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Las Vegas getting rolling again

Times Staff Writers

If America was returning Saturday to some semblance of normality, the evidence was found in this abnormal city of showgirls, slots and stand-up comics.

About three-quarters of the town's 125,000 hotel rooms were filled--even if it took bargain-basement rates to draw tourists. Casino dealers gauged the level of gambling Friday night at about two-thirds of what a normal Friday night would generate, a marked improvement over the previous weekend.

And perhaps the most accurate assessment of business in Sin City rebounding after the worst week in its history came from cabdriver Heon Kim, in queue Friday night in front of the medieval Excalibur hotel. He said he figured to make $100 or $120 this shift. "Normally I'd make $200 a night," he said, "but since the attack, it's been $35, maybe $45, a night."

Las Vegas was slowly but surely rebounding, even if its spirit was flagging.

Consider the mood offered by Michael and Debbie Sissa as they crossed the pedestrian bridge over Las Vegas Boulevard late Friday night, heading from the emerald-green MGM Grand to the mock-skylined New York-New York. By all appearances they were rich in a Vegas moment.

They carried "EFX Alive" show programs and swishy lime-green drinks in plastic cups. Electronic signboards up and down the Strip flashed dazzling colors, demanding attention. An Elvis impersonator looking more like Johnny Cash walked nonchalantly past them, and the couple giggled.

They knew they weren't in San Jose anymore.

"But we still can't forget about it," Michael Sissa said. "Maybe only for short periods of time. Being here kind of lessens it. But that's all."

"It", of course, is the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon--or maybe now, it is the apprehensive waiting for what's next. In either case, Las Vegas offered a refuge for folks trying to forget it all in a city that prides itself in shielding its customers from reality.

Earlier in the week, America wasn't ready to return to fantasy. Hotel occupancy plummeted to all-time lows. Casinos and cab companies laid off hundreds of workers. It was possible even on Saturday to make same-day reservations for the town's top shows and celebrity-chef restaurants.

"People are not spending what they normally do," lamented Robert Brennan, a Mandalay Bay pit boss. "We are just walking on eggshells around here."

Ernie Moody, a Las Vegas resident, sat joylessly in the casino's quiet sports book late last week, staring at a racing form. The terrorist attack, he said, "has taken a lot of the fun out of it."

Tom Vignato, who hails cabs at Mandalay Bay and is accustomed to $5 tips for advancing people in line, said he had few customers earlier in the week.

But President Bush admonished America to get back to work--and play--and Friday night found Sin City rediscovering its ways.

With the Fernando Vargas-Jose Flores prizefight at Mandalay Bay Saturday night and the National Football League back on the field, "this weekend will be the first big test," said Tom Kapics, at the Mandalay Bay sports book.

Already, Caesars Palace seemed to have returned to normal. On Thursday, to prop the place up, weekend rooms were offered at $89. But so many gamblers were ready to return to Caesars that by Friday the rates had returned to a more typical $339 per night, and the hotel was virtually sold out for the weekend, said spokeswoman Debbie Munch.

A croupier at New York-New York looked around and nodded positively. "We're not there yet, but we're getting close to normal," he said of his casino.

The casino was still not Friday-night noisy. Entire pits of table games remained roped off, silent and empty. Even among the crowded craps tables, there was little of the boisterous cheering that trumpets hot dice. Bucket-toting gamblers played slot machines with names that connected them to the outside world, like "Red White & Blue" and "American Pride."

Inside the Tropicana casino, Frank Canora of Deptford, N.J., watched his girlfriend hit a $250 jackpot on a quarter machine, and talked of therapy, Las Vegas style. "People have got to stop dwelling on it," he said of the attacks. "We are down, and we need an uplift."

On the Tropicana's mezzanine level, stand-up comic John Joseph played to a mostly filled room that was cracking up with howls.

"As an audience, they were great, and not just because I was 'on.' They were even better than that," Joseph said after the show. "They wanted to get away from CNN and from despair. They just wanted to laugh."

Downstairs, in the Celebration Lounge, Cuban-born singer Veronica Valdes was working the crowd, pulling men onto the dance floor to swing and swivel with her, much to their own embarrassment but to the delight of wives and girlfriends.

She implored the bunch to clap, and they did, and to sing familiar refrains, and they did. Draped from a column on the bandstand was an American flag; over the bar, one of three television sets showed news from New York, and another showed Ted Koppel's stern visage.

"This group, they were a little hard to work tonight," Valdes said later. "They wanted more to be entertained than to participate."

Perhaps the most somber place in town was New York-New York, where, in front of a 150-foot-high model of the Statue of Liberty framed by fire boats spraying water, a memorial was created more than a week ago with a single red rose, left behind by a Canadian couple who married the day of the attacks.

Now, the tributes stretch more than 50 feet along the wrought-iron fence: flowers, candles, sympathy cards, hand-colored American flags and handwritten sentiments left in front of a faux New York skyline--mercifully one without twin towers--by tourists who came here to play but still mourned.

For several minutes, Arek Kurkciyan gazed upon the display. "I'm a New York City paramedic," he said. "I lost seven people I worked with. Former partners. But now I'm here, in Vegas. The president said, go on with your regular lives. I'm here for a wedding. I thought about not coming, but I needed to get away from everything for a little while.

"So here I am in Vegas. Look at this," he said of the memorial. "You can't escape what happened. It's everywhere you go. But I'm still going to try to have fun. It's OK, you know. Otherwise, you're letting the terrorists win."

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