Being as how it’s the coldest day of the year here in the UK, I thought I’d post my report from the hottest spot I ever visited in America. In December of 1973 I took my first and only trip to Las Vegas to see, of all people, Dawn and Glen Campbell. My report for MM was part travelogue and part music.
“Hang on tight,” said the man in the next seat on the Western Airlines jet. “Landings in Las Vegas are the roughest in the world.”
He may have been referring to the plane's descent on to the runway, but it's conceivable that more Americans have had rough landings in Las Vegas than any other city in the world.
For when the money runs dry in Vegas, you sure come down to earth with a bump.
I've just returned from 24 hours in that city, so readers – as a frequent visitor to the city once said – come fly with me, across the inhospitable Nevada desert, over Death Valley, to Vegas, the great gaudy plastic monument to greed where the off chance of acquiring something for nothing has mushroomed into America's gambling and show business capital.
Las Vegas is situated in the southern tip of Nevada, the only state in America where gambling is legal. The only other town in Nevada of comparable size is Reno, but Vegas is the capital city and, consequently the gambling capital of America. Like Monte Carlo, gambling runs the economy of the town.
Gambling is not just available to the visitor, it's forced down the throats of everyone with frightening intensity. It cannot be avoided, no matter how hard you try, and most folk don't, anyway. The rattle of fruit machines begins at McCarran Airport and continues 24 hours a day, every day, every week, every year.
Since 1950, when Las Vegas residents numbered less than 25,000, its population has increased a remarkable 400 per cent to its 1970 figure of 125,787. The population of the greater Las Vegas area, however, is now 273,288 – all thanks to gambling. It is surrounded by desert with a climate to match: the sun shines over 80 per cent of the time, and the average high temperature is 80 degrees. Rainfall is consistently under three and a half inches a year.
But back to the gambling, which has resulted in scores of hotels being erected in the town, mostly super luxury enterprises and mostly within the last two decades. Each hotel is really a massive residential casino, a skyscraping monument where the activity hums around the green baize tables rather than around the kitchens, lobby or bars.
These casinos take up almost the entire area of the ground floor, making it impossible for the visitor not to miss passing them on their way to various parts of the hotel. To walk from the lift to the lobby, from the lobby to the bar, from the bar to the dining room, or from the dining room to the show room always involves a trip past the lines of tables where hopeful punters risk their greenbacks on the spin of the wheel, the drop of the cards, or the shake of the dice.
The only sound that rattles above the constant chatter is the spinning of fruit machines, lined up in rows in their thousands, patrolled by cute little change girls in micro skirts who temptingly offer 40 quarters for a ten-dollar bill, wish you good luck and sigh to themselves.
There are no clocks in any of these rooms and neither are there any windows, a state of affairs designed to make the gambler lose sense of time and carry on spending his dollars into the early hours without realising just how late it actually is.
Various casinos, offer cheap breakfasts to the all-night gambler – if he's any money left to afford it. Others offer free drinks and one I saw promised a free wig to those still at the tables at 6.30 a.m. Gambling at this rate I should think, can turn a healthy head of hair into a bald dome in a matter of weeks.
The largest such emporium is the Las Vegas Hilton where it is rumoured Elvis Presley's father, Vernon, has lost a small fortune. But shortly the Hilton is to take second place as MGM are investing around $150 million in the Grand Hotel which with its 2,000 rooms will become the largest hotel in the world.
Dean Martin is due to open it next March, and no-one's worried about whether they'll fill the rooms or not.
Caesar's Palace is the gaudiest – and currently newest – hotel of them all. Here you can relax like a Roman emperor with slave girls all round to pick up the cigarette ash – and there are countless others all offering the same inducement... spend, spend, spend.
The streets of Vegas are lit by neon that make Picadilly Circus seem dim by comparison. While the Strip itself is impressive, it is when you turn the corner to downtown that it really hits you.
Here you can almost feel the heat from the millions of priceless watts oozing through the advertising hoardings. It's daylight at night downtown, in a city that never shuts down.
Aside from the gambling, Las Vegas offers the tourist certain secondary attractions. As with gambling, Nevada is the only state that has legalised prostitution, so $100-a-trick hookers filter through the casinos all the time.
There's also a few artificial golf-courses mined from the barren desert landscape. Glen Campbell, who's playing the Hilton right now, prefers golf to greed anytime.
And, of course, there's the shows – really a secondary attraction, but still an important part of Vegas life.
It's here, after all, that Presley appears regularly (two seasons a year at the Hilton) the Osmonds can be seen (they were at Caesar's Palace in September) and Frank Sinatra has chosen for his comeback in January (Caesar's for seven days from January 25).
All the hotels contain concert halls of various sizes, some several, all comparable to our Talk of the Town where you dine and catch the show to break the monotony of gambling.
There's always plenty to watch, in the lounges and supper clubs and an added attraction at Caesar's – where the showroom is called the Circus Maximus – is the opportunity to shake hands with Joe Louis, the now penniless boxer, who just stands there and smiles as folk file forward.
On the evening I visited Vegas I saw two shows, first Dawn at the Riviera (where I stayed) and then Glen Campbell at the Hilton. Dawn were actually the supporting act for comedian Don Rickles, an American comic whose act is based solely on sloppy sentimentality and jibes about the various nationalities that populate the US.
Dawn – Tony Orlando, Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson – had just 25 minutes to present a review which reportedly cost them $50,000 to stage. Dancing girls, old time music and heavy reliance on ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ made up the act which was slick in the best show-business fashion and intended to promote their new US LP Dawn's New Ragtime Follies.
Tony Orlando is very much the front man, while a large orchestra and eight dancers provided the background action. It was typical nightclub stuff, entertaining in a jolly sort of way but not the kind of act I’d pay to watch. The steaks in the showroom, incidentally, cost $18.50 a time.
Glen Campbell, at the Hilton, was a different matter. He's an all-round entertainer in the strict sense of the word, not just singing but playing guitar (expertly), impersonating Elvis (not so good) and playing the bagpipes (competently, if not spectacularly). And while he’s another artist I wouldn’t go out of my way to see, he put on an exceptionally entertaining act.
The highlight for me was his ‘Duelling Banjos’ sequence, closely followed by the Lone Ranger theme accompanied with a film of the cowboy himself, astride Silver, galloping across the Nevada plains.
This is the stage that Presley appears on and his Presley imitation predictably raised a few squeals from the crowd of largely middle-aged diners. But then the real thing wasn't there tonight... another time, maybe.
The audience is predominantly male, predominantly white and very middle class. The poor can't afford Vegas and it’s too gaudy for the rich, unless the rich happen to enjoy gaming. The old man with a young girl is a common sight.
Backstage at the Hilton, the dressing rooms are quite something. Campbell was using Presley's dressing room, which is actually the most luxurious such convenience I've ever seen in countless visits backstage in various parts of the world. There's a fully stocked bar – and barman – and gun-toting security guards outside to watch over the artists' privacy. A private elevator transports the star to their penthouse suite so they don’t have to mix with the hoi polloi.
In the dressing room I talk to a girl who tells me she's a retired Bunny, once a Playmate of the Month, now married with a child. She says her husband is always being mistaken for Glen Campbell, and looks incredulous when I tell her I won $70 on the roulette wheel earlier in the evening.
“No-one ever wins here,” she says, and Campbell backs up the theory. He’s just taken a house here as he’ll be appearing often in Vegas. He’s a big draw, although Presley seems to be the biggest of them all.
Back at my hotel, it’s 3 a.m. and the tables are still crowded with punters playing their chips. With the shows over, the serious business of gaming can begin.
Next morning, at 9.30 when I leave business is still brisk in the casino. Who can tell whether the gamblers have been at it all night? Here, it never stops, and even at McCarren Airport the lines of fruit machines find a ready trade among waiting passengers, leaving town and hoping for a last minute change of fortune. Rough landings? Ask these people. They should know.