Some of the valley’s most colorful casinos are well off the neon path. (Don’t forget your player’s club card and cowboy boots)
It is Friday night and I live in Las Vegas and I have $1 in my pocket.
I’ve been here a few years. The trudge from Mandalay Bay to Circus Circus is old hat, and I’ve sampled all the Stations. But the small, off-Strip, off-Fremont casinos that speckle this town — usually I fly past those places at 50 miles an hour, resisting the blinking lights, gaming specials and meal deals.
Not tonight. Tonight I’m going to take the bait. I start my engine and head north to see how far my dollar will go and, more importantly, find entertainments hidden in the rough.
The Silver Nugget (2140 Las Vegas Blvd. N.) — low and squat with a run of rainbow neon light around the top and a starburst over the door — harkens back to the era of roller-rink parties. Just through the front doors, take a right for the best of the Nugget. Pass the events center (yes, you can get married here!) and The Winner’s Hall of Fame (a wall featuring raw portraits with titles such as “Marcy $500,” “Rosalita $2,000,” “Bob Grill” — apparently, the Nugget gives away lots of grills) and the demographic changes. Families with kids (kids!) and then … teenagers. All clearly on the eternal quest of high schoolers on a Friday night: for something to do. The corridor dumps me, unexpectedly, into a 24-lane bowling alley and the cosmic bowl is on. Black lights and Justin Bieber. (“We are working on the music,” promises an employee.) $2.50 per game ($1, non-cosmic, days during the week). The teens are respectful and quiet. You know. The kind of kids who bowl on Friday night.
A few blocks north of the Nugget I give in to the siren call of The Opera House (2542 Las Vegas Blvd. N.). $1.50 beer (MGD and Bud) and meals under $5. Everyone in this place is a character and they are all regulars. I get eyed on the way in, maybe because the guys are trying to figure out my profession or, perhaps because I am not, as they say, from around here. But the patrons quickly return to drinking and gambling and general palling about. Everything in this small space is unavoidable. At 7:15 and 9:15 p.m., the whole casino becomes the bingo parlor, players finding hard surfaces catch-as-catch-can: leaning on slot machines, booth tables and the bar to mark their squares. There is no Puccini at The Opera House, but Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays a DJ spins R&B, the best of the ’70s-’90s, and Latin tunes. The effect of all these close quarters, though, is cozy rather than claustrophobic.
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Okay. So the Poker Palace (2757 Las Vegas Blvd. N.) is actually a castle. Crenelated parapets. (Parapets!) The whole deal. A massive wave of tiny light bulbs crests over the door and around the building, bright enough to draw you in from the night, blind you when you exit and warm the air around the entrance several degrees. The interior walls of the Palace are two-toned. Wood paneling rises from the floor and, after a few feet, gives way to Art Deco shafts of mirror that reach to the ceiling. It is not unimpressive.
Open your heart a little and the Palace is full of kitschy quaint experiences. Get your player club card and spin a wooden wheel — I guarantee a surge of nostalgia for third-grade carnivals — to win between $5 and $250 in free play. (C’mon $250! I get $5.) Visit the castle scullery, Maddy’s Paddys Café, featuring an aquatic mural — starfish and dolphins — and daily steak specials. Sit down at slots or tables and the complimentary drinks arrive in quick order. And at the far end of the Palace, karaoke starts at 10 p.m. on Fridays and goes till everyone’s had enough — about 3 a.m., one singer tells me proudly. It’s all Spanish and I am the only gringa. I do not step up to the mic because, while I can keep up with a Maná or Café Tacuba number, this crowd rocks to a less commercial beat and the fans are for real. When singers start wailing norteña, cowboy boots and stilettos hit the dance floor.
I head south, looking for luck on Boulder Highway — and find it at the Skyline Casino (1741 N. Boulder Hwy.). The Skyline remodeled last year and did it right: low, pressed-tin ceilings, antiques (real ones!) from the yesteryears of gaming. Bring a date here. The mauve-filtered light casts a timeless glow of Gothic romance. You will look more attractive than usual. (Imagine!) People overflow the dance floor and tables around a small stage. I am, according to a bartender, witness to the premier over-60s-singles scene in Vegas. The pace on the floor is an easy mosey — old friends and lovers taking a turn to the rhythms of a one-man country band. All you need is a gentle sway.
Country on Thursday and Friday. Saturday, Jerry Tiffy does old Italian hits — when I ask the manager what that means he says, “You know,” and croons a few bars of “That’s Amoré.” Sunday afternoon is polka and the evening features a steel guitar and vocalist duo.
Jack Berweger, Skyline barman for 30 years, leads me to a black-and-white photo depicting a tiny shack of a building. Lettering proclaims “Dixie’s Bar Casino Texas Chili” across the side and “Dance Band Fri Sat Sun/Dice 10¢” on top. “That’s how this place started,” says Jack. “In the ’40s.”
The Emerald Island (120 Market St.), ablaze with light in quiet downtown Henderson, has undertaken an aggressive transformation. The result: a delightfully incongruous physique. An Art Deco turret straight out of Gotham beckons into the night. The rest of the casino, inside and out — even the loading dock — is like a community theater production of Hamlet. Or the Secret Garden. Or a Yeats poem. Endless murals of decaying stone walls, distant castles, rolling dales and a few swords for good measure.
But the patrons have come for the entertainment of gambling. A lake of machines fills the room. A corner of display cases and shelving glitters — watches, wallets, jewelry — an adult arcade. I sign right up as a player.
Every Thursday, players line up to pick a free gift, but no free play. The restaurant serves corned beef, ice-cream fudge pie and award-winning barbecue 24/7. I take my chances with the Enchanted Garden machine and my earlier winnings disappear. The words of a man I met bellied up to a video poker machine ring in my ear: “Make your peace with how much you’re going to lose. Never go beyond that.”
I’ve lost my dollar. I’m exhausted from all the dopamine surges, and I’ve made my peace — with, for at least one night, letting Vegas do what it does best: promise fun and riches, lull you into admiring the layers of flash and attraction, and trick you into giving in, for a moment, to the embrace of hope. Just don’t bring more than a dollar.