Perfect Las Vegas

This week we have a special guest column by Sandra Elliott who writes about how to enjoy Las Vegas while still keeping your money in your pocket, where it belongs.

The key to wringing the most pleasure out of Vegas, (and anywhere else for that matter) is knowing what’s best and where to find it.

Take the legendary Las Vegas buffets. Each seems to feature one item that’s not merely good, but sensational. At Bally’s it’s the green beans. Smothered in thick, salty butter sauce and sprinkled with toasted almond slivers, always piping hot but never overcooked, they’re everything green beans are supposed to be but never quite are. At Caesar’s Palace, it’s the squash. Okay, it’s pretty hard to ruin pureed squash, but most of the time it’s either too bland or too seasoned, while at Caesar’s the balance is always just right.

Las Vegas restaurants feature every exotic luxury dish imaginable, from escargot to sashimi to raviolini stuffed with braised short-rib meat to more flavors of crème brulee than you ever imagined existed. After trying most of them, I’ve discovered that the mundane done to perfection is more surprising, more of a revelation and delight than never-before-tasted exotica.

Sure it’s just green beans. Sure it’s just squash. But it’s absolutely perfect.

The same is true of shows. Price doesn’t equal fun. The Mirage’s new Beatles show, Love, is extremely expensive and looks and sounds every cent of it. But odds are you’ll have more fun at the Gold Coast’s Forever Plaid or the Hilton’s Menopause the Musical for half the cost.

And the best show in town? Free of charge.

I’m not kidding. It won’t cost you one red cent. That is, unless you succumb to the lure of the slots before or after (most people do) which is why all of the resorts offer free shows of one type or another. Yup, they’re everywhere. But the most successful, best attended, and most fun by far is Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee’s at the Barbary Coast lounge.

Pete’s called “Big Elvis” because he’s a big guy. At his souvenir stand, he’ll sell you an autographed copy of the National Enquirer article describing him as the “World’s Fattest Elvis.” But he’s a big guy in other, more interesting ways, too.

Las Vegas is so full of Elvis shows that you could build an entire two week vacation around nothing else and never have to see the same act twice. The Elvis-A-Rama Museum has at least two Elvi on staff, maybe three. The one I saw was dieting in order to maintain his twenty-seven inch waist. “I can’t sound like him, I can’t look like him, but at least I can give him a better physique,” he explained. Another thing he said, and repeated several times, is “know your limitations.” It seemed to be his mantra, and maybe his excuse for being beautiful but not very entertaining.

At Pete’s Big Elvis show, the message seems to be “ignore your limitations and live your life anyway.” Or maybe even “embrace your limitations and turn them into assets.”

The first time I caught the show, I was passing through the Barbary Coast only to take advantage of its air conditioning while walking down the strip to somewhere else. The loudspeakers at the front of the casino were playing what I at first thought was a recording of Elvis Presley. Then I realized that the song being sung hadn’t been written until well after Elvis had left the planet. It wasn’t until the voice slid over a forgotten lyric that I understood this was a live act and decided to venture deeper into the building and see if I could find it. After squirming through a maze of slot machines, I turned a corner and there he sat—singing his heart out—the biggest human being I had ever seen in my life.

A tourist, already drunk at three in the afternoon, yelled “What is this? A freak show?” Big Elvis waited until his song was over, smiled and acknowledged the applause, and then announced to the room at large, “If you think you’re looking at a freak show, you should have my view of the room.”

What shut the drunk up was the way in which he said it. It wasn’t a chastisement. It was genial… amused and amusing. It was an invitation. Hell, maybe it was a spell. It worked like one.

I’ve seen his show many times since then, and he never had to say something similar on any of those occasions, but he cast the spell anyway. My favorite aspect of the Big Elvis show isn’t his voice, (although that’s terrific, especially in the lower register) but the mood he creates. For one hour, twice an afternoon, each Monday through Friday, everyone within the sound of his voice gets sucked into what I like to think of as a bubble of meritocracy. Everyone is equal at the Big Elvis show, and everybody is having a great time, no matter who they are or what their daily lives are like or how much they might have lost at the tables the day before.

I’m told that Elvi (if that isn’t the correct plural form, it should be) don’t consider themselves impersonators unless they pretend they really are Elvis Presley. Which Pete does not do. But the effect is the same, to the extent that, despite his age, fans occasionally call out “Are you the real Elvis?” When that happens, he always laughs and says “I’ll never tell.” Attending the show feels like a trip into a parallel dimension where Elvis had stayed away from every drug except the fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and been bright, sincere and accepting. Without meaning to, Pete is putting on the “if Elvis had been a better person” show. What’s more, the effect extends to the audience, creating that bubble I mentioned earlier.

There comes a moment in every set when he asks for volunteers to come up and join him—he doesn’t pester anybody or single them out, but just waits until enough people screw up the nerve. He seldom has to wait very long—it’s kind of like watching a snake charmer, the way he pulls people toward him.

I remember one volunteer in particular, a middle-aged man with a facial disfigurement. You could tell this guy had never put himself forward in public before in his life… but during the show he was secure, safe and protected in Big E’s bubble of meritocracy. So up he went, into the “little Elvis” competition, playing an inflatable guitar and shaking his groove thing, all inhibitions and embarrassment temporarily banished from his life. What I loved most about this was that he didn’t win the competition. After the song, Big Elvis asks the crowd to clap for each contestant, and clap loudest for whoever looked like he was having the most fun. Another guy on stage danced more exuberantly, so that’s who won. Because at the Big Elvis show, you’re never pitied, you’re judged on merit. At the Big Elvis show, all of the superficial things that people are ordinarily judged by are somehow rendered meaningless, whatever they may be. You are safe in the bubble, even if you have never been treated exactly like everybody else at any other time or place in your life. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. In fact, it may just be the most fun you’ll ever have.

The next time you’re in Las Vegas, try to catch Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee’s act at least once. Sure, he’s just another Elvis in a town with a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit on every corner.

But he’s absolutely perfect.