Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sideshow Lives

I'm on vacation and drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas two days ago - cacti, mountains and meth labs for as far as the eye could see - and I find Vegas reassuring in a way. I feared that any trace of Old Vegas was dead, and there are certainly signs of its demise. When my wife and I emerged from the underground parking garage at the Palazzo, we were poured out suitcases and all on casino floor. After checking in, we had to roll our bags back across the floor to the elevators - so much for any hint of the casino as even a semi-classy place.

But the same logic that drove sideshows and exploitation movies still drives Vegas - sell the sizzle, not the steak. There's still the promise of a sexy time ("100's of beautiful, naked women," says one sign painted on a cinder-block bunker just off the Strip) even if what you get are aerobic instructors with boob jobs, and there's the promise of the celebrity meal, though Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali have not likely been in their restaurants' kitchens in the last two years. And gambling is nothing if not the promise that the next card or spin could make you a winner.

The interesting twist is the way modern Las Vegas exploits the modern American obsession - value. Rooms are littered with two for one coupons, and everything is overpriced so that if a show or meal is comped, it seems like a bigger deal than it is. The cheapest Blue Man Group ticket is $71, so a comped pair is worth at least $140 - never mind that a guy is selling tickets for 40 percent off the day of the show, suggesting something closer to their true worth. Signs offer penny slots and $3 craps, so you could get rich without risking much at all. And if you lose, you got hours of excitement without spending much. That's good value!

So far, I'm not raging nearly as much as I expected to here. Then again, I've spent little time in the casino and hotel, so I haven't had the sort of prolonged exposure that will bring out my inner curmudgeon.

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