Friday, November 9, 2018

Mr. Smith Goes to Vegas

Las Vegas may be in Nevada, not California, but it’s an outpost of Hollywood in more ways than one. Hollywood mega-tycoons and mobsters have all had a part in its founding. Hollywood stars have traditionally gone to Vegas to both to play and to perform. (And, of course, to get married.) My parents used to love heading for Las Vegas not to gamble but to see celebrities on their own turf, frolicking in hotel swimming pools, displaying their talents live on-stage in showrooms. Back in the day, there was a kind of relaxed glamour about the place: if you went to see Frank Sinatra, you might find other members of the  Rat Pack casually invited up to the stage. And who knew what rising star you might discover in one of the free lounge shows.

And then there are all those Las Vegas movies. Some try to capture the raw exuberance of the place; see everything from Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas to Swingers to The Hangover. Some focus instead on the dark forces beneath the glittering service: Bugsy (about the life and death of one of Vegas’s founders) and Martin Scorsese’s take on the city’s corrupt side, Casino,

Martin J. Smith had Las Vegas on his itinerary when he set out to chronicle the oddities of daily life in a small, charming essay collection called Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee, and other Tales of the People, Places, and Peculiarities of the Modern American Southwest. Marty, with whom I’ve shared a panel on several delightful occasions, is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor who also moonlights as a writer of suspense fiction. He once wrote a book called The Wild Duck Chase, chronicling a group of artists competing to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.  (Yes, there is such a thing—see Marge Gunderson’s husband struggling with his entry in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.) Smith’s 2012 exploration of the ins and outs of the contest became the source material for a 2016 documentary, Million Dollar Duck.

Marty’s Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee includes his interviews with fascinating real-life characters (both the famous and the unknown) from all over the Southwest. In Orange County, he catches up with Dick Dale, SoCal’s one-time King of the Surf Guitar, who accepts life’s ups and downs with admirable equanimity. Near Palm Springs, he interviews the man who erected giant dinosaur statues along the highway, then saw them eclipsed by modern construction. Also in the Palm Springs vicinity, he gets to know the folks standing vigil outside Liberace’s desert home, waiting reverently as the glitter god breathes his last

The title story, “Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee” (from 2006) zooms in on a hero of the Nevada oasis, crooner Wayne Newton. Here’s Marty’s unforgettable opening sentence: “Wayne Newton arrived in Las Vegas as a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old singing sensation, looking like the result of a science experiment involving Brylcreem and estrogen.” Ultimately Newton settled in the area, bought a 52-acre ranch, and continued to pack showrooms full of ageing “Wayniacs.” Old pleasure palaces like the Stardust and the Flamingo: he knew them all. Because Newton has been a local fixture—and booster—for so many years, Marty jumped at the opportunity to take an insider tour of his personal “Wayne’s World.” Marty’s hope was to learn the behind-the-scenes realities of a place that seems all façade. Only problem: the promised tour never materialized. Driving back to SoCal,  thinking about the lost secrets of imploding hotels, Marty realized that “it’s hard not to worry about the way Vegas treats its ageing legends.”

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