Leaving Las Vegas

Fox TV ushers in the New Year by blowing up a bit of America's kitschy past.

Published January 7, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the annals of history — or the movies, at least — are full of stories about preservationists clamoring to save this or that historic property and managing to step in front of the wrecking ball at the last possible moment. But in the 11th hour — at the stroke of midnight on January 1, to be exact — there was no one around who cared to save the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas, built in 1956 and brought to its knees like a dying elephant on Fox TV as the centerpiece of "Sinbad's Dynamite New Year's Eve." Fox turned the implosion of the hotel into a media event, tucked between Sinbad's banter and performances by the Doobie Brothers and Hootie and the Blowfish. And nobody, least of all the thousands of spectators who clogged the streets to see the alleged spectacle, seemed sorry to see the old hotel go. The president of Circus Circus, bow-tied and spiffy in a wax-dummy kind of way, came on midway through the program to burble on about the grand edifice that will take the Hacienda's place — a 4,000-room "destination mega-resort" currently referred to as Project Paradise, which will come complete with a wave machine that will make genuine six-foot "Hawaiian" waves.

So what's to miss about the Hacienda? It certainly wasn't the grandest of the old Vegas hotels. It was too simple, too ordinary, with none of the garish beauty we see in old Rat Pack photos of the Sands, for instance. But if the Hacienda wasn't a leading man, from what we could see on TV it was at least a pretty good contract player. With its name marching up its side in Art Deco-revival lettering, with an almost dignified faded-ochre facade and a quiet row of archways lining its base, it was graceful and solid at the same time. The Hacienda just didn't look as if it deserved to die.

But from the instant the Circus Circus execs got that gleam in their eye, from the minute those faux-Hawaiian waves leapt off the drawing board, it was doomed. The Hacienda and its like aren't the kind of buildings anyone goes to bat for — not yet, anyway. They're nasty old things we'd just as soon be rid of, mistakes from our too-giddy past, like an indiscreet remark dropped at a drunken party. Casinos draped in neon jewels, apartment buildings disguised as space ships, hot-dog stands shaped like actual hot-dogs — they're all part of our Great American Embarrassment, the stuff that makes us blush in front of the rest of the world. We can spend millions on authentic boomerang coffee-tables and Howdy Doody dolls, we can ride the kitschy flume of the `50s-lounge-music craze for all it's worth, but in the end the stuff we built in our "innocent" years is all just too cheap to last — may as well get rid of it and move on to things that really matter.

It's funny that no one at Fox, and probably no one on the streets of Las Vegas that night, ever stopped to think that blowing up a building on New Year's Eve might be a desperately depressing event. It was. Maybe it's because even our silliest buildings mean something: actually, a culture's playgrounds can probably tell you more about it than the its more serious architecture. The Hacienda wasn't just a shell loaded with dynamite: not so long ago, it was a place where miniature fortunes were won and lost, a place where you could probably see either a stellar or a lousy nightclub act depending on the phase of the moon, a place where you could wear a fancy gown, or maybe just bad checkered pants. It was a place where Americans went to do, well, whatever it is Americans do between the lines, between the times they're being the working stiffs they're driven to be. And although almost every one of us coos and twitters when we come across a pristine roadside diner that's hardly changed since the `50s, we're still ready to cheer on cue when a Vegas relic gets blown to smithereens.

Before the explosion, a beaming Fox announcer stood in front of the building, spouting "facts" about it — it had 900 rooms, was four times as large as the Dunes, another hotel that was demolished a few years ago. He kept referring to it as a "historic hotel," and cheerfully announced that just three weeks ago it still had guests — people checking in and out, gambling in the casinos — as if that should make us feel honored to watch the thing go kablooey. Seeing the Hacienda in its final moments, empty and desolate, was, as a friend pointed out, like getting to know your prey before you eat it.

But when its big moment finally came, the Hacienda at least got the last laugh: after the initial firebursts coursed through it, there wasn't all that much to see through the smoke. The fireworks beforehand were more impressive — pink chrysanthemums burst over the hotel's roof, sending meteor showers down around it. And just before the big kaboom that would set the Hacienda caving in on itself, streams of colored light dripped down from its roof, cascading to the ground. Yeah, they looked a little like tears. But in her last moments, the Hacienda, from the outside at least, looked pretty damn good for a 40-year-old hotel. It was the Doobie Brothers who looked tired and old. Until we figure out which institutions are worth preserving, we're doomed to hear "China Grove" over and over again, and maybe that's just the fate we deserve.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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