Elvis at a urinal during a celebrity lookalikes convention in Las Vegas. The enduring popularity of Elvis here goes back to his ”Vegas Years” - a record-breaking seven-year run between 1969 and 1976 when he was the ”must-see” act.
Las Vegas – Long Read

Over-the-top entertainment capital of the world

Photo by David White

Las Vegas – Long Read Over-the-top entertainment capital of the world

Hello Las Vegas, the over-the-top entertainment capital of the world, but also the foreclosure capital of America. As 40 million arrivals a year come to find fun and fortune, it is easy to forget a real city carries on its life behind the neon facade. Bigger, better and brasher, Vegas is where reality is subject to change without notice, Elvis still lives, and every visitor has a story to tell.

Jim Elliot
Jim Elliot

“There is one sure-fire way to leave a casino with a small fortune,” a casino manager once told me. “Go in with a large one.” It is advice that always comes immediately to mind when I land in Las Vegas airport, where the slot machines start in the terminal building and the taxi drivers are notorious for “long hauling” passengers into town by the freeway, doubling the fare. As I join the long line to book into the Luxor hotel, despite the wide smiles of greeting, my credit card gets much more attention than I do.

The extremes of heat and cold between the Nevada desert temperatures outside and sub-zero air-conditioning inside, adding to the constant noise, are also a shock. Vegas can feel like a slot machine that entertains you with bright lights and noise while you steadily pay out money, or a party already in full swing when you arrive. Everyone else is already enjoying themselves as you try to get up to speed.

However, by the next morning, after a thrilling ride on the New York New York rollercoaster, a show and a night of cocktails that ends in the early hours, Vegas has worked its magic and I’ve joined the party.

I have also remembered the secret of being treated well in Vegas: tipping. It is a city where most of the working population, from limo drivers to bar staff, depends on tips to make a living wage. Americans are casually familiar with the concept but many foreign visitors do not understand it fully. That waitress who brings you a “free” drink to oil your gambling? She really needs that dollar bill from you. In the current recession, gratuities are among the first things people cut back on and many locals are feeling the pinch.

For the last few years, Vegas has been the foreclosure capital of the US. It’s easy to forget that it is a living, breathing city of real people who live suburban lives like in any other American city. After a night waiting table, or dancing in a sequined chorus line, they go home to families and the routine of taking the kids to school and worrying about the bills.

I get to fly all night

Still, some of the jobs they do are a bit different – there aren’t many places where the ability to operate an electronic tablet and a winch at the same time are considered a commodity. But if you want to be a “Wine Angel” at the Mandalay Bay’s Aureole Hotel and scale the 15-meter central skyscraper packed with 10,000 bottles of fine wine, that’s exactly what you have to do. “It’s pretty simple,” says Eboni Lomax, one of the Angels, as she shows me the ‘ropes’. “The order comes in to us on a print-out which tells you where the bottle is, then you have directional buttons to move you around the tower to find it.”

Then she zips away, looking like an extra from Mission: Impossible as the winch takes her to the top of the tower. What she doesn’t say is that you also need some athletic grace and dexterity: hitting a bottle with your feet or dropping one from on high does not bear thinking about when a top-class vintage costs $10,000 or more. Does she have a head for heights? “I was scared when I saw the tower for the first time but now I think it’s an ideal job: I get to fly all night,” she says. “At least, it’s a dream job for now…” And her real dream? “To become an accountant – an amazing accountant.”

With such specialised skill sets in demand, training people to do them throws up some other unusual Vegas occupations. At a seamy lot just off The Strip, the 6.5-km stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that is home to 18 of the 25 largest (and most garish) hotels in the world, I meet Nick Kallos, owner of the Casino Gaming School of Las Vegas. With a shock of salt and pepper hair, near-white goatee and loud Hawaiian shirts, he’s the kind of guy who only Dustin Hoffman could play in a movie of his life.

Kallos is a typical self-made American who is still proud of his Greek family roots and builds and restores antique cars in his spare time. He started out as a porter at Caesar’s Palace in the 1960s before breaking into casino dealing and then management, running casinos for 14 years. Managing made him realize how much he missed working the table. “I should have stuck with dealing,” he says. “I decided to start my own school. That’s how much I love dealing.”

Now he and his lecturers see some 600 people a year graduate from classes in dealing blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat and poker. The school’s tables are packed with people eager to learn and Nick talks as fast as he deals, his hands moving the cards with a quick ease. “You have to keep the deck fully visible at all times,” he says. “Once your hand starts to cover anything a client should see from the front, you’ll open yourself up to accusations of cheating and then you’ll be out of a job.”

Never play games you don’t fully understand

Nick recommends that all his students do a ‘foundation course’ before starting at his school by taking advantage of the free gambling classes held in the casinos themselves. “They’re held to get people into the games and know the rules, so take as many as possible. The better you know the game, the better a dealer you become.” He has the same advice for those who just want to play. “Never play games you don’t fully understand, because you’ll embarrass yourself,” he says.

He tells me that a typical dealer’s schedule is 40 minutes or an hour of dealing followed by a 20 minute break, although some smaller casinos may leave a ‘hot’ dealer on the table for several hours if they’re winning lots of money from the players. “The poker rooms are where all the real action is these days,” he says. “It’s the game that’s retaken the city by storm – a good poker dealer is worth a fortune.” A four-week, 80-hour course costs around $800 but Nick points out that the majority of big winners were once poker dealers.

His blackjack course costs only $300 but, as Nick says, when dealing poker: “You get to sit down, you get to keep your own tips and you get to work in non-smoking rooms.” The average full-time dealer earns from $30,000 at smaller casinos to $70,000 at the bigger names but that annual salary includes tips, which are often pooled. Like everyone else, dealers rely on tips, so they actually have an interest in seeing players win as that usually makes them more generous.

In a place where names such as Criss Angel, Penn & Teller or David Copperfield have achieved worldwide fame, someone whose skill with cards has earned him more than a living wage is magician Jeff McBride. McBride’s Magic & Mystery School is a cavernous hangar-like building tucked away in the suburb of Paradise, east of the airport. It’s where he keeps much of the equipment used in the illusions for his stage show but there is no flashy entrance or no huge sign and it takes me some time to find it. I knock and wait in the sun – uncertain if I’ve even got the right address. After a few moments, the door opens and he leads me inside the dark building. Adding to the atmosphere is the gown-cum-cape he is wearing: McBride is big in the Vegas neo-pagan movement and includes shamanistic elements to his stage show.

Magic reminds us that reality is subject to change

We walk past some of the props and into a room with red velvet curtains, oriental-style carpets, scatter cushions and chairs where we sit down. His school offers budding magicians a range of three-and seven-day master classes, lectures and online seminars. “We have master classes every couple of months – they’re small classes with maybe half a dozen people,” he says. Those who attend include everyone from experienced magicians looking to hone their act to complete novices or even those who just want an insight into the philosophy of the profession. “Magic reminds us that reality is subject to change without notice,” says McBride. Mysteriously.

There’s an air of belief around McBride, almost as though he knows he was destined to perform. A native New Yorker, he started to learn how to perform illusions at the age of 16 and was hooked. “It was then I knew that I wanted to come to Las Vegas – if you want to be a magician, where else would you want to base yourself?” he asks.

As well as being the world capital of magic, Vegas is also the ultimate destination for one other set of showbiz wannabes, of which Paul Casey is one. As his onstage act ends, I watch him look up from his guitar, run his fingers through his jet-black slicked-back hair and raise one side of his mouth to a position that hovers somewhere between a smile and a sneer. “Thankyouverymuch,” he grins as the last notes of See See Rider fade away and the crowd leaps to its feet in applause, whooping and hollering for more.

Yes, Casey is an Elvis impersonator, but in Vegas, where Presley tribute acts are a dime a dozen, he’s the King of Kings. A two-time ‘city entertainer of the year’, Casey is the official Elvis Ambassador of the Vegas tourist board and his ‘Elvis The Musical American Trilogy Show’ is packed to the rafters whenever he can squeeze in appearances back in his home town. It’s a lavish production with 42 songs, 16 costume changes and the official stamp of approval of members of Presley’s own Memphis Mafia.

Longevity is not one of its strong points

Vegas is a mind-boggling city where bigger, better and brasher is everything, but longevity is not one of its strong points. When something serves its purpose, or rather, when it stops making money, it simply gets ripped down and something else is built in its place. So what will Casey do when the inevitable passage of time means it’s time for someone to steal his crown? “I don’t know how long I can go on for,” he says, “But I do know that Elvis has been good to me. I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with his estate, I’ve recorded in his house, I’ve done lots of movies but, above all, my singing of Elvis Presley material enabled me to go through all my schooling. I went to college and graduated with four degrees, the last one being law. When the day comes, I’ll probably go into entertainment law.”

If Casey, a rare native Las Vegan, is the King of Vegas, Rev Charolette Richards is its Queen of hearts. A petite lady with bright red hair and draped in signature black robes she may be, but she’s a giant when it comes to Vegas weddings. In the 1950s, she and her three children were abandoned by her then-husband on a Vegas street corner. While walking the streets looking for him, she bumped into Merle Edwards who offered her a job at his chapel and later became her second husband. Her Little White Wedding Chapel has seen more than 800,000 weddings since then, including those of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Joan Collins, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis and Britney Spears.

Tucked among the other independent wedding venues at the north end of The Strip, just past the Stratosphere Tower Casino, her operation is anything but “little”. The chapel performs as many as 3,600 ceremonies a year, with a staff of 60 looking after five venues that include a ‘Tunnel of Vows’ drive-thru window, that Charolette first inaugurated in 1991 so a disabled couple could tie the knot more easily. Now, couples roll up at the window in cars, trucks and even motorcycles for their marriage. Backstage, I’m amazed at the size of the operation with huge dressing rooms full of for-hire tuxedos and wedding dresses, as well as make-up and hair salons. “We aim to offer couples a wide choice so they can create the wedding they desire,” she tells me as we head off to see a British couple renew their vows.

Their Cosa Bella wedding package costs a huge $25,000

All this is only the tip of the iceberg. More than 100,000 couples say “I do” in Vegas every year – that’s five per cent of American weddings – bringing in more than a billion dollars to the economy.  They are not all cheesy or “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” affairs either. Head to the mid-Strip luxury Bellagio and their Cosa Bella wedding package costs a huge $25,000, including a reception for 30, three nights in the hotel and a host of other goodies.

One of the enduring reasons for getting married here is the ease with which you can get a license. There are no blood tests needed and no waiting period, plus you can obtain permission for just $60 at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau from 8am to midnight, 365 days a year. Flying in to buy an off-the-shelf package that can even include wedding gowns, not to mention having the honeymoon venue outside the chapel door, makes a Vegas wedding an attractive option.

The phenomenon started in 1912 when neighboring California passed a “gin law” making a three-day waiting period mandatory in a bid to stop couples indulging in drunken marriages. Vegas saw an opening and started advertising its wedding services and the rest is her-and-history. A bartender at The Mirage casino-hotel tells me a different story, though, as the ‘volcano’ outside ‘erupts’ for the umpteenth time of the evening. “Vegas became so popular as a wedding venue thanks to Reno becoming famous as a quickie place to get divorced,” he says.

When some states, such as South Carolina, were not allowing divorce at all or, like New York, only allowing them on the grounds of adultery, Nevada saw a growing business with its more lenient laws. In the 1930s-era Great Depression , the city fathers of Reno, only 450 miles away from Vegas, cut the residency requirement for divorce from three months to six weeks. Business boomed as that decade saw 30,000 divorces, with hotels and boarding houses springing up to offer a place to stay. The most popular were the large dude ranches that became the forerunners of today’s casino-resorts. “People would get divorced in Reno and then they would all descend on Vegas to celebrate,” he says. “The combination of newly single people wanting a good time and the fun to be had in Vegas was simply a match made in heaven.”

Most are repeat visitors

The average visitor is more respectable these days. Split almost 50-50 between men and women, more than three-quarters are married. Most are repeat visitors, with many making it an annual event although about half come for business such as conventions rather than pleasure. Every year, Vegas tempts many of those visitors to stay but it is a gamble that does not always pay off.

Ron Bayley, 23, is one of the less lucky ones. He came to Vegas from South Carolina in 2008, expecting to earn enough money to put him through college in the city. Instead, he is a gas attendant at a garage. “Things just haven’t gotten off the ground for me yet,” says the good-looking blond. “When I first came, I was with my girlfriend who wanted to be a show dancer, so I worked hard while she chased that dream. By the time she’d got a job, I was still pumping gas and was no closer to getting into college.” Despite his misfortune, Ron is still not ready to fold: “If I continue saving for another six months, I should be able to enroll on a course in criminal justice.”

Ron’s story is not unique. In little more than 100 years, Vegas has gone from a dusty frontier town, whose natural springs made it an essential stop for wagons on the pioneer trail to California, to the present metropolis but it has been hard hit in the current recession. Off the Strip, behind the neon facade, was never a very lovely part of town but now there a rash of “To Let” and “For Sale” signs. Boarded-up houses and homeless people pushing shopping carts tell their own Vegas story. On the Strip itself, the hulks of abandoned building projects show how the easy credit years came to a sudden end.

However, my driver to the airport could be an advertisement for moving to the city. After a career teaching geography in Connecticut, Frank, 58, retired to Vegas because he wanted somewhere it didn’t rain “so darn much”. He has had to carry on working to make ends meet but has no regrets. “I love the year-round sunshine and the dry heat,” he says. “And just meeting amazing people every day. The people who live in Vegas are all full of character and every visitor has a story to tell, if not on the way in, certainly on the way out.”

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