Loose in Las Vegas: 2010 – The Deuce
As much as I enjoy visiting Las Vegas, one trip a year is usually more than enough for me. Every once in a while though, life tosses you an opportunity that you just can’t pass up. For me it was the chance to visit Sin City along with The Royal Guardsmen as documented last issue. I also had a laundry list of things I have been wanting to do and places to see that has slowly grown during my last few trips. Add to this a couple of stops I can never get enough of and I could easily justify a second round this year.
Joining me for my adventures this trip was my wife Cindy, who hasn’t been back to Vegas since our inaugural visit in 2001. We arrived on a Tuesday evening and headed over to the Cannery Casino where the Guardsmen would play later that week. The Cannery is what is referred to as a “locals” casino, meaning that it is located away from the strip and caters more to the residents of Las Vegas than the tourist trade. While we may have been further removed from what most people consider the action of Vegas, it was fine by us and the non-tourist prices were a nice surprise. I noticed my slot machine discovery for the trip right as we were checking in. In the never ending quest for gambling themes, there is now a one armed bandit based on the television show / musical group The Monkees. I couldn’t resist feeding a few dollars into the machine just for “research purposes”, but when I heard a rumor that if you hit the grand prize jackpot you win Peter Tork, I decided to save my gambling money for other stakes.
We were just about on empty by the time we checked in since our cross country flight had started at around 4PM Florida time. We did have enough energy to join friends Tricia and Graham Anderson at the casino’s Italian restaurant, Vino’s, for dinner. We may not have been the best company in our nearly exhausted state but this was Cindy’s first chance to meet Tricia and Graham who I visit regularly. It was a quiet but enjoyable dinner where we caught up on the last few month’s excitement since my May visit and discussed the rather dismal condition of the Las Vegas real estate market.
Wednesday was the only day that Cindy and I would spend with just the two of us before friends arrived, so we decided to make the most of it. After a wonderful breakfast at Victory’s Café in the casino (warning – the banana pecan waffles can easily feed three people!), we headed out to do some shopping and sight seeing. Our first stop was our casino’s counterpart across town, the Eastside Cannery. I had heard it was the larger of the two casinos but it seemed comparable at best to me. It features a more nondescript décor as compared to the northern venue with its nostalgic pinup art and neon. We ran by some smaller collectibles shops and then did some reconnaissance on a few of the more speculative locations on my list. Some of the places I had been saving up had apparently gone out of business or were off our GPS’s grid but for the most part everything was where it was supposed to be.
One place I never get tired of is Buddy Barnett’s Cinema Collector’s World in Henderson, Nevada. Buddy is always a blast to talk to due to his wealth of knowledge of movie posters and the collecting scene in general. He also never disappoints in the merchandise department either. This was one of my rare trips where I could actually relax and plunder through his inventory to my heart’s content while we commiserated on the changing state of the hobby, the influx of reproductions, and the hard to gauge value of original movie memorabilia. As usual, I left the store with a respectable sized parcel of vintage goodies under my arm. My stand out purchase for this trip was a beautiful one sheet for Gigantis the Fire Monster, the second film in the Godzilla series. While known as Godzilla Raids Again or Godzilla’s Counterattack almost everywhere but in the US, it was retitled by Warner Brothers who felt the franchise was over and they were better off marketing it was a unique film. Poster art for this film features the battle between returning Godzilla and new monster Anguiris rendered in a style similar to medieval etching of dragons. The American version of this film is not very popular among Godzilla fans but the advertising materials are still considered very collectible.
While we were out and about, cult film icon Ted Mikels called to make sure we were in town and to confirm dinner plans. Because we were somewhat in the neighborhood at the time, he invited Cindy and me to join him and his lady friend Shanti at his home for a few minutes. This lead to a trip to Ted’s garage, which is like walking into a museum of motion picture history. The small room is packed floor to ceiling with all manner of boxes, film cans, props, photos, and ephemera. As Ted dug through some things to show me on this visit, he unearthed a yellowed newspaper from the 1950’s that announced the opening of a sewing machine shop he owned at the time. This guy has truly been into everything. He concluded the tour with a brief look upstairs at his editing room and a few minutes of discussion about upcoming projects. I knew we would see Ted and Shanti later that day for dinner so we kept our visit brief.
Wednesday afternoon, the first wave of the Guardsmen, Chris Nunley with wife Karen and Billy and Donna Taylor, arrived from Florida. They had caught earlier flights than we did so, while they may not have been dynamos of energy, they were certainly in better shape than Cindy and I were when we got to town the day before. Ted had recommended the Sam’s Town Casino for dinner and a laser show afterwards in their shopping area. Our group enjoyed the bountiful buffet at the western themed casino and then split up with Ted and Shanti, who had already seen the show many times, remaining behind and visiting with Billy who was still enjoying his desert. The rest of us walked next door to the shopping area and watched a fabricated mountain filled with animatronic animals come to life while music played and laser lights danced. Not a bad show at all, especially for free, which just proves it pays to know people in Vegas! After the show, we regrouped and made a leisurely stroll through the casino before parting company. It had been a long day for everyone for various reasons and we were all ready for bed.
We had already planned in advance for Thursday to be our big group outing day since it was the only full day we had between the Nunleys and Taylors arriving and the rest of the group coming in on Friday. Given a little time to prepare, I can plan a pretty decent road trip and I had a lot of interesting spots to choose from. After another great breakfast at Victory’s, we hit the road and just happened to pass the radio station that was sponsoring the show The Royal Guardsmen were performing at. We made a quick stop in to say hi before starting our adventures for real.
Knowing that Chris is a fan of pinball machines, I lined up the Pinball Museum as our first stop for the day. Located in an unassuming building not too far from the strip, this “museum” is really nothing more than a warehouse that contains the sizable collection of a local group of arcade enthusiasts. Considering that 90% of the machines were up and running and ready for play, it really didn’t require any more than that to have a good time and, aside from the single quarter required to play most of the machines, admission is free. In addition to more pinball machines than I ever realized existed, the museum also contains some vintage (think Space Invaders) arcade games and even a few of the old electronic shooting games I used to love as a kid. This really brought back memories of the pre-video arcade days when kids went to the local bowling alley or skating rink to play games like these in some cramped, poorly ventilated back room. It didn’t take long for the quarters to start dropping and soon we had the place humming with the sounds of a vintage arcade symphony.
Next up was another place I had been meaning to visit for years, the Atomic Testing Museum. This had been an easy spot to back burner on previous visits because the publicity I had seen for it didn’t make it look terribly exciting. For some strange reason they seem to like to keep the advertising low key but the museum is well designed and very informative. They do not allow photography of any kind in the majority of the building for security reasons. Unlike a lot of places these days, our group had our own personal tour guide to take us through the exhibits. Sam was a 40 year veteran of the Nevada Nuclear Testing Facility before his retirement and we could not have asked for a better guide. In addition to explaining the displays and artifacts, Sam shared his life experiences with us which really made the place come alive. Nuclear power, especially the military applications, is a very sobering subject but the museum gives patrons an appreciation for the research and care that went in to its development and continues in its maintenance. No punches are pulled on the devastation the weapons derived from it have caused or the consequences related to accidents like Three Mile Island but the information is delivered with an even hand. For the $12 admission, you also get numerous multimedia presentations and even a small exhibit on the 911 Twin Towers disaster with some actual pieces of the buildings. I highly recommend this museum if you have the opportunity to visit it and be sure to ask for Sam as your tour guide.
Following our radioactive review, we made a brief stop at the nearby Hard Rock Casino at Chris’s behest. I had never actually been in this monument to music history so I enjoyed perusing the memorabilia on display. While all eras of music are represented, one of the exhibits that caught my eye was a huge case dedicated to The Ramones. The records, signs, clothing, photos and other effects gave a respectable overview of this often overlooked group. Cindy and I paid a visit to the on premises Starbucks for a caffeine infusion while the rest of our party hit the souvenir shops before heading out.
Our final stop on the Thursday road trip was a shopping one at a new place I had discovered called Movie Brat. This store is the antithesis of Cinema Collectors World and sells only personality and reprint posters. They also had a sizable selection of entertainment related books and used CDs and DVDs. This store probably won’t go on my must visit list but the prices were reasonable for anyone looking for modern memorabilia or decorative items.
We called it quits after the poster store in recognition of our need to get back to our hotel and get ready for a fun night ahead. Aside from the concert on Saturday, my primary objective on this visit to Vegas was to take Cindy to the Beatles’ Love show at The Mirage casino. When I mentioned this early on, I found out no one else in our group, aside from me, had seen this show either and they were all eager to go. After composing ourselves from our day trip, we met up at the Cannery’s Mexican restaurant, Casa Cocina. We had an excellent dinner of authentic Mexican cuisine preceded by some great home made salsa and some of the best guacamole I have ever had. It was a good thing we had a little bit of walking ahead of us that night or we might have just taken our siesta right there.
No one in our group besides me had been to Vegas in many years, so we started our evening on the strip at one of my favorite hotels, the Hilton. While this casino has never been as much fun as it was when it housed the Star Trek Experience, it is a termination point for the strip’s monorail and still worth a visit. We bought monorail passes for the night and traveled down to the opposite end to take in all the lights. At the MGM Grand, we exited for a brief tour before heading back up to the exit for the Mirage. We were taking in the later, 9:30, show of Love but the place was still packed with people waiting to get in. While Chris picked up the tickets, the rest of us wandered over to the Beatles Shop to see what fab new items were on the shelves. I think Karen is almost as big a Beatles fan as I am because I could tell she was overwhelmed with all the things related to the Liverpool legends that were available. We didn’t have a lot of time to make our selections but we gave it a valid effort and then proceeded inside the theater to find our seats.
I was asked prior to this evening’s performance if I thought I would enjoy the Love show as much the second time. My unwavering answer was an immediate yes. I knew that there was so much going on during these performances that there is no way to take it all in even with multiple viewings. You also noticed different things depending on where you are seated in the theater. For this show, we were up high and could see down into the pits created by the platforms that rise to and lower from the stage. Watching the cast working as this happens makes you realize just how quick they have to be to keep everything going. The only minor distraction I experienced was the occasional anticipation of something I recalled from my previous viewing. I can honestly say it was just as good the second time around and I reassert my recommendation that this show is a must see. After the performance, we toyed with the idea of getting a drink at the Beatle themed Revolution Lounge next door but the crowd and encroaching fatigue got the better of us. We retraced our steps back to our hotel and called it on night after a quick stop off for grilled cheese sandwiches at Victory’s.
For our final bit of frivolity on Friday before the real work portion of the trip began, the Nunleys and the Tuckers headed over close to the strip for a few hours of shopping. I wanted to take Chris to Record City, a store I have visited multiple times in the past with the always realized goal of getting sticker shock from their prices on collectible vinyl. This is certainly the kind of place you would like to take your insurance adjuster to if your record collection ever gets stolen. This particular visit was a little different though since the store was having a sale that actually put the prices on some of their merchandise into the reasonable category. The vintage vinyl was still untouchable but the used DVDs and CDs showed promise so I finally bought something there after almost 10 years! Our only other stop that day was at a huge souvenir shop at the corner of Sahara and the strip. This store claims to be the largest one in Vegas and I don’t doubt it. Chris and Karen managed to find something there for everyone on their list and Cindy and I even picked up a few little gifts for friends and family back home. Compared to what I had seen at the casinos, the prices here were much better for general souvenirs, so it is certainly worth a look if you have time and want mementos or gifts.
The remainder of the Guardsmen arrived in town that afternoon and we met them back at the Cannery for dinner at the buffet. They were beat after a long and circuitous plane ride that took them from Florida to California and then back to Las Vegas. While they were excited to have finally made it to their destination, it was all they could do to keep their eyes open, so we bid a very hasty good night to them following dinner. Since the rest of us were thoroughly into vacation mode, we grabbed the Taylors and Donna’s son Paul, who had come in to visit that day from California, and headed for Fremont Street.
In all my visits to Sin City, this was my first time on Fremont Street, which represents the original Las Vegas before the strip came into prominence in the late 1960’s. In the mid-90’s, this area was renovated and the entire distance was covered with a canopy that would allow visitors to walk through the street rain or shine. Today, most of the original casinos associated with Las Vegas like the Horseshoe and Golden Nugget are still around but they are surrounded by vending stalls and shopping kiosks. There are also plenty of street performers, dressed as everything from Elvis and showgirls to Batman and the Little Mermaid, who make a living posing for photos for tips. A local radio station was sponsoring a 70’s summer promotion there so we got to look through some of the displays used to recreate the atmosphere of that decade. There is also light show broadcast across the canopy and the one we caught was impressively done to the music of The Doors.
While my stay in Vegas was still two days away from over, Friday night was my last real time for vacation. We spent all day Saturday in preparation for The Royal Guardsmen’s performance that night and Sunday was a whirlwind of packing and working our way back to the airport to return home. I was actually feeling pretty well rested by the time I got to Saturday but after I returned home Sunday night I felt like I needed a vacation from the vacation! Twice in one year is more than enough Las Vegas for me. I don’t know at this point if I will try to go back in 2011 or not but I certainly feel like I am caught up in Sin City if I don’t make it back for a while!