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Vegas Finds Sure Thing

Aired May 17, 2002 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, HOST: Vegas, the world capital of gambling, rediscovers its best bet. Wholesome families may be fine, but jokers want to be wild.


ANTHONY CURTIS, AUTHOR: Fundamentally, it's all about -- it's about being naked.


MANN: Hello and welcome.

In the annals of history, it was a change that admittedly ranked somewhere below the Age of Reason or the French Revolution, but in the culture and industry devoted to quickly separating people from their cash, it was a surprise, nonetheless -- a strategy to turn Las Vegas into something closer to Disneyland, to clean up its image and embrace families who want to have fun together, instead of adults who just want to misbehave on their own.

Well, if there's one thing Las Vegas can spot, it's a losing bet. And now, a city devoted to gambling, drinking and sex is renewing its romance with gambling, drinking and sex.

On our program today, Vegas finds a sure thing.

First, though, a look at some of the headlines in the news this hour.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says no withdrawal, no election. Arafat says there can only be a Palestinian election once Israel completely pulls out of the occupied territories.

His decision comes on the heels of an overnight Israeli incursion into Jenin and its refugee camp. The Israel defense forces say 20 Palestinians were arrested. The military was later reported to be withdrawing from Jenin and the camp.

In Colombia, a surge in fighting has killed at least 78 people this week. Paramilitary forces and FARC rebels fought one of this years most intense battles Tuesday.

FARC reportedly overran a paramilitary base. The Colombian military was later called in.

The fighting took place in an area traditionally controlled by guerrillas that has been subject to recent incursions by the paramilitaries. A local government official says no civilians have been found among the people killed.

U.S. President George W. Bush is defending himself against what he calls second-guessing of his handling of intelligence before the September 11th attacks.

In recent days, it's come to light that Mr. Bush was told in August of the possibility that members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network might try to hijack U.S. airliners.

Mr. Bush says if he'd known the enemy would use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, he would have done everything in his power to protect the American people.

U.S. lawmakers have overwhelmingly agreed to give the seven European nations vying for NATO membership a $55.5 million military aid package.

The measure underscores the importance the U.S. places on its alliance with Europe. President Bush had asked Congress to pass the measure before he travels to Russia next week for a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

Las Vegas is a place people go to play -- a city essentially originally built by criminals to allow the rest of us to break the rules a little, too.

People from all over the world flock there to do things they can't get away with back home.

Is that enough to carry a growing tourism-based community through the 21st century? Of course it is.

CNN's John Vause took the assignment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE ENTERTAINER: It's Saturday night, y'all. You're in Sin City. Let me feel you.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In many ways, a trip to Las Vegas is like a trip into the American psyche. This desert oasis dedicated to decadent, in-your-face consumption, where gaudy only gives way to trash -- an arrogant, sprawling city of glitz and glamour wrapped in countless neon lights.

This is the Madonna of cities, constantly reinventing itself, where famous landmarks are torn down to build bigger, better, billion-dollar casinos.

In the mid-'90s, they tried to change their ways, going up-market. Back then they called it family-friendly.

These days they call it a bad idea.

OSCAR B. GOODMAN, MAYOR OF LAS VEGAS, NEVADA: That's not what Vegas is all about. If they really want that, in my opinion, they'll go 150 miles down the road and see Mickey Mouse. They really want to come here and see Bugsy Siegel under a rock.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Claudia (ph), come talk to the mayor.

GOODMAN: Hi, Claudia. How are you? Is that for me?

VAUSE: Oscar Goodman was elected mayor two years ago. More than 30 years ago, he says, he was a lawyer to the mob -- even played himself in the movie "Casino," the Hollywood hit about the Mafia and Vegas during the '60s and '70s.

GOODMAN: I got back here in 1964, and it was a great town with all sorts of characters around. There were fellows who were called Wingy (ph) and Humpy (ph) and all kinds of cool names. It was a very exciting place. It was electric. It was neon.

VAUSE: But the more things change, the more they stay the same. These days, the sin is back in Sin City.

Topless showgirls certainly aren't new to Vegas. The first appeared on the Strip in the late '50s. But these days, an estimated 1,000 women each night are stripping in casinos and clubs.

That's more than ever before.

One of the more successful shows is called "Skin Tight" starring Vanna Lace. She's a former Miss Nude World whose surgically-enhanced double D breasts have become one of the more popular attractions on the Strip.

VANNA LACE, LAS VEGAS ENTERTAINER: It's a sexy, classy show. The choreography has suggestive movements, you know, grinding the hips and very sort of erotic sounding music.

Yeah, it's not sleazy, no -- on the edge.

VAUSE: At the MGM Grand, the biggest casino-hotel in Vegas, the show is imported from Crazy Horse in Paris. It's called "La Femme."

At MGM, the roller coasters, clowns and amusements were a spectacular failure. But the topless show is a hit. Just don't call it sleazy.

GAMAL AZIZ, MGM GRAND, LAS VEGAS: "La Femme" is really a very artistic, very intelligent -- it's really a masterpiece of intelligence, sophistication and humor in one.

And the Crazy Horse from Paris has been in Paris for 50 years. So we really didn't just decide to go and get a show like that without knowing what the quality is that it brings.

CURTIS: Will they still be out without (ph) dressed (ph)?

It may not add to the art, but it adds to the crowd counts I think. Maybe it allows them to charge 10 bucks more a ticket.

But I think that in the -- yeah, in the end, they can call it whatever they want. But I think that fundamentally it's all about -- it's about being naked.

VAUSE: Anthony Curtis is an author and professional gambler, and has lived in Vegas for most of his life.

What's the next stage in the adult Vegas? Where do we go from here?

CURTIS: I think we're going to go -- we're going to go naughtier. We're going to go a little bit naughtier for a while. That's the way it's going to go, until that sort of wears itself out.

Apparently that's what people want. You know, these shows, they get good crowd figures in other places. As I say, this is a copy-cat town. And they wouldn't be copying if they weren't being successful.

VAUSE: Perhaps the next best thing has already arrived.

The Palms opened less than six months ago in the wake of the 9/11 tourism slump. It's the newest casino in town, with 440 rooms, 2,000 staff -- by Vegas standards it's considered a boutique hotel -- up-market, retro, hip and young.

And here, there are no topless showgirls.

GEORGE MALOOF, OWNER, PALMS CASINO: This is a champagne-caviar bar right in the center.

VAUSE: Owner George Maloof is very much the new kid on the block. He's just 36, and says the casino started turning a profit the first day it opened.

MALOOF: We've discovered who we really are. And that's a place where people want to go out and have fun and party.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Andrew's having his central forehead and between the eyes.

VAUSE: Here, one of the attractions -- monthly Botox parties -- the anti-wrinkle cosmetic procedure, served up with champagne and hors d'oeuvres.

It's not your typical Saturday night casino crowd, and that's the point. This is a city which has continued to not only survive, but thrive -- attracting 35 million visitors last year.

CURTIS: It's going to do what it has to do. It's smart that way, to keep itself out at the forefront.

It had to move away from gambling only when gambling was, became legal and allowed and accepted throughout the United States.

Now people could go to a riverboat around the corner or to a Native American destination and gamble. That generic event was available to them everywhere.

So Vegas had to be something better. And that was, make it so it's like no place else.

VAUSE: Vegas is a city where millions come to push their own personal boundaries. All night gambling and drinking, risque shows, or you can eat buffets -- opulent, luxurious hotels.

And here, the big winner is always Las Vegas, always changing to keep the odds on the house's side.

The one constant -- it's always about the money.

John Vause, CNN, Las Vegas.


MANN: We have to take a break now. When we come back, more about the making of a city of myth -- and money.

Stay with us.


MANN: Las Vegas literally means the fertile valley in Spanish. Presumably the first comedians in the city were the people who named it.

Not much ever took root there until the '40s, when mobsters used their capital to build their capital.

Welcome back.

The story of Las Vegas could be a movie if it weren't in so many movies already.

The mob made the locals an offer they couldn't refuse. They went to a desert with no industry and not much to offer and provided jobs for the people and payoffs for the politicians -- a marriage made in Vegas.

Joining us now to talk a bit more about the city and its history is Hal Rothman, author of "Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty- First Century."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all about the past, about that story, because most of us, to the extent we know anything about the past of Las Vegas, have a sense that it was founded by guys with names like Louie and Rocco. And really they had nothing good in mind at the time.

Is that essentially right?

HAL ROTHMAN, AUTHOR, "NEON METROPOLIS": Well, it is and it isn't. Las Vegas, of course, is a more complicated place than people imagine.

It's roots in the 20th century were as a railroad town. And after the State of Nevada embraced gambling in 1931 as a way to solve its economic woes, there became options here.

And long before there were mobsters here, of course, there were roadhouse casinos and even shows, small-scale shows and other things like that in the 1930s that preceded the arrival of the gangsters.

MANN: How did the mobsters show up?

ROTHMAN: Well, they came down the highway in a little red sports car -- a guy named Bennie Siegel, known to you as "Bugsy," but if you called him that to his face, he'd hurt you.

And he kind of got out here and he looked around, and he was a little bit of a frustrated actor. He'd been in Los Angeles and hadn't been able to break into the movies. And he didn't understand why his old pal George Raft could get in and he couldn't.

He came out here, and what he did was put together the pieces of a couple of things -- the zest for entertainment that was just beginning to appear on the horizon for American society, for buttoned-down American society -- and he put that together with the idea of Havana and Monte Carlo, and he built in essence a resort in the middle of the desert.

MANN: Why did he pick the middle of the desert?

ROTHMAN: Well, he picked the middle of the desert for the sheer and simple reason that he could be legal there, that -- most of the initial mobsters that came to Las Vegas were, of course, Jewish.

And like a lot of good Jewish boys, they wanted to go straight and impress their moms in the end.

And so a lot of the guys you see coming at first are leaving the illegal world for the legal world. They're going to a situation where they can actually have dinner in peace. They don't have to worry about the cops knocking on their door at dinner time and rousting them.

And that's a tremendous, tremendous appeal as, when Vice cracks down in cities like Los Angeles nearby and throughout the nation.

MANN: It is said -- our correspondents said, other people say it -- that Las Vegas is a city of transformation, a city that reinvents itself.

But since those days, has it really been transformed? Hasn't it always been about gambling?

ROTHMAN: Well, Las Vegas isn't really about gambling anymore. It's about entertainment. And gambling is probably the entree on that menu. But there are many, many appetizers and many side dishes and many deserts.

And so, in the sense that it's -- it's about money, yes. But it's not gambling that really drives people here. People don't come here to gamble. They can gamble anywhere now.

They come here to see the first spectacle of post-modernity.

MANN: Well, what about the idea that we began our program with, the idea that Las Vegas would break away, if not from gambling, then it would at least embrace a different style of entertainment, that it would be more of a place that a man could bring his wife and kids, not necessarily a place that men and their colleagues would come to for a dirty weekend on their own?

ROTHMAN: Well, I think that beginning with the opening of the Mirage on New Year's Eve in 1988-89, and continuing for 13 years -- a period I call the Mirage phase -- we built about 75,000 hotel rooms here.

Well, that's a much, much broader market than ever existed before. That's more hotel rooms than are in New York or in Los Angeles, for example.

And because of that, in essence what happened was, is the democratization of travel, people's ability to travel and the increase in wealth.

And the increase in people's sense that they were entitled to leisure brought more and more people here and created an incredible number of niches in the market.

There was always a niche for adult-style entertainment. They added a niche -- a very large niche now -- for families.

And even this time of year and even later into the summer, if you walk down the Strip, you'll see thousands upon thousands of people walking up and down the Strip, looking at the hotels, wearing cameras for belly buttons and pushing strollers.

And that's something that certainly wouldn't have happened 30, 35 years ago.

MANN: It sounds like it's gotten a lot less colorful, a lot more corporate.

ROTHMAN: Well, a friend of mine says that there aren't as many notorious resumes anymore. But it's still a very exciting place.

There's still more going on here per square inch than probably anywhere else in the world.

MANN: Is there any myth left to the place? You make it sound like it's a really very carefully planned business town, and the business happens to be bringing in visitors.

Is there any myth left to the place? Is there any romance left to the place? Or are the interesting stories, the interesting people all, as you say, in its past?

ROTHMAN: No, I think there's plenty of exciting myth left. If you flip on any movie channel, you'll see Doug Liman's movies -- "Swingers" and "Go" about young rough-scallions who come to Las Vegas. People have reinvented the lounge.

People come here in essence to be free of who they are in other places. They come here to be in a place where the rules don't apply to them or to anybody.

They come to a place that is devoted to vacation, that is devoted to pleasure and leisure. And I think that's always a mythic thing in a culture that prizes and insists upon work in a way that the United States does.

MANN: Is there one story to your mind that is the quintessential Las Vegas story, whether it's a vacationer coming and going home broke, or ...

ROTHMAN: Well, ...

MANN: ... I don't know, a gangster coming and making a fortune.

Is there one quintessential Las Vegas experience or episode that comes to mind?

ROTHMAN: I think the quintessential one for this generation is the story of Steve Wynn, who parleyed, who talked Howard Hughes' empire out of a very small piece of land that happened to be right in front of Caesar's Palace, threatened to build the world's most narrow casino there, sold that to Caesar's Palace, used that to buy into the Golden Nugget downtown, put together a management package and became the managing director of the Golden Nugget.

He was 35 or so at the time. And used that as a springboard to create the empire that built the Mirage, that built the Bellagio, that made the Mirage Corporation in its heyday, the second-most beloved American corporation by its workers, and in essence transformed this city.

So I think if there's a myth for this generation, that's it.

The myth for the earlier generation is, of course, Bugsy Siegel and his red convertible, coming down old highway 91 from Los Angeles.

MANN: Hal Rothman, author of "Neon Metropolis." Thanks so much for talking with us.

ROTHMAN: Thanks for having me.

MANN: Another break and then your best bets for a good time in Vegas.

Stay with us.


MANN: Call it a bad hand. The attacks on September 11th hit Las Vegas as well.

Because of its location, the city's success is directly linked to the traveling public. In the days and weeks immediately after September 11th, the number of visitors to Las Vegas dropped by about 40 percent.

Hotels and casinos emptied, and thousands of people lost their jobs there.

Welcome back.

Las Vegas is nearly back to its winning ways. Just five months after the attacks, its 126,000 hotel rooms were 86 percent full and rising.

The hotels have cut prices to attract tourists, which means this could be the perfect time for a trip to Vegas.

Our next guest has lived and worked there for 40 years. Joe Delaney is the entertainment columnist for the "Las Vegas Sun."

Thanks so much for being with us. Let's start with entertainment.

The entertainment in Vegas is gambling, of course, so walk us through it. If someone shows up for the first time, how do they know where to go? Is there someplace that suggests itself as a better place to lose your money than any other?

JOE DELANEY, COLUMNIST, "LAS VEGAS SUN": No, I think what they do, if they're smart, they prepare by writing to the convention center authority or to the chamber of commerce or to a particular hotel.

Get a booklet, find out how the city is laid out, what the hotels are.

And then, depending upon their budget, how well they want to go. Do they want $300 rooms? Or do they want $100 rooms? Do they want $49 rooms?

They're all available. You can get $39 rooms.

MANN: Inevitably, someone showing up there with a wad of cash in their pocket is going to feel like a high roller. But what intrigues me, is I gather we are really sea food when it comes to the people who manage the hotels and casinos in Vegas.

There are whales and there are fish. What are they talking about?

DELANEY: A whale is a very heavy roller. Kerry Packer from Australia will come in and bet millions in the course of a few days.

A fish is a regular, somebody who has a line of credit at the casino, or maybe several casinos, and is known as a player.

The rest of us, after we become educated, we try to pick the games that we like and try to learn enough about it. Or, if we have sense, set up a win limit and a lose limit so that we're not going to hurt ourselves too much.

MANN: And I gather, depending on where you are in that food chain, the hospitality changes. Just about everyone seems to drink and smoke for free in Vegas.

But beyond that, how are people ranked and how hospitable do the casinos get?

DELANEY: Well, I think the hotels, the casinos are hospitable. But I think that if you're somebody who rates, who has that kind of a credit rating, is known to play or is a celebrity, you're going to get special treatment.

If you come in and they don't know who you are, until you can identify yourself, you're going to be pretty much anonymous.

MANN: OK. You're going to be, I guess, once again going back to the seafood metaphor, an anchovy.

DELANEY: A very little fish.

MANN: A very little fish. So tell me, what should the little fish -- where do they go to eat well? What are the bargains for people on a very limited budget?

DELANEY: If you check out the town, you can get 99-cent shrimp cocktails. You can get $3 steaks, $4 steaks. You can get coupons so that for a drink you can see a very good show.

If you want to play that game, you can be here and have a good time for very little money.

If you want to see "O" or "Mystere" or any of the top shows, or any of the top performers, you're going to pay for that. And then you -- and if you want to get into that show, you may have to stay at that hotel, because otherwise it's booked out. So, ...

MANN: Any things to avoid? Any traps that people fall into when they're in Vegas and don't know their way around?

DELANEY: Well, I think the first thing to avoid is not knowing anything about the city before you come here. That's the first thing.

The next thing to avoid is, don't over-match yourself. You know how much money you have. You know how much you can afford to lose. Be careful with that.

If you limit -- invest $50, when you lose $50, go see something for free. There's plenty to see for free.

If you're going to set your limit to win at $100, you bet $100, take a walk, have a drink, and maybe go and play somewhere else.

Just have a win limit and a lose limit, and you're going to have a very, very good time in Las Vegas.

MANN: Can you have any kind of vacation there at all if you don't gamble?

DELANEY: Yes. Yes. You can enjoy -- you can enjoy the surrounding areas. Within a 50-mile radius we've got desert, mountains, Lake Mead, sea sports or water sports. We have everything.

And a lot of it is very inexpensive. You rent a car and you've got a lot available to you in the hotels themselves.

You can go in and you can spend a very nice day with your family by going into Caesar's Forum shops and seeing the talking statues, then going next door to the Mirage and seeing the White Tiger exhibit for free, Siegfried & Roy, Secret Garden, the Dolphin Habitat.

Take the tram over to the Treasure Island. At dusk you can see the battle of the frigates.

You know, one of the things that Steve Wynn that was so radical and so successful -- he put major entertainments outside of the hotels, like Treasure Island and Mirage. You've got Treasure Island, the battle. At Mirage you have the volcanoes, and Bellagio the fountains and the music and the lights.

That represents -- those three areas alone represent $100 million, and you don't have to walk inside the hotel to avail yourself.

Where at one time, when we first started, and we were little boxes here instead of hotels, if you wanted to register you went through the casino. You wanted to have a meal, you went through the casino. Wanted to go to the rooms at the casino, wanted to go to the bathroom -- through the casino.

And that's not that way anymore. So it's the hotel into the -- of the hotel dictates today, not the casino.

MANN: You make a point that really surprises me, because I've known people who have gone to Vegas to gamble, and other people who've gone without gambling, and said you can walk and walk and see extraordinary things that you described.

But you're saying you have to do your research beforehand. Why is that?

DELANEY: Well, you should know what you're doing. You should know, for instance, if you're a $100 hotel -- a night hotel man, you're not going to register at a hotel that starts off at $250.

You're going to know that there are certain days of the week when you can get better rates than you can on weekends, for instance.

Or check out when the big conventions are here, because when we have a really big convention -- we can handle 250,000 people at one time -- you're not going to get a room. And if you do get a room, you're going to pay a high premium for it.

MANN: So, a quick last question. The big secret is avoid conventions, I guess. Avoid weekends. Any other word to the wise you'd pass on in the moment that remains?

DELANEY: Be prepared and set that win limit and lose limit, and don't over-match yourself. Come here and have a good time, and you can be whoever you want to be here.

MANN: Joe Delaney of the "Las Vegas Sun."

DELANEY: Thank you ...

MANN: Thanks so much for talking with us.

DELANEY: You're very welcome.

MANN: A final word before we go. If all this talk of Vegas is making you think of going, it's only fair to tell you that right now, it may be a bit of a gamble. It could come to a standstill, in fact, within weeks.

A union which represents 50,000 Vegas casino and hotel workers says it's going to go out on strike if it doesn't get a new contract by the end of the month.

But the union hasn't staged a major walkout in nearly two decades. So the odds, as they say, are against it.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.





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