Monday, April 13, 2009

The Aladdin (2006)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 13 - This originally posted on, 4/10/06.


The destruction of the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas poses a confusing sort of post-9/11 memory. In April 1998 most Americans had no idea what a building's implosion would look like. Even the word "implosion" conveyed mystery, involving some act of physics that may or may not produce flames and hurtling debris. From my vantage point just behind the barricades on Las Vegas Boulevard and Bellagio Drive, the 1,100-room structure loomed dangerously close. Late 1990's Vegas was in the grip of an implosion spree that would also claim the original Dunes, Bellagio, Landmark and Sands casinos; the nonchalance of my fellow tourists and dust-mask vendors seemed a good omen. At some point, the crowd merrily chanted a countdown and 600 pounds of gelatin-based dynamite detonated on the casino floor. The building sighed and finally relaxed, descending in a graceful north-south swoop. No one was hit by flying glass or roulette tables. It took less than 20 seconds.

In this innocent, pre-attack America, however, none of us had considered how much dust and smoke a downed building could produce. Within a minute, a thirty-story plume of ash rose over the city. The headless mushroom cloud seemed to look down upon us, then started down The Strip in our direction. This memory also seems suspiciously confusing; thousands of people fleeing a wall of ash in the heart of Las Vegas, but laughing, power-walking, rolling their eyes at the sudden, steep jump in dust-mask prices. In the late twentieth century, the sight of an entire structure suddenly going freestyle wasn’t yet a cause for terror.

Two years later, I saw the Aladdin again. Crossing The Strip at Bellagio Drive, I paused to take in a conspicuous blank spot in the immediate skyline and understood I was looking at the silhouette of an unborn casino. In just twenty four months, the Aladdin had been blown up, hauled to a landfill, and rebuilt as a $1.3 billion, 2,600 room behemoth. But it wouldn’t reopen for another three months; past the imposing cartooony Arabian facade, a dark specter hotel towered into darkness. It was hard to not stand hypnotized on the sidewalk, staring up at those gaping windows, imagining thousands of unlit rooms.

In 2003, I arrived at the Aladdin during a bad birthday overshadowed by death and depression. Friends brought me drinks and I found myself laughing hard at unfunny jokes, tipsy for the first of only two times in my life. We made a few losing bets and laughed at some of the bad decorations and moved on.

So I didn’t get the chance to actually explore the new Aladdin until last week, finding the casino’s adherence to Arabian decor spotty. Diners can eat at CafĂ© Zanzibar or the Spice Market Buffet, but there is also PF Chang’s Chinese Bistro, which is confusingly advertised by a fake Qin Dynasty statue. Hunt long enough in an Indian casino, and you'll always be able to find a sad plaque honoring tribal history in a back corner by one of the bathrooms. At the new Aladdin, the south tower restroom hallway displays just two color plates from Racinet's Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes that look like they'd been enlarged at Kinkos. The old Aladdin had been an Oasis of classic Vegas cool; Elvis and Priscilla married here in 1967, and Wayne Newton and Johnny Carson vied for ownership in the early 80’s. The new Aladdin reminded me of an airport. A sign in the lobby notified passers-by that Chris Angel’s “Mindfreak” was shot on the premises. Nine Inch Nails had wrapped up their set elsewhere in the casino earlier that night.

Then I stumbled into the Desert Passage. Anyone still in the grip of the “why do they hate us” spasm of late ’01 needs to do some shopping here. This is the casino’s shopping arcade, made up as a 475,000 square foot parody of a covered bazaar. Below faint arabesques, one can browse art galleries, eat Hawaiian Luau or ride a pedicab to grab a slice of NY Pizza. A lone hookah store seemed untroubled by customers. Lost, I found myself at one point in a long corridor topped with overhead panels of a nondenominational Holy Land.

Is it a parody? The interior decorators may have thought they were playing footsie with controversy, but I began to feel that Middle Eastern civilization had gotten off lightly. After the Koran flushing excesses of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, it’s easy to imagine a lot worse. The cocktail waitresses didn’t dress in burquas, and no fez-wearing organ grinders or fiendish slave traders greeted guests as Roman Centurions do at Caesar’s Palace. If anything, Desert Passages posed an alternate universe Middle East that had not suffered centuries of autocratic rulers and religious fascists, or decades of American and Israeli subjugation. If pluralistic democracy had flourished in eighteenth century Syria, perhaps their street bazaars could have a Metropolitan Museum Of Art outlet as well.

Back at the slots, I found an employee under an unnoticed mural that seemed to mix scenes from Indian mythology, Gilgamesh, Ali Baba, and some of the more menacing inmates from “Midnight Express”. I asked about a nearby poster displaying a massive glass tower in the Dubai style of architecture. This was the next phase, he explained. A Middle East themed casino “didn’t play well after 9/11”, and the entire complex was being remade as a Planet Hollywood. The computer-generated leviathan from the poster will be the new hotel’s third wing; construction had already started in the dark lot behind the casino. “They didn’t like my idea,” he added. “I suggested blowing a few holes in the walls and calling it ‘Baghdad Town’.”

I stepped outside into the cool desert night. From this angle, the half-sized Eiffel Tower next door soared overhead. Beyond that, block-sized ads implored the throng to reconsider Elton John and Carrot Top. For the last four years, Vegas has surged on under the threat of Al-Qaeda; conventional wisdom has the city somewhere on AQ’s top ten list of American cities to implode. It probably ranks high on the worldwide list as well. Following any one of a dozen plausible doomsday scenarios, this could be as impressive as western civilization gets. Nearby, a group of ruddy faced white dudes in baseball hats struggled to make it up the stairs, accidentally smashing a beer bottle.

“My bad,” one explained to the world. “My bad.”