Mall of the Roman Empire - Vegas as Shopping Destination? Welcome to Caesar's New. . .

CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS, TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

At the height of his circus days, the story goes, P.T. Barnum found his customers lingering too long at the Greatest Show on Earth, thereby inhibiting cash flow. So Barnum had a sign painted over one of the doors: This Way to the Egress . The customers, perhaps expecting to see something with feathers and a beak, followed and found themselves out on the street. Problem solved.

Step right up, P.T., to The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. The new shopping complex adjoins the Caesars casinos, cost an estimated $100 million and promises to add new depth to our understanding of the term excessive . The statues talk. The false sky evolves from sunrise to sunset every hour or two. A Spago restaurant is due in August. Animatronics-driven, laser-laden and high-end down to its subterranean valet parking lot, the place is a model of mallsmanship and a marvel of manipulated egress. Only this time, P.T., the proprietors have arranged their exits to keep you in until you render unto Caesar a visit to the gaming rooms.

"There is no escape," said one young man last week, squinting out at Las Vegas Boulevard from the east end of the indoor shopping area.

Before him lay two moving walkways, both carrying customers in from the street. A third moving walkway carried customers directly to the two Caesars casinos and the 1,500 Caesars hotel rooms beyond. There was no path back to the street. The only way out, it seemed, was through the casinos.

The Accessorized Empire

The first Forum stores opened quietly, by Las Vegas standards, on May 1. But the bigger sell began May 11, when the mall unveiled its talking statues and dancing lasers at a private Bacchanalia for a specially chosen audience: conventioneers from the International Council of Shopping Centers. Those convened found no "anchor" department stores: Why court Nordstrom when the adjoining Caesars Palace casinos draw an estimated 10 million visitors yearly? But Gucci is here (opening in July), as are Louis Vuitton and clothiers from Ann Taylor to Victoria's Secret, all arrayed in Romanesque architecture along a single-level promenade.

The center includes 240,000 leasable square feet on eight acres, and though at least one high-profile name has vanished from the tenant list--that of Los Angeles restaurateur Nicky Blair--the mall's marketers say 95% of their space is leased. Included are 27 clothing, shoe and accessory stores, 20 specialty and service shops, 11 restaurants and food outlets, three art galleries, one jewelry store and no bookstores.

By last week, about 45 of the Forum businesses had opened. All along the marbled halls, merchants were scrambling to persuade customers that Las Vegas is not merely a place to gamble, but a place to buy a jeweled baseball cap for $39, or a pearl-and-crystal necklace/breastplate for $1,850.

In The French Room, where the above items glittered on display, a silent man sat while his wife sampled merchandise. His face was frozen in a 1,000-mile stare.

"Stunning," said a companion as the man's wife modeled an accessory. "Stunning, stunning, stunning!" The man stared on.

Of Bacchus, Tony Curtis and 7,000 Shoes

Out on the strip, Caesars pitches the Forum shops with gleaming statuary, monumental columns and those inbound moving walkways.

Entering from the casinos, you first see tons of marble. Then false cumulus puffs in a false blue sky. Then a 20-foot goddess of good fortune, who presides over a row of tall columns, false second stories and thematized storefronts.

Either way, it's an epic sort of experience. Inside, along the course of the L-shaped mall, lie a pair of piazzas and the Festival Fountain, where statues of Bacchus, Plutus, Venus and Apollo stir to life, celebrate a loud and laser-punctuated party, and lapse again into idleness once or twice every hour.

"Warnerius Fraternius Studius Storus" reads the subtitle of the Warner Bros. merchandise outlet.

"Everything is kind of tongue-in-cheek. Caesars doesn't take itself too seriously," said Caesars spokeswoman Debbie Munch, leading an early tour on the day of the mall's coming-out party.

But like a proper Roman democracy, the mall speaks with many voices. And at the Minotaur's Forum Gallery, art consultant David Ryder seemed serious indeed as he pointed out elaborate glassworks, bright acrylic paintings and the room in back that held a $189,000 signed Picasso print.

"The gallery you're in right now," he proclaimed, "is the best in the United States."

A few feet away stood a sign advertising the next special exhibit at the gallery: paintings by Tony Curtis, "master of film, maestro of painting."

Other merchants were chatting up first-time visitors, arranging wares, polishing fixtures. The customers were plentiful and various, some fresh and alert, some clearly suffering casino fatigue. Out on the piazza, one overtired tourist had collapsed at Neptune's sculpted feet, his head flung back, his mouth agape as the sunrises and sunsets raced by above.

At Shoooz, the owners had carefully cracked their front window, seeking a mock-ruin look. The Museum Company offered a facsimile bust of Queen Nefertiti for $125. On the racks at Vasari, an Italian wool blazer carried a $550 tag.

Inside the Warner Bros. store leaned a Looney Tunes golf bag, accompanied by a bilingual price tag: $598, it said on one side; 70,000 yen, it said on the other. The price tags were evidently a good idea. Two of those bags sold in the store's first two weeks, a clerk reported, and both went to Japanese customers.

At Just for Feet, a cavernous athletic footwear store with 7,000 kinds of shoes and a bank of blazing video monitors, company president Harold Ruttenberg estimated that 150,000 people had passed through his store in its first weekend, many pausing to test the demonstration basketball court.

"It's a free-for-all," said Ruttenberg. "The more that's going on in here, the more we like it."

On the Mallsters' Tour

Even amid all this spectacle, the convening shopping-center professionals stood out clearly. Strolling the halls in dark suits, daring ties and name tags, they inspected details.

At Brookstone, while standard customers fingered the $15 muscle massagers and $120 croquet sets, two professionals stood just outside the door, pondering subtleties only a mallster could fathom.

"Three-foot drop," said one, staring down at the steps.

"Mmmmm," said the other.

Caesars went all out for them. Once the masses were shooed out and the private party was underway, the Forum filled with food, drink, hostesses in togas, an Asian leopard in a 6-foot-by-6-foot cage, a squad of brawny young men bearing shields and grim expressions, a parading Caesar and Cleopatra, and a curvaceous wildlife specialist with a five-foot boa entwined in her cleavage. It was not a feather boa.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen . . . " began beaming developer Sheldon Gordon, addressing the crowd. "Oh, wait. That's the wrong speech."

He and the other speakers offered a brief history. For years, Caesars maintained a Formula One racetrack on this land and confined its shopping offerings to the upscale designer stores of its Appian Way mini-mall. But in 1986, the company began considering other possibilities for the racetrack, and soon several major players took up positions.

Caesars leased the land to Melvin Simon and Associates of Indianapolis (builders of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.) and the Gordon Company of Southern California (builders of the San Francisco Centre and the Beverly Center). The developers hired Marnell Corrao Associates as architects, and producer Ed Auswacks of Laser Media Inc. (visual effects producers for Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson and the Epcot Center in Florida, among others) led the dozen high-tech contractors who together designed and built the Festival Fountain.

The mall is not the largest in town; the Fashion Show Mall half a mile down the strip is three times the size, and has Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bullocks outlets. But the Forum shops strike shoppers between the eyes.

"We look at it not as just a shopping mall, but an entertainment feature," said Jack Leone, vice president for communications at Caesars. "I don't want this to sound chauvinistic, but women make a lot of the travel decisions in families. And if there's a wonderful shopping experience in Las Vegas, it's just an added amenity. It's like a Rodeo Drive in Las Vegas, when you think about it."

Leone and Caesars officials are upfront about the mall's foot traffic system: They want bodies in their casinos. They note, however, that a shopper could avoid the casino by using the underground valet parking, or by descending to the valet parking area and walking out alongside an access street to Las Vegas Boulevard. If customers were to clamor for an outbound walkway, Leone said, "It's something we've said we will look at."

After the speeches, the mall people gathered around the Festival Fountain, the lights dimmed and the atmospheric sound began to swell: Bacchus' opening night.

The programmed voices were difficult to decipher because of the echoing stonework, but the music, the lasers and the deep, green, blinking Animatronic eyes of Venus clearly made an impression. Applause echoed beneath the changeable skies, the Peter Duchin Orchestra struck up a song.

Filling his plate at the mall professionals' buffet line, Richard Rosenblum, a commercial real estate specialist from Youngstown, Ohio, announced that he believed the mall would succeed.

Down the promenade in Boogie's Diner and clothing store, Frank Rice of the San Diego-based Baldwin Company was more guarded.

"The real test is going to be whether the demographics of the typical Las Vegas tourist match the high-end nature of this place," said Rice. "It's sort of an '80s development."

Exit, Stage Right

Wait. Remember the young man at the east end of the shopping center? The one who couldn't find a way out? His story has an ending.

As he and his female companion stood considering their options, a passerby suggested they go back through the casinos.

"But we just came from the casino," said the young woman.

Instead of heading back that way, the couple scanned the scene for security guards and elected to defy Caesar. Hand in hand, they dashed out the "in" walkway, treating the approaching customers to perhaps the only unadvertised attraction at Caesars Palace Las Vegas that day, and one that would have made P.T. Barnum smile in spite of himself. That's right: the four-footed rebel egress.

Guidebook Lounging in Las Vegas There are 76,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, and another 11,000 are expected by the middle of 1994. Many of them are inexpensive ($40 for a weekday night, double occupancy, is not unusual) to lure gamblers to the casinos. Caesars Palace is not one of these. Perenially counted maong the most expensive and luxurious hotels in town, Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd., South, Las Vegas 89109, (800) 634-6661.

For those looking elsewhere, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority runs a room reservation hot line (800) 332-5333. Other visitor information is available from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, .2301 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas 89104, (702) 457-4664.

Whenever you go, don't expect solitude. Even in the teeth of a recession, the Convention and Visitors Authority reported 21.2 million visitors last year, a 2% increase from 1990.

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