Loose in Las Vegas: 2009
The major lament I had regarding my 2008 trip to Las Vegas was how brief it was. Compared to my return in 2009 though, that visit seems leisurely. As frantic as it turned out to be though, I still couldn’t resist when my friend Danny E-mailed me with some unbelievable prices on airfares and the next thing I new, my plane was landing in Nevada!
Danny and I flew out of Ft. Lauderdale this time as part of the discount ticket price. We also had to switch planes in the Dallas / Ft. Worth airport both ways which, even with a minimal layover, still cuts into your vacation time significantly on these quick trips. The wasted travel time combined with the hassles of getting from one gate to another, DFW is a huge airport for anyone who hasn’t been there, made this an option we probably won’t pursue on future trips. We arrived safely on Saturday evening and, literally, hit the ground running.
I checked into my favorite place to stay in Sin City, the Las Vegas Hilton and called my friends Tricia and Graham Anderson to finalize dinner plans. Unfortunately, our regular restaurant, the Mexican themed Hacienda Margarita, has been closed at the Hilton and nothing is currently scheduled to take its place. We settled instead for the Garden of the Dragon and enjoyed some modestly priced Oriental cuisine as a very viable substitute. We spent a few hours catching up and rehashing our plans to one day visit Shea Castle where Tricia filmed Blood of Dracula’s Castle. About 10PM, I realized it was really 1AM Florida time and excused myself to rest up for the busy Sunday I had planned.
Early the next morning, I made a pilgrimage to Mascot Video, the store Ray Steckler owned up until his death this past January. This was my first trip to Vegas since his passing and I felt the least I could do was pay my respects. As anticipated, the store was not open but it still carries the reminders of its famous proprietor. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a large color poster of Ray Steckler looming at me from the window like an eerie specter of the cult film director. It appears the second store Ray was planning in the same shopping center when I was there in 2007 either never got off the ground or didn’t last long. The space he had given me a tour of is currently vacant.
Whenever I travel to Las Vegas, I always make a point of visiting one of the coolest movie memorabilia stores on Earth, Cinema Collectors. This year, I contacted owner Buddy Barnett in advance to figure out when the best time would be to come by. Ironically, the store is closed the two full days I was in Vegas, Sunday and Monday. Fortunately, Buddy said this wouldn’t be a problem and he would open the place up for me whenever I wanted to stop by. Around 12:30 Sunday afternoon, along with Tricia and Graham who had never been to Cinema Collectors before, I found myself knee deep in vintage original movie posters and lobby cards.
I spent about two hours sifting through new acquisitions for my collection and could have easily killed the entire day. Buddy’s shop is loaded with thousands of movie memorabilia items and, unlike many of today’s movie poster dealers, at least 90% of this is original material. After I was done haggling, Buddy and I spent a little time discussing the current status of the poster collecting hobby and the impact reproduction merchandise has had on it. I also finally figured out that Buddy was the publisher of the excellent Cult Movies Magazine for many years and I had to run a few of my favorite articles by him. The highlights of my purchases this trip were a beautiful three sheet poster for Beneath the Planet of the Apes with unique graphics and a set of eight lobby cards for The Astro-Zombies I had been drooling over since the last time I was there eight months earlier.
On my way back from Cinema Collectors, I phoned cult director Ted Mikels and confirmed that we were on for dinner that evening. After conferring with his significant other, Shanti, he suggested that we try out the buffet at The Excalibur, which they had heard was both good and reasonably priced. I arrived at the medieval themed casino a few minutes early and wandered around taking in the atmosphere. Ted called to say that he would be later than anticipated due to parking problems, so I decided to get a drink at the bar I had spied immediately opposite the buffet. It was then that I heard a strange voice say the words you never want to hear in a town like Las Vegas – “hey, aren’t you ED Tucker”. Turning on my heel with no idea of what or who to expect, I saw a pleasant looking fellow who quickly introduced himself as Chris Turner. Noting the confusion on my face, Chris explained that he was also a fan of Ted’s and just happened to be visiting from Canada. Ted had invited him to join us for dinner and he recognized me from my interview with Ted he had read on this website (Click Here to Read). Introductions in order, I updated Chris on Ted’s delay and invited him to continue with me to the bar to await his arrival.
In my experience, there are some people in this world that you know as soon as you meet them that you are intended to be friends with them. Chris Turner was one of those rare individuals. Over drinks, Chris told me about his career in the Canadian film industry both in front of and behind the camera. He has worked on such well known television series as The X Files and Stargate SG-1 and films like Happy Gilmore and the recent Outlander. These days Chris spends most of his time teaching film studies to the next generation of movie makers but he still manages to pass on his love of cult movies in the process.
Ted and Shanti joined Chris and I in the bar and, after a quick round, we adjourned across the way for dinner. I was hungry after my day of adventuring and the Excalibur buffet turned out to be a very good call. While not as fancy as some of the buffets I have sampled in Vegas, this one had a good selection of traditional favorites and several specialty areas with Chinese, Italian, and Mexican dishes. It was certainly a lot of bang for the buck and the deserts were commendable as well. If you are looking for a good buffet value in Vegas, this is the best I have found on the strip so far.
After dinner, Chris left to rejoin his friends and family but promised to catch up with us the next day. Ted and Shanti insisted on showing me the Fantasy Fair level of The Excalibur which is similar to a carnival midway with games and prizes. Most of games are medieval themed like the electronic crossbow shooting gallery and Ted’s favorite, The Witches Cauldron. For this test of skill, players catapult a stuffed witch into a rotating pot. Ted was off his game this evening, which we blamed on a defective launcher, but Shanti managed to sink a sorceress and win a stuffed bear. I felt I had packed as much as I could into one day so I bid the cult couple a good evening and headed back to the Hilton.
Monday morning, Chris met me at the Hilton after breakfast (you have to love the monorail service between the casinos) and we followed up on an invitation to visit Ted at his home. Earlier this year, Ted was forced to close his studio in Vegas which had been his filmmaking headquarters for over a decade. I had stayed in touch with him through the process and put in dibs on a few items that were being liquidated. My curiosity at where all of his personal effects were headed after the studio closed was quickly satisfied when I saw Ted’s current residence. Keep in mind that Ted once called a twenty room castle in California his home and then had the spacious film studio building after his move to Las Vegas. All of this ephemera from close to five decades in film production and eight decades of life has come to rest in an unassuming two story townhouse. Needless to say, it was packed.
Shanti greeted Chris and I at the door and introduced us to another celebrity who had dropped by, Eddie the cat. Eddie had a featured role in Corpse Grinders II playing one of the felines who like people. Consummate professional that he is, Eddie worked the room, posed for photographs and then made a tasteful early exit. I was overwhelmed by Ted’s collection of medieval weaponry that seemed to line almost every square inch of his wall space. This arsenal of swords, knives, crossbows, maces, axes, and flintlock pistols would give any would be burglar second thoughts.
Getting down to business, I started perusing through the stacks of posters and memorabilia Ted had set aside for me. As we talked about his various films, he proceeded to produce even more items from drawers, boxes, and closets. Just when I thought I seen about everything, Ted said we needed to go to the garage!
Ted’s SUV does fit in his two car garage but just barely. The remaining space is filled with shelves, boxes, and props of all shapes and sizes. Ted had me rearranging stacks of film cans, boxes of records, and bins of prop weapons and costumes. I dutifully followed instructions to “move that”, “open this”, “look in there”, and “get that down”. Ted seemed to be having just as much fun as Chris and I were and even surprised himself with a few items he didn’t realize he had.
Satisfied with our sorting, our small expedition headed back in the house to review our findings and discuss brass tax. Ted entertained us with tales of past and present exploits as we sat in what felt like a giant treasure chest. We could not move or point to anything without eliciting some story of its unusual origin. Ted Mikels is without a doubt one of the most fascinating individuals I have ever met and I could have easily sat there and listened to his stories for hours. Our time was limited that day though as another adventure awaited the three of us across town but that is a tale that deserves a column all its own.
Monday evening I picked up Danny and we headed over to the Mirage to cross another item off my list of things I have to do. The Beatles Love show has been going on for several years now but every time I was in Vegas previously it was blacked out. When Danny first informed me of his discount airfare deal, one of the deciding factors for this brief visit was that there were performances scheduled and even discount tickets available for this show. As many times as I had wandered through the show area and the Beatles store in the past, I was more than ready to finally see the main event.
Danny and I had dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen which manages to make a simple dish about as complicated as possible. Fortunately for the less sophisticated pallets like mine there is always the old standby of pepperoni and cheese. We had a few minutes to kill before the show so we checked out the casino. It was there I spied the Jaws slot machines themed after Steven Spielberg’s classic film. I didn’t get a chance to try them out but judging by the graphics and the audio they are pretty cool.
As instructed on the tickets, Danny and I took our seats about thirty minutes before curtain time. The Mirage seems to be very serious about this show and clearly indicated that anyone coming late would only be seated only during an appropriate point. While we waited for the curtain, attendants dressed as English Bobbies, palace guards, and even a few members of Sgt. Pepper’s famous band helped patrons find their seats and yelled at the bolder among us not to take photographs. As show time grew close, members of the cast walked through the audience and entertained with silent pantomime routines.
When Love finally started, it quickly became apparent that it is the theatrical equivalent of a roller coaster. There is so much rapid visual stimulation going on at all times that it is physically impossible to take it all in during a single viewing. I have never really considered myself a fan of Cirque du Soleil style performances but this one is something truly special. The music is, of course, all from the Beatles catalog but an incredible amount of work has been put into the bridging segments which include everything from queues from other songs to George Martin’s instrumental arrangements to dialog from the fan club Christmas records. The audio is synchronized to every manner of dancing and acrobatics that you can imagine and the talented performers, including many children, almost make it look easy. I found the costuming to be particularly insightful. The characters all suggest imagery from the 1960’s but not from specific Beatles songs. The Beatles are more than adequately represented throughout the performance but by toning down the characters the show develops its own unique flavor. I would highly recommend the Love show to even casual Beatles fans and I plan to see it again. Danny and I both agreed it is the best show we have seen in Vegas to date.
We had taken in the second performance of Love at 9:30 so it was after 11PM when we exited the theater. Vegas has one of the more complicated airports to get in and out of, especially if you are picking up and returning a rental car. Since we had an early flight out in the morning, I declined Danny’s suggestion to go casino hopping in favor of getting as much sleep as I could before we had to leave for the airport. As we were driving away from the Hilton the next morning, I realized this may have been my most enjoyable trip to Las Vegas yet and that, due to limited time and overwhelming options, I had never placed one bet!
COMING NEXT WEEK: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ASTRO-ZOMBIE!