That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die.
— H.P. Lovecraft, quoting The Necronomicon, in “The Nameless City”
The Mob Museum’s Feb. 14 debut was another reminder of Las Vegas’ longstanding penchant—one might even call it a skill—for raising the dead and recycling the past. People used to joke that Vegas was where show business careers went to die, though just as often it’s been the place where, having died, they rise again in tribute shows and improbable cults of personality. Sometimes it feels as if the Rat Pack really is back. In a way, there’s not much separating the stage icons who have returned from the dead to entertain Las Vegas audiences from the rubbed-out wiseguys whose careers the Mob Museum chronicles. Both return from a troubled reality to fulfill our longing for—or at least fascination with—a burnished past. Michael Jackson might not have had a made man’s swagger, and Bugsy Siegel surely never moon-walked, but the two have this in common: They’re worth more to Las Vegas dead than alive.
Case in point: Back in 2005 when Jackson was on trial for child molestation, several reports claimed that, if acquitted of those charges (as he ultimately was), he’d be headlining a show at the newly opened Wynn Las Vegas. They were greeted with derisive snorts and Jesus-juice jokes. As the rehearsal footage from This Is It makes clear, a show that merged Steve Wynn’s budget with Jackson’s natural creativity and showmanship would have been an entertainment blockbuster. But it never happened, partially because of the roar of condemnation just waiting to be heard. Despite his talents, Jackson was too much of a liability to be a sure bet.
Yet once Jackson was safely dead, there was scarcely a murmur of disapproval when it was announced that he’d be starring in two Las Vegas extravaganzas: Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, the touring Cirque spectacular celebrating MJ’s mind and music that stopped at Mandalay Bay in December, and a Vegas-only successor that will take up residence in the former Lion King Theater in 2013.
It’s fitting that the billboard for The Immortal World Tour featured Jackson in all-white garb, arms outstretched just a tad too exuberantly to be directly Christ-like, emerging from a nimbus of glory. “The Legend Continues,” the copy reads, and it all makes sense. We can forget those pictures of Jackson’s body lying on a gurney, because he’s not dead: He has been translated directly into an entertainment heaven where he can still thrill us. Like the digital Michael who plays the ghost in the Bally Technologies’ Michael Jackson: The King of Pop slot machine, this Jackson won’t trouble us with allegations of impropriety or flat-out weirdness; he’ll simply materialize, seraph-like, to entertain and bestow bounty upon us.
The same could be said of the gangsters and wise guys who once filtered throughout Las Vegas’ casinos. When they were shuttling money back to Kansas City and Chicago and knocking off local jewelry stores, they were menaces to the state of Nevada. For a good three-decade stretch, Nevada regulators worried that the casino industry was one scandal away from a federal crackdown. In the early 1960s, most famously, only Gov. Grant Sawyer’s vigorous intervention kept Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department from raiding and closing most of the casinos on the Strip.
So enforcement agents did their best to gather evidence that could be used to keep “undesirables” out of the casino industry. When federal probes such as the late-1970s Strawman investigation uncovered skimming operations in Nevada casinos, regulators moved swiftly to roust those involved from the industry.
Alive, these men were dangerous. Dead, they provide a nice patina of disreputability for a thoroughly spreadsheeted resort town. Whether they died from bullet wounds in a girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home or in a hospice bed surrounded by loved ones, departed gangsters are fun. Their very-much-alive successors running prostitution and smuggling narcotics? Not so much.
And this might be the key to the Las Vegas paradox. On one hand, the city’s only too eager to obliterate its own history, architectural and otherwise. On the other, it’s a town with a real reverence—some would say an unhealthy obsession—with the dead.
Our city might even be in the advance guard of a shift in American culture.
The imitation of Elvis
Las Vegas has always been a beat or two behind the popular culture rhythm. Vaudeville, which had dried up in most of the United States by the early 1930s, endured in Las Vegas showrooms into the 1960s. A night of entertainment might include Joe E. Lewis’ comedy, Lili St. Cyr’s burlesque, singer Martha Stewart, a line of dancers and an orchestra. Comic dancers, jugglers, even puppeteers split the bill with comedians and established singers.
There’s a difference, sometimes subtle, between backward and backward-looking. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city promoted itself as the “Atomic City,” an outpost of a new age. The American West would lead the world in technological innovation, and Las Vegas, thanks to its proximity to the Nevada Test Site, would lead the West. The casinos built on the Strip were boldly modern, their neon signs evocative of not just the cutting edge of the present, but the future. In 1955, the Last Frontier’s owners ditched their Old West theme and transformed the place into the New Frontier, a Space Age resort. Three years later, the Stardust became the city’s biggest hotel; like the New Frontier, it was fashionably extraterrestrial in its outlook. The first casino to open since the Last Frontier with a theme and architecture that deliberately turned its back on the future, Caesars Palace (1966), was a harbinger for the Strip of the 1990s when casinos dressed themselves up in comfortably anti-modern period replica designs. Despite its antiquarian theme, though, Caesars had a sleek modern design. The replica statues and toga-skirted waitresses were framed by Miami Modern screen block and midcentury curves. Casinos of the 1960s were still built looking forward, and Vegas’ futurism lived in odd harmony with its entertainment nostalgia.
That started to change around the time Elvis Presley’s career was reborn in Las Vegas. Starting in July 1969, his 837-show run (all sold out) at the International (which became the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971 and the LVH earlier this year) was the stuff of legend. He was at once past and future.
Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it’s got to mean something that Retro Vegas started to gain strength just as the mob’s grip on Real Vegas was relaxing. As more publicly traded hotel towers started rising in the 1970s, pointing the way to a future free from “undesirables,” Las Vegas started looking back with greater reverence. Elvis was a part of that shift.
After his death, though, Presley was born yet again in Las Vegas, and the backward glance became even more intense. Imatatio Elvi popped up everywhere that the singer’s legend touched, but only in Las Vegas did their performances become an enduring and reliable moneymaker. Almost 35 years after his death, Elvis still hasn’t left the building.
Elvis impersonators work on three levels. On one, they’re pure, unadulterated kitsch, the performance equivalent of dice clocks. On the second level, Elvis impersonators resonate because, if they’re good enough, they’re just plain entertaining. Finally, Elvis impersonation is part of the Vegas canon because it’s one of the few ways the city can pay tribute to its past. And this is where things get interesting.
There’s a deep-seated human need to remember those who came before us. It’s one way of affirming that, after we ourselves are gone, someone will remember us, that there’s a point to it all. Las Vegas isn’t always good about remembering its past, but we still need to acknowledge that we’re not tumbling vagabond through the desert, and that’s where Elvis impersonators come in. They are a living sample of a safely dead past that is broad enough to include everyone, newcomer and old.
Whether you caught a genuine Elvis scarf back in the Hilton showroom or had to look up Viva Las Vegas on IMDB to be sure it starred Tupelo’s favorite son, you’ve absorbed enough Elvis through cultural osmosis to accept him as a symbol of a past that’s still relevant today. The Resurrected Elvis is the Vegas variation on a nearly universal theme. Every culture places an imperative on the living to honor, at least occasionally, the dead. Paleolithic families left ivory beads in graves; today, we mark anniversaries, light candles for the dead and digitally retouch old and tattered photos. We might not shed a tear at imploding the past, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can outrun it.
The failure of Viva Elvis, Cirque du Soleil’s Presley extravaganza at Aria, doesn’t disprove the vitality of Elvis as a living figure in Las Vegas; it confirms it. The show’s problem isn’t that Vegas audiences don’t connect with the music of Elvis or even the individual acrobatic acts that comprise the show. It’s the fixation on the Historical Elvis at the expense of the Mythic Elvis or, as tribute artist Trent Carlini bills himself, the Dream King. History can’t fill a showroom. Myth can. No one outside of historians wants to see a Galilean carpenter futzing around with a hammer and nails. They want to hear the Sermon on the Mount. And in Vegas, they want to see him walk on water.
Elvis impersonators can do just that, metaphorically speaking. They bring back the glory of Elvis’ living kingdom without wallowing in the petty details of his life. Elvis lives on forever through them, and they deliver hip-swiveling testimony that Las Vegas hasn’t forgotten its past.
Among the living
It’s one thing to pay tribute to the music of dead stars by seeing living impersonators. It’s another to gawk at real dead bodies. Bodies: The Exhibition, which has been planted at Luxor for more than three years now, provides another window into death. In this case, it’s not the afterlife of the King presented by sideburned and pompadoured impersonators, but the carefully preserved bodies of dead citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
Where do the bodies come from? Premier Exhibitions, the Atlanta-based company that runs the exhibit, is vague, perhaps purposefully so, in its FAQ section: “The full body specimens are persons who lived in China and died from natural causes. After the bodies were unclaimed at death, pursuant to Chinese law, they were ultimately delivered to a medical school for education and research.”
Medical research is one thing; being stripped of skin and posed with sporting goods for the paying Vegas public (regular-price tickets are $32 each) is another. You don’t have to be religious to find something unholy in the thought of unclaimed bodies being used as props in a traveling show.
The traditional Chinese reverence for the dead makes the reality that dozens of Chinese corpses are entertaining Vegas visitors all the more bizarre. Traditional Chinese practice places a high value on remembering and revering the departed. At the springtime Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, the living visit the graves of their ancestors, sweeping their environs and sharing offerings with them. And during the late summer Ghost Festival, the dead and other incorporeal spirits are believed to return to the land of the living. Those who wish to avoid ill fortune burn incense and “ghost money,” or script with no cash value, in their honor, and even set aside special places for them at the dinner table. The hope is that the sated ghosts will then return to the lower realms and not wreak havoc among the living.
But at Bodies, the dead really are stuck in the land of the living. And no one, it seems, is going to burn joss paper to propitiate them—unless you count the admission fee. It might be that what’s frightening when it’s a shadow just out of the range of vision isn’t so scary when it’s sitting, under the lights, in front of a chessboard with its chest cavity cut open.
Whatever your comfort level about viewing preserved human corpses, you’ve got to admit two things: They’re apparently drawing visitors, and the exhibit doesn’t sugarcoat death. The organizers of Bodies stress its educational value: Instead of seeing a cartoon representation of a lung to illustrate the effects of nicotine, we can view a perfectly preserved cross-section of a diseased, emphysema-ridden lung. But in the end, casinos aren’t known for staging purely educational exhibitions. Bodies may indeed educate, but it survives in this market because it entertains.
Finding enjoyment in viewing bodies up close (but please, the FAQ reminds us, don’t touch) is worlds away from the dominant Western tradition, where coffins stay closed after the viewing and the dead stay dead. But it has something in common with Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, when, as on Tomb-Sweeping Day, the dead are remembered. As on the Chinese festival, celebrants visit the graves of loved ones and build altars with offerings. But there are also the calaveras—sculptures of skeletal figures working, playing, or simply showing off their finery. Calaveras remind us that as we are now, so the dead once were. And as they are now, soon we will be.
Premier has another exhibit at Luxor—Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. It’s nowhere near as grisly as Bodies, but, let’s face it, we’re looking at dead people’s stuff, hauled up from the ship on which they died 100 years ago. And we’re looking at it less to learn about their lives than to contemplate their tragic end. But even this kind of contemplation allows the victims a kind of dignity—a collective place in cultural memory—that is denied the bodies of Bodies. Those bodies are anonymous, stripped of belongings and biography. Titanic, on the other hand, has only belongings and biography—one single, terrible moment of biography. The passengers and crew speak through their absence and the feelings that absence provokes. Like Michael and Elvis, they have ascended into a state of pure spirit, lacquered memory and narrative redemption. They are risen from the deep to live again among their possessions in a Las Vegas casino.
This isn’t Las Vegas’ first tango with the Titanic, either. Bob Stupak wanted to build a Titanic-themed hotel-casino after James Cameron’s 1997 film stoked interest in the famous wreck. But the connection is even deeper. In July 1981, months after the MGM Grand’s catastrophic fire, Donn Arden’s Jubilee! opened at the hotel. One of its key sequences is still part of the show 30 years later: the sinking of the Titanic. Yes, more than 1,500 souls perished in the icy North Atlantic back in 1912, but by 1981 it was as good an excuse for a topless number as anything else in Vegas. Arden wasn’t staging a historic reenactment of the disaster to commemorate the dead or urge maritime caution; he was celebrating a myth. It’s not surprising that the Titanic, onstage or under glass, has legs in Vegas.
It’s somehow appropriate that Luxor should be ground zero for morbid Vegas attractions. As you probably remember from history class, the Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids just because they looked cool. They built them to house the remains of dead pharaohs. So inside the tomb casino, you’ve got two death-oriented attractions. Themed Vegas isn’t dead after all; it’s just that death has become a Vegas theme.
That’s why the showstopping attraction at the Mob Museum isn’t the meticulously preserved courtroom where the Kefauver Committee held hearings on Nov. 15, 1950, or the survey of contemporary organized crime, which is as powerful and insidious as ever. It’s a restored section of the wall where the victims of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre breathed their last in 1929: a real historic artifact of an event that’s become woven into the collective mythic consciousness.
Yes, there are exhibits chronicling both sides of the law: For every Al Capone, there’s an Eliot Ness. But people don’t come to Las Vegas because they’re looking for balance: they want action. The museum might be gritty, not glamorous, but it’s still dipping into a cauldron of myth that’s been percolating for decades. Like Elvis, like Michael Jackson, organized crime wasn’t born in Las Vegas, but—also like them—it’s going to thrive in a Las Vegas afterlife.
So the Mob Museum isn’t a departure for Las Vegas. We may not have internationally renowned museums or historic reenactments of Civil War battles, like some retro tourism hot spots, but we’ve been focusing our gaze on the past for a long time. We’ve gotten so good at it that even when we look forward to a reborn downtown, we find ourselves looking backward.