BY DANIEL KUSNER
VIVA LAS VEGAS: Clockwise from top left, The Liberace Museum kicks up the musician’s"hot pants" costume; Get out of town, and take a floating watercraft trip that starts at the Hoover Dam; Krave features bootylicious go-go boys; On Sundays, Shannel takes over Gipsy for her "Illusions" cabaret show. – PHOTOS: DANIEL A. KUSNER
LAS VEGAS — San Francisco has its foggy, boho-queer scene. New York bustles with neurotic energy. In Dallas, we impress with our mixture of pretentiousness and twangy friendliness.
But Las Vegas is so fake and cheesy, they don’t even have their own skyline — instead, they borrow from other cities. And that incredible lack of authenticity is just one reason to love Vegas, baby. It’s the American dream: bedazzled, blingy and bathed in LED screens.
When visiting Vegas, let go of critical opinions and just laugh. The key to enjoying oneself is to just surrender to a city that was built to take away people’s money.
First of all, that old rat-pack myth about being a high roller who gets complimentary meals and inexpensive hotels is dead. Sin City is constantly being updated: Old hotels are ripped down and replaced with lavish mega-establishments that house restaurants run by A-list celebrity chefs. This is the other American city that never sleeps, and its run by a generously compensated service industry.
Whatever you do, rent a car. Las Vegas is puny town that’s easy to navigate, and there are plenty of affordable autos. “The Strip” (aka Las Vegas Boulevard) is almost spitting distance to McCarran International Airport, where American Airlines operates eight regularly scheduled non-stop flights from D-FW.
Where to stay
All action is on The Strip, where there are about 30 ginormous hotel-casinos. From witnessing The Bellagio’s greenhouse atrium and choreographed fountains to shopping at Caesars, hotel hopping is a major Vegas pastime — where you’ll also encounter a sea of pedestrians doing the same thing.
“Theme hotels” are a big part of Vegas culture. That’s why The Strip features The Empire State Building, the MGM Lion and an Egyptian pyramid. I recently stayed at the Paris Hotel, which has a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower built into the dollhouse version of the City of Lights design. The Paris rates start as low as $90 a night, but the mock-French Regency accommodations are upscale: king sized beds, spacious shower-and-bathtub bathrooms, 54” plasma TVs and free parking. Try to request a room overlooking the Bellagio fountains, which are right across the street.
Hoping so save some dough? Rates can dramatically drop if you look for rooms at off-The-Strip casino hotels. Being budget-minded in Las Vegas means sacrificing luxury, but you won’t have luxury price-tags either.
When planning daytime activities in Veags, one needs good suggestions. Here’s one: Get out of town! Seriously. In the daylight, Las Vegas is a dingy smoker’s paradise, where restroom stalls are often equipped with ashtrays. Want to have fun? Play “find a window” in one of the enormous casinos. And iPods in this town are redundant: You can’t walk anywhere along the Strip without hearing music coming from somewhere.
Thanks, Babs is a lesbian-run daytripper service operated by Babs Daitch. When it comes to appreciating the barren beauty of Nevada landscapes, Daitch is a treasure. On a recent visit, she was able to lure six gays and a lesbian for an 8 a.m. watercraft adventure of Lake Mohave. The trip began at the base of the Hoover Dam and glided 60 miles down the remarkable blue-green waters of the Colorado River. The views were breathtaking: families of bighorn sheep peered out from the steep canyon walls, rainbow trout and striped bass swam beneath our boat, and during a lunchtime break, our entire party plunged into the frigid 55-degree waters and then warmed ourselves as we drifted into the lake’s southern shore in Arizona. It’s a six-hour tour that Babs says is a great way to nurse a hangover.
Another surprisingly fun daytime activity is the Sunday T-dance and barbecue at Blue Moon Resort, a gay-run clothing-optional hotel that’s a few blocks away from the strip. Rooms here aren’t cheap (around $120 a night), but you can purchase a $25 day pass for the well-attended Sunday poolside bash. Blue Moon’s Jacuzzi grotto, pool and steam room aren’t skeevy at all. The T-dance is a sexy way to soak up some rays, drink beer, eat hot dogs and hamburgers, and meet some frisky men.
Thirsty for culture? The Liberace Museum traces the Queen of Bling’s historical path and brings to life her staggering excessiveness. The museum occupies two buildings in a strip mall on Tropicana Avenue (free shuttle service from The Strip). The first building houses his cars, including the rhinestone-customized Duesenberg Roadster and his hot-pink 1970 Volkswagen Cabriolet Beetle that was made to resemble a Rolls Royce. There’s also rare pianos exhibit, including a 1788 John Broadwood, one of the first piano manufacturers.
The second building is — honestly! — shaped like a giant rhinestone with a pink-neon piano on top. Inside, it showcases Liberace’s costume designs and some personal effects. Some of Liberace’s crazy threads include a 200-pound King Neptune getup and the red, white and blue “hot pants” costume — Liberace’s fringe-sleeved and argyle socks salute to the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary. In the trophy room, don’t miss Pope John Paul II’s “apostolic blessing” certificate to Lee Liberace: If only those two queens had got together to try and out-do each other with their gaudy gowns …
Don’t look for any mentions of AIDS, being gay or even images of his lover, Scott Thorson, who sued for palimony and wrote that delicious 1988 tell-all, “Behind the Candelabra.” The museum maintains the shiny Liberace facade. And in Las Vegas, you should expect nothing less.
See a show
There’s no shortage of starpower in Las Vegas. From showgirls to rockstars, this town is overflowing with night-time entertainment. Celine Dion has left Caesars Palace, but Elton John took her place in “The Red Piano,” produced by David LaChapelle. Roseanne Barr (Sahara), Toni Braxton (Flamingo), Bette Midler (Casesar’s) all appear nightly. Some tickets — like Elton’s — are sold out months in advance.
Cirque du Soleil has taken over Sin City. There are currently five Cirque productions running on The Strip: “O” (Bellagio), “Mystere” (Treasure Island), “Love” (Mirage), “Ka” (MGM Grand) and “Zumanity” (New York New York). I recently caught two shows, and they’re nothing like the traveling tent productions that visit Dallas. “Ka” is an adventure about imperial twins who are separated. But the stage is jaw-dropping star of the show. The theater floor morphs into a hydraulic engineering wonder: It changes a ship floating at sea, a steep mountainside and eventually defied notions all gravity.
“Zumanity” — Cirque’s “adult” show — gets a bad rap. It doesn’t hold a candle to artistic achievements of “Ka,” but it’s certainly charming and funny. It’s also a smaller Cirque show where the audience gets in on the act. A drag performer usually emcees the festivities where orgies, orgasms, freaky contortionists, muscle-bound studs, corpulent nymphs and pervy horn-dogs add to the fun. This show is far better than those glitzy topless productions featured in “Showgirls.”
Krave was the first gay club on the strip, but now they call it “alternative.” Whatever — it’s a West Hollywood-flavored nightclub that’s absolutely jumping with excitement: Teams of go-go boys dance on boxes while the DJ plays rump-shaking video hits. In case you didn’t know, Las Vegas is often a drinking vacation for tourists. And the women here get messy. At Krave, a stinking-drunk female accountant tried to pull up my shirt to see if I “had any abs.” While trying to fend her off, my cellphone jumped out of my pants. While walking out of the club, I realized my Motorola child was lost. But one call to Krave, and the transgendered doorwoman said someone turned it in. It was the best $20 tip I ever handed over.
The rest of the gay clubs are off the strip. There’s a cluster of them off of Paradise Road, and these clubs are called the “Fruit Loop.” 8 1/2 Lounge-Piranha is a duo establishment: Up front is funky lounge with male strippers, in the back is a dance club. When I visisted, the whole shebang was pumping out Latin disco and Tejano line-dancing. The doorway between the two clubs is actually a fish tank filled with piranha.
Buffalo, is a low-key Levi & Leather Bear bar with beer busts and pool tables.
Gipsy is a popular dance club with a sunken layout and two bars. On Sunday nite, the club becomes a cabaret where drag diva Shannel hosts her Illusions show.
If you’re hankering for a taste of country-western, Charlie’s Las Vegas is especially charming. The “lil ol’ pissant” place draws a healthy mix of friendly cowboys and boot-scooting older fellas.