Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stardust Memories

On November 1, 2006, a gambler from Hawaii cast the last die at The Stardust Resort, which had been operating continuously since July 2, 1958. As guests filed out for the last time, John Lennon's Nobody Told Me played out of the resort's speakers (a nice and surprisingly unsentimental choice, I have to say). Less than a year later, the classic casino was destroyed in a controlled implosion in order to make way for the latest mega-resort, The Echelon Place.

An ambitious project that rivaled CityCenter in the scope of its vision, Echelon Place was budgeted at upwards of $4 billion and was set to  feature four hotels that would add nearly 6,000 new rooms to a city that already hosted more hotel rooms (by far) than any other city on the planet, along with 25 restaurants and bars, a 750,000 square foot convention center, a 400,000 square foot shopping promenade and a 140,000 square foot casino; these, of course, are all things that Vegas was sorely lacking.

While Echelon Place was scheduled to open its shimmering new doors last year, construction was halted in 2008 due to the collapse of the U.S. economy, and there is no sign that the project will resume anytime soon.

The site of the ambitious project is now nothing but an 87 acre hole in the ground, with half built towers standing empty and exposed in a pre-apocalyptic wasteland. The massive lot has been untouched by workers for nearly three full years; because of that, the demolition of the beloved Stardust seems even more pointless than it did five years ago.

Before it was demolished, The Stardust was one of the last of the classic, old-Vegas casinos, a slightly seedy echo of Sin City's extremely seedy past. This was a place that was once run by mobsters whose stories were told in Martin Scorsese's Casino. Singer Billy Daniels pioneered the long-term residency model that big name performers enjoy to this day in town. Siegfried and Roy got their first Strip show at The Stardust before becoming Vegas icons. Wayne Newton and George Carlin both had long-term residencies on the property.

Until it closed, the air in place was thick with old-time Vegas atmosphere. The dealers had that attitude as if they'd partied with Sinatra and were unimpressed by the smug frat bros wearing too much Axe-body spray and ditzy sorority girls that look like baby-hookers stumbling out of nightclubs. I remember one magical night half a decade ago, sitting at a video poker machine and sipping on comped and very strong Jack and Cokes with my girlfriend at the time as the bartender told us story after story about the fabled resort.

And now? The place is gone, and it's been replaced by... nothing. But even if the Echelon Place had opened, it would have surely been just another gleaming palace dedicated to commerce and corporate slickness, a place that would have been shiny, new, modern, hip, of the moment... and utterly lacking in character and history. No doubt a trendy chef or two would have opened a restaurant with a chic Eurotrash name and a mega-club would have been placed in the spot spot where I once drank with a guy who had been working in the same place for five decades and told me stories of seeing stars like Bogart, Beatty and Sinatra hold their liquor the way real men are supposed to.

Is there a lesson or a metaphor to take out of this? I'm not really sure. I just know that the old-school Vegas, the Vegas that Frank Sinatra and Elvis and Bugsy Segal would recognize, is a rare, endangered, dying thing. The business of Vegas is bigger than ever but becoming more and more corporate, increasingly uniform and lacking in character. Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic for a time I didn't actually live and haunted by an era I only know through a hazy pop cultural lens (a symptom of my generation and one that is not helped by Mad Men), but I feel that what happened to The Stardust is just another example of how Vegas devalues its history even more than Los Angeles (if that's possible) and in its relentless quest to stay fresh, everything is starting to feel stale.

Look at the recent redesign at The Tropicana. The Trop is another one of the old classic resorts left standing, but they recently renovated the entire place. While renovation is preferable to demolition and the new rooms might in fact be quite nice, much of what made the place so charming and wonderful has been gone forever. The old-fashioned Italian restaurant that had a quiet, semi-secret lounge with  red leather chairs and bitingly strong cocktails is gone, replaced by slick and new facilities (though I'll give the designers of the "new and improved" Trop big props for at least keeping the funky old window ceiling above the main casino floor).

A hole sits silently where The Stardust once shined, but even if the latest and greatest mega-resort had opened in its place, there would still be metaphoric hole on The Strip, a smoking crater echoing with the ghosts of Sin City's wild, untamed past.


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