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Vegas: The Unbelievable Truth

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Separating facts from fiction in a larger-than-life town

by Ed Condran

Rumors run rampant about what has happened and what occurs in Sin City. Do casinos pump in extra oxygen to help keep gamblers awake? Does Big Casino Brother determine who will strike it rich? Is there a Megabucks curse?

To differentiate between reality and some of the more widely circulated tall tales, we spoke with six long-time Vegas residents: former Riviera entertainment director Steven Schirripa, now famous as The Sopranos’ “Bobby Bacala”; Dr. David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV; professional poker legend Doyle Brunson; Don Hallmark, director of slot operations at the Palms Casino Resort; former Macy’s public relations manager Jackie Wright; and female impersonator Frank Marino, star of the Riviera’s long-running show La Cage.

There is a Megabucks curse.

Myth. “Many of the stories circulated about winners who died or were injured are just myths,” says Schwartz. “The guy who won the biggest Megabucks jackpot is alive and well in southern California. It’s true that something may have happened to some of these big winners, but overall it’s just not so. Go after the Megabucks. Your biggest problem is probably going to be the taxes—and people trying to sponge off of you.”

There are more breast implant operations in Las Vegas than in any other city in the world.

Fact. “I know, since I’m the king of plastic surgery,” cracks Marino. “I guess it’s due to the showgirls. I myself never wanted to be a woman. If God wanted me to be a woman, he would have given me $20,000 for the operation.”

Roy Horn of the Siegfried and Roy magician duo died during the ’80s and was replaced by his look-alike cousin.

Myth. “Definitely not true,” declares Marino. “Everybody said he died of AIDS but that was not so. I was so furious when I heard this. You can’t be that stupid. You people out there are watching too many soap operas.”

The tiger that injured the aforementioned Roy was actually trying to help him offstage during a 2003 performance.

Fact. “Roy fell and the tiger grabbed him by the neck and tried to walk him off the stage,” explains Marino. “He was actually trying to assist him. However, it’s a much better story if he was attacked by one of his own tigers. So that’s what some publications published. The tiger wasn’t malicious. Also, yes, it was the real Roy who was maimed. He is doing very well in recovery. I just watched him walk the other day and I had tears in my eyes.”

During his final years as a madman recluse, Howard Hughes lived on top of the Desert Inn.

Myth. “That doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Brunson. “Nobody saw him except one person, who made that claim after all these years. It’s a myth.”

There’s a guy watching the casino floor from above, who decides who will win the next big jackpot.

Myth. “Slot machine payouts are determined by a random number generator,” Schwartz explains. “It’s not too bright to think the slot machines are rigged. The state would be all over a casino that tried to rig a machine.”

Prostitution is legal in Las Vegas.

Myth. “No, that’s not true,” says Hallmark. “It’s legal if you leave Clark County (to Pahrump, for example), but it’s not legal in Las Vegas.”

The water crisis in Las Vegas is so severe that restaurants won’t serve a glass of water, unless requested.

Fact. “For every glass of water you drink, it takes two glasses of water to clean the glass,” says Marino. “The situation is so severe in Las Vegas that you’re only allowed to water your lawn on certain days. I do my part. My backyard is all Astroturf.”

Casinos pump in extra oxygen through air conditioning to keep people awake . . . and gambling.

Myth. “Not only is that untrue, it’s nonsense,” says Schwartz. “This is an environment in which people smoke cigarettes. You wouldn’t have people smoking cigarettes in an oxygen-rich environment. That’s something that would never happen.”

There are no clocks or windows in casinos.

Myth. “This is fiction; many casinos do have windows so you can see outside,” Schwartz states. “Wynn Las Vegas is an example of a casino that has lots of natural light in it. As for clocks, you usually don’t see many clocks, but how many restaurants, movie theaters, museums and churches have clocks on their walls? About the same as casinos.”

Some gamblers have ruined slot machines by pouring holy water in the devices for good luck.

Myth. “We would have heard about this,” Brunson says. “The cameras would have caught somebody doing it. It’s silly to think about pouring holy water in a slot machine anyway. God is too busy to worry about slot machines.”

Most slot machines don’t pay out.

Myth “They all pay out,” says Schwartz, “and they all do in a random manner.”

Casinos regularly replace their carpeting, since some gamblers refuse to take bathroom breaks.

Fact. “Some of them do change the carpets for that reason,” says Schwartz. “Some people do urinate [right there]. I remember seeing one lady who would go down every row of slot machines and let a little tinkle out on each seat, and on the rug. I think some people do it out of spite, and then there are those who have genuine bladder problems. Regardless, some rugs have to come up because of this. But it is true that some die-hard gamblers don’t ever want to leave the table. In the old days, you would have people playing poker for three days straight eating cheese sandwiches. There are still people like that today. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the seat before you sit down a casino.”

Celebrities are everywhere.

Fact. “I think there are more celebrities in Vegas than Los Angeles,” says Wright. “You see them everywhere. One time I was going out to dinner with a client and he said, ‘Let’s go to the CP.’ I wondered why we were going to the California Pizza Kitchen. We ended up at the Club Paradise, which is a strip club. We ended up in an exclusive area drinking champagne. I ended up sitting in a booth with Pam Anderson, Kid Rock and Carson Daly. They were all getting lap dances. You never know who you’ll be sitting next to in Vegas.”

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Fact. “Vegas is a very small town,” says Wright. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s important to go in knowing people in the casino industry. That way you can get into the exclusive clubs. If you don’t know someone in Vegas you’ll never get on the list for a place like the Foundation Room. It’s all about who you know in Vegas.”

Bodies are dumped in the desert.

Fact. “A friend of mine works in home development in the Vegas area,” says Wright. “He and his company often find human remains out in the desert. So be nice when you come out or you might end up buried in the desert.”

The Frontier Hotel changed its name to the New Frontier Hotel.

Fact. “After I went in there I asked the people there, ‘What, did you vacuum?’ jokes Marino. “I’m not going to have any friends here after people read this article.”

There is an alien base underneath the strip.

Myth. “That would explain a lot of the people who come to Las Vegas,” quips Schwartz. “I guess they want to play Megabucks. I’ve never been down there but it’s not true.”

Tipping in Vegas makes a big difference.

Fact. “In a restaurant, you tip to get a table,” says Steve Schirripa. “Then you tip to get a better table. You tip to get good service. In Vegas, the casino employees have a special code for tippers. They say, about a big tipper, ‘He’s George.’ If there’s a big tipper in the house, people working the casino, say, ‘Check him out, the guy’s George.’ You’ll hear casino guys talk about him like he was a celebrity. Maybe they’re helping him get a ticket to the fights or for a show. If the guy is a really big tipper, he’s King George. My friend Mikie (CQ), who’s a craps dealer, he says Dennis Rodman is a King George. He also refers to some other basketball players as ‘Hoardin’ Michael Jordan and No Tippin’ Scotty Pippen.’ If you’re cheap, forget it. It’s better not to tip at all than to be a piker. Before he got famous, the magician David Copperfield used to come into this place where I worked. He’d come over to me and say, ‘I want you to tell all the girls who I am and send them over to my table.’ And he’d give me three dollars. Three dollars! He never got any girls from me.”
***AU: What does the “(CQ)” above mean?

Tipping won’t get you everything in Vegas.

Fact. “One pal of mine used to be the captain at the Hilton when Elvis played there in the 1970s,” says Schirripa. “He told me that he’d get lots of extremely rich Japanese customers coming to the show. They’d stand in line and wait to get seated, just like everyone else. Then they’d get up to where he was standing and they’d see the front row was empty and they’d start pointing. Now the front row, for a big show like Elvis, is always reserved for comps. These might be reserved for high rollers or Elvis’s mom, or whatever. But you cannot give them to the regular customers standing in line. Not for any kind of tip. Can’t be done. But these Japanese customers didn’t speak much English, so they didn’t understand that. As soon as he would tell them, ‘No, I can’t give you that seat,’ out would come a hundred-dollar bill. And he’d say, ‘No, I’m sorry. Those are the comp seats. Those are reserved.’ Out would come another hundred-dollar bill. So he’d say again , very patiently. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’ And here comes another hundred-dollar bill. He’s making several hundred dollars, per customer for seats he can’t give away to his best friend. So you can’t get what’s not available, no matter how much you tip.”

Celine Dion makes more than $1 million in a five-day workweek.

Fact. “It’s true and I have to put in a full six days to make that kind of money,” says Marino.

The MGM Grand junked its Wizard of Oz theme since Asian tourists believed it was bad luck to walk under the lion.

Fact. “You had to walk through the lion’s mouth, which is bad luck according to Asians,” says Wright. “They had to make that change since Asians are a huge part of their clientele.”

When playing the MGM Grand, Barbra Streisand had the toilet lids removed in the name of hygiene.

Fact. “It’s the truth,” says Marino. “She’s not the only celebrity to do that.”

When Barbra Streisand played Vegas, employees weren’t allowed to look her in the eye.

Myth. “You could look her in the eyes,” Marino jokes, “but you couldn’t spit in them.”

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