by Tim John
The following article is an excerpt from Tim's new book "Adventures in Lala Land", which chronicles the seven years in which an English family, (Tim's), tried to make it in Hollywood, as well as personal stories and warts-and-all insider accounts of the film industry, and travel opportunities in and around California and Nevada.
“Las Vegas is the kind of place God would build if he had the money and a sense of humor.” - Steve Wynn
Nothing to fear? Nothing to loathe? Doesn’t sound like the vicious Vegas that legendary, hard-living American Hunter S. Thompson famously described.
On one of our road trips to the glittering Mecca that is Las Vegas we actually saw a guy roaring down the freeway who may have been the great Hunter himself. Looking like the love-child of a Hell’s Angel and a grizzly bear, this Lebowski-esque dude was racing away from Los Angeles into the desert in a battered old Ford Bronco Jeep, (just like O.J.Simpson’s), with hard rock blasting with the volume turned up to at least eleven and not a single piece of baggage, just two huge jerry cans strapped onto the back. One had the word ‘Tonic’ painted on it. The other said ‘Gin’.
The drive from LA to Las Vegas is, in its own way, just as out of this world as the city itself, because the desert terrain on either side of the freeway looks like the lunar surface, endless stretches of dusty ground with occasional rocks and craters. The only things you see here that you don’t see on the Moon are signs to ghost towns, cacti and tumbleweed that rolls by exactly as it does in the Westerns.
When I asked an LA travel agent about scenery on the way to Vegas, she replied, “Sure, there’s scenery - signs mainly. Some say ‘Food’, others say ‘Gas’”.
It’s rare to find such sarcasm in LA because so many natives think irony is a way of pressing your clothes. This woman was one of the weirdos, and California has more than its fair share. She also told me that whenever she gets bored at work, she just flicks through the Los Angeles phone book and laughs at all the Chinese names. Yes, sadly, so much of the States can be horribly racist.
On one trip to Vegas, an English friend stopped in one of those hamlets that is little more than a gas station and a diner and asked a ‘Good ol’ boy’ who lived out there in the middle of the Mojave desert what he did all day.
“I shoot cans,” replied the man.
My friend assumed he meant like they do in cowboy movies when they need target practice.
Then the man added, “Mexi-cans, Domini-cans, Afri-cans...”
Part of him was joking. Part of him was not.
Vegas itself is like nothing on Earth, (other than copycat versions of Las Vegas, such as Macau). As the parched desert landscape crashes into the trillion dollar gambling oasis, think ‘Mad Max’ meets ‘The Hangover’ meets ‘David Lynch’. The best way to arrive is by plane, at night, because out of the total darkness looms a glittering Mecca, an adult theme-park, a Disneyland of decadence.
Vegas is truly the Ninth wonder of the world - largely because you wonder how anywhere could be quite so tacky and tasteless. There are a few exceptions, for instance the Hard Rock Hotel. There’s something iconically cool about the giant Fender Strat bursting out of the hotel roof and the guitar-shaped pool with its underwater speakers, though I did worry about my kids staying under too long to hear the end of a song.
At the other taste extreme you have the plasticky castle-shaped hotel called Excalibur, where they actually advertised ‘Jousting - Twice knightly’! On our first visit, the lobby was full of sad people shabbily dressed as mediaeval characters, handing out flyers for such shows. The saddest thing was that most of the ones we encountered turned out to be English actors who’d hoped to make it in the States. None of them had grown a beard quite as long as Merlin’s, but you got the impression these hungover Lancelots could easily be spending an eternity here before hitting the big time.
Hitting the big time is, of course, the main reason most people come to this extraordinary city, (until very recently the fastest-growing city on the planet). Vegas is where you can still win enough cash to fund the American Dream in an instant.
The world’s largest jackpot was won in Las Vegas by a woman at the Excalibur Casino. The jackpot totaled $39.7 million and it occurred on March 2003.
Unfortunately, most people never come out ahead in the casinos. Players in Las Vegas lose something like $6 billion a year even though the average amount any gambler spends is just under $600 per trip - but the numbers soon add up because over 38% of all U.S. residents have visited Las Vegas and the vast majority of them are there to gamble, on average 4 hours a day. Gambling in the States is a $40 billion a year industry, grossing more than movies, theme parks, recorded music and sports combined.
Not everyone comes just to gamble...
On average, 230 marriage licenses are issued every day in Las Vegas, often in cutesie chapels where you can be married by a priest dressed like Elvis. In our first year in California, two of our friends from England said they’d like to get married in Vegas, so asked us to find out how to do this.
My wife started looking and found a number, which was something like1-800-VOWS. A few weeks later, our friends flew over and sealed the deal in Las Vegas’s Little Chapel of Love, which should definitely have been pronounced ‘Lurve’ given the décor.
Our daughters were bridesmaids and looked beautiful, but aged 6 and 8 were too young to appreciate the references to ‘The King’ around the building. I didn’t actually see any Elvis priests wipe their sweaty brow with a white towel or cassock at the end of the service and hurl it at the audience.
Who says Elvis has really left the building anyway? Many people swear they’ve seen his ghost hanging around back stage in the showroom where he performed in 837 consecutive sold out shows.
Even if you’re not there to see someone crying in the Cha-a-a-pel, other big reasons for getting hitched in Vegas are that marriage licenses in Nevada only cost about $60 and couples tying the knot in this state don’t have to endure the usual waiting period or get blood tests. And you can file for divorce for about $450. Who said romance is dead?
The only hitch our friends who got married in Vegas had was Japanese tourists. Maybe it was because the bride was almost six foot high in her heels, but when they left the hotel in their bride and groom outfits, swarms of Japanese tourists insisted on being photographed with them. Go figure.
Apart from the many weddings, another reason gazillions of people travel all the way to the middle of the Nevada desert is for conventions. In 2009 Las Vegas hosted more than 19,000 of them. They range from things like the vacuum cleaner spare parts annual bash to the adult movie awards, which may well boast even greater sucking power.
The ‘Oscars of Porn’ as they are known, are usually held in January, in case you were planning a visit. One review I found stated that this is where sex industry professionals will share their tips with the audience. It didn’t say whether those tips were physical or mental.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be any danger of Porn Star acceptance speeches containing any of the political rants and weepy moments that they do at the Academy Awards. A local paper once reported that when one adult film temptress won the coveted Best New Starlet statuette at the AVN Adult Movie Awards, “She knew who to thank: ‘each and every person who jerks off to my smut’.”
Ironically, one year, the Adult Entertainment Expo and The Consumer Electronics Show sat less than a hundred yards away from each other, which could explain the giant buzz at the events. A review quoted products ranging from practical, to weird, to comical, including such bizarre inventions as the Head of State dildo modelled after none other than the President Elect. Then came the OhMiBod, a colourful vibrator that pulsed in time with whatever you were playing on your iPod.
Despite a Vegas headline announcing that recessions come and go, but sex is forever, tougher economic climates have forced a droop in adult entertainment revenues. (The term ‘Gross profits’ takes on a whole new meaning.) To try to help the porn industry keep up through the recession, Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine and a First Amendment rights activist, allegedly told an AVN Adult Entertainment Expo audience that he had petitioned the federal government for a ‘5 billion dollar government stimulus package’. I couldn’t find anything saying whether batteries were included.
“While the starlets were sexy and the camera flashes were as bright as ever, a less-than-cheerful theme prevailed at this year’s adult industry summit: Slightly down is the new up.” - Las Vegas Weekly
The Sexual Medicine Society of North America apparently holds an annual meeting in Vegas. Other unlikely conventions include the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, (which you’ve probably already been told about), and the Celebrity Impersonators Convention.
Not far from Vegas, in Laughlin, they regularly hold the International UFO Congress Convention where topics covered include alien abductions, sightings, UFO crashes, paranormal experiences and government conspiracy. Who could ever bother with another Tory party convention in Bournemouth when there are meetings like this? I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that the funniest assembly I heard about was a Narcoleptics convention where several of the speakers genuinely needed friends to keep nudging them throughout the proceedings to prevent them from dropping off. Maybe these weird events do have plenty in common with Tory party conventions after all.
However many millions of people convene in Las Vegas, this city can house them all. Many of the hotels have over four thousand rooms.
The high end Las Vegas bedrooms may be so over the top that you’d think Liberace did the décor, but don’t be surprised if yours is horribly plain. That’s intentional. The proprietors don’t want you spending any more time in your room than you absolutely have to. Why? Because every minute spent in your room is a minute spent away from the casinos.
These buildings are also designed so it’s impossible to even find the elevators without walking past at least a thousand slot machines. Many of the aisles of slots are longer than English village high streets. Nor are there any clocks on the walls to let you know you might be late. And don’t even think about whipping out your camera for a souvenir shot. Photography is banned, period. You try it and within nano-seconds, hotel security staff will spring out of thin air and advise you to refrain. They’ll also bounce up and warn you if anyone under age approaches a slot machine or card table as our little girls found out.
There’s a famous Vegas story about one man who spent days, literally, pumping the same slot machine to try to win the multi-million dollar jackpot, but he inevitably needed a loo break, so he asked his son to hold the fort lest any other punter came along and scooped the winnings. As luck would have it, his son hit the jackpot, but was a few days shy of being 21, so the prize was not allowed.
It always feels unfair to me that casinos bill games like Blackjack as games of skill, yet anyone playing too skillfully might be asked to leave, or worse.
“We will have zero tolerance for anyone who is intolerant.” - Oscar Goodman (mayor of Las Vegas from 1999 to 2011)
Big Brother’s been watching everyone in the casinos for decades, and if the eye-in-the-sky CCTV cameras that scan the floors think you’re doing something like counting cards, then you can be in serious trouble. You can’t just run out and try your luck in another casino either, because your picture will be circulated all around town in seconds.
A friend of mine who was once shooting a music video in Vegas said one of the crew had a device in the end of his boot that he tapped with his big toe each time a picture card came up. This info was sent to his friend across the table, so he could accurately calculate his odds of winning. Fair enough, that’s cheating, but if you do the numbers in your head, isn’t that being skillful? Good luck trying to win that argument with one of the casinos. I don’t think even Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’ got away with counting for long.
On the other hand, as long as they don’t think you’re unnecessarily skillful, the casinos will do their damnedest to keep you gambling. The customary thing is to get you ‘comped’. Even at the slot machines, anyone seen to be inserting sufficiently high amounts of cash will be offered complimentary drinks. Often food as well. Anyone spending heavily at the tables will often find their entire hotel stay is ‘comped’. These places like you to get accustomed to their swankiest suites, because then you’ll feel like you’re a big-shot, spend more at the tables and want to come back.
To see the real high-rollers and die-hard gamblers, you need to stroll through the casinos a few hours after midnight. Walking this ‘Graveyard shift’ you feel like you’re in a David Lynch movie with a Tom Waits soundtrack. You’ll see all kinds of weird and wonderful characters, guys who wear shades at night, seasoned addicts and hookers who look like they just crawled out from under a rockstar.
By day, you could easily think it’s still night time in the casinos too, because most of them don’t have any windows, lest you’re tempted to leave the gambling and stroll out into that gorgeous dry desert heat. And Vegas can get incredibly hot. Weather reporters often reported the temperature reaching ‘triple digits in the desert’.
Not that you’d ever feel uncomfortable beside any of the spectacular Vegas pool complexes. I believe Mandalay Bay has something like 11 acres of pools and 100 rentable cabanas. Vegas sun-loungers often have nearby misting sprays to help you keep your cool, and service here is, like virtually everywhere in the States, impeccable, and immediate. To enjoy a cocktail by the pool in any of the best Vegas hotels all you have to do is raise a finger - literally. You just flip up the little flag on the side of your chair and a perfectly sculpted, bronzed beauty will sashay over to dazzle you with his or her perfect teeth and grant your request. I can’t tell you how many male friends of mine loved flipping up those little flags even if they weren’t thirsty.
Of course Vegas gets even hotter at night. In every way. Right outside the Mirage, there is a colossal model volcano that sends red hot, luxury lava spewing all over the rocks that surround it. For times just check the Mirage website for their “Eruption Schedule”. (There may have been something similar at the Adult Movie Awards).
Nearby, at ‘Treasure Island’, we saw pirates staging battles on galleons that were almost life-size. Down the road outside the Bellagio, giant fountains swing in time to orchestrated light shows - and all these are just the shows you can see from the sidewalk. Way up in the sky you’ll see roller-coaster rides hurling screaming guests round the towering roofs of ‘New York New York’. In the myriad Vegas showrooms and theatres you can also see what are billed as the hottest shows on Earth. Somewhere cool like the Hard Rock Casino will have acts like U2. Cirque de Soleil boasts several astonishing performances such as the Beatles’ show ‘Love’.
Elsewhere, there’s all kinds of magic and crooning and for many years, Las Vegas played host to some of the highest earning animals in show-biz, the white tigers that belonged to superstar showmen Siegfried and Roy. Shame it all came to an end when one of them attacked its owner. Until that happened, they were reported to be the highest-earning act in the history of Vegas, making tens of millions a year.
When we ordered a room with two Queen-size beds, (fantastic value for a family of four), the guy behind reception muttered to his friend, “They need a Siegfried and Roy.”
“We can’t afford tickets to one of their shows,” I told him.
“I’m talking about your bedroom,” he replied. “Two queens.”
Which act that did not involve animals made the most money in the history of Vegas? I’d have guessed Elvis, who sang in 837 consecutive sold out shows at the Las Vegas Hilton Casino. I’d have guessed wrong. Barbra Streisand’s 1999 New Year’s Eve performance at the MGM Grand apparently grossed over $14 million. Mentl!
So how does an English family with two little girls feel walking round a city where there’s something bizarre round every corner? Like live sharks in the tanks behind your hotel reception? Or real trapeze artists swinging thirty feet overhead? Honestly? It’s sensory overload with gazillions of lights, the constant chiming and rattling of slot machines and traffic that can be so gridlocked it can take an hour just to drive down The Strip. Imagine a theme park that’s taken hallucinogenics.
For little kids the only hope is going to a water park or to stay by the pools with their ‘real’ beaches and waves. Once they’re into their teens, Vegas naturally offers kids the delights of bungee jumping from hundreds of feet above the ground, plus indoor sky-diving.
Even if you’re just connecting with the mayhem of Vegas over the phone it’s totally unreal. I was once part of a conference call to one of Jim Carrey’s managers and I asked where he was calling from, to which he replied, “I’m in Vegas playing golf with Hercules.” I’m pretty certain he meant the actor who plays Hercules on TV, not the actual legend reborn, but in Vegas you never know - I mean, this is the city that came up with the idea of Caesar’s Shopping Mall. I believe its real name is The Forum. It has a colossal domed ceiling painted like the sky that leads to Heaven, complete with giant, animated statues of the gods - about a zillion times more exciting than somewhere like our local UK mall, the Arndale Centre, home of the Chav.
There are also more normal stores in Vegas, but you need to drive away from the strip to find them. Look hard enough and you’ll find some interesting niche stores, like the old record store where we nearly got thrown out for laughing. We discovered that everything was arranged alphabetically, which meant the first three sections of rap artists were labelled “A rap, B rap and C rap.”
If shopping’s your thing, then you’d do better to stop just outside Las Vegas and take advantage of the irresistible savings at the Designer Outlet stores. They’re good for guys as well, because even if you’re not into Ralph Lauren at massively discounted rates, you can also find stores such as Bose.
The weirdest store we ever saw in the desert was on the way to Palm Springs. You wouldn’t even know it was a store if you drove by fast because it was shaped like a life-size dinosaur. There was a small door at the end of the monster’s tail which gave you access to a flight of stairs leading to the main store inside the belly of the beast. This “Dino-store” sold crystals and rocks and other essential souvenirs.
Getting one’s rocks off is another huge reason for visiting Nevada. Vegas has plenty of showgirls and strippers, especially in the old section called ‘Glitter Gulch’. Lapdancing is massive business. On a major night, top strippers can make as much as $4,000 and a lot of money in that business is cash in hand, or more likely in thong.
However, prostitution is actually illegal in Las Vegas itself. Not so anywhere outside the city limits. Nevada is reported to have more brothels and more churches than any other state. A strange combo? I suppose it depends which got built first, the pleasure palaces or the relieve-your-guilt palaces. Whichever way round it was, we found plenty of locals who were strangely proud of their ancestry. Even in a family-style restaurant by the freeway we found flyers advertising a local Nevada brothel. Even weirder was the way they tried to lure you in by writing about how this brothel and many others like it were part of an old Nevada tradition and implying that by visiting one you’d be helping to keep history alive! What would the English equivalent be? “While you’re visiting the Tower of London, why not get your head chopped off so you can feel what it was like in the good old days?” Admittedly, this brothel was probably offering to give head rather than take it, but somehow I didn’t feel the whole historical worthiness thing stacked up.
Some of these legendary, but quite obviously historically important, brothels are situated just outside Las Vegas city limits in the old cowboy town with the extraordinary name of Pahrump. This is also where, according to Wiki, ex-Hollywood madam, and celebrity Big Brother contestant, Heidi Fleiss set up a launderette business after doing time in jail. First all that dirt she attracted in the press, and now this?
Apparently, according to the poster we saw at the side of the road approaching Las Vegas, anyone can find salvation these days. You don’t even have to enter a church, you just pick up the phone. ‘Dial 1-800-Virgin- Mary’. That’s what it said on the billboard and where better to place it than right outside Sin City. Judging by the services advertised on most of the flyers being handed out on the Vegas streets, Mary may well have been the only virgin in town.
We never actually tried phoning her holiness. I feared there would be ungodly call charges and some holier than thou receptionist or celestial call centre operator doing their damnedest to keep me on the line as long as possible, but I have to say one thing - it tells you a lot about how Hollywood stars see themselves when the mother of J.C. has her number in the book but they don’t. Even trying to get through to actors’ agents can be a living hell.
The documentary-maker who made the film ‘Hollywood Madam’ about Heidi Fleiss, told me he’d also made one about a famous Nevada brothel. He said he actually stayed there for almost three months. I don’t think this was because he’d swallowed so much Viagra that he’d achieved the staying power of Caligula. It was because he needed time to capture all the really unexpected aspects of the place, and they are there on film and quite extraordinary. Not just the almost maternal/therapeutic relationships many of the girls have with regular customers, but also the terrific sense of family, such as the way the owners would say grace before they and their collection of girls tucked into their genuinely meaningful Thanksgiving dinner together. These particular Nevada residents clearly seemed to have no problem whatsoever indulging in religion as well as the oldest profession on Earth.
It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century some of Las Vegas Valley contained small wells that helped provide water for green areas. Las Vegas is actually Spanish for ‘The Meadows’. Today, the average Vegas household uses something like 230,000 gallons of water a year. The colossal body of water close by is of course the Hoover Dam. This was completed in 1935 and took 21,000 workers five years to complete. Hardly surprising because it contains over 3 million cubic yards of concrete. Who knows if any bodies got dumped in the mix, because this was also the time when Vegas became notorious for links to the Irish mob, Italian, and Jewish mafias. Knowing they had all those thousands of male workers building the dam, this was the perfect time for crime lords to build the casinos and showgirl theaters to entertain them.
Even more powerful than gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission detonated over a hundred atmospheric explosions at their Nevada Test Site. The last was as late as 1992. According to Wiki, ‘Despite the dangers and risks, greatly under-estimated at the time, of radiation exposure from the fallout, Las Vegas advertised the explosions as another tourist attraction and offered Atomic Cocktails in Sky Rooms that offered a great view of the mushroom clouds”.
So, you really could see the end of the world near Vegas as well as ancient civilisations. Well, you can’t really see them, but the Luxor hotel offered an Egyptian barge tour that took you past the Valley of the Queens, and King Ramses’s temple. These barges were only slightly smaller than the troughs of food in some of the city’s all-you-can-eat buffets.
Just up the road from the Egyptian barges we saw gondoliers paddle visitors through the canals of ‘Venice’ at The Venetian Hotel. Only a few steps away is Vegas’s very own Eiffel Tower. No wonder so few Americans feel any need to visit what they call ‘Yurp’.
Having said that, I have a sneaking suspicion plenty of the Las Vegas locals haven’t got a strong grasp on history as it really happened. I’d read up about The Luxor hotel before we went to stay there and the guidebook said the hotel was built to exactly the same proportions as the original pyramid.
As we arrived, I said to our taxi driver, “I just found out this is the same size as the original.”
“What original?” he said. “Ain’t never been no hotel like this before, boy!”
There certainly hasn’t been anywhere quite like Vegas before. I’m saying that because I’ve never seen any of the brochures for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Screenwriter and Script Doctor Tim John wrote a few sketches for ‘Spitting Image’, co-wrote ‘The Max Headroom Show’ TV series, worked with George Harrison’s HandMade Films and eventually wrote for stars such as Schwarzenegger and Bill Murray, but it was by no means an easy ride.