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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
November 18, 2013
Liberace Returns to Vegas
Talk about a comeback. 2013 continues to be a good year for Liberace, the flamboyant showman who was a staple in Las Vegas showrooms for decades. The HBO movie about his life "Behind the Candelabra" debuted to critical acclaim and major awards for its stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Now, Liberace will get a return to the Las Vegas Strip for the first time in decades with a new, temporary installation of memorabilia at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
The exhibit, Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful: Liberace and the Art of Costume, is being presented by the Liberace Foundation, the organization that ran the now defunct Liberace Museum in Las Vegas for decades. Among the items expected to be displayed: one of Liberace's signature rhinestone encrusted pianos; a similarly bejeweled car known as the Rhinestone Roadster; selections from his over-the-top costume collection including a virgin fox fur coat with 16-foot train, sequined jumpsuits, custom-made cowboy boots, and more; opulent European candelabras; and video clips of performances.
Most of the display will be in the Cosmo's pop-up space along Las Vegas Boulevard (where a wedding chapel is often located), but some of the memorabilia will be located in the casino, with the piano found at the Chandelier bar and the roadster at the main Strip entrance. Periodic performances on the piano will be featured throughout the day.
This is the first time a display of Liberace memorabilia has been in Vegas since the 2010 closure of the Liberace Museum. The HBO movie is credited with a renewed sense of interest in the entertainer, who died from complications due to AIDS in 1987.
A spokesperson for the Liberace Foundation says that plans are still in the works to open a permanent exhibition of memorabilia at Neonopolis in Downtown Las Vegas. Originally slated for an early 2014 debut, they are now hoping that the Liberace Entertainment Experience can be up and running by the end of 2014.
Admission to the Cosmopolitan exhibit is free but donations to support a scholarship fund for young musicians in the Southern Nevada area are encouraged. It will run from November 25 through January 2.
The Least Surprising News of the Week: Party Train Plans Kaput
My patented "I'll Believe it When I See It" file got a little thinner this week. And it's not because something in the file, where I keep various proposed Vegas silliness that I think will never get built, is going to come to fruition. Nope, something I thought would never get built is officially not going to be built.
The X Train was one of several proposals for passenger train service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. No, this is not the high-speed "Train to Nowhere" that is supposedly going to run from Vegas to outside of Los Angeles but not actually Los Angeles, this is the party train that was supposed to go from Fullerton (just south of LA) to Vegas. The luxury train was going to feature a nightclub style bar car and other party-hearty amenities designed to lure a young affluent audience that loves the idea of a transportation mode that reached its popularly peak about a hundred years ago.
The company behind the plan, Las Vegas Railway Express, has said the idea is now dead and has forfeited a $600,000 deposit paid for the rights to use the existing Union Pacific rail lines through the desert.
But the company is not giving up. Now they are saying they are planning to launch, wait for it, a series of casino trains, which would attach gambling cars to existing Amtrak trains between various cities around the country. They say the first of them will be up and running in mid 2014.
When contacted for a statement, an Amtrak official said something like "With the what now?"
So sorry, Angelenos. You're just going to have to stick with your cars and your airplanes to get to Las Vegas for the foreseeable future.
Contemporary Art Museum Planned for Downtown Las Vegas
Culture is not a word one normally associates with Las Vegas unless your idea of culture involves an Elvis impersonator and an all-you-can-eat buffet. After all, this is a city whose major museums are dedicated to neon, the mob, atomic bombs, and sex. And although there was a major leap toward cultural respectability with the opening of the world-class Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the one thing Las Vegas doesn't have that would help to establish it as something more than a hellscape of glaring slot machines and French Canadian circus performers is a legitimate art museum.
That could change with the announcement this week of plans to build the Modern Contemporary Art Museum, a $29 million facility planned for the Arts District area of Downtown Las Vegas.
Plans for the museum include 35,000 square-feet of exhibit space that will be dedicated to rotating exhibits of modern art, an education and learning space for classes and lectures, and an outdoor sculpture garden.
A capital campaign is currently trying to raise the funds necessary to build the museum so no timetable has been confirmed but it would probably be at least 2015 before this becomes a reality.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Makeover Award of the Week goes to Zarkana, the Cirque du Soleil production at Aria Las Vegas, which will be getting a makeover in early 2014. New acts, music, and characters will be incorporated into the show in an effort to make it a little less dark. The show will close for at least a month in January with the new version expected to open in February, 2014.
The Weather Outside is Frightful Award of the Week goes to The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which will open its annual ice skating rink on the Boulevard Pool deck overlooking The Strip on November 22. The winter wonderland features a real skating rink, a bar, seasonal food offerings, fire pits, Holiday movies on select nights, and more. It'll be open daily and costs $15 for non-Nevada residents plus $5 to rent a pair of skates (presuming you didn't bring yours with you).
The Good Cause Award of the Week goes to One Night for One Drop, the Cirque du Soleil event that will bring artists from all of its resident Las Vegas shows together for a special performance that will raise money and awareness to ensure water is accessible around the world. The event is scheduled for March 21, 2014 at Mandalay Bay and tickets start at $225. They are available on the One Night for One Drop website.
The Country Christmas Award of the Week goes to Shania Twain, who will be the Grand Marshall of the annual Las Vegas Great Santa Run, an event that sees thousands of people running a marathon dressed like Santa Claus. This year's event will be held in Downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, December 7, 2013 and will feature live concerts, food, costume contests, and more. The run raises money for Opportunity Village, a local organization that provides services to those with intellectual disabilities. In addition to kicking off the race, Twain is sponsoring a race team that anyone can join, with those who raise funds eligible to get t-shirts, concert tickets, and more. More info at LasVegasSantaRun.org.
Las Vegas History: The MGM Grand and the Fire that Changed Las Vegas
November 21st will mark the 33rd Anniversary of what is probably the most tragic event in Las Vegas history: the MGM Grand fire. Here's a look back at the hotel and the disaster:
The monolithic green monster that is the current MGM Grand was not the first hotel in Las Vegas to operate under that name. The brand actually extends all the way back to 1973 and involves a tragic history that changed Las Vegas forever.
Kirk Kerkorian got his start in the Las Vegas casino business by purchasing the land that would eventually be home to Caesars Palace. Flush with the money he made off the sale of that land, he built the International (now LVH) and bought The Flamingo, then sold both to the Hilton Corporation.
After buying the MGM movie studio, Kerkorian wanted to bring the brand to Las Vegas in the biggest way possible, by creating the biggest, most luxurious resort in the world.
He set his sights on a plot of land at the corner of what is now The Strip and Flamingo across the street from The Dunes and kitty-corner to Caesars. It had been vacant scrub brush until the early 1960s when several hotels opened on it: the 3 Coins Motel on the corner, The Bonanza hotel and casino just to the south, and the Galaxy Motel just south of that.
By the time Kerkorian came after the property around 1972, the whole thing was tangled up in a morass of ownership confusion. The 3 Coins had been torn down to become a parking lot for The Bonanza, which had sunk into bankruptcy and was only operating as a motel. Kerkorian bought it but later found out that he only owned part of the land under the Bonanza - the rest was owned by another party that refused sell. The legendarily irracsable Kerkorian effectively shrugged, tore down the portion that he owned, and put up a wall to separate the part he didn't own from what he was about to build.
Construction began in 1972 and the MGM Grand opened to the public on December 5, 1973.
It cost $106 million, at the time the most expensive hotel ever built. It featured nearly 2,100 rooms and 2 1/2 million square feet of space, making it the largest resort hotel complex in the world.
It also had the largest casino in the world with 1,000 slot machines and over 100 gaming tables. A private high roller casino, Club Metro, was located atop the hotel tower on the 26th floor. Bets there ranged from $50 to $2,500 and it cost $1,000 to get a membership.
There were six restaurants: Cafe GiGi, a gourmet room with a decor inspired by the Palace of Versailles; Barrymore's, a steak and seafood house named in honor of John and Ethel (not Drew yet at that time); Caruso's, an Italian restaurant with hand painted scenes of Venice; The Reef, a ship themed seafood restaurant; The Grand Prix, an ice cream parlor with an auto racing theme; and The Deli, a 24-hour New York style delicatessen.
Other amenities included convention space, two showrooms, 25 bars, a movie theater, tennis courts, multiple pools, a shopping arcade (the world's largest such hotel facility with 24 shops), and a jai alai court arena.
Promotional material boasted that it could seat 10,000 people at a time in its entertainment venues - 5,000 in the Grand Ballroom, 2,200 in the Jai Alai room, 1,200 in the Celebrity Room, 800 in the Ziegfeld Room, 300 in the Lion's Den, and 300 in the movie theater.
The whole property had, appropriately enough, a movie theme inspired by the film "Grand Hotel" featuring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Gold stars were used for room numbers, a "Hall of Fame" had movie and celebrity posters, and the overall design felt like a classic movie palace with heavy red drapes and gold accents.
A grand opening was held on on December 23, 1973 and Hollywood came out in force. Actor Fred McMurray of "My Three Sons" and actress Barbara Eden of "I Dream of Jeannie" presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony and Dean Martin was the star of the opening night entertainment.
The hotel was a smash success, becoming a must visit attraction and one of the most popular resorts in the city.
In the late 1970s, the rest of the Bonanza property was finally purchased and the buildings (and wall) torn down. Construction on a 782-room expansion and a new showroom started in in 1980. It was weeks away from opening when tragedy struck.
The date was November 21st, 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, the hostages were still in Iran, and TV audiences everywhere were anxiously awaiting that evening's episode of "Dallas," which promised to finally reveal "Who Shot JR?"
But in Las Vegas the "real world" seemed a million miles away. Then, as now, Vegas was a place where the harsh realities of everyday life were held at bay by bright neon lights, slot machines, and showgirls.
That all changed on that November morning and it all started in a pie case.
The design of the pie case was simple. It was built into the wall of a side station in the deli, about four feet up from the floor so the entire room could get a view of the tasty treats contained within. An aluminum conduit containing two wires came down from the ceiling, supplying power to the unit. Two more wires in another conduit ran out of the pie case, down to the compressor sitting on a shelf under the side station counter. Two copper pipes ran up from compressor, supplying and returning coolant.
At one point, the copper pipes and the aluminum conduit came in contact with one another as they passed through a narrow cutout in the wall. Over the years, as the compressor ran almost 24 hours a day, the vibrations caused the pipes and conduit to rub against one another. Eventually, the stronger copper piping eroded the side of weaker aluminum conduit, exposing the wires it contained. If one of those pipes touched an exposed, live wire, a spark was inevitable.
But there were systems in place to prevent that spark from happening.
The wires were sheathed in a plastic coating, which should have precluded anything from touching them. However, the act of pulling the wires through the conduit when it was first installed weakened the plastic coating and it, just like the aluminum conduit designed to protect it, also wore away over the years leaving raw, exposed wires.
But even if the contact was made, a circuit breaker or fuse box should have eliminated the potential for disaster. Normally there are three wires in an electrical circuit - one to supply power, one to return it to the source, and a third that acts as a ground. Should something happen in the normal circuit the energy would get sent off into the third wire, tripping a fuse or circuit breaker. This would shut down the current to the circuit and eliminate the possibility of a spark.
In this case there was no third wire. The design of this particular circuit used the aluminum conduit as the ground. If there was a problem, the current would transfer to the conduit and pop the circuit. But improper installation left gaps between the conduit and the junction boxes. With nowhere for the electricity to go, it flashed through the conduit and that aluminum tube heated up like the filament in a toaster.
In addition, the heat from the conduit and the hot air blowing out from the compressor lowered the ignition temperature of the materials that surrounded it in the wall. When the copper pipes finally came in contact with the wire and that inevitable spark happened, it didn't take much to turn the spark into a flame.
It's unknown exactly when the spark happened. The leading theory is that it may have occurred when the pie case compressor turned back on after a 15-minute defrosting cycle that happened every night after the deli was closed, around midnight. The sudden start-up vibration could have been just enough to bump the copper pipes into the exposed wire.
There was a spark and in the dark recesses of the wall, a fire began to burn. It smoldered for hours, sending heat up through the wall into the crawl space that ran from above the deli, above the casino, all the way to the front door of the hotel more than 400 feet away. As the ambient heat rose, the ignition point of the materials that made up the ceiling fell.
Then at shortly after 7am, a maintenance worker opened the door of the deli. Air rushed into the room, feeding the small flame. The wall, already tinder dry and superheated, burst into flame sending more heat and thick smoke up into the crawl space. Within minutes the entire room was ablaze.
With no firewalls to impede it in the crawl space, the fire rushed through the ceiling out into the casino. There was a moment, reported by eyewitnesses, when the thick black smoke seemed to hang above the back of the casino like an ominous cloud as the fire gained strength and the heat intensified. Then it pounced.
The casino ceiling burned first, but flames stretched to the floor. An enormous wall of fire rushed through the room, gobbling up carpeting and furnishings, plastics and fabrics, and anything and anyone in its path at an astounding rate - twenty feet per second. That's approximately 14 miles per hour or about twice as fast as most people can easily run.
The heat was incredible - 3200 degrees. Enough to melt metal. Enough to dissolve skin.
By the time the flames reached the front door of the casino, glass and metal were no match and no impediment. A fireball blew out the front of the door and swept through the porte corche. A lone car, waiting to be parked, was incinerated in an instant. The heat of the fire reduced other cars in the adjacent parking lot to scorched wrecks, sitting on melted pools of rubber.
At this point, less than ten minutes had passed since the worker first noticed the flames. In that short amount of time the fire had destroyed the bulk of casino and killed more than a dozen people.
But that was only the beginning.
The fire and smoke quickly spread into the hotel guest tower which was at 99% capacity - nearly 5,000 people were estimated to be in the building at the time, most sleeping soundly in their rooms. The smoke or maybe the screaming woke them.
Guests rushed for the fire exits, but design elements that were intended to keep the structure safe in the event of an earthquake, turned the stairwells into chimneys as thick, poisonous smoke roiled up from the casino level and burst out the top of the hotel towers. Those on the lower floors managed to make it down or were rescued by fire engine ladders that could only reach so high. People on the upper floors went to the roof where an unprecedented chain of helicopters, both official rescue choppers and private aircraft flown by volunteers, lined up to take people to safety.
It was the middle floors that proved most deadly. The bulk of the victims were found on the 20th and 23rd floors, far out of reach of the flames but overcome by the unstoppable smoke.
When it was all over a few hours later, 84 people were dead and almost 700 were injured. The disaster ranks as the second worst hotel fire in US history.
The large loss of life, and the resultant media coverage the fire received, spurred government officials into action. The sprinkler systems that are found in most hotels and high-rises are a direct result of the MGM Grand fire.
The hotel underwent a complete renovation and the expansion was completed. It reopened on July 29, 1981 touting the state-of-the-art fire safety system. Cary Grant greeted guests as the official ambassador of the reopened hotel.
The long-running showgirl spectacular Jubliee! opened the next night on July 30, 1981. It had been in rehearsals when the fire hit and many of its sets and costumes were destroyed.
The hotel was purchased by Bally's Entertainment in 1985 for $594 million and the hotel became Bally's Grand in 1986 then later simply Bally's Las Vegas, the name it operates under today.
Attraction Review: Sky Zone
It still surprises people that there is very little for children to do in Las Vegas. Why that's the case is a bit beyond me. I mean after all, this is a town that touts its licentious atmosphere (even if it just a facade) and makes the bulk of its money off of at least four of the seven deadly sins. This is not exactly what you would call a "family friendly" city.
So parents, pay attention, because I'm about to point you to one of the few good options in Vegas for children, one in which you will be grateful that they are literally bouncing off the walls.
Sky Zone is a nationwide chain of amusement centers that allow kids (and adults if they desire) the chance to bounce, jump, twirl, play, leap, and otherwise amuse themselves on massive trampolines. Their outlet in Vegas is about four miles south of The Strip, just across the freeway from the Las Vegas Premium Outlets South and Town Square shopping centers, so it'll require a rental car or a cab to get there, but that's the price you pay for bringing your kids to Vegas.
There are multiple arenas that are all basically the same, with segments of trampolines making up the floor and angled walls. These are used for structured events like dodgeball games and for unstructured time where people can just bounce as much as they want. They usually restrict arenas or parts of them to similar ages so you don't need to worry that your toddler is going to get mowed down by an overly exuberant teen (or vice versa, perhaps). All of the arenas are monitored constantly by attendants who will shut down anything that might put someone in danger, either to themselves or others.
They also have a foam pit, wherein you bounce on a trampoline and jump into a big pit full of foam blocks, and a basketball hoop that you can practice your slam dunking skills on with the aid of a trampoline boost.
In additional to the dodgeball tournaments, they also offer exercise classes, teen focused events, and more so check their website for schedules and details.
Other parts of the facility including party rooms, a snack bar, and even a comfy lounge where parents can go get away from the sound and fury for a few minutes.
Although the website shows pictures of happy, shiny grown ups bouncing around, playing basketball, and generally having a good time, make no mistake about it: this is primarily a distraction for children. That's great for those with them, but those without who wanted to work out their Cirque du Soleil acrobat fantasies will probably be disappointed.
Costs are not bad, considering that this is such a complete experience. 30 minutes starts at $12 and it goes up to $25 for two hours. You'll lose more than that in a couple of hands of blackjack, so two hours of amusement for your children, that you can also view as a form of exercise, seems like a bargain.
It's worth noting that the facility is a bit challenging to find. It's visible from the freeway but to get there you have to go down Dean Martin Drive, find the right industrial warehouse park among the sea of industrial warehouse parks in this neighborhood, and then wander through said park until you find the right massive warehouse. The building they are in is not visible from the street, so you (or your cab driver) need(s) to pay attention.
7440 Dean Martin Dr. Suite 201.
Las Vegas, NV 89139
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+