I returned Sunday night from a weekend in Las Vegas with my daughter Elizabeth. And what a wonderful weekend it was –- Cirque du Soleil, Garth Brooks, World Class Driving, white truffles, hours and hours of black jack, the sports book, spas, wonderful dining, and an ending too good to be true?
But first, two stories, one from more than 50 years ago and the second from 37 years ago.
I must have been still in high school the summer I went with my father, Sam, and his business partner, Stanley, to work a summer in California, they on a citrus deal and me in a citrus packing house. At the end of what I think was about a six-week stay, we headed home to Orlando via Las Vegas. Both my dad and Stanley had gambling in their veins, which is probably why they were in the fresh fruit citrus business to start, where they never knew if a crop of fruit they bought, picked, packed, and shipped would make money, break even, or cost them dearly.
My dad had taught me how to play black jack, when to hit and when to stay, when to double down, when to split cards, and most important, how to manage my money while playing. When we got to Vegas, at the Sands, Sam gave me $20 and took my wallet and said he’d see me in a few hours. He and Stanley went off to the Riviera to play black jack (Sam) and craps (Stanley).
When Sam returned a couple of hours later, I was sitting in the lobby of the Sands, looking forlorn. I saw Sam reach into his pocket (to get another $20 bill?), but I stopped him, took out hundred-dollar bill out of my own pocket, and asked him to keep it for me. I also asked him if I could keep the $20 to play again.
The results were similar. After a couple of hours, I had another hundred-dollar bill, and I still had the original $20 to give back to Sam.
Now this is about 1958 or ’59, maybe ’60 at the latest. I had never held nor even seen a hundred dollar bill, which is about equal to at least five hundred dollars today. And I had two of them. I couldn’t wait to get home and show them off to my friends.
We left Vegas, heading to Florida, and were about 20 minutes outside of the town (it was a town then, not the city it is now) when Sam and I realized we had left our hanging bag on the back of the door in the hotel room. We had to go back.
Stanley asked us to leave him at the small casino on the outskirts of town we had just passed while we went back to retrieve our clothes. No problem, except he had lost all of his money and asked me to lend him my two $100 bills.
I looked at my father who nodded and said, “You’ll get it back.” Being a good son, I handed over my two precious $100 bills, albeit without enthusiasm. Stanley was on a losing streak, and no one had ever taught him how to manage his money.
Sure enough, when we came back to pick him up, he had lost all my money. My visions of impressing my friends upon return to Orlando were crushed (or so that’s how I remember feeling).
Of course Stanley eventually repaid me, but I think he gave me a check, which was quickly deposited in the bank as I was saving for a car. I never got to show off to my friends.
But I knew I’d be back to Vegas.
About 15 years later, it was 1974 (I was now 31), and Sam and I flew to Las Vegas for a father-son gambling weekend, which we had gotten in the habit of doing every year or two, either in Vegas or Atlantic City.
Also, I had learned that Shirley MacLaine, a great favorite of mine, was going to do a few ‘comeback’ shows at Caesar’s. She had been away from dancing and the stage for a few years as she had gone off on a self-discovery journey that took her away from the public, except for a few books she wrote.
Sam agreed to go with me to the show, which I remember as wonderful as Shirley was welcomed back to celebrity status the moment she came out on stage and began to sing and dance (you can read about this show in Shirley’s book Going Within).
We all stood and clapped and cheered, and for some reason I had tears in my eyes. Shirley was back, doing what she did so well, entertaining. I didn’t dare look at Sam as what is a 31 year old guy doing crying, watching some dancer on stage?
Except I sneaked a quick glance at Sam. He had tears running down his cheeks too.
As we talked about the show and our reactions on the way out of the casino, we learned things about each other we had not known nor shared.
* * * *
And why all that as a preface to this past weekend in Vegas?
Well, for one thing, as any good parent would do, I had taught both of my girls how to play black jack and had been with them to Vegas and Atlantic City. They love the whole scene.
Elizabeth had been trying to get me Vegas for more than a year to see Garth Brooks perform. He too had retired from touring and giving concerts, but Steve Wynn had lured him to Vegas for a dozen or so shows a year. Wynn would fly Garth and his family to Las Vegas on Wynn’s private jet a couple times a month to do a one-man show at Wynn’s casino.
Twice Elizabeth had gotten tickets, the first time after spending most of a day on-line and on the phone as the tickets were strongly controlled and restricted. Both times I was set to go, but each time at the last moment, Sam, now 90+ years old and living near us in DC, had medical crises, and I had to stay home (Ellen had taken my place, gladly, both times and raved about Garth’s performances).
Now, Elizabeth and I had tickets for a January 7, 2012 performance. Sam had peacefully passed away in July after several years of decline and a final, very short crisis. Hopefully nothing would intrude on this third try.
And so Elizabeth made all the plans, as she is so good at doing. I arrived a day early, and she had gotten me tickets for Cirque de Soleil’s Beatles’ Love, which she said I would love. She was right. The music, the staging, the whole magical performance was everything Elizabeth had promised.
It was walking from the Mirage and Cirque de Soleil to the Bellagio (where she had told me sit at the bar at Yellowtail and had ‘advised’ me what to order) that I passed the parking lot where Sam and I admitted to each other our weakness for Shirley. Las Vegas had changed significantly since that first time I’d been there 50 years ago and was unrecognizable in many ways. But that trip with Sam was clear in my mind.
Just before I fell asleep, I was reading about exciting things to do in Vegas when I came across a trip suggestion for spending a couple of hours driving very high performance cars (Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentley & Jag sports/racing cars) through Red Rock Canyon.
I awoke early, as I frequently do when I go to Vegas, because I was still on east coast time, because I wanted to see if I could get a reservation at World Class Driving, and also because the limits are much lower at the black jack tables early in the morning. My money lasts longer then, and I can grind out some winnings.
No reservations available for the driving. Bummer. Then a call back on my cell 30 minutes later that they would add me onto the 3:30 PM group the next day.
And so I headed off to the black jack tables to spend much of the day testing if I still had any of those skills Sam had taught me 50 years ago.
Yup. Did pretty well.
Elizabeth arrived, heard about the driving, and insisted on going with me Saturday afternoon on the drives.
Then she took me to an Italian restaurant where we had wonderful langoustines, risotto with porcini and white truffles, and a grilled branzino, reportedly flown in that morning from the Mediterranean. Adding in some wine and the vanilla semifreddo, the bill more than wiped out all my winnings. But, “Hey,” as Elizabeth said, “why not splurge one time?”
Next was Saturday, and, allegedly, the main reason we were in Vegas – Garth at 7:30 PM.
First, however, some early morning black jack, where of course I gave Elizabeth a few black chips I had won. Father and daughter sat beside each other, and occasionally Elizabeth would ask what the ‘book’ said she should do in a given situation. We both won.
After her spa treatment and a good Asian lunch, said daughter put twenty dollars into a one armed bandit, which are all automated now, and I went off to play black jack. Not too long after that, Elizabeth sent me a text/pix of a payout slip for $140 that she won.
We then took a taxi to “World Class Drives” where we met several others who were also shelling out shekels to drive these cars. After a frustrating wait, we were transported to the Red Rock Casino parking lot where we found one white Bentley GTC ($250,000), one red Ferrari 430 ($180,000), one yellow Ferrari 450 ($300,000), and a silver Jag 505 (a mere $105,000). Their three Lamborghinis and their one McLaren were in the repair shop.
All four of the cars were ‘running,’ and the two ‘instructors’ told us each to choose one and get in. I went for the Bentley, and Elizabeth got in the passenger seat, and immediately turned on the massage function (how did she know about that?). Roland, one of the two instructors, gave me a two-minute overview of how to operate this piece of art and went to help some one else.
Then with Roland in a lead Jag sedan, trailed by the four cars described above, and tailed by Darren, we headed off to Red Rocks. Except one of the other three drivers took a wrong turn in the parking lot, and the rest of us had to pull over while Darren went to find the wayward driver. If we couldn’t even get out of the parking lot as a group, how would we ever make it to Red Rocks and back?
The instructors had two-way radios in each car and talked to us along the way. I was told to put my foot to the pedal and catch up with the Ferrari in front of me. I guess I was not going fast enough, but the person who gave us our first briefing had said not to gun it and get too close, as two previous ‘drivers’ had bumped into each other to the tune of $175,000 worth of repair bill(s).
What a machine.
I was initially upset that it had gotten dark by the time we reached Red Rocks, but I was so involved (and initially a bit intimidated) in trying to handle this piece of machinery that it was probably good that I wasn’t distracted by the scenery.
Then we were all told to pull over and switch cars.
My next one was the ‘cheap’ Ferrari, which was opposite of the Bentley. I thought I needed earplugs and was sure I was on a racetrack. Then, all too soon, it was the yellow Ferrari, which was quite different from the previous two cars and just a dream.
Finally, we switched one more time, and since it was the end of the day, we had to get these cars back to the garage in downtown Las Vegas, in the dark. I was ‘stuck’ with the little Jag sports car, which was also different from all the other three I had driven. And I loved that one too.
Driving back in the dark, on and off freeways and into the city, was a bit of a challenge, but we were all experts by this time. And much too soon, we were ‘parking’ these things of beauty in a hangar type garage and babbling to each other about the experience.
It turned out the two ‘instructors’ were both race car drivers, both who wanted to talk about their exploits, and ours. But I didn’t want to miss Garth and so got an assistant to drive us back to the hotel.
While I’m not a huge country music fan, I do know and like Garth and his music. The audience was buzzing and excited. I had waited two years for this.
Garth didn’t disappoint.
In fact, not only did he entertain with his singing and his performing, but he did something else. He taught us about music, taking us through the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the 90s, etc., talking about the influences other singers had on him and treating us to their music and explaining the affect each had on his development and his music. We learned about Garth as a kid, as a teenager, as a young man, and now as a guy about to be 50.
The audience loved it and sang along with him, which just seemed to energize him even more, as if he needed that. He’d stop singing and would just play his guitar and listen to the audience sing his words back to him. Everyone, including Garth, was emotional (dare I say there were some tears of joy?).
After almost two hours of non-stop of Garth and all too soon, it was over, and the energy leaving the theater was powerful. Nothing but smiles, happiness, and pure delight for a show that was somehow different from any other concert I’ve attended.
Maybe it was that Garth was back? Or maybe it was just that it was Garth live, and he’s that good.
We talked a bit about the show, about how and why it was different from other shows, why Elizabeth never seems to tire from a repeat watching, and how much the audience was a part of what made the evening so wonderful.
One more good meal because it was now almost 10 PM, the steakhouse at the Wynn, and as good a steak as you’ll get anywhere. Plus the creamed corn with black truffles wasn’t too bad either.
Finally into bed just before midnight after a day we will both remember, Elizabeth for 50 years, I hope, and myself for maybe half that amount of time.
Up again early on Sunday for a bit more black jack before heading to the airport.
Elizabeth, who had been ahead in her gambling for the weekend, was beginning to give some of it back. I was up a bit and decided to let her finish on her own, hoping that she would reverse her present loses but knowing she had to decide what to do on her own.
I headed off to place some Red Sox Pennant and World Series bets (plus a few other such foolishnesses).
Then, just after I got back to the room, Elizabeth burst in saying she had just won $1,035.
“Not possible,” I thought. “How could she have won that much at the black jack table, largely making $15 bets per hand?”
She hadn’t. She had left the black jack tables and gone back to her other favorite, the slots with the wheel, to spend her final $20. And she hit a big one and left the one armed bandit immediately. She proudly and excitedly showed me the print out, as she had not yet cashed it.
We finished our packing, Elizabeth cashed the ticket, and we went to the airport.
Sam would have approved of it all.