On tap at AS220: America's glimmering city of sin

Action Speaks!
By PHILIP EIL  |  September 26, 2013

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BIRTH OF THE STRIP A postcard for the Hotel El Rancho Vegas.

When Action Speaks! — the AS220-hosted panel discussions series on “underappreciated 20th Century dates that changed America” that’s been recorded and broadcast on radio stations nationwide — returns next month for their four-part 2013 season, they’ll be coming back in style. This year’s “Utopian/Dystopian”-themed season kicks off with “Betting On Hedonism,” a conversation about 1941, the year  the El Rancho Vegas hotel and casino opened and the neon-lit Strip was born.

On hand for the discussion will be longtime Action Speaks! host Marc Levitt, flanked by an expert on the Las Vegas PR machine (Dr. Larry Gragg, author of Bright Light Big City: Las Vegas in Popular Culture), an authority on ancient Greek concepts of beauty and materialism (NYU Professor of Classics David Konstan), and associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

The MIT professor, Natasha Dow Schüll, is no stranger to America’s most famous utopia/dystopia. She lived there for years as a cultural anthropologist and she’s directed two documentary films on the city — BUFFET: All You Can Eat Las Vegas and Only In Vegas, about the local wedding chapel industry — and written the award-winning book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

Schüll recently chatted with us over the phone about that exotic hub of blinking lights and whirring, cash-gobbling machines. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

DOES VEGAS FALL CLOSER TO UTOPIA OR DYSTOPIA, IN YOUR ESTIMATION? It’s absolutely both. They go together.

Las Vegas is a place of so many polar opposites. It’s a place where you can have hope for great wealth, but there is also great poverty there and the risk of great loss, of course, is always sort of hovering in the background. Even the way it’s staged, presenting itself as a utopia: there’s water everywhere and fountains, but actually there’s great drought and it’s in the middle of the desert. It encapsulates these extremes.

WHETHER WE’RE VISITING OR WATCHING FILMs ABOUT IT, MOST OF US ENCOUNTER LAS VEGAS AS TOURISTS. WHAT CAN WE LEARN BY LOOKING AT VEGAS THROUGH THE EYES OF THE LOCALS (MANY OF WHOM ARE FREQUENT GAMBLERS), AS YOU HAVE? Those of us who visit Las Vegas, we sort of reduce the whole of Las Vegas just to the Strip, just to this sort of shimmering corridor of palaces that offer us seemingly infinite abundance, whether it’s food, as I explored in the buffet film, or just of chance and possibility [and] entertainment. And for those who live there, people really try to avoid the Strip as much as possible and have their own sets of casinos and places to go that are quite differently configured inside. The interior design is different, the kinds of gambling games that are offered are quite different.

[For them] it’s more about sort of checking out, zoning out, I’d say; it’s more about being comfortably numb or getting some kind of escape than it is about this excitement [about] winning that the tourists arrive with. The whole gambling industry sees the tourists as a kind of naïve group of gamblers, whereas locals are more sophisticated gamblers. They’re jaded. They’re not so easy to please with lights and sounds and twisting carpets.

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