Loose in Las Vegas: 2015
Visiting Vegas has become something of an annual tradition with me but other trips and considerations kept me out of Sin City in 2014. Towards the end of that year, my friend Danny told me he wanted to go to Vegas for March Madness and I knew, just over two years after my last visit, it was time for me to return as well. A lot had changed since my 2013 trip, including a significant increase in airfare costs and a lot of landscape revisions. It was definitely time to catch up.
Non-stop flights to Vegas are getting hard to come by in the Jacksonville area so I decided to fly out of Orlando with Danny. This may seem like a lavish decision but a non-stop flight across the country at a good time can add an extra day onto your vacation and the excellent departure times we got both going and returning did exactly that. Leaving Orlando on time at 10AM put us in Vegas just a little over four hours later and it was barely lunch time there so we had the entire day ahead of us. We checked into the Hilton Elara hotel located behind, and attached to, the Planet Hollywood casino a short time later and headed to the Miracle Mile Mall inside the entertainment complex for a quick lunch at Blondie’s sports bar. After relaxing and refueling, we were ready to start taking in Vegas properly!
Speaking of relaxing, that was the agreed upon theme for this vacation. Danny and I had both been busy at work and were overdue for some R&R. Going across the country was a good way to put up a barrier between daily cares and responsibilities so we could just have some fun for a few days. After a perusal of the mall and Planet Hollywood casino, we stopped by the Diamond Lounge and grabbed a snack before that night’s show. In my research, I had seen advertisements for the Sin City Comedy & Burlesque Show at the appropriately named Sin City Theater located inside the Miracle Mile. The ads made this look both enjoyable and nostalgic but ultimately it turned out to be tepid at best. The show consisted of three comedians buffered by two strip routines. The comedians we saw that night ranged from mediocre to acceptable but all of them to some extent made their acts off of audience interaction which just doesn’t work for me. I expect a comedian to write his own material rather than trying to mine it from the audience. Both burlesque routines were performed by an entertainer named “Jane” who was attractive and well skilled. Unfortunately both numbers were also short and never left PG territory so they lacked a lot of the charm that made that form of entertainment so popular decades ago. Overall it was a painless evening but not something I would pay money for again.
I had Thursday planned as my travel day to visit a few new spots this time and see how the landscape had changed since my last visit. One major revision was that one of the coolest poster shops in the world, Buddy Barnett’s Cinema Collectors, had closed. I had been a loyal customer of this store ever since it was located a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip and I followed them when they moved to nearby Henderson and opened up an even cooler store. Sadly, the changing times and diminishing traffic in the shopping area the store was located in necessitated the close. Keeping one small vestige of the business alive, Buddy set up a booth in the Antiques at the Market antique mall close to the Las Vegas airport and that was destination number one on my list for the day. In addition to the selection of impressive original movie posters I have come to expect from Buddy, the mall has a vast and varied array of interesting ephemera. The down side was if I found anything cool it would either have to fit in my luggage without being easily broken or damaged or I was going to have to pay to ship it home.
As I was wrapping up my antique mall shopping, Buddy showed and took me to lunch at the nearby Memphis BBQ restaurant. In all fairness, I was starving by the time we sat down there but I am pretty sure the food would have been just as good otherwise. Over about a gallon of fresh brewed ice tea, the former publisher of Cult Movies Magazine and I talked about all facets of fandom with a heavy emphasis on, of course, collecting movie memorabilia. Even though Buddy and I grew up in opposite parts of the country about a decade apart, we still shared many collective experiences of spending our youths at the movies. One topic we pondered is if the youth of today who are growing up in a more isolated society of on demand entertainment will share collective memories of things like movies with others when they are adults. It seems unlikely they will but hopefully something similarly galvanizing will replace this because we both agreed, the youth of today doesn’t know what it missed.
I was about to burst by the time Buddy and I parted company and I knew I had an early dinner scheduled with cult film producer and all around awesome guy Ted Mikels. Ted had recently experienced some health setbacks and spent an extended time in the hospital. It was touch and go right up until the time of my trip but thankfully he was released the day before I arrived in Vegas. Honoring the wishes of a man who had been sustaining himself on hospital food for weeks, a banquet of Kentucky Fried Chicken and beer was on the menu and I was tasked with assembling the goods. En route to the poultry palace, I cruised some familiar streets of Sin City and noted, sadly, that Ray Steckler’s Mascot Video store is no more. Whether it has moved or closed for good has yet to be established but it was a somber reminder of a lost friend. A short distance away, the Vegas Pinball Museum was still standing and I was tempted to stop in but I knew I could never make a visit there short.
Arriving at Ted’s place with alcohol and drumsticks in hand, I was greeted at the door by his daughter Celine. Ted’s oldest daughter, who was there to help her father with his recovery, was the first of his children I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Ted looked frail and tired, which was completely understandable considering what he had recently been through, but the old gleam was still in his eyes and it brightened appreciably when he began to talk about his latest film project. I had been enthralled with the concept ever since 10 Violent Women 2 was announced. The original is one of my favorites of Ted’s non-horror pictures, mainly due to its aesthetic of pure exploitation enjoyment. Based on the plot Ted outlined for me that day, it sounds like the second installment could carry that same vibe forward. Add to this the return of Francine York to a leading role in a Ted Mikel’s production and this could very easily be the birth of a new cult classic. After enjoying a couple of cold beers with a cinema legend, I made my farewells to head back to the hotel and hook up with Danny for the evening’s festivities.
One thing I have never managed to cross off my list in Las Vegas is visiting a drive-in theater. I have known about the existence of the West Wind Drive-In for years but just never made it by there in my travels. This year, in keeping with our lower key theme, Danny and I made the trek about 15 minutes from The Strip to find this desert ozoner and parked ourselves in front of one of its six screens. We enjoyed a healthy dinner of popcorn and nachos under the stars while we drank beverages out of their collector’s cups. The digital picture and sound were great but the screens are a little too close together and it’s easy to get distracted away from the film you are supposed to be watching. It was still a fun and by all means relaxing evening and it felt good to be supporting an American institution in the process.
On Friday, I spent a little more time in the Miracle Mile mall and the Planet Hollywood casino. Danny and I had tickets for the Nathan Burton Comedy Magic Show that afternoon in the Saxe Theater located inside the mall. This was one of those shows that are pretty easy to get tickets to and after you see it, you realize why! The opening act was a “comedian” who gathered up reluctant volunteers from the audience and proceeded to build his entire routine around putting them in embarrassing situations. This just isn’t my type of comedy and I was all too ready for the magic show to get started. Nathan Burton is a talented magician whose tricks range from traditional to innovative. If you are familiar with the old rule of a magician’s main skill being distraction then it wasn’t too hard to see how most of his tricks were done. He also had another magician working with him who did close up card tricks on a giant screen. This reminded me very much of the old Marshall Brodien magic card decks that were mercilessly hocked to kids on weekday afternoon television throughout my 70’s youth. Over all, the magic portion of the show was enjoyable but not something I would be likely to go see again, even for free.
The tickets Danny had for the magic show also included dinner in one of the Miracle Mile’s restaurants. We chose a Brazilian steak house that was very good. We had a limited menu on our dinner package but the entre was good and the salad bar was excellent. Afterwards we had to rush over to the Westgate Las Vegas Resort which was previously the Las Vegas Hotel and before that, one of my favorite places to stay in Sin City, the Las Vegas Hilton. Crossing another item off my To Do list, I finally got to see Purple Reign, the Prince tribute show that my friend Tricia Anderson’s son performs in. We rushed into the hotel and headed straight for the theater. Thankfully, the basic layout hasn’t changed much over the years and this was one place where we still knew where everything was. Tricia’s husband Graham greeted us outside the theater while Tricia was dutifully guarding our front row seats inside. We had only a few minutes for a quick reunion before show time.
Jason Tenner does an absolutely chilling impersonation of Prince, with Tricia’s son on lead guitar. You lose some of the famous Prince / Wendy dynamic but they do have her represented as well. About half way through the show came a very pleasant surprise when the group was joined on stage by two more performers doing spot on impersonations of Morris Day and his side man Jerome Benton. They launched into a rousing set of some of The Time’s best known songs and continued to pop up throughout the remainder of the performance. It was an awesome show packed into a small theater and if the line outside afterwards for autographs and merchandise is any indication, these guys are extremely popular. Purple Reign is highly recommended to anyone looking for an entertaining 80’s flashback.
Following the show, Danny, Tricia, Graham, and I ventured across the street to the Sands hotel to see her other son perform with his band in the casino’s lobby. The Sands is one of the few really historic hotels left in Vegas I had never set foot in before and it still exudes a huge nostalgia vibe of classic Sin City culture. We park ourselves at an unused card table and enjoyed a couple of sets of more modern music before Danny and I finally had to carry our weary selves over to where we were spending the last leg of our Vegas vacation, The Wyndham Desert Blue.
I have stayed at Wydham’s Grand Desert Resort condominiums on several previous visits to Las Vegas and been very impressed, so when Danny told me a new property was opening the very week were going to be there, I was more than willing to check it out. This actually turned out to be a “soft opening” meaning that not everything was up and running and only ten units were rented out that week as a trial run. Thankfully everything we needed was fully operational and most of the works in progress included things like the game room and smaller amenities we would not have used anyway. Wyndam Desert Blue seems like a great addition to the chain and the only possible drawback I can see is its distance from The Strip. It’s about a ten minute drive away depending on traffic but it is right across the street from the Rio casino so at least some gambling is readily available.
Saturday morning I skipped breakfast because I knew my friends Dyanne Thorne and her husband Howard Mauer were picking me up for an early lunch. This turned out to be a very wise move because they took me to Ricardo’s Mexican Restaurant where no matter what you ordered, the portions were huge. I wisely avoided the brunch buffet they had going on when we arrived. It looked very tempting but I knew if I ate too much I would fall asleep before we had time to catch up. I had not seen Howard and Dyanne since they renewed the wedding vows for my wife Cindy and I on my 2013 trip and we had a lot to talk about. It seemed like a couple of hours flew by in the blink of any eye and the next thing I knew it was time for us to part company so they could officiate another wedding that evening. It might have been a shorter visit than I would have preferred but I was thankful they could fit me into their busy schedule and we could visit for the time we did.
As evening fell, Danny and I headed to Nora’s Italian Cuisine for dinner on Dyanne and Howard’s recommendation. We had been warned it was a popular place and we tried to get there early but a few GPS malfunctions slowed us down. This apparently set the pace for the meal as they were slow getting us seated at a cramped table and it seemed to take forever to get our food out. After several inquiries and eventually attempting to cancel our orders so we could leave, our food did arrive. While it was good authentic Italian food just like my friend’s had promised, it wasn’t worth the wait or the stress of wondering if we were going to be late for our show.
Racing over to the Venetian Casino, thankfully the restaurant was only a few miles from The Strip; we made our way to the Sands Theater. After playing musical box offices in several locations, we finally found the one that was both open and could actually give me my tickets for the show I had booked. I often complain about how my timing in Vegas never seems to coincide with a lot of the cools acts they get there on a seemingly endless basis. Well this trip broke my streak when I happened to be there at the same time Garfunkel and Oats were doing a one night show. For those unfamiliar with this female comedy team or those who might mistake them as a pairing of the two famous musical second bananas their name references, this Garfunkel and Oats are Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci. I have been a fan of their irreverent IFC television series since it began in 2013, after seeing them in a half dozen random appearances before that. The disarming and unpretentious style of their show carries over into their live performances and makes you feel like you are just watching a couple of your friends entertain you with some raunchy parody songs they thought up. It was a great performance and my only minor complaint was that they didn’t sign afterwards. This is a show I would highly recommend to those not easily offended and would certainly go see again if the opportunity arises.
The entertainments gods had also smiled on me for my final day in Las Vegas this trip. The Lettermen, a 60’s vocal group that I inherited my appreciation for from my father, were performing at the South Point Casino that Sunday night. This gave me an opportunity to visit an off Strip casino I had never been to before and, since Danny wasn’t into the group, I could get together with Tricia and Graham again for a fun evening. They were not familiar with the South Point either so we were indecisive about where to eat there. We finally settled on the Zenshin Asian Restaurant, whose happy hour sushi menu turned out to be one of the best food deals I have ever found in Vegas. As we staggered out of the place with our stomachs full, a group of people standing outside stopped Graham and asked how the food was. After we gave them three thumbs up, the relieved looking group told us they had just come from the Mexican restaurant that was our number two choice and the food was so awful they walked out. Not all of the luck in Las Vegas is found at the gambling tables!
As we settled into our seats in the spacious Show Room Theater, I commented to Tricia that this was one of the few times recently in my life where I found myself to be the youngest person in a sizable group of people. The average audience member age was clearly well north of 50 but they were all on the program and there to have a good time, including a wonderful Pilipino woman sitting beside me who knew the words to every song they sang. If you are a fan of this type of music, The Lettermen give one of the best performances I have seen in a long time. The current trio is composed of original member Tony Butala with Donovan Tea (formerly of The Young Americans) and Bobby Poynton (of both The Diamonds and The Crew Cuts). Off and on this lineup has performed as The Lettermen for over a decade and they have the sound down to rousingly entertaining art. They are also extremely appreciative of their fans and regularly wandered through the audience during the show. During their performance of Up, Up, and Away, they even invited guests to take photos with them by the stage.
After the show, The Lettermen moved outside the theater to meet and greet fans and sign autographs. Ironically enough, when I told Bobby Poyton I had seen the group perform some 30+ years ago in my home town of Ocala; he told me they had a concert coming up there in five days. After Tricia and Graham dropped me off at the condo that night, I immediately hopped on the computer to see if tickets were available since I had plans to be in Ocala that weekend but they were already sold out. Still, I couldn’t ask for a better way to wrap up this visit to Vegas.
On Monday, Danny and I had one of the most leisurely trips to the airport I have ever experienced in Vegas. Since our flight didn’t leave until noon, we had plenty of time to check out of the condo, grab some breakfast, do a little last minute shopping, return the rental car, and still get to the airport in plenty of time. It was almost a little surreal considering some of our near misses, and misses, on past trips. Of course the later departure meant that we didn’t arrive in Orlando until close to 8PM and I had an over two hour drive ahead of me back to Jacksonville but even for a long day it wasn’t too bad. I have to say we may be on to something with the rest and relaxation theme this trip. It certainly makes some of the speedy turnaround visits to Vegas from the past look less attractive so this may be the start of a new travel trend.