MARK NUTTER

LAS VEGAS: An Ironic Appreciation

Viva Las Vegas with your neon flashin’
And your one arm bandits crashin’
All those hopes down the drain
Viva Las Vegas turnin’ day into nighttime
Turnin’ night into daytime
If you see it once
You’ll never be the same again

Viva LasVegas/Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman

When I say I love Las Vegas, people shake their heads and say, “But Vegas represents everything that’s wrong with Amerca.” I grin, nod vigorously, and say, “Yes!!”

My love of Vegas is equal parts genuine appreciation and ironic enjoyment—okay, probably a little more ironic than genuine.

When I was much younger, I watched old comedy on TV. Some of my friends enjoyed Our Gang—Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla. Children acting like adults. Not me. I preferred the Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Harpo Marx—adults acting like children. They made the world of grown-ups familiar and as a result, less scary.

Something similar happens to me in Vegas. I look at the fake New York, and the fake Paris, and the fake volcano, and the fake pyramid, and I get giddy and say, “I can’t believe grown-ups built this stuff!” Ironic is perhaps not the best description of my pleasure. It seems to go deeper. But I’ll call it ironic for now.

My first trip to Vegas was in 1989, with my ex-wife Christine and the late lovely comic actress Jan Hooks. We stayed at Caesar’s Palace. Neon on the Vegas strip blazed brightly, nothing like today, but still a crazy jaw-dropping wonder. From our hotel we could see the Mirage, under construction, soon to open. Construction noise began early and continued all day. One night we were eating at the Bacchanal, Caesar’s mock Roman feast, complete with toga clad servers. Jan called an actor dressed as Caesar over to our table. “Caesar, the construction noise is bothering my friends. Could you do something about that, maybe send some centurions to stop it?” The poor actor mumbled something and beat a hasty retreat.

Among the many highlights of that first Vegas trip was seeing “Lido de Paris,” a long running topless revue at the Stardust, featuring Bobby Berosini and his Orangutans.

The apes were hilarious. Their timing was better than most human performers. Few people were aware at the time that Berosini beat his apes backstage. 

The Stardust is gone now, as is Bobby Berossini, who’s retired to Costa Rica (good riddance).

I own a Stardust t-shirt. It’s not authentic; rather it’s a mock-up of what a Stardust t-shirt might have looked like. A company called Moonshot makes t-shirts featuring long-gone Vegas resorts. I stayed at many of them:

THE RIVIERA. Dean Martin owned a piece of this resort. On one of my stays here I got a surprise upgrade to a high-roller suite—a surprise because I’ve only ever played video poker.  Aside from the spaciousness, I don’t remember much about the suite, other than the black marble female torso behind the bar.

THE SANDS. I stayed here about a year before it was torn down. The Sands was the home of the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. performed here to sold out crowds. This is also where an angry Frank Sinatra, with Mia Farrow at his side, drove a golf cart through a plate glass window. On the site of the Sands you now find the Venetian.

VEGAS WORLD. This was perhaps the goofiest of all the themed resorts on the Strip. I never stayed there, but I enjoyed walking through the outer space themed casino, with astronauts and satellites suspended from the ceiling, thinking, “Grown-ups did this.” Vegas World was the brainchild of Bob Stupak, a high stakes poker player. Stupak also erected a 25-story tower, which is now the site of the Stratosphere. 

SAN REMO. The San Remo is gone. Now it’s the Hooters Casino Hotel. I never stayed at the San Remo, or at Hooters. But if Moonshot made a San Remo t-shirt (they don’t), I’d buy one in a heartbeat. That’s where I had one of my most unforgettable Vegas experiences. I’d talked my friend Danny Smith into coming with me to the San Remo to see their featured production, Showgirls of Magic.

The show, presented in what felt like a smallish hotel meeting room, delivered as promised: showgirls sawing other showgirls in half, among other illusions. The highlight of the evening, presented between seemingly impossible feats of showgirl magic, was a specialty act. A three-hundred pound transvestite lip-synched to, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” dressed in the same skimpy outfit Cher wore on the aircraft carrier in the music video.

As if this wasn’t exquisite enough, Cher was then joined by a dwarf dressed as Sonny, and together they lip-synched “I Got You, Babe.” Danny and I giggled ourselves silly. Ironic enjoyment in spades.

I’d like to acknowledge a few other Vegas specialty acts that have delighted me over the years. These acts are genuinely impressive. I can’t imagine seeing these performers anywhere but on a Vegas stage, in a revue or a production show. It’s gratifying to know these glorious oddballs have found a home and can make a living:

Silvia Silvia, the grandmother who also happens to be a trick crossbow artist, shooting five crossbows at once.

Christian Stoinev, a strong man who balances on his hands while his chihuahua Percy climbs up his body and poses on Christian’s feet.

The gauchos. I must’ve seen this specialty act, with rotating personnel, in at least three different variety shows. A trio of Agentinian gauchos crack jokes as they perform tricks with whips and bolos.

Here are a couple entertainments that have nothing to do with irony:

The magician Shin Lim does some of the most astounding card manipulation I’ve ever seen. 

And Cirque du Soleil’s Love features thrilling circus acts done to remastered Beatles music. I’ve seen Love seven times.

Still, the ironic enjoyments have made the longest lasting impressions. Years ago, as I rode down the Vegas strip, past the fake Eiffel Tower and the fake Statue of Liberty, the cab driver informed me in all seriousnesss, “People prefer fake.”

Well, sure. Sometimes people do. Sometimes I do. Especially when I remind myself that grown-ups built that stuff.

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