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The New Casino Culture

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.

Nice touch.

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.

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