The New Casino Culture
Published: May 2009
By Jonathan Van Meter
No one will be shocked—shocked!— to learn that gambling is going on in these establishments. But as <b>Jonathan Van Meter</b> demonstrates, the American casino experience in 2005 is a different game altogether.
While I'm no expert on gambling, I know more than I care to about the resorts and the people gambling made famous. I lived in Atlantic City in the mid eighties, and I spent several years researching and writing a book about a guy named Skinny D'Amato, the father of the new Atlantic City and the heart and soul of the Rat Pack. I have, voluntarily or otherwise, spent time in Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Monte Carlo. And I think it's safe to say that I have interviewed every living Trump.
So it's no big surprise that in March I find myself checking into the Palms, a place notorious for, among other things, being the location where Paris Hilton's slightly less annoying sister, Nicky, partied with Bijou Phillips, Tara Reid, and Lindsay Lohan before her 3 a.m. wedding a year ago. My room is small and unremarkable, but my room-service dinner is worth commenting on: dreadful. Those young Hollywood types must not be very discriminating. Or perhaps they're too busy impulsively marrying one another to notice. I head downstairs to have a cocktail and play video poker. Within the time it takes to drink two Screwdrivers, I win $400. Still, I can't wait to check out. It's a Sunday night and the place is so quiet it gives me the creeps.
The next morning, I go over to Steve Wynn's temporary corporate offices to meet with the tiny but powerful Denise Randazzo, the organization's public relations wizard, who, pointer in hand, shows me an elaborate model of Wynn Las Vegas, calling my attention to some of the more superlative details of the $2.7 billion property—the most expensive casino-hotel ever built. For example, a 140-foot-tall man-made mountain—or, in casinospeak, "mountain"—has been moved right onto Las Vegas Boulevard. It is covered with hundreds of real boulders and real pine trees, but they aren't likely to fool anyone into thinking that Wynn Peak was created by a geological event zillions of years ago. The "mountain" essentially blocks the view into the building from the street. The idea, I guess, is to create in the Las Vegas visitor a burning sense of mystery. What's behind that mountain?I must know!
Wynn Las Vegas exists on the site of the old Desert Inn and, like the D.I., has its own 18-hole golf course, bringing the property's total acreage to 217, which might just be bigger than downtown Minneapolis. The curved tower is sheathed in a brown glass that was formulated just for this project and took a year to develop. The glass has a name: Wynn Bronze. In the tower are thousands of rooms, including a hotel-within-a-hotel, with 317 suites, for those folks who have a gambling antibody circulating in their bloodstream and cannot abide casinos or the people who love them. It has its own entrance, check-in, restaurant, and even a swimming pool, so its guests never have to mingle with all those filthy gamblers.
Randazzo drives me in her BMW convertible over to the casino-hotel, where we put on hard hats and take a tour. The property is beyond sprawling, with fabulously carpeted marble hallways and vast esplanades. Although the place looks nearly finished, there are still literally hundreds of construction workers toiling in seven-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the opening. Indeed, so many hard hats are milling about that it feels as if the joint were already up and running—and hosting a convention for the AFL-CIO.
As we turn a corner and begin to walk across the casino floor, I sense that I am in a completely new kind of designed environment, a place utterly different in feel from any other casino I've been in. And then it hits me: natural light is pouring in, bathing the room in sunshine. There is a small forest of 50-year-old trees actually growing under a glass ceiling in the main hotel lobby, just off the casino floor. I begin to think of it as an Easter miracle. I hear angels singing. The hermetic seal on the casino has, at long last, been broken. And on the fourth weekend in April, Steve Wynn said unto his disciples, "Let a real sun shine inside and burn away our sins! Fear not the actual time of day!"
But something else is new and different, too. There are beautiful, almost rococo lamps hanging over every gaming table, just a few feet above where the heads of the players and dealers will soon be. They were installed by the Parisian Jacques Garcia and look like a cross between a French Moderne drum lamp and one of those chandeliers made out of antlers that you see in Aspen and Lake Tahoe—except they're all white. Unlike the less-restricted gaming halls of Europe, casinos in America have high, wide-open ceilings because of the so-called eyes in the sky, security cameras required to monitor play. One can become agoraphobic in these rooms, which often cover hundreds of thousands of square feet and are about as elegant as your local Wal-Mart. Wynn allowed his chief designer, Roger Thomas, to spend two years and untold millions in R&D to come up with a way to solve the intimacy problem. The solution was as ingeniously simple as it was outrageously expensive: a security camera is hidden in every chandelier.
As the tour continues, taking us through the 16 restaurants (each one more painstakingly hyperdesigned than the last), the "ultralounge" (whatever that is), a beautifully designed disco called La Bête (the Beast), the Dior and de la Renta and Manolo Blahnik shops, and even the elaborate wedding salon (complete with chapel), I start to realize that every public space in the hotel has access to the out-of-doors and that many also have "mountain" or "lake" or "waterfall" views. Indeed, each imaginable version of the special outdoor area is represented: lanai, loggia, veranda, patio, terrace, piazza, courtyard portico, and quadrangle!
Trust me, it has not always been thus.
Caesars Salad Days
Las Vegas, July 1989
I've flown to Vegas with Joan Rivers to stay for a week at Caesars Palace. Long story. Suffice to say I am here to keep her company while she recovers from a little "work." Rivers is at the height of her "Can we talk?" powers. In a way, she is eighties Vegas personified, with a contract to prove it: she is the highest-paid entertainer in the resort's history. I have never been to Vegas, and I'm thrilled to go along for the ride.
I spend mornings lying out by the eerily empty pool while my eyeballs turn to raisins in the blast furnace that is the Nevada desert in July. How does anything survive here?In the afternoons, Joan and I visit the Liberace Museum, Lake Mead, and the Hoover Dam. One day, Joan commandeers a limo and then "flashes the famous face" (she refers to this as FFF) to get us past the guards at a couple of gated communities, in order to take me on a tour of legendary Vegas homes, including Phyllis McGuire's and Wayne Newton's. We go see Siegfried and Roy perform; we visit the brand-new Excalibur to taunt and laugh at the employees wearing chain mail and codpieces; we take in a Diana Ross concert; we hang out in Paul Anka's dressing room before his show. Joan shows me a backstage closet filled with dozens of her bedazzling Bob Mackie gowns. Each one must weigh 100 pounds. One night, we travel off the Strip to some gay disco to shake our cans. Joan gets swarmed on the dance floor by dozens of screaming queens and has to leave.
There is not a whole lot to keep me hanging around the Caesars compound, which I find dark, depressing, and mystifyingly laid out. I repeatedly get lost in the casino-floor maze, and it always seems to be night, no matter what time of day it is. This is the main reason I endure the Dutch-pretzel-oven climate of the pool area: to reset my circadian rhythms and get my bearings. While working in Atlantic City, I learned that sunlight—or any reminder or representation of the outside world—is anathema to casino designers. Clocks are verboten. Birds in the wallpaper pattern?Sacrilege. Windows?Fuhgettaboudit! The conventional wisdom is that if gamblers actually knew what time it was, or were reminded that they had, say, children, they would come to their senses and go to bed. By far the most exciting part of the whole Vegas experience is walking down the street to the Mirage, Steve Wynn's new place, to watch the "volcano" "erupt" every night at sundown.
The Real Deal
Las Vegas, July 2001
I'm in Vegas again, for the first time in 12 years, to interview Britney Spears. She is not yet 18 and is at the height of her "Oops!...I did it again" powers, her glory days, and her sexuality still seems very winky-winky. Very faux. Very...Vegas. Britney, as Rivers was in the late eighties, is the "new Vegas" personified. Post-millennial Vegas. The L.V. Chamber of Commerce might just as well have created ads that read, LIVE NUDE GIRLS! BRING THE KIDS! This Vegas also reminds me of a famous Courtney Love lyric: "I fake it so real, I am beyond fake." Everything of interest in this kooky town is a facsimile, a replica, a knockoff, but fabulously so, because in its shamelessness, it is original. If it were a person, it would be...Britney Spears.
We are both staying at the Bellagio, Steve Wynn's $1.6 billion temple of "tasteful" homage to the art and architecture of northern Italy and southern France. Of course, to the people who design casinos, tasteful means an 11-acre "lake" with 1,000 fountains that shoot water 240 feet into the air as they "dance" to opera and Italian pop. My nicely appointed but run-of-the-mill suite is in some far-flung tower that requires a football fieldlength walk through the casino to get to. Despite the fact that the Bellagio has expanded the concept of what a casino-hotel can be—$300 million worth of van Goghs, Monets, Renoirs, and Picassos hang in the gallery; a $30 million, 90,000-square-foot conservatory is staffed with more than a hundred horticulturists—I still have a sense of being both trapped in eternal nighttime and tricked into gambling. On the other hand, I am loving the outdoor zone, which features several pools—as well as little jet nozzles that spray humidity into the air and make it possible to sit outside for more than 10 minutes at a time without suffocating.
Britney's boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, and his band, 'N Sync, are also in town. After their concert, I'm whisked off with the entourage into a giant disco, inside yet another casino, where people are taking hits of oxygen from neon-lit tubes, and nearly naked go-go boys and girls dance on risers. No need to limo off the Strip for disco action; it's 2001, and dance clubs are de rigueur for any casino that hopes to attract the young.
During my downtime, I explore the wonders of this new Las Vegas. Wolfgang Puck has opened a Spago at Caesars, launching the city into a new era of celebrity chefs and fancy shopping. At the Bellagio there is a Le Cirque, an Aqua, and an outpost of Todd English's Olives, not to mention Armani, Chanel, Gucci, Tiffany, Moschino, and Prada boutiques. Stuff to do! Who needs a tour of the Hoover Dam when there's serious shopping right here in Bellagio-town?At Caesars I explore the Forum Shops, a decadent mall designed as a grand trompe l'oeil experiment—the winding "streets" and "outdoor cafés" actually make you feel as if you were outside when, in fact, you are "outside." There's a blue sky with puffy clouds above, Romanesque fountains, and...outside sounds, piped in.
A Playground for the Rich and Famous (and the Not So Rich and Not So Famous)
Atlantic City, November 2004
On a Friday night, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I drive the 130 miles from Manhattan to Atlantic City to spend a few days at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Because it is the first new casino to be built here in 13 years, the place has gotten an extraordinary amount of press, and I'm anxious to see what all the fuss is about. It appears that Atlantic City has finally figured out how to draw the younger, more fabulous crowd that Vegas has been pulling in for the past decade. For a time, the Borgata seemed to be Ben Affleck's second home. In fact, the Borgata is where J.Lo's mother, Guadalupe, won $2.4 million playing a Wheel of Fortune slot machine.
The Borgata has succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations partly because she's the sexy new girl in town and partly because those in charge have been doing some thinking about what makes people happy. They have also clearly taken a few pages from the Steve Wynn handbook. The first thing I notice when I walk in through the soaring, modern lobby are three giant orange-glass Dale Chihuly sculptures—a direct rip-off from the Bellagio. I don't know about you, but one thing that makes me very, very happy is knowing that I have scored a much nicer room than most of the other schlubs milling around the lobby. Luckily, I'm friends with a rich guy from Philadelphia named Billy Frankel, one of the Borgata's big players, and he leaned on his—no doubt—long-suffering casino host to upgrade me to a very big suite on a high floor with sweeping, sparkling views of the entire city and the Atlantic Ocean.
I have friends in Atlantic City from when I lived here 20 years ago, so we go out on Friday night to the Borgata's Italian restaurant, Specchio, which is easily as good as some of the best restaurants I have been to in Manhattan. And thanks to the advice of the lovely, funny lady-sommelier, I enjoy the most delicious bottle of wine I've ever tasted, a $60 Italian red, the name of which I foolishly don't write down. Afterward, we give the dance club, Mixx, a spin, but I am puzzled by how unspecial it is. We might as well be in any anodyne techno club in Dallas. For a moment we consider going to see Bon Jovi's performance, in the theater, but then decide we need to disembark from the SS Borgata for a while and step back into the real world. One of the nice things about Atlantic City is that it is, in fact, a city, one in which you can walk around and hail cabs and get into all sorts of trouble. Where there was once a terrifying, drug-infested neighborhood right in the center of everything, there is now the Walk, a lovely outdoor mall that has been woven into the fabric of the streetscape. There are at least a dozen new restaurants and nightclubs as well. Feeling nostalgic, we head straight for Studio VI, a disco I used to spend a lot of time in. I still know people, including Mortimer, the drag queen at the door, who lets us all in free. Here, in a real nightclub, as opposed to the Borgata's "nightclub," we have a howling good time and stay until 4 a.m. That, perhaps, is the problem with nightclubs in casinos: they lack the energy that comes from large groups of people who know one another all being naughty together.
The next day we sleep in and take our hangovers to the spa, a feature to which all casino-hotels now devote an inordinate amount of space, money, and energy. This one, Spa Toccare, is indeed impressive, if a tad Caligula. For the life of me I cannot figure out why there isn't an outdoor pool for the summer months. There is a huge, beautiful indoor pool in a room with doors leading to the only outdoor space in the entire complex—and the space is meager. I have seen bigger, nicer backyards behind brownstones on the Upper East Side. This is especially baffling because the Borgata is surrounded by water and its customers are given no access to it.
Billy Frankel comes in from Philadelphia to eat steak and gamble away his riches. (The Borgata has an outpost of the legendary New York steak house Old Homestead, which has been operating in Manhattan's Meatpacking District since 1867.) A craps man, Billy once won $1 million in a single night in this town, at Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget. Today, he gambles only at the Borgata. "Best casino in Atlantic City," he says. "Easily. It's got everything. Great restaurants and hip, young people." Billy is in his sixties and wears a suit jacket when he gambles. Naturally, he prefers to be where the action is. We are escorted by a host through the throngs and deposited at a busy table where he doesn't like the vibe. Gamblers are funny people. They feel things that we non-gamblers are oblivious to. At the next table, his girlfriend and I drink triple Sambucas and watch Billy lose $6,000 in about four minutes. He is prepared to lose $10,000, but gets grumpy and decides to go upstairs to his suite, to watch an Eagles game on his JumboTron-sized TV and stew in his juices.
By Sunday morning, I'm dying to not be in a casino. Other than my room and the spa, there is nowhere to go to relax, no way to escape the constant thrumming and cacophony and flashing lights, and I'm exhausted. We eat lunch at the Metropolitan, a knockoff of Balthazar, the bistro in downtown Manhattan that is itself a knockoff of every other restaurant in Paris. Knockoffs twice removed are really what casino design is all about. However, one of the things I like about the Borgata is that it is not themed. There are no pirates. Or men in gladiator costumes. Or Wild Wild West "saloons" with swinging doors and tumbleweeds. It's just a slick, adult playground for people like Billy—and Ben Affleck.
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?
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.
WHERE TO STAY
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
Doubles from $179. 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City; 866/692-6742 OR 609/317-1000; www.theborgata.com
Morongo Casino Resort & Spa
Doubles from $99. 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, Calif.; 800/252-4499 or 951/849-3080; www.morongocasinoresort.com
Wynn Las Vegas
Doubles from $199. 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; 888/320-7123 or 702/770-7000; www.wynnlasvegas.com
WHERE TO EAT
Daniel Boulud Brasserie
Modern French cuisine by its eponymous celebrity chef. Dinner for two $100. Wynn Las Vegas; 888/320-7110
Lunch for two $45. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City; 609/317-1000
Dinner for two $120. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City; 609/317-1000
Restaurant at the Top
High-end food on the casino's roof. Dinner for two $40. Morongo Hotel & Casino, Cabazon, Calif.; 951/755-5527
Dinner for two $100. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City; 609/317-1000
Morongo Hotel & Casino Cabazon, Calif.; 951/755-5527
A casual cocktail lounge with a lovely backyard. Wynn Las Vegas; 702/770-3633
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City; 866/692-6742
Set on the bank of a man-made river. Wynn Las Vegas; 702/770-3395
View Lounge (Space Bar)
Morongo Hotel & Casino, Cabazon, Calif.; 951/755-5527