In Search of Old Las Vegas

Capt. Mark and I moved to Las Vegas at the end of last month. We’re not gamblers. We’re boaters. But it’s too cold to live on a boat in Washington in winter. We like to be warm.

The first thing that struck me about “sin city” is the terrific job its marketing people have done over the years to preserve its aura and mystique. Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?”

But the Las Vegas of books, TV, and film is a defined space in a sprawling city of 600,000. And it is changing daily.

I have to say I was disappointed when we first drove down Las Vegas Blvd. on our way into town. When I came here on my twenty-first birthday the Hacienda was the first hotel-casino complex encountered. A few more miles and we passed the Aladdin, the Dunes, the Frontier, the Sands. With each vibrant flashing sign lighting up the sky, excitement would build. We’d travel further past the Desert Inn, Thunderbird, the Riviera.

That weekend the destination was the Stardust.

The rat pack was still around and in the gambling dens loudspeakers would page Mr. Dean Martin or Mr. Frank Sinatra or whoever’s name was on the marquee outside. Not that they were there; it was part of the glamour, the show.

None of the above casinos exist anymore. Some of their locations are large dirt lots. Others have been filled in with new construction: apartments, homes, shopping malls, and occasionally, a new hotel. Their signs are still around, though, in a special museum I plan to visit.

While a few new casino mega complexes can be found among the shopping areas and vacant lots, most are concentrated toward the center of the old strip. Caesar’s Palace is still there, as is the Mirage. The newer hotels offer an “experience.” You can stay at a hotel and pretend you’re in Venice or Paris or New York or Egypt. If you have lots of cash you can stay at the Wynn or the Aria. The Bellagio fountains are still a draw and there are lots of shows—family and otherwise—especially in the oldest part of town.

No longer do your hands get dirty scooping coins from slot machine trays. They’ve been replaced by pieces of paper and push buttons. Not into card games, I remember the fun of pulling handles and hearing coins clattering into the tray. The infamous wedding chapels are still around but they are fewer and more glamorous. But if you are a foodie, you’re in paradise. There is every kind of food available and at every price point.

I kind of miss the old Las Vegas. It made you feel a bit decadent when you’d enter the noisy, smoky, money pits where you could distance yourself from reality.

The new Las Vegas looks like Anywhere, USA, but it’s a nice place to be warm until cruising season.

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