Here's one thing Bill Gates doesn't have a monopoly on: bad dancing.
Elbows flailed. Torsos contorted. Hands made timid circular motions. Feet rarely left the floor. When the elite of the computing world head for Funkytown, as they did very, very early this morning at Studio 54 here, they don't make it far at all.
"These guys dance like a 12-year-old kicking around a dead squirrel," observed John Dvorak, host of cable TV's "Silicon Spin."
At the center of the crowd, twisting with the worst of them in a rare unstaged public moment, was the richest man in the world. No point asking the Microsoft chairman if he loved to get down--his three trips to the floor were evidence enough. But Gates said that he, like the other 199,999 attendees of the Comdex computer trade show this week, wasn't really a Vegas type.
He last visited the gambling tables "many years ago," he said. "I played poker in college. But now I play bridge."
Bridge is not a game that Las Vegas has much acquaintance with, a divide that is symptomatic of the city's continuing frustration with the 20-year-old Comdex. There's a popular joke about how the conventioneers come with one shirt and one $20 bill, and don't change either.
Either they don't know how to have fun or they don't have time to. Microsoft President Steve Ballmer was walking through a hotel lobby when a young woman, clearly not realizing this burly guy in a sweater as one of the richest men in the world, handed him an invitation to a nightclub.
Ballmer looked at the flack as if she were speaking Urdu. He was on his way to a 9 p.m. meeting, and had another at 7 a.m. That did not, he indicated, leave much time for nightclubs.
Any cabdriver will be glad to document his disgust with the convention. "Comdex is terrible," said Dereje Woldemslel. "Most of them ask you where is the nearest McDonald's. They're not big spenders. At 10:30, this town is dead."
Well, mostly. At 10:30 Monday night, Studio 54 had barely opened. The nightclub was taken over for the evening by PC Week magazine for its annual party, one of the hottest Comdex tickets.
This was not the Studio 54 of yore, whose rise in the mid-'70s was coupled with the trendy crowd's sudden discovery of cocaine. At this party, for some unexplainable reason, there wasn't even any alcohol harder than beer and wine.
Nor were Studio 54's rigorous dress codes maintained. A plaque outside asked visitors to refrain from baggy jeans, T-shirts, and tennis and recreational shoes, but that turned out to be the exact techie dress style. For one night, the rules were suspended.
At the beginning, the party had all the charm of another panel on "New Directions for Dell Computer"--which, come to think of it, was exactly what Chairman Michael Dell, yet another of the world's richest men, was talking about over in the corner. The company's going to start selling electronic appliances other than computers, apparently. Dell, who makes Gates look like a hepcat, didn't make it anywhere near the dance floor. But suddenly there was Gates, dancing with a comely young Microsoft employee. (Quizzed during a break, she said Gates was a "fabulous" dancer. Well, wouldn't you?)
Hardly anyone seemed to be paying attention. Yet if you asked later, it turned out they were all secretly watching.
Whatever their thoughts on Microsoft's monopoly power, his fellow partygoers were sympathetic to Gates's plight on the dance floor.
"Bill doesn't really dance," said Louis Mazzucchelli, an analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison. "He just bounces around. But I admire him for dancing in public. He obviously enjoys himself, and doesn't care what everyone else thinks."
"He's not a bad dancer, considering he doesn't get a lot of chances to practice in public," said Dan Bricklin, the chief technology officer of Trellix Corp. "And he knows everyone's watching. How would you like it if everyone was watching you having fun?"
Just as bug-ridden software gets better with each succeeding release, the dancing seemed to improve as time went on and people got the hang of what they were doing. Sadly, this may have been an illusion.
"It's still awful," said Renee Blodgett, who works for a voice recognition company called Dragon Systems. "Everyone's drunk. It's not dancing, it's just moving."
By this point, the Gloria Gaynor soundtrack was booming, "I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, I will survive, I will survive." That would have been an appropriate song for someone contemplating the possibility of a court-ordered breakup of his empire. But by then, Gates was gone.