Neither, Gary or I, are really gamblers, so we try to find other activities to occupy our time when visiting Vegas. We have visited Red Rock, Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire State Park on previous visits. We had even traveled as far as Zion National Park in Utah, during an earlier stay. There are definitely natural beauties to discover while in Nevada, and they have nothing to do with showgirls or stripper poles.
This visit was about relaxation and ringing in the New Year, so we didn’t need to stray far from Vegas this time. We bought tickets for a concert featuring Kristin Chenoweth. She is a very talented singer and actress best known from Broadway shows, movies, and multiple guest appearances on GLEE.
The concert was on New Year’s Eve at the newly built Smith Center. Although she is about three feet tall, Kristin has a powerhouse voice. She sang songs from her career and, of course, sang one of my favorites “For Good” from WICKED. It was a great way to prepare for the countdown to midnight. We had dinner reservations at Oscar’s Steakhouse at the Plaza Hotel and Casino after the show. The restaurant is located in the Plaza Dome that was used in the movie CASINO. Oscar’s touts that they have Beef, Booze and Broads, and is named after Oscar Goodman a former Las Vegas Mayor.
It features great cuts of meat, and I am referring to the steaks not the broads. The broads are supposed to be reminiscent of the old Vegas Showgirl mystique, and they wander around the restaurant, and will keep you company at your table if you request their companionship.
First of all, I don’t need a Showgirl at my table unless she is giving me a manicure, and not to disparage the place, but the girls that were there that evening must have been from the graveyard shift. The hot ones must have been off for the holiday. There was a seven-foot Amazonian female wearing a blinking New Year’s Eve tiara that certainly had a questionable look about her. She had a manly appearance, with a jawline like Jay Leno and a little too much testosterone floating around under the chiffon of her dress.
It didn’t matter to me if there weren’t sexy glamazons there, but RuPaul was blocking my view of the handsome bartender. Hopefully, someone would need a piano moved, and she would be called away.
Lisa and her friend Donna accompanied us to the concert and dinner. It was pointed out to our group, as the entourage at the table next to us exited the dining room, that the restaurant’s namesake had just finished dining with his wife Carolyn Goodman, the current Mayor. Only in Vegas do the last two Mayors’ of the city sleep together.
The glass ceiling of the dome allowed us to watch the crowd of partygoers down on Fremont Street. It was a giant block party, and I was glad we were above the throng of drunken revelers. We were able to watch the New Year’s countdown and accompanying fire works display without being in the crowd. On Las Vegas Boulevard, where the big casinos are, the entire street is closed, and they draw around three hundred thousand spectators.
Not being a fan of crowds, there was never any thought of spending the evening amongst the teeming masses. We wanted a low-key celebration with good food and good company, and that is what we had. I enjoyed an extra dirty martini mixed with a dash of sadness, that I wouldn’t be calling my mom to wish her a Happy New Year. I sent her love in a spiritual way, and wished for happier days ahead.
No trip to Las Vegas is complete without at least playing a slot machine and visiting several of the large hotel casinos. There is an excitement and an over the top feeling that you get nowhere else. It is an adult Disney World – a playground for gambling, shopping, drinking, partying and much more. The main road through Vegas, and its jewel box of attractions is referred to as “The Strip.” It is a glittering, electrified display of architecture and excess, with very good landscaping. Driving onto “”The Strip,” I always am filled with excitement – not knowing where to direct my attention first. It is like New York City’s Times Square on steroids. Strip away your inhibitions and wallet, and you’ve arrived.
Every establishment screams for attention with its marquees, signs, lights and giant explosion of glitz. Even the McDonalds has glittering golden arches, tempting you to come inside. There are certainly some very cool and trendy places to go like the Aria, The Cosmopolitan and the Wynn, but there are the mega attractions like the MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, The Venetian, Paris and the Bellagio.
You can wander for hours, in sensory overload, and not see everything there is to see. Where else can you go to ride a gondola though the canals of Venice and then eat dinner at the Eiffel Tower within a matter of minutes. You can even do it with a well-dressed hooker, or sexy male escort if you are lonely. It is a town where money is King, and most of the show’s chorus boys are Queens.
It is all there for the taking, with a pocket full of presidents and a few well-placed bets. There is an array of people from all walks of life, coming to stake their claim on the casino floor. You see the roped off high roller areas smelling faintly of hand-rolled Cuban cigars and expensive cologne, and the twenty-four hour buffets with wafting aromas of Ben-Gay, sweat, and WD-40 from Grandma’s Hoveround scooter.
Anytime you decide to put some money into a slot machine, you hope you will win some cash, but you have to be realistic with your expectations. Lisa gave us non-gamblers sound advice. “If you just want to have fun and enjoy the play of the slots, stick to the one cent machines.”
We took her advice, since she is an official resident of Vegas, and so far hadn’t needed to sell a kidney on the Black Market to settle a gambling debt. Even just playing the penny machines is a whole education itself. There exists a whole new era of gaming machines. These are not the “One Armed Bandits” of your parent’s generation.
No quarters are spilling out into the metal tray at the bottom of the machine if you win. No big plastic cups are needed to cart your winnings to the cashier. All transactions are done neatly on a bar coded receipt, that prints the amount of dollars you are cashing out of the machine. There is the artificial sound of coins hitting against metal like the old machines, when you hit the button to cash out. I guess that is a noise still associated with winning, for us old gamblers.
Most of the new machines, you play by pushing buttons for your spin The big lever on the side is gone, and the spinning wheels inside are animated. This allows for more space, so more machines can be lined up in rows, waiting to take your money. They are like money eating and sometimes money dispensing Xboxes. There are many varied machines with all different themes. Something to appeal to everyone’s taste awaits you in Slot Land.
Although, they are considered penny machines, you have to be savvy to know what you’re betting on for each spin. You can bet up to several dollars each time, depending on how many rows or lines you play each bet. It can literally make your head spin – pun intended. I felt like I needed a tutorial in how to play the slot machines.
These machines boast video, animation; touch screen and stereo sound technology. I guess there are players who have a system for which machines to select, but I just went by what looked interesting or caught my eye. The best machines have bonus rounds where you can rack up points and free spins.
I found a machine that featured Dalmatians dressed in firemen outfits, which run across the screen carrying hoses and putting out fires. Meanwhile, the Ohio Players song “Fire” is playing along with bells and whistles going off. It was so much fun, I forgot I was playing with cash, until I scored a bonus round and started winning money. Suddenly my pennies were paying off, and that was exciting. It was like 101 Dalmatians, The Towering Inferno and a dance party all rolled into one.
I certainly wasn’t going to become a millionaire, but taking home some extra cash would highlight my gambling fun. I knew that I had placed a twenty-dollar bill into the machine, so anytime I was in excess of the original twenty, I was ahead. I said a couple of “Hail Mary’s”, and continued to play. I was able to score several bonus rounds and wound up a little over one hundred dollars ahead.
I knew it was time to quit, before the machine started taking it back, so I gladly cashed out to the sounds of tinkling coins. I now had what resembled a grocery store receipt worth over one hundred dollars. I was proud to show off my winnings to the cashier, but you don’t even need to make the human contact anymore. There are money dispensing machines on the casino floor, which you feed your receipt into, and it spits out the cash. I felt like I was paying for parking, but instead of receiving a parking pass I got money.
I was so happy to be holding a crisp new “Benjamin” in my hand. I decided to put it in my wallet, because I wanted to return home with it, like the caveman dragging his kill back to the cave. I was now an official gambler of sorts – no cards, craps or roulette for me, just slots baby!
I played several more times over the course of our visit, but I didn’t really win much more on these excursions. I tried a “Willie Wonka” machine that had a motion seat that vibrated and moved as you hurled down a tunnel with Willie, but there was no “Golden Ticket.” Also, I played a machine dedicated to Michael Jackson, which features a seat with stereo speakers that allow “The King of Pop” to croon into your ears while placing your bets. Michael’s music wasn’t paying off so well for me, so I decided to be a “Smooth Criminal” and slither away.
Gary caught the slot fever too, and also came out making some cash. We both were lucky on our trip. One of the machines he won on was based on the musical film version of “Phantom of the Opera.” We were seated having a drink at a cocktail bar, and out of the corner of my eye, on a video screen, I kept seeing bright red velvet curtains opening and closing. Also, the curtains would open to reveal a glittering chandelier, and then would quickly snap shut. It had certainly peaked my curiosity.
Let’s be honest. A gay man in Las Vegas who doesn’t notice red velvet drapes and a shiny chandelier would have to be in a coma. The company that produced this machine certainly knew what is doing, and who was their intended audience. A slot machine based on a Broadway Musical with bright, enticing graphics of drapes and bling lighting, was a shimmering beacon to any of us who have ever waved a rainbow flag.
I pointed out the machine to Gary, and he decided he should go try his luck with the Phantom. This game was progressive and featured bonus rounds, which gave him the chance to light stage footlights to win the jackpot. Who with a penchant for theater wouldn’t want the chance to provide a little illumination to the Paris Opera House? Gary came one footlight away from winning the progressive jackpot, but he did win one hundred and twenty dollars. Kudos goes to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Gary’s luck and my eye for a good slot machine.
Lisa also wanted to take us to a new museum which opened in Vegas – The Mob Museum. The museum resides in what use to be a Federal Court Building and Post Office. The courtroom in the building was actually used in the 1950’s for the seventh Senate hearings on organized crime known as the Kefauver Committee hearings.
It was a place filled with historical relevance and interesting, interactive displays. My knowledge of the mob was what I learned from The Godfather. I remember Fredo being sent to Vegas to make way for the eventual move of the Corleone family.
It is certainly interesting learning about organized crime without having to sit down and crack a textbook. I got to examine the underbelly of American culture without actually touching the teats. I love museums so when asked to go it was an “offer I couldn’t refuse.” They swear there are no more ties to the mob world in Vegas anymore, but I’ve also heard there is integrity in Washington, DC – enough said.
Knowing someone who lives in Vegas brings a normalcy to the experience of visiting there. Being able to return to Lisa’s apartment, and not be constantly in the casino world of a non-stop party, is a grounding thing. I certainly don’t want to enter The Hangover world where I wake up with a strange tattoo, not remembering what I did the night before. I can do that at home.
Gary’s Uncle Herb and Aunt Toby also live in Vegas, and they are always kind enough to take us out to dinner while we are visiting. Herb frequents an off the strip casino called the Suncoast. He gets frequent comps there, so we were treated to a very tasty dinner at the establishment's high-end Steakhouse. When you’re told to order anything you like, I saw tender filet mignon angels floating around my head. I guess I watched too many Looney Tunes growing up.
What a great vacation, to be able to play the penny slot machines, but eat like a high roller. It always comes down to who you know, and their generosity. In that sense, we were blessed with good family with good taste. We can always count on being entertained and being taken care of.
We have never visited Vegas without at least seeing one show. Although we had attended a concert, we wanted to see something on the Strip. Gary has always been fascinated by magic, so we decided to get tickets to see David Copperfield. He performs in his own theater in the MGM Grand.
Although, I tend to be a skeptic where magic is concerned. I can certainly appreciate a good trick or disappearing stunt. I am always convinced that everyone in the audience is a plant, except the people I am with. While that is not really a rational thought, something has to explain how he can make people disappear or automobiles appear on stage.
Mr. Copperfield performed a great show, that was very enjoyable and left me wondering if he could help my middle age spread disappear, with one of his spinning boxes or a well placed curtain. That seems so much easier than counting calories and skimping on tasty carbs.
I would have to write a letter to David, and let him know that I would be willing to visit his private islands of Copperfield Bay, for him to work out the slimming illusion.
I am sure I will be doing that at the same time I am lunching with Oprah, and having a pedicure with Bette Midler. Oh well, when you are in Vegas, you think anything is possible.
Our vacation was coming to a close, and I had managed to greet 2014 in a different locale, and I had also won a few extra bucks. I had enjoyed the relaxation, the company and the sixty-degree temperatures. Also, I had avoided a snowstorm in the East while I was basking in the desert sun. We were flying back on Southwest airlines, so I wasn’t concerned about lack of water, just the whole free range seating arrangements. That is another story for another time.
The airport was a mob scene when we arrived, due to delayed and cancelled flights because of the winter storms across the country. We signed our “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” contracts before departure, but I guess I have just violated mine. Hopefully, Vito the Enforcer won’t read this.
There was only had a slight delay with our flight, and the trip was non-eventful as we headed back into the freezing temperatures of the Artic Vortex. Extra cash was now in my wallet, and a new year was spread out below me at ten thousand feet.
No matter how much you travel, there is always a comforting feeling about being back in our own environment. Seeing the slight shabbiness of Philly International always lets me know I am home.
Vacations are a recharge from the realities of life. Unfortunately, as soon as I landed in Philadelphia, I received a voicemail from my sister, informing me that my Uncle Jimmy; my mother’s ninety-four year old brother had passed away that evening. I had traveled west for a temporary escape from the sadness of death, only to return to more. So 2014, was already stumbling at the starting gate.
I would just have to move forward, and take each day as it comes. I can try to be optimistic, but it is difficult to feel that way when you’re suffering from grief, and the world around you sometimes seem to be so unfair. I guess I could look at life like a slot machine. Each day is a pull of the lever, and we are taking a chance of winning, holding steady or losing. The more you put into it the better your chances are of being successful. It is all a chance, a gamble, a risk, or a new opportunity.
I had to remind myself that “Benjamin” was still in my pocket, so I had to take the good with the bad. All of life is a gamble, so “Viva Las Vegas.”