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

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Java Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

SAP Functional Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £45,000 - £55,000.

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Functional ...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn