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Las Vegas Now: Controlled Freedom?

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Vegas Now

Las Vegas, or Sin City as it's more affectionately known, has branded itself as a place of hedonistic, adult pleasure. Most people think of Las Vegas as the ultimate getaway - a place where everyone lets their hair down. You're free to gamble and you're free to have a drink anytime of the day or night. But is Vegas really the all out, anything goes, Sodom and Gomorrah everyone envisions? Weekend America sent reporter Nate DiMeo to find out.

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by Nate DiMeo

You've seen the ads. They promise salacious experiences that "stay in Vegas." You can see that spirit in action all up and down the Strip: guys in big cowboy hats talking up girls in small skirts, roving packs of staggering twenty-somethings.

But there are of course limits to what happens in Vegas.

"The 'what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas' was always a marketing ploy. They could've put an asterisk on it and said, you know, 'unless subpoenaed', said Dennis Cobb, a retired Las Vegas police officer.

Cobb spent two decades patrolling within the city limits, a place where the legal limits aren't actually all that different from anywhere else. Yes, there's the gambling, and the open containers. But really, that's about as far as things go in terms of freedom to go wild. The gaming commission keeps a tight lid on what type of gambling you can do and where you can do it. Prostitution isn't legal. There's a heavy police presence on the street and there are literally thousands of private security personnel and cameras scoping for cardsharps and ne'er-do-wells inside the casinos.

But Cobb suggests there's a strange phenomenon that happens in Vegas: All of the control, rules and surveillance is the very thing that makes you feel free.

"The simulated removal of rules," he said, "makes people feel more comfortable with that because they know it's simulated."

It's like the movie "Westworld." There's a resort where you can indulge any desire. It's like the ultimate manifestation of Vegas. And it's perfectly safe.

You can choose the medieval world and get into sword fights with robots. You can get into shootouts with robots.

Everything goes great, until the robots go haywire and start killing guests. But a decidedly robot-free Vegas offers visitors the same kind of promise: come here, put yourself into our hands, we'll set up some ground rules, we'll make sure you're safe. And if you've got the money, you're free to go crazy.

Vegas' version of Roman world is Caesar's Palace.

It looks great. It's got the marble and the gold. There are all sorts of fake roman statues. It's got women in lingerie dancing above roulette wheels. But the elites of Ancient Rome pushed human freedom and the pursuit of earthly pleasures to the very limit. At Caesar's, on the other hand, you are free to buy polar fleece vests that say Celine Dion.

"There's this perception that there's great freedom and this ability to be liberated from the conventions of your daily life but it's actually very carefully orchestrated experiences to create the illusion of being free," says Todd Avery Lenahan.

Lenahan is one of people doing the orchestrating. He's designed restaurants and spas and hotels in Vegas and all over the world. Hundreds of well dressed people wait in a line to get into his nightclub, Pure, at Caesar's.

He says all of his work in Vegas and of all the spaces you enter while visiting the strip serve one purpose. "Design is intended to continuously separate people from their money. That's the way we think about the work that we're doing in an environment like this. Yes it's great to create a beautiful environment for people to enjoy as aesthetic, but ultimately our job is to liberate them from the sensibilities and the conventions of their day to day life that tell them to conserve and save and prepare for the future. What we're doing is intentionally making them feel better than they do in their normal environment, to fulfill their aspirations about what they'd like to be."

Phil Shalala, the head of marketing at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, took me on a tour, of his exclusive nightclub. It would be bumping later on that night, like every night.

Shalala says the Hard Rock has embodied the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" mentality years before an advertising copywriter put it to words.

"It's like walking into a music video," he says. "It's a great feeling to walk through the doors of the Hard Rock, and know and believe that 'wow! This is going to be the night of my life'."

Casinos make money by helping people live out fantasies. "This is the town and the atmosphere for the ultimate freedom of expression," he adds.

"You are free to shop. But the shops are all chosen for you. You are free to go to a variety of restaurants which have also been set up there. And you're free to gamble," says John McCumber, a UCLA philosophy teacher.

"I gotta say I love Vegas," he says "But you walk into one these casinos and you'll have a hundred tables and they're all identical except for the little sign that tells you the minimum bet. So, apart from that, it really is like ball-point pens with a vengeance. It's not even red versus blue ink. It's really the same thing exact thing going on at every table and you have to make your choice."

According to McCumber, Vegas doesn't promise freedom of choice or freedom of expression. It's the freedom to be who you are. But since your options are ultimately so limited in Vegas, he says, "who you really are is a rather strange notion."

He suggests that maybe, there isn't much that separates us. We're Americans, living in the 21st century, living in a market economy. Maybe we'd like to think that we're different. Maybe we'd like to access some sort non-western nirvana. But, by the looks of things in Vegas, we're pretty happy just shopping, seeing a show, taking a chance on a spin of the wheel, and walking around with an open container.

Designer Todd Avery Lenahan says for all of the hype about Vegas, it's just your town, your life, packaged in a different box. And that makes his job easy.

"You go to a night club in Las Vegas and it's the same music, it might be a little bit louder," he says. "The club's a little more extravagant. But the human emotions that are being played to are the same here as they are in Omaha, Neb., or as they are in Tampa, Fla.

"And ultimately that common denominator of human emotions is what makes the job so easy, because you can better the experience just by wrapping it differently. And that's what Las Vegas does."

As long as you've got money to spend, you are free to be as free as they let you think you are.

  • Music Bridge:
    Nu Tones
    Artist: Nomo
    CD: New Tones (Ubiquity)
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  • By objective insight


    The above comment is such an unfortunate and dis-honest representation by a disgruintled former employee of Mr. Lenahan's. The fact that Mr. Lenahan has an ongoing personal relationship with Pure's owner (including his having helped them with their personal residences as is known by many in LV) is testament to the libelous statement made by Yougottabe Kiddingme. No kidding whatsoever, it is terrible how blogs become a forum for libel such as what has been written above, especially on web-sites with as much integrity as this. The owners and architect of PURE are the best people to objectively refute yougottabe kiddingme's false and emotionally charged claim.

    By Yougottabe kiddingme


    I assume this guy thinks he invented air, light, sound and the piano key necktie too! What a joke. Ask the Owner / Operator of Pure Nightclub if they would give any of the design credit to Todd Lenahan. The answer would be HELL no! Although ABA (Todd’s staff) did the project, Todd could not have cared less about it. I never met or saw him during the entire process. I’m surprised he even knows where it is in Caesar’s. I’ve been told that the Owner virtually through him out of the club 24 hours before opening, disgusted by his arrogance and “super-flaming” egotism. That club never was, is not, and never will be “his club”. I hope that he likes the people in the “well dressed line” on the casino floor, because that’s where he would spend his night.

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