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The Shadow of Las Vegas

By RD Heldenfels Published: April 24, 2006

I've been going through a period where Las Vegas keeps popping up on my video screen. Not just commercials for the place, or for the TV show ''Las Vegas.'' I sat down Friday with a review disc of a new Kathy Griffin special, and there she was, talking about Celine Dion in Vegas. Channel hopping one night, I landed on ''Midnight Run,'' the Robert deNiro-Charles Grodin picture. Climactic scene is in Las Vegas. The ''What About Brian'' premiere a week ago, set partly in Las Vegas. And, since my TV mailbag column began running in Las Vegas, notes have arrived regularly from there.

Most of the time, I would shrug this off as mere coincidence, or the brain gathering string.

(Another recent bit of string-gathering: Noticing how cell phones have made it more difficult for writers. Think of all the scenes in older productions where people labor to find a phone, often a pay phone. Then add in the difference that caller ID makes. But I digress.)

But Las Vegas has been stuck in my head for about a month, since the bride and I went there, with me going for the first time.

The one thing I keep coming back to is how freakin' huge the place looks compared to the relative coziness of it on TV -- how enormous, for example, Caesars is. The shopping area, let alone the casino, seems to go on forever. You look down the strip and think that a brightly lit casino sign isn't that far away, only to walk for miles -- because the sign was, well, freakin' huge. The inside of the casinos don't always feel as big, because they're so stuffed with slot machines and blackjack tables, but then you walk from row to row of slots and realize how easy it is to get lost in such places. Like many people, I would try my luck at one machine, then move to another, clutching the paper strip that has taken the place of buckets of coins, and hoping for a change in luck that never changed.

I saw most if through a thin haze of smoke that defied the constantly moving air. I got more second-hand in a few days in Las Vegas than I had inhaled in probably the entire previous year of relatively smoke-free environments. Nor was I crazy about the repeated attempts to get us to look at time shares, attempts that always seemed to begin with the offer of cheap tickets to shows.

There's also a lot of Las Vegas that is more seedy than you usually see in the colorfully lit terrain of ''C.S.I.'' Older places like Circus Circus are shopworn, and on the street you sometimes run a gauntlet of people handing out cards for various sex-related entertainments.

But the seediest thing I saw was Pete Rose, sitting outside a mall store, waiting to sign autographs for people. I didn't get close enough to ask his price. It's bad enough to know that he has one.

Then there was the good stuff -- the whole life-is-a-fantasy quality of the place, whether you're walking through Caesars or walking by a white tiger at the Mirage or looking at the Big Apple flourishes built into New York New York, or watching the fountains at the Bellagio, or just trying to get through the crowd that gathers to watch the ship outside Treasure Island. Food's not cheap, but the buffet at the Mirage was an epic -- tons of food, an array of varieties, enough that with a little pacing you could make one meal that filled you the rest of the day, and into the next.

We also saw one of the 5,722 Cirque du Soleil shows around Las Vegas, and it was entertaining enough -- funny, well-paced, with some jaw-dropping acrobatics.  But the perfect Las Vegas moment came on our last night there, when we saw Wayne Newton at the Flamingo.

Let me say it again. Wayne Newton. The Flamingo. The casino that started it all, the dream of the visionary Bugsy Siegel. Doesn't much matter what has been done to it over the past 60 years; it is still a name above all others in the Vegas of the imagination. And while Celine and Elton -- and famous-in-Vegas names like Danny Gans -- are the icons of the modern era, Wayne Newton is still a link to the Classic Vegas, to the style of the Frank/Dean era. (If we hadn't seen Wayne, we would have had to give serious consideration to Steve & Eydie at the Stardust.)

Wayne's voice is not as strong as it once was, and his performing hall at the Flamingo was pretty modest when you thought about the lights and dazzle at Cirque du Soleil -- or even those ''Blade Runner''-ish video billboards along the strip. His patriotic-song finish demanded far better effects. But the show, which blended music and comedy (both aided by Newton's supporting cast of singers and musicians) and allusions to the past, was the onstage Las Vegas I had long imagined. I couldn't help grinning through about half the show.

Of course, if we go back, we're talking about Elton tickets. That's another side of Vegas, and I want to see that, too. Maybe not real soon, since I'm still soaking up that first, dizzying trip. But we'll get back.

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