When Charles Silverman journeyed to the Nile River a year ago, his task was to envision how the world's longest waterway might flow alongside crap tables and dollar slots.
He studied how King Tut's tomb might be used as a place for diners to wait for a table at a Polynesian-style restaurant and how artifacts from Theban temples might line the path to the keno lounge.
Now, Silverman and his company, along with architect Veldon Simpson and special-effects wizards, are re-creating the ancient world in the $360-million, 2,500-room Luxor Hotel, a pyramid-shaped entertainment and casino complex rising from the sands in Las Vegas.
Yates-Silverman Inc., which just moved its headquarters and staff of 40 to Irvine from Los Angeles, has designed dozens of Vegas casinos and hotel rooms, but Circus Circus Enterprises' Luxor may be the grandest, if not the most exotic. The days of red- and black-velvet decor are gone, and casino designers now take their cues more from Disney Imagineers than from fabric experts.
The Luxor "is the most interesting and difficult," Silverman said. "We are giving a complete Egyptian experience as if in the age of the pharaohs.
"All casinos have the same product to offer, the same dice, the same card games. But you would rather go into something that is adventurous than just plain vanilla."
Silverman, 60, is remarkably low-key for a man in such a glitzy business.
His company had a hand in designing half the casinos and hotel interiors on the Vegas Strip, and it has worked in other gaming meccas such as Reno, Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe. Yet Silverman is nonchalant when he speaks of his trips to Scotland, the inspiration for the medieval-themed Excalibur Hotel in Vegas, and when he points to a chair with falcons carved in its armrests. (It will be placed in a Luxor restaurant.)
"We're in the marketing business, not the designing business," Silverman said. "Say someone wanted us to design the best hotel in Orange County where it would win lots of awards and people would call us the best designers for our work. We don't do that. That's not us."
Silverman started out as a designer in 1961 with Albert Parvin & Co. in Los Angeles. His first assignment was to design guest rooms at the Sands Hotel, at the time in its glory days as a home away from home for the Rat Pack. (Frank Sinatra wanted his dressing room redone but never showed up to give details, even though Silverman waited for several days to get the singer's input.)
"At that point, a casino was a heavy, dark, intimate atmosphere," Silverman said. "It was not for non-gamers."
The big demand then was for renovation work. Because casinos have heavy foot traffic and their rooms must endure disgruntled gaming losers, they must be renovated often. A lounge in a casino, for example, might have to be redone every four years, whereas one in a conventional hotel might withstand the wear and tear for a decade.
Silverman and another designer, Bill Yates, started their own business in 1971. By the time Yates retired seven years later, Las Vegas had seen an explosion of hotels and casinos designed to lure repeat business by making visits memorable. Circus Circus, aimed at the middle-income market, had taken off, as had Caesars Palace, a more upscale casino and hotel with an ancient Roman theme.
Rooms, Silverman said, "became lighter, brighter and friendlier. Not everyone was there to gamble." Casinos depended more on "pizazz," he said.
Casino owners began giving designers more leeway and heftier budgets than conventional hotels offered.
"You're not talking apples to apples," said Joe Miraglia, whose Cherry Hills, N.J., company has designed casinos and hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. "You're talking a Chevy to a Cadillac."
By the late 1980s, developers were thinking bigger and more outlandish. The Mirage, with its dolphin shows, white tigers and replica of an active volcano, opened in Las Vegas in 1989. Taking even more of a theme-park approach, the Excalibur opened the next year featuring a replica of a European castle and jousting matches.
The move to theme resorts was fueled by the growth of gambling nationwide, starting in Atlantic City, which legalized gambling in 1976, and spreading to Mississippi riverboats, then to card casinos on Indian reservations. Las Vegas responded by focusing on families, who want destination vacations that offer more than the prospect of losing your shirt.
The idea today is to create "an adult amusement park," said Robert DiLeonardo, president of DiLeonardo International in Warwick, R.I. "They're taking a theme to the nth degree. But it's far beyond thematic. You've got to understand the operation."
At the Luxor, fiberglass and plaster re-creations of Egyptian artifacts will be used to give the appearance of an archeological dig. The 90,000-square-foot casino ceiling will be marked with hieroglyphics, and Sphinx-like figures will greet the guests. An Egyptologist from the University of Chicago was hired "to maintain authenticity," Silverman said.
"We need two full-sized camels," he said. "And you don't just go to a camel store. We had to hire someone to make them."
The Luxor will feature lagoon-like pools and a re-creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Hotel elevators will rise at a 39-degree angle up the slope of the pyramid, which was designed by architect Simpson.
There will be a 1,000-seat arena, a 300-seat Polynesian restaurant (with fiberglass "bamboo" made in Pompano Beach, Fla.) and, of course, the full-scale reproduction of Tut's tomb. To make sure that the initial design work is on target, Silverman will visit Egypt again next week.
Silverman admits that he finds his job fascinating. In what other business, he asks, "would you consider flying to Cairo to look at replicas of King Tut's tomb?"