VEGAS
BEHIND THE SCENES
by Brian Rouff


Brian Rouff's image
e-mail:
BRouff55@aol.com
Personal web page:
www.brianrouff.com
About the author
Brian Rouff was born in Detroit, raised in Southern California and has lived in Las Vegas since 1981, which makes him a long-timer by local standards. A 1977 UCLA graduate with a degree in Communication Studies, Brian has spent his entire professional career in media and advertising.
    In 1999, Brian fulfilled a lifelong dream by becoming a novelist. His first book, "Dice Angel," is a quirky mystery that gives readers a behind-the-scenes peek at the Las Vegas that exists beyond the Strip. It is the top-rated Las Vegas book on Amazon.com.
    His second novel, "Money Shot," is hot off the press. It's the story of an unhappy middle-aged man who wins a chance at redemption by attempting a million dollar shot during halftime of the NCAA basketball tournament.
    On a personal note, Brian is married with two grown daughters and a three-year-old grandson. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, movies, sports, music and the occasional trip to the casino buffet line.
About this page
An insider's view to the Las Vegas life. A source of information that you will not find in standard tourist guides. If you're looking for the "real Las Vegas," the city that exists beyond the neon of the Strip, you've come to the right place.
    Stop in from time to time and read about the most unique city in America, as we rush headlong toward our centennial celebration. I promise you an interesting ride.
Note: The intellectual property for the content of the articles below, as well as the responsibility for it, is of Brian Rouff.

June 11, 2005
Wynn Report, Part 2
My main impression of Wynn Las Vegas is that I don't have one. Unlike most of the newer Strip properties, including ones designed by Steve himself (we're on a first-name basis), there's no theme. In some ways, it looks like a pumped-up Bellagio. The atrium is similar. There's plenty of water outside, lakes and fountains and waterfalls, another Wynn signature. In some areas, like a unique winding escalator leading down to the brightly colored Parasol Lounge, there's a definite European feel. In others, it's almost tropical. The 150 foot mountain, which I'd heard so much about, was a bit of a letdown. Sure, it does its job of separating the resort from the hustle and bustle of the Strip. But I've seen similar designs at theme parks. Call me jaded, but I was expecting more.
    Some other quick hits:
The art gallery, featuring Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso and the rest of those guys, costs $15. We decided to pass.
A single scoop of ice cream at the Sugar & Ice parlor is $4.50. We passed.
The black lagoon in front of the property is already full of change. Another revenue stream, no doubt.
The public restrooms are classy. No admission charge, either.
The Sunday Champagne Brunch is 29.95. By no means the priciest on the Strip.
Lots of shoppers in the promenade, but not many buyers.
The blackjack dealers use a continuous shuffle device, which eliminates card counters and down time.
    So, the Big Question is, where'd all the money go? It's not on the screen, as they say in Hollywood. My understanding is that the guest rooms are spectacular, bigger and more comfortable than anything else in town. I didn't have a chance to personally check them out, because my expense account wouldn't cover it.
    Bottom line, as we say in Vegas: Steve Wynn may be a one-trick pony but it's a cool trick; he keeps building bigger and better versions of the same thing. Wynn Las Vegas is worth checking out, or maybe even into. But if you believe all the hype, you're bound to be a little disappointed.

May 30, 2005
Wynn Report, Part 1
As I mentioned in a previous article, my wife and I wanted to wait until the uproar died down before checking out Wynn Las Vegas for ourselves. Yesterday, we had the opportunity to do just that. We've been eager to see how Mr. Wynn spent that 2.7 billion. After wandering around for a couple of hours, our impressions were mixed. Here's part 1 of our review; the good, the bad, and the indifferent.
    We parked on Level 3 of the parking garage. Each level has a digital sign telling how many spaces are available. (188, in this case.) A very nice touch.
    The elevator to the casino was a cut above average, but lacked air conditioning. Because it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, our ride was short but uncomfortable. I'd hate to get stuck in the thing. For the money, you'd think they'd add a little ventilation.
    Upon exiting the elevator, the first thing we noticed was a Ferrari dealership. There's a $10 admission fee. Luckily, this being Sunday, the place was closed and we weren't tempted to spend the money to look at the cars. In Las Vegas, all car dealers close on Sunday, thanks to some antiquated laws. Apparently, even Steve Wynn can't get those changed, or just doesn't feel like fighting that particular battle.
    As we made our way toward the casino, we passed a large poker room. Poker is hot, hot, hot right now, due, in part, to all of the television coverage, and in part because it's a competitive activity that aging Baby Boomers can engage in sitting down. A digital readout informs potential players as to the status of each table; which games are in progress, how many seats are open, etc. Another nice touch.
    Our first impression of the casino area was "red." The carpet is predominantly a bright red, offset by tan and other earth tone accents. The ceilings are low, natural light streams in through a variety of openings, and the feeling is relatively subdued for Las Vegas. All of the machines are the new coinless models, which adds to the hushed atmosphere. (That, and the fact that not many people appeared to be winning.) Blackjack limits were $15 - $5,000. The dealers wore simple black uniforms, as did the cocktail servers (another departure from the norm). If you're looking for sexy, stick to the Rio.
    There's plenty more to talk about, but I'll save it for my next report.

 

OUR
COLUMNISTS

 

Susan Marg

TALES
FROM THE CHAPEL
and other stories of
Las Vegas
 

Brian Rouff

VEGAS
behind the scenes

May 15, 2005
Las Vegas: You Don't Look a Day Over 99
Happy 100th Birthday, Las Vegas! I just returned from the Fremont Street Experience, where many of today's festivities are taking place. It started at 10:00 this morning, with a re-enactment of the land auction that created the original Las Vegas townsite one hundred years ago today. A temporary stage was set up on the corner of Main and Ogden, the exact location where the auction occurred. (Ironically, it's across the street from a topless joint called the "Girls of Glitter Gulch." I went to a bachelor party there last year, and it's my opinion that some of the dancers were around back in 1905).
    Many of our dignitaries donned period costumes and performed in a short play, to give us a feel for the proceedings. Mayor Oscar Goodman, decked out in black cowboy hat and matching vest (but, oddly, modern lace-up shoes, not boots), started things off. He was joined by Representative Shelley Berkley, newsman Bob Stoldal, and Golden Gate Casino owner Mark Brandenburg, all portraying historical characters, such as Senator William Clark, a railroad tycoon for whom Clark County is named.
    Interestingly, the original lots sold for about $1,000 each. They are worth untold millions today. If we were around to buy one back then, we'd be rich. We'd also be dead, but our families would remember us fondly (maybe).
    Performers playing a mandolin and honky tonk piano added to the feeling of authenticity. So did two actual horses, which peed and pooped on cue. A frantic worker ran around looking (in vain) for sawdust to soak it up, but had to settle for paper towels.
    In addition to the play, a fully restored steam engine, circa 1875, was on display. I can tell you, that is one loud son-of-a-gun. "All the better to scare buffalo off the tracks," the engine's owner informed me.
    At 2:00 today, just down the street at the Cashman Field Complex, the world's largest birthday cake will go on display. It weighs in at a hefty 130,000 pounds and is vying for a spot in the Guiness Book of Records. The public is invited to partake of a slice or three. I'm wondering if they've also got the world's largest glass of milk to go with it.
    Tonight, the Flying Elvi (of "Honeymoon in Las Vegas" fame) will be dropping in at the Cashman Baseball Field. They will be followed by a performance by Kool and the Gang, and a spectacular fireworks show.
    This entire area is crawling with reporters and camera crews. Be sure to check your local TV or radio station for more coverage.
    All in all, I'd say this town put on an admirable celebration. I'm looking forward to the next hundred years.

April 25, 2005
Win Wynn
So, the new Wynn Las Vegas 50-story bronze mega resort is getting ready to open this Thursday, and it's got people talking, no mean feat for us cynical locals. I think it has something to do with the reported 2.7 billion dollar price tag. That's a lot of money, even by Vegas standards. More than the Venetian, more than Bellagio, more, even, than the gross domestic product of many countries. Leave it to super-showman Steve Wynn to know how to get our attention.
    It's an unfathomable sum, really. How do you spend that much for what is, essentially, a building? (A big fancy building, but a building nonetheless.) Visitors and locals alike will be attempting to answer that question when Wynn Las Vegas opens its doors.
    I won't be one of them. I'm going to wait a week or two until the dust settles. Sure, I'm as curious as the next guy. Are all the faucets 24-karat gold? Is the swimming pool filled with Dom Perignon? Is there a slab of marble left anywhere in the world? Enquiring minds want to know. But I'm not willing to fight the crowds to find out. Once things get back to normal, whatever that is, I'll check it out and report back on this very website. As we say in the biz, "stay tuned."
    Wynn Las Vegas couldn't come at a better time. Our fair city has taken a few hits lately in the negative publicity department. From those two girls getting stuck on the Stratosphere Insanity ride, to the Wendy's "finger in the chili" incident, we've been in the news a lot. Speaking of chili, the City decided to do something nice for the Centennial by bringing in the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a free concert on July 2. More than 50,000 free tickets became available last week. Unfortunately, many of them have wound up on e-Bay, selling for ticket-scalper prices. Oh, well. What did you expect from America's most entrepreneurial city? Just another example of folks trying to make a buck.

April 25, 2005
Win Wynn
So, the new Wynn Las Vegas 50-story bronze mega resort is getting ready to open this Thursday, and it's got people talking, no mean feat for us cynical locals. I think it has something to do with the reported 2.7 billion dollar price tag. That's a lot of money, even by Vegas standards. More than the Venetian, more than Bellagio, more, even, than the gross domestic product of many countries. Leave it to super-showman Steve Wynn to know how to get our attention.
    It's an unfathomable sum, really. How do you spend that much for what is, essentially, a building? (A big fancy building, but a building nonetheless.) Visitors and locals alike will be attempting to answer that question when Wynn Las Vegas opens its doors.
    I won't be one of them. I'm going to wait a week or two until the dust settles. Sure, I'm as curious as the next guy. Are all the faucets 24-karat gold? Is the swimming pool filled with Dom Perignon? Is there a slab of marble left anywhere in the world? Enquiring minds want to know. But I'm not willing to fight the crowds to find out. Once things get back to normal, whatever that is, I'll check it out and report back on this very website. As we say in the biz, "stay tuned."
    Wynn Las Vegas couldn't come at a better time. Our fair city has taken a few hits lately in the negative publicity department. From those two girls getting stuck on the Stratosphere Insanity ride, to the Wendy's "finger in the chili" incident, we've been in the news a lot. Speaking of chili, the City decided to do something nice for the Centennial by bringing in the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a free concert on July 2. More than 50,000 free tickets became available last week. Unfortunately, many of them have wound up on e-Bay, selling for ticket-scalper prices. Oh, well. What did you expect from America's most entrepreneurial city? Just another example of folks trying to make a buck.
April 7, 2005
Slower Than a Speeding Bullet
Last week, I did something not many locals do: I rode the Monorail. I had avoided it until now for two reasons…
1. It didn't go anywhere I wanted to go.
2. The wheels kept falling off.
    But my son-in-law's band, The Reflex, was playing at Harrah's and I was meeting my wife there. Parking at Harrah's is notoriously difficult, so the Monorail seemed like a good idea. Besides, the wheels haven't fallen off in weeks.
    I parked in the Sahara parking lot and took the highest escalator I've ever seen. At the top, automated ticket machines, similar to ATM's, dispense passes at $3.00 apiece. I bought the round-tripper for $6.00. (No break on the price, although there is an all-day pass for $10.00.) I bopped through the turnstile and, after a short wait, my ride appeared. In keeping with our roaring capitalistic spirit, the Monorails are plastered with colorful ads. This one was sponsored by a website called lasvegasfreedom.com, which is brought to us by the fine folks at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
    The train was about half-full (or half-empty, if you're a pessimist). As far as I could tell, I was the only local aboard. Visitors chattered away happily, enjoying the sights. Las Vegas is definitely a more photogenic city by night.
    I'm glad to report that I arrived at my destination in a timely manner, without incident. The Monorail didn't whoosh like the ones in the sci-fi movies, or even the ones at Disney Land. Instead, it clunked along at a leisurely pace, shaking the passengers up just a bit in the process. If you're not sitting down, I recommend you follow the posted instructions and hold on to one of those poles they so thoughtfully provide.
    According to the little booklet I picked up, the entire Monorail route takes 14 minutes. It goes from the Sahara to the MGM Grand. Would I ride it again? Absolutely. It's much more convenient than fighting the traffic on the Strip. And it's a better deal than toking the Harrah's valet $20 in the hope that he'll ignore the "Full" sign that always seems to be there.

March 27, 2005
What's the Big Deal?
As I write this, there are 49 days remaining until the Las Vegas Centennial. I hate to disappoint anyone hoping for an over-the-top extravaganza, but local interest is almost nonexistent. The Review-Journal, our largest daily newspaper, has been running a series of photos detailing our history. Today's photo is a depiction of two men, circa 1962, selling lots for $895. According to the caption, the average two-bedroom home in those days sold for $13,500. (Today's average is about $270,000.) If I'd been around to scoop a bunch of them up (not likely, as I was seven years old and had about two dollars to my name), I'd be a wealthy man.
    Other than that, I've seen precious little in the way of Centennial promotions. From time to time, a local fast food joint will post a mention on their outdoor signage. One of our cable channels has been running some info. That's about it. I get the feeling that it's a bigger deal out there than it is here. As I've said before, we Vegans are a jaded bunch. History isn't our strong suit. But if the powers-that-be can use it as a marketing tool to stir up more business, then they're all over it.
    I know we've got some events scheduled for May, because I saw a calendar in the paper. However, here's my message to all who are longing for a once-in-a-lifetime Centennial celebration: "Between now and then, as your faithful Las Vegas correspondent, I'll keep my eyes open on your behalf. But don't expect too much."

March 13, 2005
The Ultimate Garage Sale
Here's something not many visitors know: Before they blow up a hotel, they sell off everything inside to the public. About a month before the Dunes bit the dust, my wife saw an ad in the Review-Journal, one of our local newspapers.
    "Check this out," she said. "They've brought in some liquidation firm to get rid of all the Dunes stuff."
    So off we went on a warm Saturday morning. The line was daunting, even at that early hour, wrapping itself around the building more than once. Still, we decided to stick it out. Every ten minutes or so, a security guard would let fifty people enter. Finally, it was our turn. The scene inside the main casino was bizarre. People scrambling all over, carrying gaming tables, slot and video poker machines, bar stools, mirrors, light fixtures, everything that wasn't nailed down (and a few things that were). As we wandered, things got even weirder. One entire room stacked floor to ceiling with computer equipment. Another overflowing with every imaginable type of commercial kitchen implement and utensil, from forks and knives to large-capacity coffee makers.
    The highlight of our trip was the elevator ride to the high-roller suites, an area previously off-limits to us regular folk. The suites, some measuring more than 10,000 square feet, were no doubt spectacular in their day, but now looked as tired and shabby as the hotel itself. Still, they were a sight to behold. A two-story Asian suite, for example, included a wood bridge hovering over a koi pond. Another featured the biggest piano I've ever seen, already sporting a "Sold" sticker. Up and down the halls, people stripped the hotel down to the bare walls. Even the doors were fair game. As one couple lugged a giant wooden door toward the elevator, they explained it was the one to the honeymoon suite they'd stayed in more than twenty years before.
    Our purchases were more modest. Some dice, a deck of cards, an ashtray, a promotional poster featuring smiling people from a happier time, touting the Dunes as "America's Playground."
    As we paid for our items and headed toward the car, we saw a bathtub lashed precariously to the top of a Volkswagen Beetle. The tub was easily as big as the car itself. It's one of those "only in Vegas" visuals that will stay with me for a long time.

February 19, 2005
Implosion City
Las Vegas isn't the most sentimental city I've ever lived in. Our tendency is to value the future and disregard the past. If we feel that something has outlived its usefulness, we blow it up, bulldoze it, and make way for the next big thing. In this way, the Dunes became the Bellagio, the Sands became the Venetian, and the Landmark became a Convention Center parking lot. You can't win 'em all. I'm still bitter about the Flamingo leveling the original Bugsy Siegel suite. No respect for one of this town's founding fathers.
    The biggest and best hotel implosion was the Dunes, which set the standard on October 27, 1993. My wife and I were there. A business associate secured a suite at Bally's, giving us an unobstructed view of the pyrotechnics directly across the street. Meanwhile, eighteen floors below, hundreds of thousands of people milled about in breathless anticipation, drinking heavily to fend off the autumn chill. Vendors hawked their wares as entire families, some with babies in carriages, readied themselves for the oncoming spectacle. From our vantage point, we could almost feel the carnival-like atmosphere.
    I'm a little unclear as to the hour, but I believe the show started at 9:00 PM. Famed casino entrepreneur and showman extraordinaire Steve Wynn orchestrated the event. He fired a cannon from his then-new Treasure Island property, signaling the launch of the most spectacular fireworks display I've ever seen. Ten minutes and $500,000 later, the first of two Dunes towers collapsed as if on an express elevator to the center of the earth, followed quickly by the second tower.
    After a short delay, a massive rolling black cloud enveloped the crowd, sending them scattering in all directions. Who knows what was in that cloud? Dust, smoke, fiberglass, asbestos perhaps? I was relieved to be indoors, out of harm's way, but I was concerned for the babies and children below, undoubtedly choking on those noxious fumes. Hours later, when we finally headed home, we trudged through a landscape that looked like a scene from "Apocalypse Now." Trash and debris piled everywhere, the acrid smell of sulfur still hanging in the air. Our eyes watered and our lungs burned as we made our way to the car. We vowed then and there to watch future implosions on TV.

February 7, 2005
Super Sunday
Other than New Year's Eve, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest party in Las Vegas. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Sin City to bet on the game, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and watch the action at dozens of sports books. Some of the bigger hotels, such as Mandalay Bay, the Mirage, Caesars and the Las Vegas Hilton, have so many giant high-definition TV monitors, it looks like something out of Mission Control. By kickoff, an estimated $80 million has been wagered on more than 250 proposition bets. Not only the usual sides and totals, but more exotic offerings such as which player will score the first points, and who will win the coin flip.
    As for my wife and me, we go to a friend's house to watch the game. Not just any friend, but one with a large den and even larger big-screen TV. It's quieter, more comfortable, and there's never a line to get into the bathroom. Years ago, I used to catch the game at the Hilton. That is, until a drunk fan took issue with my rooting style, and threatened to deposit me in a trash can. He was twice my size and looked like the president of the New Jersey Hell's Angels, so I cheered quietly from that point on. Now that I watch from the relative safety of my friend's recliner, I rarely receive death threats. Unless I reach for the last potato chip.
    I lost $20 on the game. Each year, I make a small wager just to keep things interesting. I never win, especially when the betting line looks too good to be true. If you ever want a "sure thing," ask me who I'm betting on and go the opposite way.

January 23, 2005
But It's a Dry Heat
I moved to Las Vegas in August 1981. For the first two weeks, the temperature never dipped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought I was in hell. "You'll get used to it," sympathetic locals told me. "Your blood will thin."
    It took a couple of years, but they were right. After all this time, 105 feels normal. I used to enjoy cold weather, but not any more. If the mercury gets below 75, I feel a chill.
    Recently, I ran across a little essay called, "You Know You've Lived in Vegas Too Long When…" Many of the items were temperature related, including:
- You've golfed when it was 117 degrees.
- You notice the best parking place is determined by shade, not by distance.
- Hot water comes out of both taps.
- You've hard-boiled a dozen eggs in the trunk of your car between the grocery store and home.
- Your power bill in the summer is higher than your mortgage.
- The water in your pool is too hot to swim…and you don't have a heater.
- You've never had an auto battery last more than two years.
    Vegas locals develop survival skills for living in the desert. Most of them revolve around our vehicles. You can identify a Vegas-dweller's car by the dark tint on the windows, the carpet on the dash, and the cloth cover on the steering wheel. Cars can be a dangerous place in the summer. Left in the sun too long, a seat belt makes a good branding iron. Adults are often arrested for leaving their kids and pets in a parked car, even for just a few minutes. It's not an overreaction on the part of the authorities. Every summer, kids and pets perish in cars that can reach more than 150 degrees.
    A few years ago, I went to visit my wife's parents in Orlando, Florida, in the middle of summer. It was 100 degrees and close to 100 percent humidity. As soon as I got off the plane, I wanted to turn around and go home. It felt like I was trying to breathe underwater.
    It made me realize that there's a kernel of truth in the old saying, "But it's a dry heat." Of course, the classic rejoinder is, "So is an oven, but I wouldn't want to live there."

January 12, 2005
Games People Play
You can't write about Las Vegas without discussing the cornerstones of our community: gambling and the weather. I'll talk about the weather next time.
    In other cities where gambling is legal, they've contained it, like a virus, in designated areas. Not so in Vegas. Gambling is literally everywhere. Beyond the Strip and Downtown, neighborhood casinos have sprung up in all corners, enticing locals with player's club cards, buffet deals, even bowling alleys and movie theaters. Anything to get us through the door. The bean counters know that each customer is worth, on average, a certain amount of money. Like everything in this town, it's a numbers game.
    In addition, what really surprises visitors and new residents is the pervasiveness of slot and video poker machines. They're in the convenience stores. They're in the car washes. They're in the Laundromats. There's no escaping them.
    So, how do we locals deal with the temptation? Out-of-towners have said to me on more than one occasion, "If I lived here, I'd be broke all the time." They make a good point. Each resident must make his or her own personal peace with those alluring games of chance.
    Some ignore them totally. I know people who've lived here for years and never drop a nickel in a slot. Others gamble only when relatives or friends come to town. Invariably, the visitors win and the locals lose. It's some kind of universal law I don't fully understand. Still others treat gambling as just another form of entertainment. From time to time, they'll budget some money for a night on the town.
    Then there's the small but significant number who develop a gambling problem. I've seen the figures estimated at five to ten percent. Nobody knows for sure. One thing is for sure…Vegas has more Gambler's Anonymous programs than anywhere else on the planet. The casinos have even started putting warning signs next to their ATM machines, with telephone numbers to call for help. Nobody believes the corporate types are sincere; it's more of a marketing ploy than anything else. Kind of like tobacco companies advertising that they don't want kids to smoke.
    As for me, after 24 years in Sin City, the thrill is gone. I played quite a bit when I first moved here, mostly blackjack, until I figured out I couldn't win on a consistent basis. Hey, there's a reason they keep building these mega-resorts. Once, I lost a C-note while waiting to eat. I call it "the Hundred Dollar Buffet." Every now and then, I get the itch and I'll try my luck. It's usually bad, which serves to remind me why I shouldn't be playing in the first place.

January 1, 2005
New Year's, Vegas style
Happy New Year from Las Vegas!
Last night, the spectacular fireworks show went off without a hitch. (Not counting the Mylar balloon that hit a transformer, knocking out the power in four casinos.) It was touch and go for a while, as rain and winds threatened to cancel the celebration, putting a damper on the festivities (pun intended). However, as the midnight hour approached, the weather decided to cooperate and we were treated to an awesome display of pyrotechnics launched from the roofs of 10 hotels. (Perhaps Mayor Goodman, Steve Wynn and the rest of the city fathers have more pull than I ever imagined.) An estimated 300,000 revelers braved 40-degree temperatures to ring in 2005. Of course, they were fortified by plenty of high-octane spirits to keep them warm.
    Personally, my New Year's eve partying days are long gone. The last thing many locals want to do is venture down to the Strip and rub elbows (and other body parts) with all those visitors. It's just a major hassle. I'm sure the folks who live in Orlando don't go to Disney World all the time, either. Luckily, we live less than a mile from the Stratosphere, where some of the coolest sights and sounds took place. Joined by our family and friends, we strolled outside a few minutes before midnight, marveled at the 8-minute extravaganza, then retreated to the warmth of our home to finish off a few bottles of bubbly. We ended the evening with a rousing game of Scattergories, won by yours truly. Not exactly party animals, any of us. I hope you're not too disappointed. Besides, every now and then, my mind would wander to the other side of the world, where the tsunami victims are bravely trying to survive under impossible conditions. It provided a somber undercurrent to the revelries. I'm sure most people feel the same way.
    In any event, I wish you a healthy, happy and prosperous 2005. Like the New Year itself, Las Vegas is about hope and fresh beginnings. We could all use a little of that right about now.

December 24, 2004
I'm dreaming of a Neon Christmas
Back in the old days, which in Vegas means ten years ago, the Strip essentially closed up shop for Christmas. Visitor volume dropped, showrooms went dark, hotels used the rare downtime to regroup for the New Year. You could shoot the proverbial cannon through many of the casinos and not hit a soul. Sure, you'd see the occasional tourist halfheartedly pumping coins into a slot machine, but it was just kind of sad.
    Not any more. Christmas still isn't one of our bigger holidays (that's reserved for New Year's Eve and Superbowl Weekend), but it's more like business as usual. The hotels all offer some kind of holiday buffet. Most of the shows are up and running, although with a passing nod to the season. For example, the topless reviews might stick Santa hats on the girls (the beginning, maybe, of a new tradition).
    For the locals, there are half-off casino deals to lure us out of our homes and the malls. The Salvation Army stations bell ringers at strategic commercial locations throughout town. Charitable organizations like Opportunity Village (devoted to helping the mentally challenged) offer a spectacular Magical Forest of lights. It's not exactly a white Christmas like the folks are used to back home, but it will have to do.
    As I write this, the temperature outside is a brisk 38 degrees, chilly for here. But the sun is shining and there's not a cloud in the sky. (Don't tell anybody or they'll all want to move here. Oops, too late.) It's a perfect day for doing some last minute holiday shopping. Which is exactly where I'm heading.

December 15, 2004
What's living in Las Vegas really like?
That's the question I'm most often asked by visitors. It's the question I'll attempt to answer in this upcoming series of articles.
I moved here in 1981, which makes me practically a native by local standards. At the time, the population of the Vegas Valley was just over 450,000. Today, it's 1.6 million. For the last fifteen years, we've been one of the fastest growing cities in the country. We're a boomtown. And that means we have to take the bad along with the good. Like most residents, mine is a love-hate relationship. On any given day, the scale tilts one way or the other. It depends, mainly, on the weather and the traffic.
    Originally, I came to Las Vegas for a job. I thought I'd stay a couple of years, get on my feet, and move back to Southern California. Almost 24 years later, I'm still here. Vegas is the place for people on their way up or their way down. It's a land of fresh starts and second chances. The energy pulled me in, the frontier spirit seduced me, the economy keeps me here to this day. It's where I bought a house, raised a family, started a business, embarked on a new writing career.
    I've lived through two recessions, the end of mob-controlled casinos, countless hotel implosions, the rise of the mega-resorts, the fall of Vegas as a family destination. In that time, through all of the reinventions, we've managed to come full circle. Our world-famous marketing slogan says it best, "What Happens Here Stays Here." Of course, they're referring to our twin pillars of money and sex. I've never worked in the gaming industry (out here, it's "gaming," never "gambling," according to the corporate types), but I know that gaming permeates every inch of the city, from the slots at McCarran International Airport to the video poker machines at the neighborhood Speedee Mart. Las Vegas is a company town, no less than Detroit, Michigan or Hershey, Pennsylvania. Without gaming, we'd be nothing more than a gas station and a greasy spoon, just a bathroom break on the way to L.A.