Why not revive the lost art of theming on the Strip?

In 1993, the year the MGM Grand opened on the Strip, the great Scottish rock group known as The Waterboys released a song about Las Vegas called “Spiritual City.”

Well, it wasn’t technically about Las Vegas. Maybe metaphysically. Or telepathically. In any case, the song’s final, brilliant, cacophonic moments dispense some apt advice for our radiant little village:

Everybody’s born to do a certain thing … and if you’re good at it, just keep doing it until you’re fed up, then do something else.

Las Vegas was born to theme.

Ever since the first days of the Strip, when the dude-ranch-inspired El Rancho was a block away from the posh Flamingo, two notions of theming have vied for supremacy, and when we get fed up with one, we switch to the other. The first notion—we’ll call it the El Rancho vision—puts a casino in costume, plays explicitly with our sense of time and place, and gestures outward toward cultural archetypes. The second, the Flamingo notion, builds an aesthetic around the abstractions of glamour and risk, leaves off the decorative gingerbread and gestures inward toward its own spiral of lovely temptations. (In reality, this vision, too, gestures outward, toward Monte Carlo, Hollywood and New York, but the aesthetic has come to be seen as simply “Vegas.”)

The best of the hotels, such as Jay Sarno’s Caesars Palace, combined both notions: The architecture of the original structure was modern, not faux Roman, and the vibe inside had the Flamingo spark of dark sophistication, but a sense of costumed play leavened the experience and turned the whim of a Vegas trip into whimsy. Alas, after Caesars, Sarno’s Circus Circus ran into early financial trouble, and Caesars was left for 25 years with no real heir.

By the mid-1980s, the “Vegas” theme had dominated the Strip since the late ’60s, and it was tired. The Hilton, the Dunes, the Marina, the Riviera, the Hacienda and the Flamingo itself all seemed to invite visions not of two-in-the-morning Vegas glory, but of carpet (miles and miles of carpet!) and slot-playing seniors and feather-shows that looked less vintage than just old. (The “Vegas revue” seems cool today because we’ve put it into quotation marks.)

The Tropicana, which previously had a tropical name but not really a tropical theme, had sensed the need for change in 1985 and re-branded itself “The Island of Las Vegas” and re-created its swimming pool as a tropical paradise, meandering among gardens and exotic birds and swim-up blackjack ports. It was both a vanguard and return to the past, picking up the notion of the outward gesture where Caesars Palace had left off. The 1990s then became the golden age of theming, the age of Eiffel Towers and Pyramids and postmodern pastiche that East Coast journalists and the occasional scholar still seem to consider the very essence of the Vegas identity.

By 2000, we were, once more, fed up. Mandalay Bay took the lead in developing a resort whose real theme was not “Mandalay”—we’ve searched and searched and we can’t find what the place has to do with the capital of Burma—but sleek and streamlined luxury, a return to the Flamingo school of theming. The Palms, Wynn Las Vegas, CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan have followed suit. Treasure Island famously walked the plank and turned itself into “TI.” The old Las Vegas sign came back into vogue. The theme-park vibe was replaced by the aesthetic of the ultralounge. Resorts turned inward, marketing their forbidden nooks and crannies more than their streetscapes. (The Wynn, with its go-away-and-leave-me-alone mountain out front, made the inward turn explicit.)

It was, for a while, a healthy change for the Strip; the time had come to avert our gaze from the bright flame of cheesiness. And then the recession hit. And CityCenter turned out not to be the center of a city at all, but a massive homage to the L.A. freeway cloverleaf. And Paris Hilton taught us that the new face of the Strip was the drunken debutante. And we began to wonder if it was really that much better than the Sphinx.

In short, we’re just about fed up again. Times are tough, and we probably won’t be seeing a big new resort rising for a good while. But if you’re a billionaire and you’ve been thinking about doing the Vegas thing, maybe think about ditching the dark upscale sophistication, or at least sprinkling a little sugar on top. We could use some cheering up.

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