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The New Casino Culture

We'll Always Have...Paris?
Just Outside Palm Springs, December 2004

From Los Angeles, my boyfriend, Andy, and I rent a car and drive to Cabazon, California, to attend the opening-week festivities at the Morongo Hotel & Casino. Native American gaming has exploded all over the country in the past several years, with 354 Native American casinos operating in 28 states, but nowhere has it taken off more vigorously than in southern California. San Diego County alone has nine casinos, and there are about a half-dozen here in the Palm Springs area, most of them ticky-tacky, rinky-dink operations. The brave elders of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians had something much grander in mind. They decided to go for broke by spending $250 million of their hard-earned bingo profits on a 27-story tower that rises above 148,000 square feet of casino floor in the middle of nowhere off Interstate 5, about two hours east of Los Angeles and 20 miles shy of Palm Springs. It is the only tall building for miles, and you see it long before you arrive. At night, the swoopy top looks like a giant eyeball in the sky.

After a brief flirtation with showcasing the history of the 1,100-member Morongo tribe—they have lived on a 32,000-acre reservation since 1876—Maurice Lyons, the tribe's chairman, decided instead to go after Paris Hilton's crowd. To figure out the tastes and customs of her tribe, Lyons and his associates studied the Palms Casino Hotel in Vegas very closely for a couple of years. The Palms, you may remember, was the site of the most annoying season of MTV's Real World—a nice little piece of product placement. In the end, the Morongo is pretty much a replica-in-spirit of the Palms; it was designed by the same architects, and the nightclubs and restaurants were conceived by the unfortunately spelled N9NE Group, the folks who gave the Palms Ghost Bar and Rain, two stylish nightspots that have become gathering places for a certain young Hollywood crowd.

The day we arrive at the Morongo, we go to a party at Space Bar, the casino's answer to Ghost Bar. It is way up inside the eyeball in the sky and has spectacular views of both San Gorgonio Mountain and the San Jacinto range. The room (since renamed the View Lounge)—featuring a DJ and bright-orange ultramod sofas—has a kind of sixties-Pop-art-meets-the-Rat-Pack sensibility. The cocktail waitresses remind us of Playboy Bunnies, though their costumes are more Barbarella than frisky rabbit woman. They are easily the jolliest and nicest people we meet during our stay. Downstairs, off the casino floor, there is Desert Rain, a very shiny new nightclub with a dance floor in the round. It does, indeed, "rain" occasionally, and there are metal pods that encircle the dance floor, out of which rise Alien-like contraptions that shoot fire several feet into the air every 10 minutes or so. We are standing more than 50 feet away, and every time this particular feature is activated, the ice cubes in my drink melt. I cannot believe this is safe, let alone legal.

Unlike the boneheaded Borgata tribe of Atlantic City, the wizened sages of the Morongo have decided to take advantage of their clement weather and breathtaking natural surroundings. By far, the coolest thing about this place is the outdoor area, which is rimmed with six two-bedroom casitas (these are definitely the accommodations you want). They are beautifully appointed and have their own little yards with inspired landscaping, lending them a modicum of privacy from the pool area, which is really an elaborate water park for grown-ups. There is a lazy "river," a slide, a huge pool, and a sandy "beach," surrounded by cabanas that look like tiny VIP lounges, complete with phones and plasma TV's. The doors to the nightclub Desert Rain open out to the pool area, and it is not hard to imagine a spontaneous indoor-outdoor nighttime bacchanal taking place on these grounds.

Not surprisingly, we grow weary of being in such a hyper-stylized, overdetermined environment and begin to crave the ad hoc fabulousness of a tacky gay bar. We drive into Palm Springs to check out the Exotic Erotica Variety Show at Toucans Tiki Lounge and are not disappointed. There's a rather elegant elderly gentleman cutting it up on the dance floor who looks exactly like John Kerry, plus we run into our two favorite cocktail waitresses from Space Bar. They tell us the Tiki is, without question, the most happening place to be on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter. This makes us very happy.

Let the Sun Shine In
Las Vegas, March 2005

Back in Vegas, at Steve Wynn's new behemoth, my tour comes to an end and I am deposited in a vast boardroom with a table long enough to land a small plane on. It is Wynn's temporary office and, oddly enough, the only room in all this space devoted to conventions and conferences that does not have a view of or access to the outside. Wynn's three dogs, Palo, Sela, and Lupi Loo, famously go wherever he goes, often preceding him by several minutes. Wynn is more than an hour late, so when I suddenly feel a cold, wet nose sniffing at my ankles, I figure their owner has finally entered the building. Moments later, Wynn walks in. He is tall and tan and dressed just as you might expect the Grand Pooh-Bah of the Leisure People to be dressed: in high-end leisure wear—taupe slacks, white knit sweater over a pressed, collared shirt, brown suede shoes, and a watch that probably cost nearly as much as the Maybach he drove up in.

There might be no one more given to hyperbole than the owner of the most expensive gambling castle ever built. In fact, there is no one more given to hyperbole than casino owners, period. In the one-upmanship world that he and Donald Trump inhabit, the ability to make never-before, first-time-ever, only-one-in-the-world claims with a straight face is an asset unto itself. They have to sell themselves, and they do it through braggadocio. But unlike Trump—who is not stupid—there is something refined, verging on snobby, about Wynn. He is not afraid to speak French; he comfortably uses words like cartouche and arabesque. He talks about fine wine and food, references classic literature, knows his European art history. He uses fanciful a lot to describe the design of Wynn Las Vegas.

Wynn barks out a few orders to his assistant and makes a big deal over the fact that someone left a plate of brownies in his office. "I don't eat brownies!" he bellows. "Who eats brownies?" When I finally get his attention, I mention that there is natural light on the casino floor. "Did you see the sun shining in?" he asks. "Isn't that wonderful?" Why, I want to know, has there always been this rule about no daylight?"One of the funny things about Las Vegas," he says, scratching his chin, "is that people who have observed it, namely writers, have assumed or extrapolated or made an inductive leap that if all the casinos are the same, there must be a reason."

So there is no reason?

"No!" he shouts. Here, he imitates the Italian guys of Old Vegas: "Well, make sure dey walk troo da casina. So, in the early days, they surrounded the casino with all this stuff that shuts out everything else. It's these stories and myths that have been circulating and accepted for years."

Like no clocks?

"No clocks."

So, that's not true?

"Answer your own question! Would any sane person keep clocks out for the purpose of keeping people from knowing what time it is?Who in the past fifty years since Las Vegas existed didn't have one of these?" He points to his watch. "Very intelligent people still believe this. The idea of the casino as a box is just primordial design. Early-generational thinking. It was just too easy to make money here. They didn't have to think about those things." He fixes me with an intense gaze, leans close, and begins to speak in a bizarre theatrical cadence, modulating his voice from whisper quiet to thunder-from-the-pulpit loud, as if he were performing Shakespeare. "Those days are over. Now it's the experience that brings people to the city. It certainly isn't gambling! I am one of those people who never thought it was. I always thought that the city is the show. In every major metropolitan area—from Bangor to Phoenix, Miami to Seattle, Chicago to Brownsville, New Orleans to Minneapolis, Detroit to Albuquerque—except for Honolulu and Salt Lake City, you can get in a car and within forty-five to ninety minutes you are at a blackjack table or slot machine. And yet Las Vegas is at its all-time high! So there is something else going on here, and that something else has been going on for a long time."

The reason it took so many years to let the outside in, Wynn says, has to do with competition. Or, rather, the lack of it.

"You don't think seriously about anything until you have to!" he says, banging his fist on the table. "And if you can make money building a box of rooms on top of a box of slot machines, you say, 'Fuck it. Build the box!' The public went past that. We inched them up. We showed them better stuff and they rewarded [us]. But, whatever you see here that you like, the collection of things in this building, they are, by and large, individually irrelevant. This place, if it has any value at all, it's because it's an extension or an expression of an idea." He throws his hands in the air and yells, "The joint's organic! Fake will keep your attention for a little while. But the real thing holds. We started with an idea based on the most fundamental examination of human aspiration. What do people want?Nice places to go. They want an intensified and enriched emotional experience for the three or five days of their goddamned vacation. That's what they'll stand in line for and let some dumb fool search their body for. They're sure as hell not going to do it for a slot machine and a topless bar."

But for an unexpected breath of fresh air and, sure, a fake mountain?That ought to do the trick...for now.

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