“You cannot keep putting up hotels with 3,000 rooms and expect not to smother one another. They will suffocate one another to the degree that 20 years from today, they will not be in business. Talk to me in 20 years.”
That was the comic Jerry Lewis, and I thought he was a little nuts when he said this. It wasn’t 20 years ago, of course. Sadly, it didn’t take nearly that long for his miserable prophecy to begin to prove true.
He made this remark to me in August 2007. At the time, I argued back that the gaming numbers and visitation continued to rise. Listening back on that conversation is painful now, looking around at what’s happening to unemployment, hotel room rates and more.
Lewis couldn’t have known that the mischief of Wall Street would cause something that would become known as the subprime mortgage meltdown, which rendered our property worthless and bankrupted millions of potential Vegas customers. Yet this week when I went back for another helping of Lewis as he prepares for the 45th Labor Day Telethon to raise another $61 million or so for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, I listened a little less dismissively.
Lewis does know, after all, what it was really like back then. Back when he and Dean Martin would ride horses from one casino to another, back when they’d perform three or four shows a night. That whole thing. I’m generally immune to the allure of Vegas-was-better-when-the-mob-ran-it nostalgia, but Lewis is so foul-mouthed about the modern Vegas that it’s strangely charming.
“You can’t drive down the fucking Strip and tell me it’s all beautifully laid out,” Lewis groused as he toyed with a solid gold, miniature Oscar statuette he had made so he could carry a symbol of the honorary Academy Award he got for his philanthropic works. “It’s a fucking mess. I’m embarrassed by it. We’ve got a lot of really great stuff here, but beneath all of it is greed. When you have greed in anything, it will take you down.”
What, the mob wasn’t greedy?
“Not until the corporates came in,” he moaned, voice rising. “There was never greed in Las Vegas because the guys we worked for in the early years knew they didn’t have to be greedy. The fucking odds did the job. They didn’t need to be greedy. Now, corporates run scared like all big fucking abusers. They run scared and do stupid things.”
That’s where Lewis loses me, because that’s just silly. Of course the mob was greedy; why would they be any less human than any other casino operator? To hear legendary Vegas banker E. Parry Thomas tell it earlier this summer, the reason the mob’s business model couldn’t last was precisely because the mob was skimming so much profit that there wasn’t enough reinvestment to keep the joints operating well.
Yet chatting with Lewis and folks of his ilk does remind me that there is a part of that smaller, more intimate Vegas I would’ve loved, even as I celebrate the age of Cirque du Soleil, Michelin ratings and the megaresort.
That part is, specifically, Lewis and his contemporaries. At 84, he says he doesn’t play in Las Vegas anymore because “they can’t afford me,” instead appearing at tribal casinos around the country. I’m pretty sure that’s just hurt feelings; he could totally get a gig at the South Point or Orleans, but they’re not the Strip, and the Strip is what he was lucky enough to witness be born and raised. He played the Flamingo when Bugsy Siegel was still alive, for God’s sake.
I still don’t believe Vegas will cease to exist a few decades hence, but I accept the nut of what Lewis raved about: Almost every major casino corporation has made disastrous decisions, decisions that single-resort operators simply couldn’t have made. Even if they’d wanted to.