This is the first installment of Hotel Stories, Lori’s series about growing up in Las Vegas.
When we went to the hotel, we always parked on the roof. The one place with a small view of the Strip, a breeze, and fewer hassles than the other more-crowded floors of a five-story garage.
In the elevator, on the way down, I’d look up at the mirrored ceiling and swipe on more pink lipstick before we got to the casino floor. When the elevator doors opened, we were in. In another world that was both our hometown and something we didn’t yet understand. An immediate rush of marble floors and clinking of slot machines and gaudy colors and velvet ropes and Elton John over the loud speakers. It was a place, we could tell, where we could do little wrong. The worst thing that could happen was we could get kicked out—and that was a gamble we were willing to make.
My dad didn’t really ever want me going down to the Strip. But I did it anyway. We all did. Every weekend. There was something alluring about Caesars Palace—the fake sky and the fake statues. The real smoke. We didn’t think of it as a casino. We thought of it as a well-lit, fun place that was open late. And that’s all we wanted.
We treated it like a hangout. Because, to us, that’s what it was. Plus, it had a mall. We were walking around and around in circles. That’s what going to the mall is like. Walking the same loop over and over, seeking and looking and shopping and gathering and spending.
We always ended up at the same 1950s diner. To drink milkshakes and eat fries. Tourists came and went, but we felt a small ownership over that spot. Where they played Buddy Holly and Elvis. Where the waitresses wore saddle shoes.
We spent hours there, talking about school and about each other.
It was the early 1990s, but we were acting out the 1950s in a doo-wop diner, inside a faux-ancient Roman palace from 50 BC that was really a three-decade old casino—all while wearing clothes from vintage stores made to look like they were from the 1970s. We were living inside a remix.
If we ventured into the casino, sometimes we’d walk past Cleopatra’s Barge—a vessel I was too young to board. An Egyptian ship that floats on water, that was really a night club with DJs and dancing at all hours. I always wondered what happened aboard that boat. I couldn’t see too far inside, but could smell the way that it was. All cigar smoke and heady perfume.
From tagging along and sneaking in and seeing, you started to piece together that this place, this whole town, was where people came to let go. But we were too young to let go of much. We had little interest in doing all the things that Las Vegas calls people to do. And even if we did, we wouldn’t have a clue as to where to start. The very reason that people came to town was to live out fantasies. But for the most part our own fantasy—or at least mine—was to leave town as soon as possible.
Las Vegas—even just the Strip—so easily offered everything to you in one fell swoop: a giant medieval castle, an Egypytian pyramid, the wild West, the birth of Rome. Like a tray of treasures. As if to say: Hey kid, what more could you ever need? Stay here. Have fun.
The artifice was never enough. We all had dreams of leaving the desert. But for now, we had this. A fake Rome. And a mall. In a casino. In a make-believe place. Tourists everywhere, fascinated and awestruck, wearing T-shirts with the bust of Julius across the chest. For them, this was a party. For us, we were home. And this was another Friday night.
Outside the diner, there was a fountain lined with statues that talked. They came alive every hour on the hour. In fact, one was Caesar himself, delivering a message of welcome to all his fine guests. He laughed and twirled around and drank from a chalice in his fat stone hands. Tourists took pictures, and we watched the tourists take pictures, and we thought: This isn’t really Rome. Duh.
Across from the fountain, there was a dark-walled magic shop full of card decks and illusions, but we hardly ever went in there because we could never figure out the tricks.
At Spago, there were people who appeared to be on first dates or taking late-night business meetings. They chatted under a faux outdoor veranda, under a faux sky painted with perfect cumulus clouds. The sky changed colors—bright blue to sunset pink, just hours after our own dusty sun had extinguished without ceremony outside, obscured by the Strip’s torrent of lights, disappearing behind a jagged rim of mountains to the west. But indoors, the Caesars sunset repeated itself, cycling through dozens of rises and falls a day, supplying businessmen and romantics with the comfort of knowing that they were always on time for the day’s finest hour.
Caesars Palace—an off-white, thirty-four acre grand hall of pillars and statues and fountains, all presented as if screaming: WE ARE ELEGANT, GODDAMNIT. The building of the place began in 1962. The fountains were the ones that Evel Knievel tried to jump over on his little motorcycle. This was the place where Sinatra sang.
So the story goes, Jay Sarno, the casino’s first owner and creator, named the place Caesars Palace versus Caesar’s Palace because the palace didn’t just belong to Caesar. Rather it belonged to every guest who walked through the door, who upon entering should also feel like a Caesar—a powerful, king on top of an Italian empire. It was smart marketing.
The place first opened its doors in August of 1966. At the big opening party, they served more than two tons of filet mignon and 50,000 glasses of champagne. Every party-goer was greeted by a blonde Cleopatra. The cocktail waitresses wore mini togas.
By the 1970s, the hotel was expanded—more towers. In the 1980s, additions. By the 1990s, more features and a big fat mall. Renovations and more designs and more statues and more parking. Like the Roman Empire itself, the casino became an ever-expanding territory, dominating everything else around it. They took up every inch of room they had, right in front of an ever-crowded boulevard.
The security guards didn’t bother us much because we mostly stayed in the mall. Though we could have been learning to count cards elsewhere in the casino covered in Corinthian columns made of really nice plastic.
The truth was, as history would have it, the master and namesake of the house—Mr. Caesar—had died at age fifty-five. Some of our parents weren’t even that old yet. And as for us, we wanted to live forever. Or at least that’s what a night like that felt like: a never-ending circle. Walking around the Forum Shops over and over again, stepping on imported shiny cobbled stones, looking at gaudy stuff in sparkly stores, taking pictures of each other, making fun of tourists, running, skipping.
When exiting the casino, if you ever looked down, there was ridiculous, too-ugly-to-describe carpet of pink and orange and marigold—all designed so vomit and cheap drinks could easily blend in and then be cleaned away. It was a place where one could do no wrong. Any sin you might commit was immediately erased, rendered a non-entity. As if to say: Does not compute. There are no mistakes. There’s nothing but fun here. Time is whatever time you want it to be. You are a god. And life is always good.
Lori Kozlowski is a journalist, writer, and editor. She currently writes for Forbes and various national publications. Previously, she was an editor and staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. She has contributed to several short story collections, including Las Vegas Noir in the Akashic Books Noir series. For more information, please visit: www.lorikozlowski.com.