Published: July 19, 1991
Dateline: Las Vegas

``WELCOME to Las Vegas," chirped the flight attendant. "Your bags will be on carousel A. Good luck!"

Good luck. I was neutral on Las Vegas for exactly 40 steps -- the distance from the American Airlines gate to the first bank of slot machines at McCarran International Airport. "Please give me 50 cents," I told my fun consultant. "This is important research here. We're looking for a sign."

"We're looking for carousel A," she said, handing me two quarters and walking away. Three bars came up. I scooped $4 out of the tray. Two minutes on the ground and we were up on this chump town already.

Last year, 20 million tourists pumped more than $14 billion into this national shrine of glorious excess. That's a lot of $10 hotel rooms and $2 prime-rib dinners. Somewhere between the artistic bankruptcy of Nudes on Ice and the perils of the all- you-can-eat Seafood-O-Rama beats the true heart of Mammon. All it would take to find it is one adrenaline-jacked weekend rampage of mindless consumption. And a trunk-load of expense-account money to be spent on every conceivable vice from machine guns and mai tais to inflatable pool toys. Good luck.

3 p.m. Friday: I was standing in line at a car rental place on Paradise Road, looking at the five-story tall Gibson guitar shimmering in the heat across the way, when I noticed the consultant eyeballing the flashy car videos. "As your fun adviser, I recommend you get an upgrade. Get one of those . . . 'romance specialty cars,' " she said. She had a point. You can't piddle around in some little Japanese tin can in this town and expect to be taken seriously. In order to do the job right, we would need a seriously obscene car.

We got a midnight-blue Chrysler convertible with an engine and suspension system beefy enough to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace. The last convertible on the lot. I calculated the odds of inflicting major damage on the Last Convertible to be roughly equal to that of an ace/deuce proposition bet at the craps tables -- 15 to 1. I took the collision damage waiver.

Crawling along Paradise we tuned to a country station and heard a song titled "Would Jesus Wear A Rolex." In this town? Damn straight he would.

By the time we got checked into a room on the top floor of the Flamingo Hilton, it was too late to hit the Liberace Museum and Wayne Newton's house. Besides, Wayne was out of town.

Bugsy Siegel wouldn't recognize his beloved Flamingo today. When the dapper mobster built the sprawling hotel in 1946, ushering in the boom era of the Las Vegas Strip, it was literally in the middle of sand-blasted nowhere -- the last outpost of civilization off the old Los Angeles Highway. Today, the gracious, low-slung art deco compound where Jimmy Durante, the Andrews Sisters and Xavier Cugat once roamed is gone. A couple of wings of the old resort remain, boxed into a deep canyon of glass and pink anodized chrome.

Baffled by the in-house keno channel and suffering from general sensory overload, I did the only sensible thing -- I took stock of the drugs: two foil sheets of Double Strength Mylanta tabs, a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol and enough 150 mg. Zantac tabs to stop an ulcer the size of a Flamingo Road pothole.

I staged a pre-emptive Zantac-and-Mylanta strike on my stomach before going downstairs for the quintessential Vegas eating experience: the casino buffet. Two trips to the taco bar, the prime rib station and a dessert section (echelons of eclairs! hectares of flan!) sent my cholesterol up faster than a 14th-floor express elevator.

6 p.m. Friday: Out on the windswept street, things were looking ugly. On the one-block walk to the Mirage we saw a drunk taunting a beggar in a wheelchair with a bucket of nickels. Outside the Imperial Palace, a middle-age man in a neon-pink tank top was swilling a Frontier walkaway drink the size of a small Tiffany lamp. We stepped onto the Mirage's conveyor belt, sandwiched between some hideously over-perfumed young men in double-breasted suits and a family of tourists in shorts and plastic pool sandals. It took 45 minutes to get through the 4.5-acre tropical lagoon, past the white tiger grotto and through the casino. We were late for a visit with two of the oddest leading citizens in this Land of Odds: Siegfried and Roy.

The elfin duo's magic-and-animal show is the top ticket in town at $134 a pair. Sig and Roy may be two fey, mincing little twerps, but they embody the great Vegas credo: Make no small plans. The show, part Gothic opera and part "Battlestar Galactica," is a visual spectacle on the scale of "Cats" or "Les Miz," full of druids, fairies and dancing monsters who looked like they escaped from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

After they turned the dragon lady into a white tiger, I decided I didn't need that second drink included in the ticket price. They did it all with a smirk and a flourish. Color me impressed.

After the show, we were walking in front of Caesar's Palace when we stumbled upon a genuine Brahma shrine -- complete with prayer benches and clouds of sweet, smoldering incense. There was not a soul around. In any other milieu, this would be a spectacular find. Here, it's just "Oh, look honey -- a white bull the size of a Land Rover. Let's go see the Elvis impersonators."

10:30 p.m. Friday: We were in the Imperial Palace showroom, which looked like it hadn't been redecorated since the "Ocean's Eleven" days when the Rat Pack ruled the Strip, for "Legends in Concert."

''As your fun adviser, I think you should order a blue drink with an umbrella in it," said the consultant.

''Legends" was every bit as underwhelming as we expected. Junior-college-level choreography and cheesy production values. "Bobby Darin" was bad, "Marilyn Monroe" was worse and "Roy Orbison" mumbled like he had a mouthful of Novocaine. But "The Blues Brothers" showed some real hustle and "Elvis" could really sing. By the time the entire cast trotted out for the "Viva Las Vegas" finale, the hapless French newlyweds at our table looked as if they had just seen their beloved Jerry Lewis skewered on a spit.

Outside the showroom, we encountered a wedding party -- the fourth one we'd seen so far -- idling in front of the escalators as the "Legends" cast came out to mingle with the audience. "Bobby Darin," "Elton John," a blushing, very pregnant bride and two women in plastic windbreakers looking for the nickel slots was too much to fathom in one eyeful. In our haste to flee, we forgot to claim our complimentary Elvis scarf.

But we did see the Liberacemobile in the Imperial's front window. I thought of the father and son who shared our table at Siegfried and Roy and the dad trying to explain to the inquisitive 12-year-old that Liberace was "a famous piano player . . . who died, son." At first glance I thought they'd stuffed poor Lee and propped up his carcass by the car. But no. It was a mannequin. I was beginning to doubt my own senses. Hunter S. Thompson needed a trunkful of psychoactive drugs to make the Vegas demons dance on his dilated eyeballs. Now, unbidden, they just come.

3:30 a.m. Saturday: From my room, Caesar's Palace looked like a 23rd-century sewage treatment plant. The buildings and fountains glowed an irradiated, unnatural blue and the IMAX theater dome pulsed with light designs like some Klingon war schooner. I had just been unceremoniously mowed for $155 in a three-hour blackjack session.

My hands were filthy from the chips, the back of my shirt was soaked and my cash pocket contained two wet matchbooks, a crumpled American Express slip and one $5 chip. Outside, some calliope-from-Hell was playing the same circus tune over and over. God, make it stop.

10:30 a.m. Saturday: I'd been standing in the cattle-chute line of the notorious Circus Circus buffet for almost an hour, listening to the screeching children in back of me pummel each other with plush toys the size of file cabinets. We had chosen the worst possible place for someone running on four hours sleep and a shaky stomach. This was mass food service on a scale that could make the Harris Ranch feed-lots look like a mom-and-pop operation. It was the Army cafeteria run by Bozo the Clown. We didn't go back for seconds.

We spent our day cruising with the top down and the Megabass sound system up to a volume that could wake Howard Hughes. On Main Street -- the no-man's-land between the Strip and downtown -- we found the Gambler's General Store (where one can get a clear Lucite toilet seat with coins in it for $279) and Pacific Tactical Weapons, a storefront armory that rents machine guns by the hour.

The biggest flamingo we found was the size of a rubber chicken. We hung it from the rear-view mirror.

8 p.m. Saturday: Head up Las Vegas Boulevard past the Sahara, past the pawn shops and the motels that advertise "24- hour wedding chapel adult movies HBO hourly rental," and you'll find the old Glitter Gulch that was Vegas before the Strip blossomed out on the highway. We were in the Golden Nugget's showroom, braced for the worst. What we found was just the opposite.

Tony Orlando is a 47-year-old warhorse who's fat, can't sing to save his life and hasn't had a hit since Gerald Ford was in the White House. But he turned out to be one unbeatable hustler of a showman -- tougher than an inside straight on video poker.

He and his backing duo, Dawn, worked that audience over like Mike Tyson working a speed-bag. He was down in the aisles, screaming like a tent preacher holding services at the Church of Cornball. During a medley of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," I whispered to the consultant "If he does 'Hava Nagilah' we walk . . ."

Of course, he did. Of course, we stayed. It was more fun than going down the Wet 'n' Wild Waterslides dead-drunk and backward.

10 p.m. Saturday: We rejoined the river of cruise-night traffic inching down the Strip. It was a nice 85 degrees out and we had the top down. We found the college radio station and turned the Megabass up to 8 on the Richter scale for the Ramones' "Howling at the Moon." The Mirage volcano came into view and on the radio the B-52s were chanting "hot lava, a- whoa-a-whoa-a-whoa, hot lava."

The volcano began to spit 40-foot towers of fire and we burst out laughing like a pair of dice fiends who had just rolled for the table limit and won. We pulled up to the light in front of Caesar's next to a van with a crew-cut dad in the driver's seat and two kids in the back. He rolled up his window, wrapped his knuckles hard around the wheel and stared straight ahead. The two kids opened the back window and just stared.

You'd think they'd never seen a member of the working press with a lacquered 8-inch mohawk and a Brooks Brothers suit waving an inflatable flamingo. "Nice haircut," said the kids. Dad: "Shut that window!" A second later, the window opens again. "Baaaad car," they cooed. Dad hit the roof. The second the light turned green that van was down the Strip like Shirley Muldowney turning the quarter mile. "Nice kids. They know class when they see it," said the consultant. Ahahahaha -- by God, what a life. Did Bugsy Siegel ever have this much fun?

We got back to the Flamingo just in time to catch "City Lights," a revue that was pure Lawrence Welk hokum with some T & A. The women were so laden with feathers and rhinestones they looked like giant birds from the Planet Bimbo. We groaned at the juggler whose specialty was audience humiliation. We cheered for the Garza Brothers' body-as-sculpture mix of dance and acrobatics. And then there was the "Japanese Festival." I did not know Japan had a long tradition of topless, Day-Glo- parasol-twirling geisha on ice.

1 a.m. Sunday: We were back in the Last Convertible, on a quest to find the greatest lounge lizard of them all -- Sam Butera. Almost 40 years ago, the legendary sax man -- along with Louis Prima and Keely Smith -- was the Vegas lounge act. Now, with most of his peers long dead, he was a living relic banished to the ragged edge of the Strip.

We found him at Vacation Village, way out past the airport where the highway meets the desert. We walked right in. There was plenty of room. About two dozen people -- half-drunk and half-asleep -- were watching Butera work through the same set of risque novelty tunes, jump blues and Italian-American soul music that he's been playing for the last three decades. It was a Deep Vegas Experience and it was wonderful.

At 1:40 he wrapped up with "That Old Black Magic" and left us with this aphorism: "Remember folks, it's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice." At that hour, after all we'd been through, the coda seemed weighted with importance. Somehow, we believed, this beatific old cat was giving us the secret to Vegas.

5 a.m. Sunday: I don't remember much after I left my consultant for dead up in the room. The $5 per-hand blackjack game went to $25, to $50, to $100 a hand. I remember being down $300 and coming even up. When the fog lifted, I had a wall of $25 chips too large to carry in my hands. I was so jacked up, if anyone had so much as tapped me on the shoulder I would have chewed their face off. I got up to take a victory lap around the casino and a pit boss stopped me and jotted my name on a little card. When he reached to shake my hand I saw the Rolex. His name was Jesus.

5:30 a.m. Sunday: Up in my room, I watched the sun rise over the Strip. I woke the fun consultant and told her to help me count the chips. There was a little less than $1,000 -- most of it pure profit. I'd been up 22 hours. It felt like about three days.

''You know, you're nicer when we're checking out a few hundred ahead," said the consultant. "And it's important to be nice." Later that day she would collect her usual and customary fee in the form of a sapphire pendant the size of a frozen Tater Tot. The calliope was still blaring. I considered going up to Pacific Tactical Weapons in a couple hours, renting an SAR-48 assault rifle and blowing it to bits. But no. It was time to cash those chips and chill out of town.

I didn't want to push my luck.

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