Viva Las Vegas

Gambling was the last great hold-out paradigm of puritanical reproof, the great sin that the Pilgrims sought to expunge, practically before they had left the stony beach by Plymouth Rock. 

Clean-living New England has long been almost superstitiously hostile to gambling, while Dutch-mercantile New York, in so many ways the most liberal and yet one of the most formal of states, has had an almost schizophrenic attitude towards it. On the one hand, gambling had long been held to be the eighth deadly sin and was therefore outlawed. On the other, New Yorkers found themselves to be inveterate and unapologetic gamblers at heart, and hence the prevalence of gaming dens, poker rooms, dodgy pool halls and dice joints (immortalized in Damon Runyon’s “On Broadway” collection of short stories and the Runyonesque “Guys & Dolls” musical). These days, more New Yorkers buy lottery tickets than punters of other state, with an incredible 92% participation for some of the biggest prize-draw games.

As for online gambling, while it is easily accessible, it is still held to be technically illegal in New York. (I tried my own test in the interests of investigative journalism: I opened an online account in 18 seconds flat, joined a Blackjack game and promptly lost $45 in under a minute.)

When it comes to bricks-and-mortar casinos, there are now plenty of opportunities  to play electronic games in Queens and the Bronx, as well as all over the state, although for live dealer games you will need to head to the super-sized casino resorts of Connecticut and New Jersey. But for sheer adrenalin-inducing ka-ching, for mesmeric, eyes-out-on-stalks-gaudiness, for anything-you-can-do-we-can-do-bigger-and-better extravagance, there is still nowhere on earth like Las Vegas.

Origin story

Gambling was legalized in Vegas in 1931, primarily to offer diversion to the 5,000 or so men brought in to the desert settlement during the building of the Boulder — later Hoover Dam. In, 1941, Thomas Hull, a hotelier, opened El Rancho Vegas, the first resort on what would become the famed Las Vegas strip. That same decade, mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel oversaw the bumpy development of the Flamingo Hotel (now the Flamingo Las Vegas). Though its initial opening on Dec. 26, 1946 was a failure, the hotel began turning a profit the following year. (Too late, though, for Siegel, who was murdered in the Beverly Hills home of girlfriend Virginia Mayo on June 20, 1947 — a tale told in the 1991 Warren Beatty movie “Bugsy” one of many films for which Vegas has served as muse. See sidebar.)

It was the beginning of Las Vegas’ notoriety, a reputation that went along with the city’s establishment as the cabaret capital of America, ultimately hosting Liberace, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra’s The Rat Pack.

Famously clock-less, Las Vegas is actually the city that never sleeps. (Sorry, New York.) You can get a pastrami sandwich or a seven-course gourmet meal, drink alcohol, swim, visit the botanical gardens (at the Bellagio Hotel,) get married and of course gamble, 24 hours a day.

Not only for tourists

Vegas, though is surprisingly liveable  — with well-planned suburbs, great supermarkets, five dog parks downtown (something of which we at WAG heartily approve) and extremely modest taxation. Nevada’s taxes are the lowest in the nation. In addition, Las Vegas has a world class art museum, a vibrant arts district and its own philharmonic orchestra. As for food, once you’ve sampled the “once in a lifetime” experiences at restaurants like Wolfgang Puck’s CUT or Jean-Georges’ ARIA (note: all serious restaurants in Las Vegas must be spelled out in upper-case,) the developing local food scene is fully worth investigating.

Fun fact

The shrimp consumption in Las Vegas is more than 60,000 pounds per day, higher than the rest of the states combined. 

Personal memoir No. 1

My parents went to Las Vegas when I was a kid, 10 or 11 I think. It was an age when most kids were into dinosaurs but I remember I was into big cats at the time — lions, tigers and that sort of thing. My father returned home to London, proud of the fact that he had not put so much as one dime into a slot machine. My mother returned with a slim volume I’m guessing she found in a last-minute, gift-buying panic at the hotel gift shop or airport, without bothering to look between the covers, but certain it would be perfect for her little boy back home. It was called “The Best Cat Houses in Nevada.” 

Personal memoir No. 2

The first time I was in Las Vegas I bet the farm and lost. With every cent gone and every card maxed out, I had to walk to the airport in the dark — a 4 mile trek. Somehow, as I neared McCarran International, I took a wrong turn and found myself blocked. To make my flight I was going to have to scale a fairly low barbed-wire fence, which was easy enough to do, although I did hear an ominous sound as I dropped down over the other side. Another couple hundred yards and I was safely in the terminal building, where I discovered that the back of my beloved Burberry had been ripped to shreds. Seems I had lost my raincoat as well as my shirt that night. Completely true story by the way.

Personal memoir No.3

The second — and last time — I was in Vegas was in 1992. We rocked up at Caesar’s Palace, my then girlfriend and me, and discovered Sinatra was performing that evening at the Desert Inn. “Any chance of a couple of tickets?” I asked the concierge, expecting to be laughed out of town. Sure thing, said the concierge, and two modestly priced tickets — I forget how much — were produced. I didn’t even like Sinatra that much in those days. He was from my dad’s generation, but I knew he was a legend and since he’d already retired several times, there would be few opportunities to hear him live again.  By then the old voice had pretty much gone but it didn’t matter, because those perfect-pitch, warbling notes were attacked with pure gravel and finger-clicking syncopation instead, and everyone in the audience that night felt he had hit the jackpot.

So you see, what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas.

Celluloid Vegas

A timeless setting for romance and caper movies, Las Vegas has starred in any number of films, including:

“Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)

A slightly plodding James Bond movie, saved by Sean Connery in his last assignment as 007, with 1970s Las Vegas as a fast-paced, glitzy, rollicking backdrop.’

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1988)

Adapted from Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel and now a cult classic, the film stars a young Johnny Depp and an even younger Benicio del Toro exploring the city under the influence of psychotropic drugs.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992)

Commitment-phobic Jack Singer (Nicolas Cage) has to rethink his values when a con man takes off with his fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker) in settlement of a debt in a rom-com that reminds us that Elvis has never left the building.

“Indecent Proposal” (1993)

Playing against type, Robert Redford is the controlling tycoon who makes out-of-their-Vegas-depths husband and wife Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore an offer they should refuse but don’t in this money-can’t-buy-everything morality tale. 

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Down on his luck and with suicide in mind, angst-ridden Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage, again) heads to Vegas, where hard-bitten sex worker Sera (Elisabeth Shue) skewers his plan. 

“Ocean’s Eleven” (1960)

Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) and his World War II-era Rat Pack cronies conspire to pull off the biggest heist in Las Vegas history.

Ocean’s Eleven”  (2001)

Danny Ocean (George Clooney in the Sinatra role) and the gang get plotting in a remake of the 1960 movie — with more thrills than the original and not an Nespresso machine in sight. (Followed by “Ocean’s 12,” “Ocean’s 13” and “Ocean’s 8,” the last a female version led by Sandra Bullock as Danny’s kid sister.)

“Rain Man” (1988)

Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Dustin Hoffman) this story of an autistic man’s odyssey with his embittered younger brother (Tom Cruise), which includes a key side trip to Vegas, is really the poignant tale of one man’s journey to becoming his brother’s keeper and features one of Cruise’s best performances. 

“Viva Las Vegas” (1964)

Racing driver Lucky (Elvis Presley) and swimming instructor Rusty (Ann-Margret) cavort around Vegas in this endearing 1960s romantic musical, considered one of The King’s best.

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