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Fifth Lady Down 

The death of the Desert Inn. Is this the end of Vegas cool?

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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Photo by Ted Soqui

IT'S 1:45 A.M. ON OCTOBER 23, SIX WEEKS AFTER THE WORLD TRADE Center disaster, and there's little public appetite to applaud the dynamiting of another building. But here along the nuclear-bright Las Vegas Strip, a crowd of hundreds, about a half-dozen deep, quietly, almost somberly, waits for the top of the hour. At precisely 2 a.m., a switch will be thrown, 248 pounds of explosives will be triggered, and the bare metal-and-concrete skeleton of the once mighty 15-story Desert Inn -- the fifth resort ever built in Las Vegas -- will be reduced to dust.

Compared to the hoopla and media frenzy that surrounded the blowing up of other Vegas hotels over the past decade, the demolition of the Desert Inn seems, at first blush, little more than a historical asterisk. Under any circumstances, this patch of soulless desert seems about the last place on Earth to get weepy about. Lamenting the disappearance of any part of history here is arduous in a city where a new layer of concrete and glitz seems to appear annually.

But I confess that my stomach knots as I see how the once exquisite Desert Inn was disfigured and disemboweled in the months before the implosion. Caged by a chain-link storm fence, her entire southern flank has been bashed in, her skin peeled off, her insides gutted and flayed, open to the indifferent passersby. Toothy orange forklifts and bulldozers chewed out her bottom floors, exposing the spindly I-beams that still hold her erect. The tangle of pipes, ducts, tubes and cables that I saw grotesquely dangling near the ground a few weeks ago have now been covered with a funereal black drape. The ultimate indignity? Part of her corpse has been slathered in a garish coat of rouge, a remnant from earlier this year when the elegant lady was forced to appear as an extra in the abominable film Rush Hour 2.

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Once the fuses are lit, the D.I. will join the Dunes, the Sands, the Hacienda, the Landmark and the old Aladdin on the list of imploded Las Vegas hotels. But those hotels met their end when each was tired, if not exhausted, worn down and overcome by time. The Desert Inn is different. It goes down just a few years after a glorious remodel and makeover -- after she was seduced, acquired and then hastily betrayed by the most powerful man in town. And her demise marks the end of a historic era in a city that denies there is any past, or any future beyond your arrival and departure dates -- and the expiration of your line of credit.

"Go to a European hotel, and they brag about it being 300 years old," says Dick Taylor, who managed the Hacienda when it first opened, a few years after the D.I. "But not here, man. No one cares that Sinatra lived in Room 124 of the Sands. They don't care about the Sands. They don't care about the Desert Inn. Here, when you hit age 50, they just blow you up." ä

THE DESERT INN AND I CAME INTO THE WORLD TOgether in the same year, 1950. And even before I could crawl, my parents were regularly carting me along to Vegas. But in those years my parents shifted their preferences from El Rancho Vegas to the Hacienda to the Stardust and then to the Dunes. Never the Desert Inn. And so, as an adult, it didn't occur to me until about a decade ago to check into the D.I. But once the Lady and I formally met, I fell for her completely. Since then, I have found any excuse for making the four-hour drive to spend an impromptu weekend, a night, even a long single afternoon in her fragile embrace.

The D.I.'s allure was formidable. Yes, the Mirage beckoned with her royal white tigers, her indoor rain forest and hourly erupting volcano. And there were other temptations: the Luxor and her 30-story, 2,256-room glass pyramid topped by a cyber-age siren -- a laser so bright it could be seen by orbiting spacecraft; the MGM Grand, with her 5,000 rooms and, at 171,500 square feet, claim as "the world's largest casino"; the Treasure Island, billed as an "adventure resort," with an on-the-hour "battle royale" between a 90-foot pirate ship and a replica British frigate. In later years, the Mandalay Bay tried to lure with $20 million in sharks. The Bellagio with $300 million in art. The Paris with an Eiffel Tower and New York New York with a scale model of a different lady -- Liberty. Even the somewhat august Caesar's built a shopping mall that awed the crowds with talking statues.

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