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9 August 1999

A corner of America that is (for a while) Europe

Gondolas, pigeons, muddy water, fine art: Venice has been exported to Las Vegas

By Stephen Smith

Do you want to know how to make money? I’m talking about serious money. Of course you do. I’m going to let you into a secret I discovered in Las Vegas. It’s the secret of making a fortune. Now I know that every nine-to-five stiff playing the slots in Vegas has his own system, his own patent formula of probability theory, nervous habit and downright voodoo. But the secret of making a fortune has nothing to do with counting cards or four-leaf clover. I came across it when I was investigating how the face of Vegas is changing; I heard it from one of the men who are changing it. He’s listed in the Forbes 400 – the 400 wealthiest people in the United States. His secret is – are you ready? – pigeons.

The man in question is Sheldon Adelson. Originally he made his pile out of meetings. It’s not so strange when you stop and think about it. The proverbial Martian would probably decide that the core business of our leading executives was moving people in and out of identical rooms to listen to talks on creative tension and workplace feng shui. What Adelson got into, specifically, was conventions. He came up with the world’s largest trade show, which he then sold to the Japanese for $900 million.

Adelson owns the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas. That’s the same “Sands” as in the Sands Hotel, where Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – staged their legendary “summit” in 1959, making a movie during the day and performing in the Copa Room by night. But Adelson had the Sands blown up because, no-flies businessman that he is, he had come to the conclusion that it just wasn’t large enough or modern enough for the thousands who’d be passing through his convention centre. He had decided to get into the hotel racket himself. All that was missing was a concept – Adelson was looking for something big but also something with class, something toney. His wife reminded him of their honeymoon in Europe, the romantic places they’d visited. “Take Venice,” she said. And that’s more or less what he did. He transplanted Venice to the middle of the Nevada desert.

Well, not literally: the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge and the Campanile are still where the Italians left them. But Adelson has had life-size replicas of them erected on Sunset Strip, where they form the stunning frontispiece of the 6,000-room Venetian Hotel, which will be the biggest in the world when it’s finished. Adelson would probably be delighted to hear me say how bright and clean the marble facade looks in the sunshine – it certainly out-dazzles the mini-lagoon beneath, on which a number of imported gondolas are bobbing; but then Adelson has deliberately had the water muddied to make it look more Venetian. “This isn’t a faux Venice,” he insists, “this is the real thing. This is Las Venice.”

No detail has been left to chance. When we met in his suite of offices, Adelson produced a set of plans of the Venetian. He tapped them with a pointer. “We have a loft here,” he said, “and, at a certain time, an alarm sounds and a perfume is released. Pigeons fly off. They fly over the piazza: this is exactly what happens in Venice. At the same time, another alarm goes off in a loft here . . . ” – he tapped a different part of the plans – ” . . . perfume is released. More pigeons fly off.”

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Without thinking, I said, “How do they get back?”

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“They’re homing pigeons,” said Adelson.

“Do you worry about – what shall we say? – I mean, this is a highly litigious country: you don’t want someone suing you because a pigeon . . . ”

One of Adelson’s aides gently cut me short. “The pigeons don’t empty in flight,” he said. As my mind grappled with this, perhaps Adelson’s greatest triumph, I had an insight that his great riches flowed from a fastidious attention to detail. (I checked, and pigeons that behave as Adelson’s do are rare.)

His fastidiousness is all Adelson has in common with the founder of Vegas, the gangster Bugsy Siegel. Once described as “neurotically hygienic”, Siegel insisted that when his Flamingo casino opened in 1946, every bathroom had its own purpose-built connection to the town sewer, which may have been one reason why the joint lost money. Siegel dreamt of creating an American version of money-spinning Monte Carlo, but without its daunting poshness – what Tom Wolfe has called the “upper-class baggage of the Riviera casinos . . . [the] Wrong Forks, Deficient Accents, Poor Tailoring, Gauche Displays”.

By contrast with the old Flamingo, Adelson’s Venetian is one of several modern casinos that have been enthusiastically embarking Riviera baggage – the more upper class, the better. The Strip is modelling itself on Europe. A few blocks from the Venetian, the Eiffel Tower – or at least a half-size version of the real thing – squeezes a foot between faithful models of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. These reproductions have been commissioned by the owners of the Paris Hotel-Casino, soon to be welcoming its first guests. The hotel itself is a Parisian-style apartment building, albeit one that has been pumped up to the scale of a 30-storey skyscraper. Across the street from the Paris is a hulking signpost advertising the Bellagio Hotel, which, wryly saluting Vegas’s past, the days of the Rat Pack, says: “Now appearing: Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso”.

The playfulness is misleading. Generally speaking, the Bellagio has the air of an establishment where nostrils would indeed wrinkle over Wrong Forks, Deficient Accents and Poor Tailoring. From the pavement to the lobby, a journey of perhaps half a mile, you are borne by a shady travelator at sedan-chair speed. A hike through the hotel’s conservatory brings you to the Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the T-word. That’s right: taste. Queuing for the exhibition – of genuine, authenticated art – you think that it would be difficult to be snotty about this. Except possibly on the grounds that it’s in the wrong place – but then, why shouldn’t gamblers look at Van Gogh and Picasso like anyone else? As for the Venetian and the Eiffel Tower, well, yes, I suppose they are tasteless. But that’s not how they strike you in Vegas. That may be because you lose your bearings. After you’ve seen the town’s Liberace Museum, anything that’s not actually carapaced in rhinestones seems to hint at sensitivity of a heart-breakingly tremulous kind. But in any case, why should a gaming town have anything to do with taste? The baccarat players may kid themselves, with their black-tie-only lounges. But the element of risk, of unpredictability, central to the experience of gambling, is absent in taste – or tastefulness, rather.

After entertaining these broad-minded thoughts about Vegas, I hand over my 12 bucks and enter the Bellagio gallery to find people holding what look like TV remotes to their ears, listening in an awed hush to a tape-recorded guide. The collection itself is like a queue of paintings: a Rubens rubs shoulders with a Rembrandt, which is itself jostling a Renoir. There’s nothing to leaven the mix: no lesser artists or local artists. The line-up is like one of those Premiership football sides full of costly ex-pats that many people admire but few love. I perpetrate my own Gauche Display here, by jotting down notes. A tall man wearing a badge that says “Darryl” materialises at my elbow and murmurs, “Excuse me, sir, writing is not allowed in the gallery”. In vain I tell Darryl about the museums and studios of London town, where students – tooled up with charcoals and indelible markers – sketch and copy and practically trace our priceless national treasures. What bothers Darryl is not that I might deface the collection, I sense, or produce a set of convincing fakes. His problem is that scribbling in a notebook – in fact averting one’s gaze, however briefly, from the prestigious display – is the mark of someone who’s below the salt.

Aspirations to European swank aren’t the only reason for the make-over of the Strip. Cold, hard cash has everything to do with it, too. In the days of Bugsy Siegel, Vegas had the gambling dollar to itself. Now many states across the US have relaxed their anti-gaming laws, and native Americans have been building casinos on their reservations.There’s even virtual poker on the Internet. So Sin City is no longer selling to the high rollers but to mom, pop and junior.

The adjective “Continental”, which once meant something distinctly off-colour to British ears, is now the guarantee of family entertainment in Vegas, a sign that you may safely bring the wife and kids. The people at the Monte Carlo Hotel don’t share Siegel’s inferiority complex about the French Riviera. “European style,” they promise. “Everything you’d expect except the price.” And no get-out clauses along the lines of “American spoken here” or “ranch dressing a speciality”. On the contrary, the Monte Carlo boasts French cuisine and a wedding chapel with a hint of the Rainier clan about the fittings and drapes. The implicit pitch is that you can take the family to Monte Carlo – or Paris or Venice – and keep what you save on air fares for the gaming tables.

Remarkably, European pastiche is emerging even on the sidewalk. The town was created for the combustion engine – the original idea was to pull in busloads of GIs who were billeted in desert camps, waiting to go off to the second world war. But now Vegas has its own version of the Spanish paseo: at all hours of the day, people are walking on the Strip. They promenade from one hotel – one gaming pit, one floor show, one complimentary club sandwich – to the next.

People take to their feet in Vegas simply because it’s easier than going back to their cars between stops. The new, gargantuan hotels greedily occupy every square foot of their plots on the Strip, with the effect that their walls practically touch. They have incorporated guests’ car parks into their superstructures, so you don’t have to negotiate the prairie-like car-lots, which affront the eye and exhaust the shoe leather. In this most American of towns, the strolling visitor from Europe – noting the Louvre, the Rialto Bridge but, above all, more strolling visitors like himself – can almost imagine that he is at home.

The writer is a “Channel 4 News” reporter. His book on Colombia, “Cocaine Train”, is published by Little, Brown this month