Upgrades, poker, O.J. and Celine
Last month marked a decade of reporting on Las Vegas, not to mention living here. To mark this occasion, here are lessons, signal events and amazing moments that have made covering this city the most fascinating work I could have ever dreamed.
Vegas goes Versailles
Between 1999 and 2009 Las Vegas didn’t just grow, it upgraded from the land of cheap buffets and tacky souvenir shops to hosting celebrity restaurants and high-end stores near as numinous as the stars in the heavens. The Strip en masse went from neon cheese to where it now aspires to embody a Catskills for L.A.'s cognoscenti of conspicuous consumption.
O.J. Simpson was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced up to 33 years for a robbery and kidnapping incident involving guns inside the obscure locals casino Palace Station. According to court testimony and recordings, much of the planning for this crime was done by the pool at the luxurious Palms.
No resident headliner since Elvis Presley in 1969 had the effect of Celine Dion when she began to perform “A New Day” at her 4,000-seat custom theater at Caesars in 2003. No one will know how much money she generated in restaurants, hotel rooms and at the tables before she headed off on world tour. But her real gift was to show that an artist who was not over the hill had a way not just to thrive in Vegas but to leave a bigger star than when she arrived. Elton John, Prince and Santana followed.
In 2003 the room tax-supported Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority launched the most successful promotion in the history of the city’s tourism: “What happens here stays here.” The campaign got an early boost when the NFL refused to allow one of the television commercials hinting at naughty times in Vegas to run during the Super Bowl. The objection was probably more to Vegas’ taking bets on the big game than the contents of the advertisement. But the free press was even more valuable to the city than being part of the biggest game/advertising event of the year. In one sentence, family Vegas was dead and Sin City was back.
In December 2008, two Vegas institutions got upgrades, one practical and the other supersized. The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign was given parking spaces so that tourists no longer needed to brave death for a photo by jutting across the Strip to the sign, which sits on a median. Farther north, the Mirage’s volcano was rebuilt to be bigger, louder (courtesy of the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart) and even more pyrotechnics added.
The opening of the Palms in November 2001. Of course, Paris Hilton was there. And soon MTV was filming a season of “The Real World.” The huge Strip resorts had dreamed for years of doing what George Maloof pulled off effortlessly: being hip. Before long this off Strip property was being visited by seemingly every celebrity imaginable.
The power of poker
What happened to blackjack? It would be hard to assign a specific moment when the poker phenomenon took off. But what had been at best an obscure part of the casino, the poker room, became a magnet for tourists and the best players (unlike any other gamblers) became celebrities. The World Series of Poker, after years in dirty downtown Vegas at Binion’s, now is owned by Harrah’s and held at the far more styling Rio with highlights broadcast on ESPN.
You did not lose your keys somewhere in the casino. Remember: You used valet. (And after you get acquainted with Vegas life, you learn the best places to self-park in all the casinos.)
Ever since Elvis bloated up and self-destructed here, the city has been a metaphor for has-beens. And for decades many boomer rock stars, no matter how much they toured, would not play Vegas. No one symbolized this more than Bruce Springsteen, who despite decades on the road had never played Vegas. In May 2000, Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band changed that at the MGM Grand.
The plans for the development’s public art alone speaks to the aspirations of CityCenter. A gambling resort is supposed to have a decor enhanced by works from Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Frank Stella, Henry Moore and Richard Long. After overcoming serious troubles, including construction safety and financing, CityCenter plans to open in phases from October to December. Costing more than any other resort project in Vegas history, an estimated $8.5 billion, this massive mix of condominiums, shopping, gambling, dining and shows (including Cirque’s take on Elvis) will add thousands of new rooms to the Strip’s inventory and jobs for the local economy.