Kingdom of kitsch finds room for all

VEGAS DAYS

Even Glitter City has a soul. But seek it not in the neon rainbows of the Strip, nor in the square miles of slot machines.

Instead, go to a strip mall at 1775 Tropicana Avenue, in the south-eastern reaches of the city. It is called Liberace Plaza. At either end are two buildings, built in hacienda style and painted white, together constituting a museum for a showman beside whom all others are the drabbest wallflowers. Not a one-armed bandit or craps table is in sight. But these rooms, temple of the Rhinestoned One, are the city's spiritual heart.

Las Vegas is to entertainment what the OJ Simpson trial is to the legal system, a money-driven parody, mesmerising in its awfulness. And in its kitschy pantheon no star every gleamed brighter than Liberace. He is the city's patron saint. And rightly so - Liberace first performed here in 1944, two years before the gangster Bugsy Siegel put up the Flamingo Hotel, long departed ancestor of the modern Strip.

The museum is a shrine filled with relics beyond price: his pianos, including one owned by Chopin; his cars, among them a Rolls-Royce Phantom V encrusted with a mosaic of mirrors; his jewels; and of course the costumes. The most expensive is a $750,000 (pounds 475,000) creation of black mink; the most outrageous - just - the sequined white-and-blue hotpants get-up he wore at the Vegas Hilton for the bicentennial gala of 4 July 1976, complete with the red ostrich-feather mantle. Within it is a concealed hook, with which Liberace had himself hauled aloft by a 35-ft cable to end the show. For the city, that was his ascent to heaven.

Nowhere is there mention of how he really died, on 4 February 1987 from complications arising from Aids. But that too is quintessential Las Vegas: nothing must spoil the illusion.

The formula works. High- rollers and monarchs of the underworld may still occupy luxury suites sealed off from ordinary mortals. But Vegas these days is less a Mob town than an adjunct of Hollywood. True, it made its fortune by legalising sin - gambling, prostitution and divorce - and there's no missing the seamy side as you run gauntlets of hustlers who thrust into your hand brochures detailing the local sirens, glossy as a Tiffany's catalogue but a hundred times more explicit.

But the modern city is less Sodom than a sanitised convention centre, where young stars are born and old ones like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck never die, safe enough for the Southern Baptists and other righteous toilers of Middle America to gather and feel daring for a day. For this recipe for commercial bonanza, thank, not Bugsy Siegel or Jimmy the Greek, but Liberace, the pedlar of dreams.

As recently as 1993, when Vegas already claimed 11 of the 13 largest hotels in the world, the boom seemed about to end. But room occupancy is back around 90 per cent, and this year ground is being broken for three more behemoths, costing $1.5bn (pounds 950m) between them. And all the while the Strip edges ever further southward into the desert. These new hotels are rightly called resorts : for they are self-contained holiday biospheres, catering for every human need. The biggest, the 5,500- room MGM Grand, is ghastly - a garish dark-green glass pile from without, and not a redeeming shred of camp within. Not so its peers, like the Treasure Island, with its galleons, pirate shows and complete harbour, or Caesar's Palace, or the Excalibur, guarded by Disneyland-style battlements of Camelot.

All this ignores the quite astounding Luxor. Even as you touch down in Vegas you see it, a 30-storey black pyramid with its ochre-painted concrete sphinx, guarding the southern gate of the Strip. Inside, amazement only grows. You may take a "Nile cruise" round the lobby, and stare up at the cantilevered tiers of rooms clinging to the inside shell, their doors tarted up like the entrance to a pharoah's boudoir. But how to fill the vast empty space inside? Easy. With a 10-storey mock-up of Manhattan, a replica of Tutankhamun's tomb, and every Egypt-related service you could imagine. If you must have your name written in hieroglyphics, this is the place to come. Had it been around a decade ago, Liberace would have been playing there, robed like Queen Nefertiti. It's make-believe, it's tacky, but he would have adored it.

RUPERT CORNWELL

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