Visiting a casino for its fine art sounds as loopy as joining a frat for its rare books. But on a recent spring evening, the outsize neon marquees of the Las Vegas Strip hawked shows by Wayne Newton, George Carlin . . . and Pablo Picasso.
Yes, that Pablo Picasso. He and a few other masters are now headlining at the Bellagio, a new $1.6 billion casino and hotel complex angling to introduce a radical concept--luxury--to the city of Lost Wages.
With its Italian-style architecture and rampant Tuscan touches, Bellagio's theme is every bit as bold and bizarre as its rivals in this desert town of pirate ships, pyramids and scale-model skylines. But what's truly audacious about Mirage Resorts' 3,000-room confection is its ambition to bring enough comfort and luxury touches to attract the very rich--and even non-gamblers.
That's radical for a town long known for shabby rooms and dubious meals at loss-leader prices. Most casinos still profit by offering cut-rate lodgings, pushing the $4.99 buffet, pouring the cheap liquor--then fleecing guests for every dollar in the casinos. It's like a bait-and-switch except there's no switch. There's just bait and then your money vanishes.
In the early, 1990s Vegas tried to tinker with that formula and broaden its appeal by getting "family-friendly." Theme-park casinos sprang up, offering a sort of Disneyland-plus-craps vacation to baby boomers and their kids. The only problem: Mom and Dad were too busy on the water slide to fritter away their earnings at the slots.
So Vegas is transforming itself yet again, this time by going upmarket. And why not? For anyone who finds gambling depressing and doesn't have children, the place has offered very little. Get past the freak-show people parade and what's left? Cigarette smoke, flashing lights, noise and rows of zombies pumping quarters into slots. Exotic dancing, if you like that sort of thing. Really expensive floor shows by the legendarily washed-up. Not exactly relaxing, although unforgettable in its own way, at least for a day or two.
Bellagio is the first of several new casinos aiming for the Ritz crowd. Near completion is the Venetian, a $1.2 billion knockoff of Venice, complete with canals and gondoliers. After that, the Hilton's Paris opens, a sprawling homage to the City of Light certain to have the French shrieking in horreur. Recently, Circus Circus opened Mandalay Bay, a little piece of the South Pacific that offers body surfing courtesy of a wave machine.
But will well-heeled tourists who view Las Vegas as tacky and ridiculous actually show up and spend? And can a city built on the hustle really learn the art of velvet service? There's a fortune riding on that question, one of the biggest bets that Vegas has ever laid on the table.
If Bellagio is an indication, it's a wager that Vegas just might win. As I learned during a recent weekend visit, the town's newest and grandest casino won't soon be confused for the Plaza, and anyone looking for tuxedos, calm and a James Bond baccarat aura will be disappointed. But there's a grand and sometimes kitschy charm to the place. It offers exquisite food, well-above-average lodgings, a dedicated staff--plus the buzzing, piquant spectacle that is pure Vegas at any price point.
When Bellagio opened in October, it was the most expensive hotel ever built and the money seems to be hanging off the walls. There are ceramic tile mosaics everywhere, blown glass sculptures on the ceiling and tasteful taupes and muted pale yellows as far as the eye can see. The place is so relentlessly color-coordinated that even the towel bin at the spa matches everything else.
Every casino needs a hook and Bellagio has a couple. The first is a lake in front of the building where a fountain and light show erupts every 30 minutes from dusk until midnight. Twelve hundred jets squirt water 240 feet skyward with choreographed elan that would make the Rockettes proud. Music by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti and others accompanies the show.
Bellagio's other gimmick is a small art museum where for $12, you can tour a $300 million collection of honest-to-God masterpieces. Once past the strangeness of the venue, the show is a hoot. An audio tour, with Mirage CEO Steve Wynn as a guide, explains the origins, history and importance of each work. Highlights include de Kooning's "Police Gazette," a Jasper Johns, two Picassos and a van Gogh painted two weeks before the artist's suicide.
Aficionados grouse that Wynn's tutorial is pedestrian. Being essentially art ignorant, I was edified. (It's pronounced Van Gawk. Who knew?) And if you really like anything on the walls, make Bellagio an offer. In keeping with the indomitable spirit of the city, the paintings are for sale.
Diners can choose from 12 different restaurants, each a huge cut above standard Vegas fare. Palatable deals exist in other casinos--I once ordered a $3.99 steak at the Horseshoe Casino and had no regrets. Most restaurants, though, are cheap because they skimp on quality or simply leave buffet food out well past the expiration date. And waiters, especially at those one-price-fits-all deals, are as rare as video poker jackpots.
With Bellagio, Mirage for the first time contracted out its restaurant operations. They went top shelf. There's French cuisine at Le Cirque (a knock-off of the New York eatery), excellent Chinese food at Jasmine (go for the Chilean sea bass) and strong Japanese fare at Shintaro (check out the iridescent jellyfish floating in the vast water tank by the sushi bar).
Prices are steep, generally about $50 a head with liquor. The sole drawback of these places is their popularity. On a Saturday night, without a reservation, you'll get sympathetic looks from the maitre d' but no table until about 10:30. Once seated, the service is exceptional.
The buffet is a real break with Vegas tradition: It doesn't look like an FDA botulism experiment. For $12.95 a plate at breakfast, there's enough food for 20 bar mitzvahs, and given the scale of the endeavor, it's all surprisingly appealing. The key is the scrum of chefs on hand preparing cooked-to-order eggs, omelets and other goodies. Waiters are attentive and, in keeping with the theme of excess that permeates the experience, they bring two large glasses of orange juice if you order one.
Bellagio needs to make $2.5 million a day to pay for itself, and though it's banking on rooms and restaurants for profits, slightly more than half of its earnings come from its casino, all 100,000 square feet of it. There are 140 gaming tables and 2,669 slot machines to play, plus a sports book with enough high-tech video screens and blinking tote boards to command a space shuttle launch. Anyone who dislikes the smoke and noise of a typical casino will find this one easier to tolerate. The volume is Lawrence Welk-ish by Vegas's ear-splitting standards, and it doesn't have the dark, dingy feel common in even upscale joints like Caesars Palace.
The guest rooms are expensive for Vegas. Mine, with two queen-size beds, cost $199 per night on Friday and Saturday. But it was plush, comfortable and pin-drop quiet, which seemed remarkable given the tumult a few floors below.
Long lines are the bane of Vegas, where there's a wait for everything except a seat at a slot machine. Because it gets torrents of visitors, the town is endlessly trying to order the chaos by threading people around ropes and asking them to chill their heels. Crowds regularly overwhelm capacity. A cab queue can last 45 minutes, as can the line for food, drink and any sort of entertainment.
Bellagio clearly sets out to eliminate this dreaded fact of Vegas life. It succeeds in some places and fails utterly in others. The snack bar, Sam's, is an understaffed snarl. The line to order is 20 minutes long and it's only even money that you'll get what you requested when the food arrives, another 20 minutes later. There's no other place in the building to get a quick cheeseburger or a brownie. Hey, would it break the bank if they hired a few more people?
At the pool area, meanwhile, I waited 45 minutes for a waitress to bring me a soda, while I baked into dehydrated delirium. And at Cafe Bellagio, the Sunday morning line for breakfast was moving slower than I-66 at rush hour. There was even a wait to pick up tickets for "O," the Cirque du Soleil show that has taken up residence in a $70 million theater within Bellagio.
That wait, however, was more than worth it. "O" is a beguiling, bewildering stunner. The action takes place above a 1.5-million-gallon pool, which people dive into one minute and then, through unfathomable engineering miracles, becomes part of the stage floor. Meanwhile, the cast's 74 acrobats and divers perform stunts that seem risky to the point of lunacy: The show should be renamed "Oy." People are catapulted over the stage and through the air on swings and medieval-looking contraptions suspended above the ground. In one routine, players flip and spin over and through an elaborate set of parallel bars built into a pirate boat that swings pendulously 50 feet above the stage. Tumblers in body suits sail overhead, combining the daredevilry of trapeze work and the athletic prowess of gymnastics. You watch and think: This will end in litigation.
The show is occasionally surreal. At one point, a man is sitting onstage in the shadows, apparently reading a newspaper. Then his foot catches on fire, then his other foot. Unbothered by the flames, he reads on, while a flame sprouts on his hat, then leaps on to the newspaper, then spreads to his back and onto his chair. Ablaze, he gets up slowly and walks away. Then, noticing his burning chair, he returns to pick it up and saunters off, a human ball of flame.
I have no idea.
A pair of clowns add levity with spirited vaudeville. Tickets cost $100 each, but that seems like a deal by the time you exit, awed and a little exhausted.
Bellagio also has a superb spa. The weight room is state of the art, and there are dry and wet saunas, as well as massages and something called a Vichy shower. The place is quiet, comfortable and usually not crowded, thanks to the $25-per-day usage fee. The decor harks back to Roman baths, with skylights and plush towels stacked everywhere. Linger more than 20 minutes and you're as loose as linguine al dente.
In Bellagio's back yard there's a pool area so large it feels like a hallucination. Italian cypress trees and Aleppo pines line the perimeter, with a few acres of chairs and blue water for sunbathers and swimmers. With Vegas's dry heat, it's pure joy, but it isn't free. A $10 "pool boy" charge showed up on my bill for both days that I lounged there, although I don't remember any heads up about the fee and didn't meet any pool boys, I swear.
About 25,000 guests, diners and fun-seekers pour through Bellagio's ornate revolving doors each day, and bringing silver service to a crowd that big seems borderline hopeless. Most everything genuinely first class is, by necessity, small and exclusive. Throngs aren't easily coddled. Mass luxury is a concept whose time, perhaps, has not arrived.
Bellagio's staff, an army of 9,600, gives it their best shot. Mirage claims it spends more money training employees than do all of its rivals combined. Ask for help finding anything and you'll be escorted all the way there. Every person, from the bartenders to the dealers, is adroit at smoothing without seeming unctuous.
For the kind of money you'll spend at Bellagio, it's the least they can do. With room charges, a ticket to "O," meals and assorted extras, I dropped about $1,000 during a Thursday-night-to-Sunday stay. Visit Bellagio's shopping section--with stores by Prada, Gucci, Armani, Hermes--and you'll go home even poorer.
A three-day jaunt to Manhattan can cost similar sums, with a Broadway show tossed in and a few museums nearby for a fine-art fix. That's what makes Bellagio such a risky venture. Vegas was once all about cheap thrills; now it's striving for expensive thrills, a market niche with plenty of competition.
But Bellagio offers a few things that New York, for instance, doesn't, not least of them the adrenaline rush of doubling down on a 10 and praying for an ace at the blackjack table. The scale of the place's ambition--its efforts to offer top-notch food, entertainment and service under one faux-Italian roof--is impressive enough to keep you entertained. And anyway, if you ever spot a guy strolling down Madison Avenue with his clothes on fire, odds are good you're going to have to call the cops.
For more information or reservations, contact Bellagio at 1-888-987-6667, www.bellagiolasvegas.com.
David Segal covers law practice for The Washington Post.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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