Loose in Las Vegas: 2010
I never need much of an excuse for a trip to Las Vegas. I am not much of a gambler but I find that Sin City has a host of other venues and activities to check out that just don’t get as much press. In late 2009, my friend Danny decided to reserve his condo in Las Vegas this year and found an incredible deal on airfare (incredible even by his usually impressive standards). Though the proposed trip was six months away in May of 2010, I signed on for the project almost immediately. Within a few days of this decision, my friend Byron called to see when the next Vegas trip would be and before I knew it, he was scheduled to fly out of Jacksonville with me. This year’s trip proved to be more relaxing than some of my recent ones due to a slightly longer stay and the extended lead time which allowed for more planning than usual.
On Saturday, May 15, Byron and I caught a mid-morning nonstop flight out of Jacksonville headed for Las Vegas. While the flight was book almost to capacity, we managed to get a row with an empty seat between us thanks mainly to an early bird boarding pass Byron signed up for. It was a long but reasonably pleasant flight. We spent most of the time catching up, discussing vacation plans and playing a game on Byron’s new iPad. Since Southwest does not offer in-flight movies any more, I had also brought along my portable DVD player and a stack of discs to help pass the time.
After landing in Vegas, we retrieved our luggage and headed for the offsite car rental hub. Byron had a car rented and reservations at one of my favorite hotels, the Las Vegas Hilton. Danny picked me up at the rental place and we headed for the Wyndam Grand Desert Resort. This condominium is located just three quarters of a mile behind the MGM Grand casino and while I had no intention of walking that distance in the Nevada heat, it was certainly convenient to the strip.
I had intentionally kept plans for Saturday fairly light in recognition of the potential for jet lag and the three hour time difference. Once I was settled in at the condo and unpacked, Danny and I headed over to the Hilton for dinner at the Benihana Japanese steak house. This particular location of the franchise, referred to as the Benihana Village, is loaded with atmosphere. The restaurant is located on the second floor and the entire downstairs is a beautiful recreation of a Japanese garden complete with waterfalls and bridges. The food is delicious and the hibachi chefs are very entertaining but be forewarned that it is not an inexpensive meal.
As soon as we had set the dates for this trip to Vegas, I began to research our options for shows. While many entertainers are booked well in advance, some did not turn up online until much closer to our arrival date and some I never saw mentioned at all. One of the first shows to hit my radar was Tim Conway and Friends at the Hilton. I have been a huge fan of Conway since his days on The Carol Burnett Show and the recent passing of his long time partner Harvey Korman reminded me that I should take advantage of this opportunity to see him perform live.
Conway opened the show with some standup and then moved on to several sketches with fellow comedy veteran Chuck McCann. As a child of Saturday morning television, I found it very comforting to see McCann in the flesh and was satisfied, once and for all, that he isn’t still trapped in a tiny space capsule traveling through the stars with Bob Denver! Throughout the ninety minute performance, Tim Conway reacquainted the audience with many of the characters he has developed over the years including the infuriatingly slow old man and diminutive pro golfer Dorf. Much of the time in between the sketches was filled by female impressionist Louise DuArt who, like McCann, also has a history with Sid & Marty Krofft (most notably she was Nashville of Kaptain Kool & the Kongs). While she is very talented as an impressionist, it seemed to me that she was afforded a little too much stage time in this short show. I would have really liked to have seen Tim Conway a little longer since he was the headliner of the group. I was also disappointed that none of them did any signing after the performance but they did have another show to get ready for.
Sunday morning I slept in to help counteract the previous travel day. Danny and I joined Byron at the Hilton for a late breakfast at the Paradise Café, a favorite dining spot of ours. I noted that the Mexican restaurant located next door appeared to be reopened (it was closed on my 2009 visit) but has not been listed again on the website. After breakfast, we split up and Byron and Danny checked out the strip individually while I took inventory of the amenities the condominium had to offer.
Sunday night I got to experience one thing that I never would have expected to in Vegas – a home cooked meal! During my last visit, my friend Tricia Anderson (of Blood of Dracula’s Castle fame) had offered to cook me a genuine Australian dinner the next time I was in town. Her husband, Graham, is originally from Down Under so she has become an expert over the years on the cuisine. This also gave me an opportunity to check out the Anderson home which is filled with interesting curios and Graham’s garage where he works restoring antique automobiles. Dinner consisted of an herb seasoned chicken dish with vegetables and an awesome desert of solidified meringue with cream and fruit topping called Pavlova. After a respectable period of visiting, Tricia and Graham drove me up to the hills of Las Vegas and introduced me to some of the impressive architecture and a beautiful view of the strip at night.
On Monday I had brunch scheduled with cult filmmaker Ted Mikels and his significant other, the lovely Shanti. They steered me to the Orleans casino and a great buffet that included both the anticipated breakfast bar and a variety of items from around the world. I tried not to over indulge but realized I had failed about two minutes after I finished desert. The three of us slowly made our way to the parking lot for a few photos and then back to the condo to discuss plans for the upcoming Florida premiere of Ted’s new film Astro-Zombies M3: Cloned in Jacksonville on June 19.
As I walked Ted and Shanti to their car and was saying my farewells, Byron pulled up to collect me for the afternoon. Having met the cult couple on a previous visit, he stopped long enough to exchange pleasantries before we parted company. Byron and I spent the afternoon enjoying some of the local culture and then met up with Danny at the Venetian casino for the evening’s entertainment – The Blue Man Group.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Blue Man Group, they are a trio of azure skinned mimes who perform a combination of musical numbers and visual stunts. Many of these feats involve liquids and the occasional solid being projected into the audience so the first several rows of any performance as designated as a “splash zone”. I found their performance very amusing but much of the show is the Group interacting with the audience and various items being dropped from the ceiling. This isn’t my favorite form of entertainment but, as I told Danny afterwards, where else can you hear the theme from Challenge of the Superfriends and music by The Sex Pistols in the same show?
Byron and I spent some time wandering around the Venetian after the show and admiring the man made canals and gondolas that provide an Italian atmosphere. We both intended to make it an early evening since he was flying back to Jacksonville in the morning and I had early plans. We did a little shopping and more browsing and then he dropped me back off at the condo.
On Monday I hit the ground running at 8AM. I had arranged to borrow Danny’s car for the morning and I had places to go and people to see. My first stop was the Cannery Row casino about twenty minutes from the strip. I had a tip that Ocala, Florida’s finest musicians, The Royal Guardsmen, would be reuniting there in the fall for a concert and I wanted to get the facts first hand. I was temporarily sidetracked from my mission by the decor of the casino which is a unique amalgamation of retro styles from the 40’s through the 60’s. After a little sight seeing, a very nice lady named Ginger in Event Services confirmed that the group would be performing as part of a show called the End of Summer Bash on September 4. I stopped by the gift shop on the way out in hopes of acquiring a souvenir from this vintage venue but was thwarted by a trend I noticed several times on this visit to Vegas. It seems that the gift shops of many casinos and other tourist locations have let there inventories lapse, probably due to the current economy, and are slow to reorder. This means their souvenir selection is limited and on items like clothing they are usually out of the most popular sizes.
One of my recent guilty pleasures has been watching the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. This reality series follows the three generations of a family that run the twenty-four hour Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. The episodes usually center on several different interesting finds they are offered each week but they also make asides to discuss collecting, evaluating and restoring unique items. On the show, the shop usually appears sparsely populated and even the parking lot looks fairly empty when they film outside. As I pulled in around 9AM, the place was packed and I initially thought I was going to have to park down the street. Inside the small shop were at least thirty people visiting for the same reason I was and it wasn’t easy even getting close to the cases to peruse the eclectic mix of antiques on display. Based on the T-shirts, hats, and other memorabilia related to show that filled easily a third of the store, I suspect the pawn trade my not be their primary source of income these days. On my return trip to the car, I noticed the store’s co-owner Rick “The Spotter” Harrison sneaking in the back entrance but I decided against flagging him down.
This was my second trip to Vegas since the death of cult filmmaker and personal friend Ray Steckler. I almost consider it a pilgrimage to visit his Mascot Video store which still stands on Tropicana Avenue not far from the strip. The store is very much the same as it was when Ray’s cheerful face was seated behind the desk and still features a sizable amount of merchandise related to him. Earlier this year, Ray’s wife Katherine sold the store to long time friend Rick Teis. I had met Rick on other occasions so I was happy to see Mascot go to someone who plans to honor Ray Steckler’s memory. According to Rick, he plans to keep the store very much the same as Ray did but is trying to expand the selection of memorabilia available to fans. I wish him the best of luck and look forward seeing the store grow on future visits.
Following my trip to Mascot Video, I made my one misstep for the day in trying to find a vintage toy store that ended up being on the complete opposite end of the city and took much longer to get to than my GPS originally indicated due to traffic conditions. This put me in a time crunch for my final destination of the day, the incredible movie memorabilia store Cinema Collectors. Fortunately, I had E-mailed owner Buddy Barnett well in advance to apprise him of my visit and he had an admirable stack of vintage science fiction, horror, and cult posters waiting for me to dig through.
I have no idea how he comes up with the selection of materials he does but Buddy always seems to come up with things I am looking for without me even having to ask for them. One of my favorite acquisitions from this trip is a Tarzan poster with awesome artwork. According to Buddy, this is an MGM stock poster from the 60’s reissues of the films using Johnny Weissmuller for Tarzan but the Jane at the bottom is Joanna Barnes from the 1959 Tarzan, the Ape Man remake. The theaters would paste a snipe, a pre-printed logo card, on these generic posters for whatever film was playing that week. Due to my rushed circumstances, we did not get much time to talk but he did tell me that the poster collecting market is picking back up after the recent economic slump. I left with a large bag of posters under my arm and a promise to set aside more time to discuss the hobby on my next visit.
For my final evening in Las Vegas, Danny and I headed to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant inside the Flamingo casino. I had been to the Margaritaville in Orlando before but only sampled the appetizers. The jambalaya I had for dinner was excellent and Danny’s steak didn’t look bad either. On our way down the stairs from the restaurant, Danny pointed out a volcano spewing what was presumably tequila into a gigantic blender at the bar. I definitely need to come back and try out the house specialty when I can afford to lose an evening.
We had chosen a restaurant at the Flamingo for dinner because we had tickets to see comedian Vinnie Favorito there. Danny had read some very positive reviews on the show and got a good deal on tickets so it seemed like a nice relaxing way to spend my last night in town. What neither of us had gathered though is that Mr. Favorito makes his living as a professional roaster and his performances are about 90% audience participation – willing or otherwise! Danny and I were lucky enough to be seated in the back of the room so we thankfully missed our turns to become part of the show. While this isn’t my preferred style of comedy, Favorito genuinely is quick witted and the audience was good natured and had a fun time. This is by no means a family affair and if you have the opportunity to attend one of his shows, I highly recommend you sit as far away from the stage as possible and keep a low profile!
On Wednesday morning, I had the unenviable task of waking Danny up so he could take me to the airport. My non-stop flight back to Jacksonville left at 9AM and, even under the best of circumstances, the Las Vegas airport can be a challenge to get to and through. I was extremely fortunate that the flight was only about two thirds full and I ended up with an entire row to myself. With air travel cut backs and flight reductions, this was an occurrence I had not experienced in years and it made the four and a half hour trip much more enjoyable. Three and a half days was a respectable visit to Sin City for just about anyone and practically a luxury by my standards. I left feeling I had more than accomplished enough for one visit but there is still plenty more for future trips.