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Fifth Street

November 19, 2020

In this issue: Casino Turns 25 | The Experience Economy 2.0 | Delicious Drive-Throughs | The Lessons of Viva Laughlin


THEY’RE LIKE SEARING, hot-iron brandings that still sizzle my pop-culture nerve endings. Every moment of recall makes me flinch.

• Joe Pesci tightening a vise on a wiseguy’s head until an eyeball pops out (or at least that’s what’s implied by Martin Scorsese’s nimble camera cutaway).

• A hammer smashing a gambling cheat’s hand, cracking bone, seeping blood (no camera cutaway).

• Sharon Stone screaming … screaming … SCREAMING … (a soliloquy of expletives recorded with shrieking clarity).

• A stomach-churning, bat-smashing hit on Pesci (accentuated by crack-of-the-bat-on-skull sounds) until he’s a bloody lump of raw meat in tighty-whities, barely still breathing as a shovelful of earth splays over his dead-eyed face (an unblinking camera full shot — gee, thanks, Marty).

• A hapless Robert De Niro trying to juggle on live TV in one of his loud pastel sports jackets (the colors in his closet apparently lifted from a sherbet menu), meant to suggest he’s Vegas’ tacky ideal of a Brooks Brothers fashionista. (Perhaps the most cringe-worthy scene of all — Marty should have used a cutaway).

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This is what I most resent about the movie Casino. That it is so repulsively compelling. And so brilliant. As it reaches the 25th anniversary of its release (November 22, 1995), I confess: I hate that I love Casino.

It is Vegas at its most real and unreal. Glorious and grotesque. Love letter and kiss of death. I hate loving it (or do I love hating it?) because it’s more or less the Vegas of history, with factual liberties taken — our underbelly depicted with cinematic over-the-topness. What would our Mob Museum do without its central, if exaggerated, based-on-real-life characters?

Yet it isn’t the Vegas I love, even as its endless replays on cable, Netflix, streaming platforms, etc., continue to export bad-vibe Vegas to outsiders who take its 1960s-’70s marriage of vice and violence as 2020 gospel.

Casino is based on author Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, directed by Scorsese, derived from the true story of the operation of the Stardust and anchored by three main characters:

De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a Jewish gambling/sports-handicapping genius sent by the Chicago mob to oversee the fictional Tangiers casino. Ace is modeled after Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran the Stardust, Fremont, and Hacienda for the Chicago mob from the early 1970s to 1981; Pesci’s brutal, troublemaking Nicky Santoro, Ace’s friend and mob “made man,” based on Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro; and Stone’s Ginger McKenna, who marries and battles with Ace, and is based on Geri McGee, a topless showgirl-model-cocktail waitress but depicted in Casino as a house shill and chip hustler.

And as the three core characters eventually betray and turn on one another, everything that seemed like a cash-mad joyride crashes into a brick wall of greed and violence.

Fun trivia? Ex-mob lawyer/ex-Mayor Oscar Goodman is in several scenes, which one could describe as either a mini-supporting role or a maxi-cameo. And yes, that’s the Las Vegas Sun and local TV and print journos past and present, including Dave Courvoisier, Gwen Castaldi, Mike Weatherford, and Michael Paskevich.

Take note also of: Dickie Smothers as a corrupt Nevada Gaming Commissioner; joke-free Alan King as a frazzled mob middleman whose unwavering loyalty still nets him unswerving bullets; a mugging James Woods as a sleazier-than-sleazy sleazebag with his fangs in Stone’s Ginger; a deadpan Don Rickles as De Niro’s righthand man, uttering not one hockey puck insult; and Frankie Avalon — nonsinging, but earning studio audience applause at Ace’s ill-advised TV show (cue the juggling) for impregnating his wife for eight kids’ worth. (Pretext: Parenting is wonderful. Subtext: In Vegas, sex is an applause line).

Real Vegas is everywhere in Scorsese’s Vegas:

• De Niro getting into a car that explodes in both the opening and a late revisiting scene? Filmed in the parking lot of Main Street Station (even though it actually happened to Rosenthal by the former Tony Roma’s on East Sahara Avenue).

• Where De Niro harangues a drugged-out Stone for tying up their daughter as a baby-sitting method? Filmed at what is now Oscar’s Steakhouse at the Plaza.

• Where Pesci stabs a smartass in the neck with a pen? Atomic Liquors.

• Give plaudits to two now-gone hotels for portraying the Tangiers: the Landmark for exteriors, the Riviera for interiors.

IRONICALLY, WHAT I LOVE to hate is the stench of a movie that’s anything but a stinker.

Instead, it’s art — Scorsese with his Goodfellas game face on. The performances are grab-ya-by-the-throat intense (no surprise). De Niro is the least scary of the three, as Pesci is a hair-trigger terror, and Stone isn’t far behind with her outbursts, her throat a machine gun of profanities and enraged entitlement.

More to the point, Casino is a sprawling epic in its themes, the main one being that dreams and nightmares can blur into an indistinguishable mess, even in an insulated world that trades on being an antidote to the real world.

Nearly 300 scenes are peppered — smartly so — with the cinematic flourishes, including extensive voiceovers, zippy camera moves, freeze-frames, and flashbacks, that Scorsese had deployed previously, but not at this scope. The result is a flick that moves like a speeding train you can’t wait to see jump the tracks.

It is a cinematic feast of storytelling, full of sex, violence, immorality, corruption, gambling, debauchery, double-crossing, and greed, propelled by characters who are not, well, look-away-able. As positioned by Scorsese — the tone set by the opening explosion of Ace’s car — their trajectory is tragedy from word one, which makes their rewinding journey to get there especially fascinating, as if we’re deliciously in on a fate they can’t imagine yet. There is an odd pride in Vegas providing the vivid palette for all this.   

And yet …

Every character is, to variable degrees … a scumbag (even law enforcement). No one is trustworthy. There are fake-outs of normality — Pesci’s Nicky cheering his kid at Little League, Ace talking soothingly to his little daughter at home — but they’re presented as curtains of fraud failing to conceal the rancid reality.

Even its power dynamics — as in, power is everything, and rules are for suckers — feel up-to-the-moment creepy when applied to what seems like today’s Vegas alternate site, Washington, D.C.

Casino is Vegas as another planet entirely: Planet Lunacy. One that sells us to tourists on a temporary bender from their lives, but isn’t the well-rounded, suburban, community-minded Vegas I live in (albeit with sex-oriented fliers and cabbie billboards), which I would like the world to recognize more than it’s willing to.

Every viewing of Casino reinforces what I wish wasn’t reinforceable. Too sensitive? Perhaps I am. Yet I chafe at smug dismissals of our city’s aesthetic as if we live in a hotbed of civic quackery.

On my Facebook feed, in a recent post I saw about President Trump’s financial headaches, one poster suggested Trump beg his Vegas “mob buddies” for help. Despite my best effort, the commenter could not be persuaded that today’s Vegas is corporate rather than Cosa Nostra (which even the movie acknowledges, albeit snidely, in De Niro’s voiceover epilogue).

An avalanche of commenters vigorously lined up behind him, even citing Casino, as if the plot just turned up as a Google news alert. Yeah, I know: It’s Facebook, not the real world. Even so, it irked me. To them, Vegas is still a wiseguy wonderworld. They can’t let go of what Casino feeds them every time it’s shown.

A personal friend of mine enjoys the Strip’s (pre-pandemic) amenities when he’s here for conferences, but then, on his way to McCarran, sniffs his disapproval of our city as a proper place to raise a family or live a fruitful, spiritually fulfilling life.

Argue with them? Truth is toothless in a “fake news” world, where what we staunchly believe is whatever we simply choose to believe, take your facts and shove ’em, end of story. With every viewing, Casino undercuts us way too much in a world that chooses feeling over thinking, and hit-and-miss history in pop-culture form over digesting the news and facts of Las Vegas today. And yet …   

Damn it, Marty Scorsese. Every flyby on my TV remote screeches to a stop and I stare at Casino — its cinematic masterstrokes still sizzling my brittle nerve endings. I can’t cut away.

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IF YOU'VE HEARD of the “experience economy,” then you’ve heard of Joe Pine. He co-authored the book that popularized the term. As the COVID-19 pandemic crumples contemporary definitions of social interaction and chucks them in the trash, Pine is busy rewriting the rules. He’ll share insights into how experiences will look post-coronavirus — and how everyone from convention planners to retail managers can prepare for the change — for an installment of LGA Architecture’s Fireside Chat series this afternoon. In advance of that, Desert Companion asked him some tough questions about Las Vegas’ future.

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I feel like I have to start all interviews with this now: How are you? Are you okay?
Yes. One thing I always say is, for an antisocial introvert who works at home, this hasn’t been that different. I love to travel for work. I love working with clients where they are. (And my wife likes it when I’m gone, too.) So, I miss that. But I’m fine.

How has COVID-19 changed how we interact, generally?
The experience sector of the economy has been killed by the coronacrisis, as I call it. Any place where people gather is no place they want to be right now. The economy won’t fully recover until people are willing to go out in the same capacity they did before. And yet, when things have opened at limited capacity — theme parks, sporting events, bars, restaurants — they immediately get filled to capacity. The one thing that hasn’t is movies, and that’s because there’s an easy substitute for that at home (streaming). The only thing people are willing to go to theaters for is first-run event movies, like Tenet.

Are these changes permanent?
There will be some permanent changes, but I don’t think that the extreme staying away from experiences is permanent. Once we have population-wide immunity — when 60-80 percent of people are either immune or vaccinated — things will be different. It will be back to being like flu season.

But the percentage of people who wear masks permanently will be non-zero. The methodical washing of hands — a majority of people will do that as a matter of course. They’ll be more wary next time they hear those rumors, like back in January when we first started hearing about the coronavirus overseas. And hopefully, people will pay more attention to those with underlying conditions, becoming more protective of the elderly and those in homes. When we visit we may not hug as much. People will shake hands again, but they’ll do that and then do a little spritz.

And what will be the permanent effect of all that on in-person gatherings?
Conventions will come back. The businesspeople I talk to say yeah, they want to go back. They want to get together and meet in person. I think all that will come back.

But what you will also see is much more hybrid events, which will be better. Festivals, concerts, trade shows will be hybrids. You’ll still offer the live event, and fewer people may come, but you’ll also simulcast it to other people who want to go but can’t make it in person. So, you could have an order of magnitude more people attending your event at the same time, but in different places. And you can offer it asynchronously, chunked up by session, so people pick the parts they want to participate in live or watch the recording of later, and you charge different fees for each type of experience.

The other thing you’ll see is the Twitch-ification of events. So, not only will you watch it remotely and simultaneously, but you’ll also have people watching it with you and talking about it in chat rooms, interacting with each other and learning from it together.

This makes sense for conferences or games, but how about expos, where the whole idea is to kick tires, so to speak?
Again, I think they’ll be hybrids, physical and virtual at same time. People in booths and engaging virtually (in digital showrooms) at the same time. They’ll have it set up to do the best possible job of showcasing their product. Trade shows do that already, but we’ll get better at digital. … It may mean less attendance overall in Las Vegas. But it also means that, as a show grows, more people may come, because those who were there virtually one year may want to be there in person the next.

The hybrid model doesn’t really help fill hotel rooms, though, does it?
No, but if you have capacity, then you may get more revenue from other segments. For example, a lot of people stay away during the week of CES. It’s a zoo. But if fewer people are at CES, then there’s more capacity for entertainment and family tourism.

But conventions have historically filled hotel rooms at times when other forms of tourism are low.
It will take a while, but Las Vegas always adapts. I remember when they built the Forum Shops, and everyone thought that would never make it. Every time someone builds a new casino, it gets filled up. Vegas is the experience capital of the world.

Have you ever seen the Cirque du Soleil movies? They’re great, but watching them is not the same as seeing them in person. The notion of being there is huge with experiences.

What’s the role of architects, designers, and business owners in this transformation?
They need to think about making their spaces amenable to hybrid events. The Masters Golf Tournament has, for the first time, used drones allowing them to catch angles they never could before. You can see the whole hole, rather than just a view from ground level. At live performances, where do you want to have cameras? Do you want to allow for indoor drones? You’ll see more use of screens. The NBA had screens in the stands showing audience members watching at home. If they’d known when they built those arenas that they’d need that, they would’ve designed for it. You may also have more separation of seats. Maybe not a full six feet, but a little more room, more openness in places. If you want to have the same capacity, but people further apart, then places have to be bigger. So, you’ll have to figure out how to have that and maintain the same level of intimacy.

How about retail?
What I’ve long said to retailers is, you have to give shoppers a reason to go to your store. That will be even more true now. … You’ve been commoditized, meaning your customers want the greatest convenience at the lowest price. There’s a time-saved mentality. People are saving their time to spend on things they see as valuable. Retailers have to offer that time well-spent. Or they have to make it possible for customers to buy something and have it delivered later, contactless delivery, so they don’t have to carry their purchase around.

What big idea would you like to leave Las Vegans with?
One big trend in travel is known as transformational travel. That’s when we get away from our normal environment, and it opens us up to new possibilities. Other times, it’s recognizing there are changes you can make in your life (say, having a better relationship with your spouse) simply by having gotten away from the day-to-day. An example is at theme parks, where parents become their children’s heroes. How can you replicate or emphasize that experience in other environments?

Many companies are realizing they can help people in those endeavors and catering to it, focusing on the things people can learn and take home with them. That’s one thing we’re already seeing, and it may accelerate.

LGA Architecture’s Fireside Chat, “Transformation in Today’s Experience Economy: A Conversation with B. Joseph Pine II” is Nov. 19, 2020, 4-5 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. Join here.

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IMAGINE A WORLD in which millions of creatures are attached to mobile pods. Mostly powered by internal combustion, a few by electricity, these pods transport the occupants to and fro. The creatures base their lives around them: their self-worth, identities, and even the ability to obtain nourishment. Alas, there is one problem: They have achieved monoculturization, the death rattle of variety — miles and miles traversed across a landscape riddled with “more of the same.” Into this bleak moment comes a foodie, a Street Foodie, to guide these creatures away from drive-through monotony and toward a delicious diversity ...

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No Butcher
So much of our drive-through culture revolves around the consumption of meat — of all kinds, on every corner, at any hour. Street Foodie is burdened by the sociopolitical, moral, and environmental implications of such easy access to meat. It diminishes our appreciation for the sacrifice inherent in eating animals. Also, much of it doesn’t taste very good. No Butcher has an alternative to your chicken-fried, quarter-poundered lifestyle. A vegan deli with a drive-up window is just what us tired, hungry Americans need. Street Foodie was more than satisfied by the Italian “cold-cut” sandwich (right). The Oktoberfest Schnitzel hit all of the spots promised by the words schnitzel and Oktoberfest (except for beer — don’t drink and drive, folks). It’s liberating when you can do drive-through and not taste your moral qualms in every bite. 3565 S. Rainbow Blvd., 702-268-7488

Cali Bombs & Burgers
On the other hand, and notwithstanding the above, Street Foodie must admit, with a greasy smile on his lips, that there are some good burgers. One of the most compelling factors in a great burger may be the use of onions. At Cali Bombs & Burgers, the burgers themselves can be topped with onions grilled or raw, adding a soft or hard aromatic hit to these savory, beefy babies. And while you can’t get onion rings here, you can get something better: whole, sliced, deep-fried onions dipped in a crunchy batter and served up with a side of Russian dressing — the Onion Bomb (right). It comes regular, street, or loaded. Drive through this spot for classic fast-food flavors with a bit of difference. 2300 E. Lake Mead Blvd., calibombs.com

Archi’s Thai Kitchen
What’s better than Thai food? Thai food from a drive-through, of course. Trust Street Foodie and get the pad prik king. Green beans and meat (optional) in a red hot sauce that incorporates kaffir lime leaves for a vibrant and singular flavor. The fish cake, a personal fave, will have even the most responsible drivers racing for the head of the drive-through line. And the green curry will dispel any doubts about the quality of one of Vegas’s Thai food institutions. 6360 W. Flamingo Road, 702-880-5550

Pollo Inka Express
Street Foodie’s had some crazy chicken over the years, but this Peruvian drive-though actually drives me sane. It seems perfectly rational to order the half-chicken dinner with a side of yucca fries, cilantro rice, and plantainos (headline picture). The chicken is juicy and tender, and the spices distinguish this from the panoply of chicken options cluttering our lives. French fries are a poor comparison to fried yucca. Both are crispy and starchy, yes, but a well-fried cut of yucca has a soft, pillowy texture that a potato just can’t get next to. The cilantro rice is pretty darn special, too. Green from the abundance of herbs, this may be the highlight of the combo. Even if you’re one of those oddballs who doesn’t like cilantro, I think you might just like this. 2440 S. Maryland Parkway, polloinkaexpress.com

Chamango Mexican Snacks
Pulling up to a window never tasted so sweet. This Mexican snack spot — located across from favorite Street Foodie nomming ground Broadacres Swap Meet — doles out the best kinds of dessert companions. The choco-banana with sprinkles or nuts is a brilliant frozen treat that retains the taste of youthful simplicity. Sublime bliss is offered in the form of fresas con crema (right). This is a parfait of sorts, consisting of what Street Foodie assumes is an entire strawberry patch doused in cream and yogurt. As you wheel back to the safety of home, you will thank yourself for listening to me. 2831 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-485-4480

There are many more options for drive-through satisfaction; check out Street Foodie’s writeups of the East Side and North Las Vegas for more great local flavor.

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IN 2007, CBS debuted Viva Laughlin, a primetime series that ran for only two episodes. It was a musical drama (!) about Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen), owner of the troubled Viva hotel-casino in Laughlin, navigating the usual obstacles (backstabbing colleagues, skittish investors, scheming rivals, former flames, murder investigations, nosy detectives) standing between him and the opening of his dream resort. His nemesis: Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman), owner of the Fontana. Intended as a stateside version of acclaimed UK miniseries Blackpool, Viva Laughlin is a musical drama only by the most basic technical definition: There is music, yes, and an apparent dramatic plot. In pivotal moments of critical emotion, characters break into … well, something like song.

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However, Viva Laughlin is better characterized as something other than a Vegas-inflected musical drama: It’s so charmless and inert, so durably mediocre and richly low-effort, so plodding and procedural and insensate to nuance, wit, and texture, that it inspires the same strange loathsome, pitiful tenderness you might feel toward someone strangling out your favorite song on karaoke night. That’s what Viva Laughlin is. It underwhelms so successfully that it vibrates outside itself and in some spooky quantum transference process becomes a shrunken and imitative karaoke version of the musical drama it’s purporting to be. Speaking of which! Here’s a blurry YouTube clip of Hugh Jackman busting out his entrance song.

But, hey, I’m not here to firehose the show in haterade. (The critics had their turn.) After I stumbled upon Viva’s two episodes languishing in the bowels of YouTube, a thought struck me: You know, maybe Viva Laughlin was onto something. Not with the cardboard dialogue, calcified casino tropes, or awky sing- and dance-alongs, but rather with the decidedly throwback idea of a casino existing, for better or worse, as a legible expression of a single (usually white male) person’s will, as a concrete and glass manifestation of an outsized personality and ravenous appetite. You know, like old Vegas. Think Bugsy Siegel, Benny Binion, Steve Wynn.

Indeed, the insistent placelessness of Laughlin as its chosen setting suggests Viva Laughlin is actually a nostalgic pang for a retro vision of Vegas that was already fading from the scene in 2007: a place where capitalist individualism carried to its highest (lowest?) point meant you, too, could fashion your own fantasy pleasure-castle in the still-wild West. Take a mental flight over the Strip in 2020 and consider its bustling corporatized collection of experience machines; what piquant personalities come to mind, what faces? Very few. The only one that readily pops up these days is that of Sands Corp. CEO and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson (whose name I invoke with mumbling hesitation lest I trigger some curse that makes a funnel of locusts burst from my eye sockets or something).

Sure, perhaps this is another way of regurgitating the cliché that the Strip has become “faceless and corporate,” but it’s interesting to track that development with American television’s dance with Vegas over recent decades. There’s a rough parallel: As the Strip has evolved from a playground for singular industry titans to a sometimes confusing collection of conglomerates, TV’s engagement with Las Vegas has changed as well. Nowadays, it’s more likely than ever that any televised reflection of our city will take the form not of a scripted drama, but a cheap and easy-to-produce reality show — in other words, engaging with Vegas merely as a kind of ready-made green screen, still faintly redolent with myth and mystique, for the pedestrian intrigues of game contestants (looking at you, Love Island!), instead of as a distinct place that produces strong characters inevitably driven to dramatic conflict.

Not many other shows in the mold of Viva Laughlin (Las Vegas with James Caan, The Player with Wesley Snipes) made it very far, either, as reality TV took over the world in the early aughts. Viva Laughlin was certainly a failure as a show, but perhaps it was also one of the last gasps of a belief in Vegas’ claim to being a source of true personality. In the eyes of the television world, Vegas, it seems, has suffered a rueful demotion: from guest star to curious scenery. Ah, Viva! Ah, Vegas! Ah, humanity!

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Photos and art: Casino courtesy of Universal Studios; Joe Pine courtesy of Joe Pine; Street Foodie: Brent Holmes; Viva Laughlin: Getty Images/CBS Photo Archive

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