Appearing in adjacent columns in the Los Angeles Times the other day were three ads headlined FLY. Each outlined a package—or "pleasure package"—that promised to fly me to Las Vegas or some other Nevada gambling resort where I would be served champagne by the carboy, lodged, feted, fed to the casinos and flown home again, all "for the price of a good hat."
The El Capitan Casino at Hawthorne, Nev. would do it for the price of an ordinary hat, a mere $10; the Hacienda at Las Vegas for $24.50; the El Dorado at Railroad Pass for $19.95. When one reached Railroad Pass there would be a $15 refund in silver dollars, playable at any table. This trimmed the initial cash outlay to $4.95. A friend of mine who had a compulsion against flying called this rank extravagance. His favorite trip was a bus package tour from San Francisco to Harrah's at Lake Tahoe, costing $7.50, of which $6 was refunded in silver dollars.
The invitation that won my business, however, was the Hacienda tour—three days, two nights at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas, dinner, golf, a hit show, all for $39.20. "Show time!" cried the ad. A long-stemmed girl in feathers and a Rembrandt toque stretched across the top of a four-engine Constellation, her left hand holding up a glass from which bubbled asterisks and stars and lowercase o's to connote the potency of the budget trip.
The Hacienda recently had its knuckles rapped by the CAB for operating as an unlicensed common carrier and was forced to reorganize its flying operations, but at the time I applied there was no trouble signing up for the $39.20 tour. Our flight was three-quarters full. The clientele was gay and effusive. There were secretaries, insurance men, minor executives, honeymooners, a young engineer, two college girls from Milwaukee—all of a middle-class cut, all of what the more posh Las Vegas hotels, like the Sands and Desert Inn, slightingly refer to as the Shirtsleeve Set or the Greyhound Bus Trade.
July 22, 1962
"Fasten your money belts," chirped the little French hostess, and before the plane was much off the ground she and her companion had passed around pink plastic champagne glasses. The effervescent equivalent of asterisks soon began to fill the compartment. The stewardess said they serve as much as 30 bottles a trip. The revelers were generally agreed that it was a fine time they were having and wasn't this a good deal? and don't worry about our money because we're going to treat the tables and the wheels like they were booby-trapped. A girl from Cleveland, traveling with her 59-year-old mother, said her wagering limit would be $2 a day, "and no more!" A Los Angeles businessman said he'd heard that song before, and after six trips he had struck upon a solution: Go see the shows, then go home.
The plane crossed the San Gabriel Mountains and dipped into the Mojave Desert. "This," said the pilot, "is how low you feel when you roll snake eyes." (It is custom in Nevada to take customers' losses lightly.) The hot air off the valley floor reached up and shook the plane, but did not impede the flow of champagne. One girl said she had five glasses "and I didn't feel a thing." Neither did a man who had come aboard already bleary, and was therefore being plied with black coffee.
I had imagined Las Vegas to be a land of shimmering women and high rollers (big spenders) and had been warned that it was no place for the cautious peccadilloes of cheapskates. My first impression upon deplaning was of a gray, flat desert interrupted only by the gallimaufry of glistening hotels, which rose from the desolation as if by a miracle of misplacement. The Hacienda is the last hotel on The Strip, or the first, depending on which publicist is describing the geography. It has a stable of horses, which nobody seems inclined to ride, a par-3 golf course that only the brave will dare in the 100° heat, a Z-shaped swimming pool, a track for peewee race cars and a showroom that goes unused except, said the manager, when the Girl Scouts are having a banquet. It likes to be called a family hotel, and there is no disputing this because teen-agers can usually be seen on the periphery of the casino, craning their necks as Mommy and Daddy have a go at the gaming tables. Las Vegas hotels let kiddies watch from the gallery, since the gambling area is off limits for all who lack the wisdom that comes with being 21 years old.
We came into the casino. Already another free cocktail line (champagne and pink plastic glasses) was forming. The view from the line was a panorama of slot machines, roulette wheels and dice tables. My friend who favored the bus tour to Harrah's at Lake Tahoe had said that there, when a passenger collected his $6 refund in silver dollars, he was obliged to pass through a valley of roulette wheels and slot machines, with the silver dollars burning his palm and metallic tinkles and clinks assaulting him from all sides. He said that no one ever made it with his $6 refund intact, and I could now understand why. As we sipped our champagne and looked around, whatever resistance we may have felt began to subside. The ring-a-ding of the slot machines became a compelling tune. From the lounge behind the roulette wheels a chubby blonde chanteuse with a Kay Starr twang assailed the room with her 3-in-the-afternoon number: "Wheah somebody waits for me, sugah's sweet and so is he, bye, byeee, blackbird...." Wide-eyed neophytes among us discount-house gamblers, still clutching their bags, hazarded a nickel, a dime, sometimes a quarter, in the slot machines. One of the college girls from Milwaukee immediately scored. "Ohheee!" she squealed. "Look what it did!" On the stool next to her an old lady in Bermudas gave the pot a professional glance. "Five dollars there," she said.
There was a how-to class for beginners at noon each day, and a Hacienda croupier instructed us on the art and science of losing money. Some in the class were intimidated by the complexities of the table games, however, and returned to the slot machines where the action was direct and required no thought. It is easy to strike an affinity with a machine that moves only at your bidding. A stout man sitting transfixed as the fruit whirled before him was saying, "Come on, baby, baby, baby, you can do it, I know you can." The 59-year-old mother from Cleveland became affixed to the arm of the machine. Her fortunes ran hot and then cold, and still she could not turn loose. The young engineer whose wife and child were visiting her parents said he'd try the blackjack table though he couldn't afford to lose much. Neither could I, but I moved to the tables anyway. At first I watched from a step back, entranced but hesitant as the dealer whipped the cards around. The oldtimers (budgeteers who came in yesterday) sat hunched over their cards like monks, contemplating the game with a studied nonchalance. They were in bathing suits and sport shirts, ties and cowboy hats. There was a magic to the routine of shuffling cards and passing chips, and the urge to join them became too great. Hands moist, I took a vacant stool. I had a faint awareness of the music from the lounge—"sugah's sweet, so is he"—and an irrepressible pounding at the temples. I was quite willing to surrender my ten dollars if I could just do it quickly and without notice. But despite a few social errors—crying for a "hit" instead of flicking the cards in the accepted manner, bungling the double play and the insurance call—I discovered happily that I was enjoying a good early foot: five dollars ahead.
The Hacienda had friendly dealers, we had been told. And indeed my dealer seemed a friendly fellow. He was an ex-cowboy who once rode in Madison Square Garden. (Another dealer said he had four kids and managed a Little League team on his days off.) The cards kept coming. I found myself talking with the dealer about his family and his favorite fishing hole. A leggy hostess, not pretty, but not ugly either, her costume lacy and super short, had spotted my winnings and came to say that the house would like to buy me a drink. Sure, I said, why not, and I tipped her a chip. Money now had a subtle new character; chips didn't seem like money. They were lighter, for one thing, and when you are winning it is easy to throw them around. I became quite good at it. The chubby blonde singer, I told my neighbor, sounded like Kay Starr. He agreed. I discovered that my brilliance was not dimmed at the craps table, either, and soon I was carrying around a fistful of $5 chips. It was not enough.
Out into the hot night air (or was it morning) I went to try my skills elsewhere along The Strip—the Sands, the Dunes, the Desert Inn. Most of my fellow bargain-rate gamblers did likewise. The casinos began to blur, and in recollection they all looked alike, except that there seemed to be fewer cigarette burns on the better tables. I remember that I heard Louis Prima at one of the lounges and watched an Oriental in a spangly red dress deal blackjack at another. Just when my luck changed I am not sure. It was almost imperceptible, like erosion. Suddenly I realized I was down to nothing. More chips were bought and they became clumsy in my hand. I played it tighter, held them longer, but soon they were gone and the ritual of buying and losing became inordinately grim.
I headed back to the Hacienda. The gray-haired mother from Cleveland was still tied to a slot machine, her wrinkled little arm pulling and pulling. "Dammit!" she said, "I try it easy and I try it hard, and it still comes up lemons." A man from Detroit had wired home for more money—for the second time. Even the friendly croupiers at the Hacienda had changed. They became as witting accomplices to our discomfort. The rapport was broken. I asked a fellow gamesman if he didn't think our dealer looked like he had a mad on for the world. "Did you ever see such evil in a face?" I asked. He said surely he had not. He then said the fat blonde singer didn't sound like Kay Starr. Who she really sounded like, he said, was Casey Stengel. The waitress in the shorty nightgown seemed to have aged a lot in the past 12 hours, and we heard her say that she was getting sick and tired of feeding her no-account husband, because "he gambles away all the money I earn. It's a sickness with him. A sickness."
If so, it is a sickness that the bargain tours have made easy to contract. A San Franciscan can be exposed for $56.70. From Houston there was a six-day tour for $179 and the rate from Chicago was $188, from Detroit $208, from New York $239, and in general comparable fares by ordinary air lines were more than the cost of the whole pleasure package. Before last week's court ruling that it could not operate as a common carrier, the Hacienda used its own eight-plane air force, "the only one of its kind in hotel history." (Wilbur Clark of the Desert Inn bought 26 planes some years ago to launch a similar venture, then decided to sell them to Nigeria.) The spokesmen for the Hacienda say that until the hotel is granted a resort certificate by the CAB, enabling it to again operate its own planes it will contract the hotel with other carriers to bring its budgeteers into town. They say that the ruling merely means that for the time being the Hacienda can't use its own air force.
The Hacienda flights have been going on for seven years. Last year they carried 100,000 bargain-basement gamblers to Las Vegas. How much they contributed to the total of $117 million wagered in Las Vegas during the year cannot be known. Rival hostelers say it is not much. But by the time the budgeteers are ready to leave, they have seen the garish insides of practically every major hotel and made a contribution to each casino they visited.
Despite the numbers of people it brings to town, however, the Hacienda is not loved within the community. There are 27 resort hotels listed with the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Hacienda is not among them. "We are ostracized," said the manager, "because we are different." The rival hotels say the principal difference is that the Hacienda caters to low spenders. A big casino in Las Vegas does 10 times more dollar volume in gambling business than the Hacienda. The entertainment provided by the Hacienda tours is ordinary Las Vegas nightclub fare, not those with such costly stars as Frank Sinatra or Red Skelton. "The Hacienda," said one publicist for a big Strip hotel, "is not of our philosophy. We prefer the one guy who'll spend $10,000 to the 1,000 who'll spend $10. The nut to crack is the big show—Durante, Sinatra, Dean Martin—and you can't pay for it with chicken feed."
As for us budgeteers who provided the chicken feed, we were unanimously solemn as we bunched together for the bus ride to the airport. If anyone had found the pleasure he sought at the price paid, his joy was concealed behind a grave and thoughtful expression. What part of our solemnity was fatigue—the casinos are open 24 hours a day, and there were only perfunctory efforts to sleep during the three-day tour—and how much was disenchantment was hard to tell. In any event, we lined up early in the hotel lobby, rode to the airport and trooped stoically aboard the waiting DC-4. My own losses were minor. They came to $40. The two girls from Milwaukee were down to $1.10 between them and said they had walked two miles at three a.m. the night before to save cab fare. "If I had a thousand dollars," said one, "I'd probably go right back and blow it." On the plane, talk was scarce. The man from Detroit said he had lost "more than I care to say." The young engineer who said he couldn't afford to had lost $300.
The hostesses passed down the aisles with trays. Where there had been champagne in a pink glass on the flight out, there was now sour lemonade in a Dixie Cup.