Cool Things for Southern Californians to Do 17: Las Vegas Revisited

Monday, January 3, 2022 - by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells

When we visited Las Vegas for the first time in many years in July 2021, we were shocked by how difficult it was to get around and park, even trying to use Uber/Lyft/taxis, compared to the time when we were contributing columnists for Las Vegas Magazine 1998-2005:

There were plenty of fun things to do, even though we don't gamble, wine-dine, or shop.

But getting to them in time and cost-effectively was so challenging that we left much undone (the extensive ongoing roadwork on the Strip and Downtown means you need to walk or leave very early to get anywhere on time).


We went back in December and discovered that the Venetian Resort on the Strip, where we were attending an anti-aging medical conference, was the parking solution, since it is free. You could easily spend your entire time there, with everything from a beautiful, themed shopping mall to gondola rides and it is close to many other attractions. It was ranked the No. 1 luxury hotel in the city by Conde Nast Traveler's 2021 Readers' Choice Awards in large part for its restaurants and the Canyon Ranch gym and spa (we have reviewed it and most other hotels for comparison).


There is a single compelling reason everyone should go to Vegas before the crowds overwhelm it again (there is a mask requirement indoors and most buildings are enormous, with thorough sanitization, so relatively safe for the vaccinated). We were surprised that Cirque du Soleil's Beatles LOVE at the Mirage across the street from the Venetian had half the seats open for the 7 pm (though the 9:30 was fuller; it runs Thursday through Monday and had only been revived for a few weeks, so word-of-mouth had not yet spread). We had seen it originally in 2005, after waiting two years to get press passes for front seats. We were wowed by the creative synthesis of the Beatles' record producer, George Martin, and his son Giles, approved by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, which didn't simply play their greatest hits, but selected the most brilliant passages from 200 songs and merged them into a collage, a soundtrack that won two Grammys. Dominic Champagne, who wrote the original show, said he wanted to "create a Beatles experience rather than a Beatles story, taking the audience on an emotional journey." The 360° theater has 100-foot screens on which high-definition images are projected, with a surround sound system.


The second time we saw LOVE in 2012 was disappointing, largely because we had to pay and sat at that back, where there was not the sense of being fully in what Ringo calls "a beautiful dream." In part, that was because there is a special effect (better to leave this as a surprise) that can only be fully experienced in the first half of the seating. This time, paying again, we sat in the middle right before the edge of this and that turned out to be as good as the front. The opening five minutes were so stunning that we were launched on a magical mystery tour even more powerful than the first time (in part thanks to some changes that had been made). For us, the highlights were the segments with (in order) "I Am The Walrus," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Within You, Without You,""Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Day in the Life," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Hey Jude." All this was accompanied by a cast of 70 that did astonishing acrobatics and celebratory freestyle dancing in imaginative costumes. The closing was very inspirational, restoring hope in the future for the outside world, as we remember the relevance of what Cirque calls an "exploration of the aesthetic, political, and spiritual trends of the 1960s."


LOVE is especially appreciated due to the fresh perspective on the final days of the Beatles shown in Peter Jackson's acclaimed new documentary "The Beatles: Get Back." Jere Hester wrote an insightful analysis of the lessons about the creative process in general that emerges from it



We stayed at the Golden Gate Casino Hotel downtown, the city's first, built in 1906, because it had free parking, our room had a bathtub (rare in hotels today), and it was near the Arts District, where you can drive around and see numerous outdoor murals and drop into galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. Unofficially, that is bounded by Gass on the north, Colorado on the south, Commerce on the west, and Las Vegas Blvd. on the east). But many of the best of the murals are on and around Freemont Street, a few blocks west of the Fremont Street Experience, the covered pedestrian mall next to the Golden Gate, where, at the top of the hour 6 p.m.-2  a.m., the ceiling becomes the world's largest video screen for a light show.


The Mob Museum is a few blocks from the Golden Gate, as well, and is imperative to understand the broader history of Las Vegas. But even if you don't think you have any interest in the organized crime of its past, you will be informed and captivated by its broader topics. Using videos, vivid images of notorious leaders and their victims, interactive exhibits with QR codes, displays of historic objects, and excellent storytelling, three levels start with the roots. With over 20 million immigrants coming into Ellis Island 1892-1924, many were crowded into slums, sometimes forcing 12 adults to sleep in a 13'x13' room invested by rats and infected with TB. Joining criminal gangs was more attractive to some than bad jobs. While the museum does feature the local mafia, the Chinese triads, Japanese yakuza, and drug cartels are among the other groups covered. There are exhibits on how 1920s Prohibition fueled mob growth all over the nation, then their focus shifted to gambling, prostitution, and sports betting. One display features the first bulletproof vest, which the inventor wore to demonstrate to potential buyers, while his wife or secretary shot it with a Thompson submachine gun. There are exhibits on Hollywood's fascination with the subject and Senator Estes Kefauver's hearings of 1951 that resulted in a serious crackdown. The response of the FBI is detailed and the museum takes a close look firearms training for police. In the basement is a "speakeasy" and a model of a moonshine still.


The Haunted Museum is the creation of Zak Bagans, paranormal investigator and host of the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures," as well as a new Discovery+ series about the museum, which is a notorious mansion built in 1938. It has 33 rooms and much of the two-hour guided tour (the VIP version is worth the extra) is a mix of its haunted history (satanic rites in the basement, ghosts, weird events) and spooky artifacts (dolls that witnesses claimed spoke and moved, a Dybbuk box with trapped demons that allegedly brought owners bad luck, Bela Lugosi's mirror into which he said he communicated with spirits). There are also rooms dedicated to tragedy (death beds of famous people, Sharon Tate's wedding dress, Truman Capote's autopsy notes) and true crime (Ted Bundy's murder kit, art by Charles Manson, a brick from the St. Valentine's massacre). Bagans even has Dr. Kevorkian's van, where he assisted patients who wanted to die. A bit more fun is equipment from the "Ghostbuster" films. Visitors are told in advance if a particular exhibit might be too much, so they can opt out. Visitors are told in advance if a particular exhibit might be too much, so they can opt out. But the tours are very popular with those who dare the devil and the dead, staring death in its face, a near-death experience that alleviates the ultimate fear.


The Magic Show of Jen Kramer at the Westgate Hotel near the Strip is the most underrated presentation of stage magic in Las Vegas (which we can say, having seen many such shows). Kramer has a colorful background and is one of the world's most acclaimed female practitioners, certainly the most charming, humorous, and charismatic of any gender we have seen. No disappearing elephants or flashy SFX, just mystifying card tricks, mind-boggling mind-reading, and an inexplicable ability to predict the future of where the audience's possessions will reappear. If you want to be part of the show, sit up close.

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