s getting harder and harder to come by: shows are expensive, meals are expensive (although with many better options, I have to admit) and even the hotels have irksome fees.

The following screen cap from the MGM website shows what the “Grand King” room, which I booked, supposedly includes. – You’ll note, “high-speed wi-fi” is listed.

MGM Grand's Hotel, "Grand King" room inclusions

MGM Grand’s, “Grand King” room inclusions

So, I was dismayed when I was checking in and was told of a “Resort Fee” that added another $180 (or so) dollars to my tab. When I asked what the fee was for, I was told that it covered internet access and pool use.

Well, discounting the fact that wi-fi was already included in the room inclusions, and that anybody, guest or not, could hop onto the wi-fi network, I guess I paid $180 for pool access. Alas, all of the pools were closed but one – and that one was at the very extent of the property at the “Signature Towers” (approximate a 15 minute walk through the maze of the hotel and casino from our room.) Furthermore, the pool had limited hours and wasn’t heated and given that temperatures seldom went above the mid-seventies in the day and dropped to the fifties in the evening, was a useless ‘amenity’ to me.

I know that Vegas is constantly reinventing itself and that it’s no place for the sentimental, but I’m sad to also see that most of the free attractions have also disappeared. The latest attraction to go extinct was the free Lion exhibit at MGM. A shame, because, although I’ve never dropped much money gambling in Vegas, I’ve spent my fair share of greenbacks on my many visits and one of the reasons I’ve gone to the city in the past is the idea that I could get a deal and see some spectacle by just walking around.

Another one of my favorite aspects of Vegas is that it is over the top and surreal, but I realized that most of the old light lined streets are gone now – with the exception of The Flamingo and a few others. Now, the themed hotel / casinos are disappearing. I know that they were corporate manifestations as well but at least they were gauche – and I say that as a compliment. The new properties are classier, but not as much fun. I want a little ‘tacky’ in my Las Vegas. The sights are becoming more homogenous and tailored to the latest fashion.

Green glass, interior decor, entry way at the Aria Resort's Cafe Vettro, Las Vegas Nevada - iPhone 4 Photo by Glen Green

The beautiful, Chic but somewhat sterile, Green glass, interior decor, entry way at the Aria Resort’s Cafe Vettro (iPhone 4 photo)

Even the slots have changed – sure the coins were dirty, (- shouldn’t Vegas be a little sincerely dirty?) but I miss the clatter of silver winnings pinging into the tray. The one-armed bandits have been replaced with reward cards and buttons. Gambling was always a pursuit for those challenged at math, but the slot machines really feel like Skinner Boxes now.

Fremont Street still has some old school character, but it’s small and showing signs of change to the new corporate mandate as well.

The Pasta Pirate - Classic lights and signs at old town's California Casino, Las Vegas Nevada - iPhone 4 Photo by Glen Green

The Pasta Pirate – Classic lights and signs at old town’s California Casino (iPhone 4 photo)

Overall, much of Vegas just feels tamed now and it’s lost much of it’s Americana and sense of urban wilderness.

I was first taken to Vegas by my parents when I was a teenager and I’ll never forget the glow of the city as it rose like a sunrise from the utter blackness of the desert night. I can still remember the eye-opening awe of the city which seemed all the brighter from the miles of empty, light-less driving that led to it. In the years since, I’ve often enjoyed Vegas as a hub to kick start many adventures into the natural wilderness that surrounds it since the city is centrally located to the Grand Canyon, the Utah parks, Death Valley, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Lake Powell and others.  I think that for my next visit, I’ll have to make Vegas a hub into the wild again, staying only shortly at the start and end of the trip and hope that Vegas again gets a little more wild itself in the coming years.

 In a city of illusion, where change is what the city does, it’s no wonder Las Vegas is the court of last resort, the last place to start over, to reinvent yourself in the same way that the city does, time after time. For some it works; for some it doesn’t, but they keep coming and trying.

– Hal Rothman

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