- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

LAS VEGAS, Nevada

Where to spend the last week of the year, of the century, of the millennium? That was the question. New York? Hollywood? Paris? Venice? Bali?

Why not at all of the above? So I headed for Las Vegas.

I check into the Venetian hotel where for $10 I can take a gondola ride in the Grand Canal gliding underneath an artificial blue sky with hand-painted white clouds, and where everyday is cool. A walk down Las Vegas Boulevard, known as the Strip, takes me to Paris-Las Vegas for a delicious croissant in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (one-half the original's size). At MGM Grand, I join a safari of tourists walking into a lion's habitat. Real lion cubs play near our feet. Exhausted, I relax on a beach looking at six foot waves in Bali, one every minute, choreographed and mechanized in a pool at the Mandalay Bay.

Las Vegas is the essential existential illusion. You can always be someone else somewhere else. Just enter another hotel fantasy and get in sync with its exotic theme. This isn't virtual reality, this is real fantasy, compressed and concentrated. Time and space collapse and collide in an extravaganza devoted to one central purpose, to entice a visitor to part with his money. The path to every destination runs through the casino.

New York, New York, with skyscrapers depicting the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building surround a huge replica of the Statue of Liberty. Inside the casino, just in front of the "New York Slot Exchange" a smaller freedom lady's skirts swirl high above her thighs, like Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch." Love Goddess merges with Freedom Goddess. All that along with a hot pastrami on rye with a crisp half-done kosher pickle at a Greenwich Village deli.

One evening at the Caneletto, a restaurant in the Venetian where the chic meet in a cosmopolitan corner of St. Mark's Square, (without the pigeons) everyone speaks Italian. The men and women are mostly dressed in leather jackets soft as silk.

Nearly everybody else here is dressed either in High Tacky lots of gold bracelets, big rings and shirts and scarves with designers names as bright as neon or Low Casual which means you can identify your favorite brand of sneakers and dress in the clothes you slept in. But gone is the celebrated kitsch.

Liberace, the King of Kitsch, whose image was synonymous with Las Vegas show biz glitz of the 1950s, left a museum with his collection of rhinestone pianos, iridescent cars and bejeweled capes covered with feathers and furs. One weighs 200 pounds. But the piano maestro is rarely mentioned today.

Sinatra's velvet voice is still ubiquitous in restaurants, casinos and elevators, but the Sands Hotel, which he made famous, has been torn down. Before anyone could say "Dean Martin" the Venetian rose on its site.

The last time I saw Las Vegas it was a honeymoon drive across America. My father was a bookmaker (as in "bookie") and his gambling friends had lots of connections at the Desert Inn. They treated the newlyweds to everything on the house. We even got an envelope of cash every morning to spend in the casino.

But Vegas has gone through several reincarnations since then. Today Vegas has pretensions that Bugsy Siegel, the gangster and founding father of the Strip, never dreamed of. Tourists line up to get in a gallery of fine art in the Bellagio Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Picasso are, as the billboard puts it, "Now Appearing." Genuine though they are, it's a rough environment for old masters. The tab is $12 and there's no chance of winning a jackpot.

The new Las Vegas aspires to be family friendly. Magic shows with jugglers are aimed directly at children. Treasure Island offers a pirate show nightly (for free) where children and adults gather on the sidewalk and watch a sea battle with canons and gun fire. The Southern Baptists, 35,000 of them, held their annual convention here.

But a sadness competing with decadence lurks in the casinos, where children are not allowed but baby strollers are. A pretty young woman, with a cigaret dangling from her mouth, wears a poker face drained of emotion but lined with stress. The elderly who get special package rates do not look like Granny or Pop-Pop when they're obsessed with striking it rich. One frail octogenarian with blue hair plays two of the one armed bandits simultaneously. Pawn shops do a thriving business here.

But it's a free country, and everyone gets to choose the sins to carry into the millennium. Las Vegas is living proof that no one gets a round-trip ticket to the end of the rainbow. Happy New Year.

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