Talkin' Las Vegas

For our columnist, Sin City is simply a fascinating place to visit.

A  from London were visiting us in southern Arizona while they were on a road trip through the Southwest. They were bound next for the Grand Canyon, and then on to Los Angeles.

“You might want to stop in Las Vegas,” I suggested.

This was well before the horrific recent mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay Resort there, but they looked aghast. “Oh, no, I hear that’s so tacky,” the wife said.

Tacky? You want to talk tacky? Brighton in the U.K. is tacky. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is tacky. Mount Rushmore is tacky. Las Vegas, though, left mere tacky behind over decades and evolved—neon blazing into the desert night like a light show from Hades—into the apotheosis of glitz, the epitome of extravaganza, a place not to be missed if you’re exploring the real America on a road trip through the Southwest.

“Just as Disney did with amusement parks, the creators of the new Vegas took seedy American artifacts—gambling halls and roadhouses—and reinvented them as something grand,” writes Kurt Anderson in his fascinating new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. Vegas, he says, towers as a basilica within our “fantasy-industrial complex.”

OK, though I always thought it was just an interesting, laid-back place with a small-town feel if you shield your eyes from the glare. I visit Vegas on occasion, usually to do research at an event or convention, and I imagine you do, too. Business travel, a pillar of Vegas’s economy, has grown steadily in recent years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Last year, 15 percent of the 43 million visitors came for conventions and meetings or other business.

Corporate and private jets? Big time. For example, more than a thousand of them routinely arrive for major events like championship boxing matches. Given McCarran International Airport’s ­proximity, you can stand on the Strip and practically count these beauties sailing in like royal barges on the ancient Nile. In 2017, as in many past years, the National Business Aviation Association held its mammoth annual convention in Las Vegas.

Incidentally, in the 1950s, when the U.S. conducted atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Proving Ground in the desert 65 miles northwest of town, the chamber of commerce celebrated the explosions, and thousands of visitors thronged the Strip to cheer as the towering mushroom clouds ascended majestically into the sky. There was even an annual Miss Atomic Bomb contest, with contestants in swimsuits festooned with frilly simulated mushroom clouds.

Now, that was tacky—but it was also long ago. Today, you can get a cogent sense of those strange times in context if you wander off the Strip and up Flamingo Road, to where the National Atomic Testing Museum is housed in a building that looks like a giant bomb shelter.

“Flamingo Road,” of course, is an evocative name. In 1946, at the birth of the Atomic Age, the flashy mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel christened the mostly barren Strip with the opening of the then-fabulous Flamingo Hotel. It had 150 rooms along with a casino and showroom. In old photos, it looks as tacky as a New Jersey Turnpike rest area. Its namesake replacement on the site today soars far beyond common “tacky,” with 3,600 rooms, 72,000 square feet of casino, and a courtyard garden habitat for actual flamingos.

Incidentally, Ben Siegel famously hated to be called Bugsy, as in “crazy as a bedbug.” In the 1991 movie Bugsy, an impudent cab driver insists that everybody refer to the gangster as Bugsy, and a Siegel henchman warns: “Not to his face they don’t.”

One of the things I like most about Vegas is that it is not the least bit coy about addressing the past, when myth was busy marrying reality in the wedding chapel of history. The Atomic Testing Museum is one example. Another is the downtown Mob Museum, where the whole history of the Mafia and its intersection with law enforcement is terrifically presented. It’s a museum that will not insult the intelligence of the well-informed.

I do miss the Mob Experience, an extravaganza that opened in 2011 at the Tropicana Hotel and closed in 2013. It had live actors within a serious museum brimming with 1,500 Mafia artifacts, many of them donated by families of legendary mobsters. Bugsy Siegel’s personal artifacts were lovingly displayed in a recreation of his living room. Bugsy, of course, was murdered gangland-style in 1947 at his girlfriend’s house in Beverly Hills. Apparent cause of death: wasteful spending of mob money.

As I was leaving, I asked a young woman at the ticket counter where the museum had gotten the Bugsy display. She said it came from the family and was being supervised by Siegel’s loving daughter, Millicent. Millicent, she said, was a charming, elegant elderly woman who visited regularly to ensure that Bugsy’s stuff was being cared for.

“One thing, though, when she’s here?” the girl added.

“What’s that?”

“You can’t call him Bugsy.”