Travels & Traditions: Las Vegas - #111

Once each year the ancient Romans held an all-out, city-wide celebration called the Feast of Saturn.  The feast was encouraged by the government and designed to let everyone take a break from the tensions of life.  The Roman god in charge of the event was Bacchus.  Bacchus was into having a good time.  He called for parades that exhibited the wilder part of human nature.  He encouraged the eating of great food.  He was personally in charge of drinking magnificent wines.  He loved gaming.  He wanted things to be big... and a bit outrageous.

The festival required the construction of things from the past or things that were foreign to the city.  The design of the structures that were built for the celebration were taken from distant cultures.

During the Feast of Saturn people were allowed to cross over the traditional barriers... to violate a few of the rules.  All levels of society got to take part in the action.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When Rome fell, Bacchus retired to the old folks’ home for ancient gods, and led a rather quiet life.  But like so many retired people he felt that he was too young to just sit around.  He wanted to get back in the action.  He wanted to recreate the old Feast of Saturn, but he wanted the new one to be bigger and better than ever.  And most important, he wanted it to take place in the town to which he had retired... which just happened to be... Las Vegas.

So here it is.  The ancient Roman Feast of Saturn.  Twenty-four hours a day.  Every day of the year.

But Las Vegas is more than just the recreation of the Feast of Saturn.  In 1968 a group of architects from Yale University took a look at this town and wrote a book called Learning From Las Vegas.

They described the ancient markets in Europe with their narrow passageways... where communication takes place through direct contact... where you are persuaded to make your purchase because you can see and touch and smell the things you are offered for sale.

They point out that when the medieval market became Main Street the products moved back behind windows -- but you still had some direct contact.

Commercial strips do not present the actual merchandise that is available.  Here information about the product comes from a sign, a sign that must make its point to the people who are moving along in a car at thirty miles an hour, rather than walking through the market at three miles an hour.  The sign’s primary role is to connect the driver to the product.  The signs use words, pictures and sculpture to make their point.  It is a perfectly logical system for a population that moves around in cars.  The shopping strip is to Las Vegas what the Piazza is to Rome.

The architecture of the hotels and the casinos is also very specific.  The general lighting of the gaming room itself is low.  There is no contact with the outside.  Time and space are limitless.  You are in an environment without boundaries.  Outside there are palm trees and sand, surrounding a pool of refreshing water... an oasis in the desert.  Free of the boundaries of time and space, an oasis... once again, the themes of the Feast of Saturn.

The architecture of this city is popular architecture.  The buildings are fun; they’re filled with symbols that remind people of other things, of the wild west... of sudden wealth... of wishes coming true... The signs are like the triumphal arches of ancient Rome: they’re filled with meaning, they tell a story, and they channel the people through the city.  This is the architecture of inclusion, where everyone is welcome.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are some architects who feel the need to teach us what they consider to be tasteful, to build the buildings that they want to build, whether we like them or not.  And very often the results are sterile and dead.  For the most part, Las Vegas has remained free of that kind of architecture.  The buildings here are popular, and for the most part, I love ‘em.

One of the elements in the Feast of Saturn is an attempt to bring opposites together, a concept that always reminds me of marriage.  And now, it will always remind me of Las Vegas, because Las Vegas is the marriage capital of the western world.  Over 100,000 weddings take place here every year.

This is the Little White Chapel.  It’s been in business since the fifties and performs about five hundred weddings each week.  It is also the home of the world-famous drive-up wedding window.  You don’t even have to get out of your car.  But before you write off the drive-up window as Las Vegas glitz, listen to the story of how it got started.

CHAROLETTE RICHARDS:  The drive-up window got started one day when I noticed a handicapped couple trying to get out of their car.  I went to their car and I said, “Would you like to be married in your car?” and they said, “We’d love it!”  So, I opened up the door, and sat there and performed their marriage, and we cried, we prayed, and it was beautiful.  So I kept looking for the handicapped people that I could perform their marriages for, and then I noticed that there was people that had little children and they were crying and they didn’t want to get dressed to go inside, and so the Drive-up Wedding Window was started.

Some anthropologists believe that men and women began pairing off and living together in what we now call a marriage because they needed to eat together.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The women were the gatherers.  They collected the fruits and the nuts and the vegetables that constituted over eighty percent of the daily calories.  The lady of the house was responsible for the bulk of the family diet.  The guys were the hunters.  They went out a couple of times a week and if they were very lucky they brought home the bacon.  Not much in terms of quantity, but very important in terms of quality.  The meat they brought home contained Vitamin B12, which was absolutely essential for everybody’s survival.

Today, in almost every society, the wedding ceremony contains a series of gastronomic elements.  At the end of the wedding meal the bride and groom share the cake.  They cut it together and she feeds him the first slice.  What could be more symbolic of our ancient roles?  She does most of the work, he gets most of the rewards.  Not fair, but very traditional.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Feast of Saturn was converted into Carnival.  These days the most elaborate carnival celebrations are held in New Orleans, Venice, and Rio de Janeiro.  So it’s no surprise to find that one of the great hotels of Las Vegas, the one that is regularly chosen by the Zagat Guide as the best, is called The Rio All-Suite Casino Resort, and it has a carnival theme throughout.

A centerpiece for Carnival has always been the parade... a procession that lets new life come into the city and infuses the place with fresh energy.  Rio takes the parade to new heights with its 25 million dollar Masquerade Show In the Sky.  A 950-foot track hangs above the casino.  Floats hang from the track and travel around the room.  There are three parades, each with a different theme.

There’s the New Orleans Mardi Gras... There’s the South of the Border Show that combines sights and sounds from carnivals in Brazil and the Caribbean... And there’s Venice.  Hotel guests can make arrangements to get into costume and ride with the performers.  During the Feast of Saturn Bacchus would arrive with his procession and alter the focus of the proceedings.  He always needed to be at the center of attention.  The Masquerade Show in the Sky has a similar effect.  It lasts for about twelve minutes and takes place every two hours.  And just like the ancient parade, it’s free and open to the public.

Bacchus was the god of the theater.  He felt that it was essential to dress up and pretend you were someone else, to lose yourself in some other character.  He was also the god of masks and would often appear as a well-known person.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Bacchus was the god of vegetable sap, which meant he was responsible for the return of new life each spring.  Good eating was an essential undertaking for his followers.  Not a difficult thing to do around here.  In keeping with the carnival spirit, I set myself the task of visiting most of the restaurants at Rio and getting the recipe for my favorite dish.  The things I have to do to make a living.

So let’s see what’s good to eat... !  The first stop was Mask; it specializes in food from the far east.  The menu presents dishes from Japan, China, and Thailand.  The recipe that I took away was for a stir-fried dish of shrimp, snow peas and cashew nuts.

A full ten yards away from Mask is Mama Marie’s.  Mama’s is an authentic family-style Italian restaurant.  They bake their own bread, they grind their own espresso, and they make their own pasta, and they prepare an excellent chicken cacciatore in a southern Italian style.

For a taste of Northern Italian food, there’s Antonio’s.  You can start with a traditional antipasto... maybe a little lobster with fettucini, too.  The recipe I picked up:  Linguine Puttanesca -- black olives, capers, and mushrooms in a garlic and oil sauce.

Bamboleo holds a fiesta every day, offering the flavors of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.  Since chocolate is indigenous to Latin America, it seems only appropriate that I should appropriate their recipe for a Kahlua chocolate brownie with mocha ice cream.

If you’re looking for good seafood, the place to go is Buzio’s.  The fish is flown in daily from all over the world.  The recipe that I took for us is for Chilean Sea Bass in a Creole crust, served with mashed potatoes and mushrooms.

Fiore specializes in elegant food from the South of France and the North of Italy.  You can order roast partridge, or a filet of ostrich -- which many people think tastes like chicken...  which raises the question “Which came first -- the chicken, or things that taste like chicken?”

Napa Restaurant specializes in the cuisine of Northern California, and is inspired by the work of Jean-Louis Palladin, one of the world’s great French chefs.  And today he gave me his previously secret recipe for a magnificent crab cake.


The hotel also features two fabulous buffets -- the Carnival World Buffet, and the Village Seafood Buffet.

And finally, at the very top of the food chain -- the fiftieth floor -- you’ll find the Voodoo Cafe.  The food is Cajun and Creole.  How spicy is it?

Their house drink is called What The Witch Doctor Ordered... which I ordered with a bowl of Voodoo Gumbo, made with chicken and andouille sausage.  Can I get a little more light over here so I can write down the recipe?  Thanks!

Bacchus was big in food but his specialty was wine.  Accordingly, the hotel has what may be the world’s largest public wine cellar... over 65,000 bottles.  The Wine Cellar Tasting Room displays the collection, and the bar offers three hundred wines by the glass.  They also have something they call “flights.”  A group of three wines with similar characteristics are presented together.  The “Bubbles” flight will give you a taste of three different champagnes.  “Original Zin” covers the zinfandels.  “Sweet Dreams” will give you three of the world’s great sweet wines.  The prices for the flights are low... they hope you will find something you like and buy a bottle at the retail shop.

During the past fifty years Americans have dramatically increased their consumption of fine wine, and thanks to the public relations efforts of the wineries we have learned a great deal about which wine is supposed to go with which food.

But the truth of the matter is that we still drink much more soda than anything else.  So I’ve asked Barrie Larvin, who is the president of the International Court of Master Sommeliers, and the director of the wine program at Rio, if he would take his magnificent sense of taste and smell and tell us which soda went best with which food.

BARRIE LARVIN:  Well, the first combination we’re going to try is Diet Coke from a ten-ounce bottle.  Very deep in color... Very nice movement towards the rim of the glass, here... Looks as though it’s aged.  Very good nose.  Good balance of acidity and sugar.  There’s a sort of earthy flavor to it, and it’s very, very light.  Full of flavor, and that lack of sweetness which really makes it the product that would go with a frankfurter.

And now we’re going to try an orange soda.  It’s got that petiance [sic], those bubbles that you would look at some of those lighter champagnes.  However, a nice deep color now... good color of orange, even little pieces of orange floating in the glass.  It’s now balancing itself out a little bit, and it really looks good.  Not too much flavor, but it’s got a nice lightness to it.  It’s probably going to be better in a year, so that everything balances more.  And this is the drink for pizza.

Then we’re on to a very nice cream soda -- an English drink.  Looks good in the glass, again.  Nice bitterness... and that will go very well with a burger, probably fries.

And then, we’re going on to some game!  And we’re going to try a traditional Coca-Cola... Good smell... deep... bands of flavors.  And this is excellent, really excellent, with game.

Carnival is always about making fun of things that some people take too seriously.  Clearly Barrie has the right personality for this town.  And speaking of game, you can’t talk about Las Vegas without talking about gaming.  The word comes from an old Middle English word meaning “to amuse oneself” or “to play.”  And people have been playing at gaming for a long time.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Archeologists have found evidence that people were gambling during the Stone Age period.  They also found a pair of dice in an ancient Egyptian tomb and carbon-dated those dice at 3000BC.  The archeologists who found the dice were also surprised to find out that the dice were loaded.  Clearly, gambling has been going on for a long, long time.

Dice probably evolved from the practice of casting stones or bones to foretell the future.  Years ago I was filming in a Chinese temple.  These women were asking questions about their future and casting stones for the answers.  Watch their hands and their body motion.  Look familiar?

Games with dice appear to have originated in the Orient and spread throughout the ancient world.  When they were used by public fortune tellers the onlookers would often bet on the outcome.  Some things never change.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Historians believe that the first card games showed up in Egypt and they showed up during the 9th century, and like dice, they were originally associated with telling the future.  By the 1200s, people were playing cards in southern Europe.  The Moors had brought the games to Spain, and the Crusaders had brought them back from the Middle East.  There is actually an entry in Columbus’ log book in which he describes his sailors as passing away their hours playing cards.

During the 1500s, the French divided the deck into four suits representing the four main divisions of mankind (as the French saw them).  The spades were for the nobility.  Hearts were for the clergy.  Diamonds represented the merchants and tradesmen... and the clubs stood for the peasantry.  Even today the royal cards present the costumes that were worn in the English court during the sixteenth century.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  After the French Revolution and then again after the Russian Revolution, the new populist governments tried to have the royal cards removed from the deck.  Revisionist dreams... they never had a chance.

The Rio also has a fitness center so you can get in shape for the casino.  See that guy?  He’s a dice shooter.  And she’s clearly buffing up for the slots.  It’s like I always say... you’ve got to try and stay in shape if you’re going to be at your best.

Outside the building...the Oasis.  And outside the oasis...the desert.

And there are good reasons to take a break from the city of Las Vegas and pay a visit to the desert.  The first people to live in this neighborhood took up residence about 13,000 years ago.  They lived in caves and dined on mammoths, with the sauce on the side.  None of their recipes have survived, but the land they lived on is pretty much intact and absolutely amazing.

The Valley of Fire State Park is just north of Las Vegas and well worth the hour drive.  This is the great American southwest, and to come to Las Vegas and miss this sight is to miss half of what this place is really about.  The highest formations are made of sand that was blown in here about 150 million years ago.  The dunes petrified into these extraordinary shapes.  There’s a little spur track out of the visitors’ center, and it heads up into Petroglyph Canyon Trail.

These petroglyphs are rock carvings that were put here by ancient tribes.  They predate any of the known native cultures of North America and no one knows why they were put here or what they mean.  Some anthropologists believe that they were part of a pre-hunt ritual... kind of a combination pre-game play plan and a pep talk by the head coach.  Whatever they are, they are certainly in a magical setting.

That’s nature untamed.  For a look at man attempting to control nature, drive down the road from Las Vegas about forty miles and take a look at the Hoover Dam.

For millions of years the Colorado River flowed out of the Rocky Mountains and down to the Gulf of California.  In 1905 a wet winter and heavy spring rains caused a series of floods that destroyed many of the farms in California’s Imperial Valley.  It was time for man to control nature... or at least give it his best shot.  His best shot turned out to be Hoover Dam, one of the most extraordinary construction projects ever undertaken.  Over five thousand people worked at the site.  New equipment was invented to perform tasks that were being tackled for the first time.  Workers were constantly being hit on the head with falling rocks.  At some point someone had the idea to take two caps, one facing forward, one facing back, and dip them into tar until they stuck together and became hard.  The first hard hats were invented by the workers on the Hoover Dam project.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Let me give you a quick overview of the project.  The Colorado River is running along here minding its own business.  These guys show up, they dig four diversion tunnels.  They are fifty feet in diameter... two on one side, two on the other side.  Then they build the cofferdams.  There was nobody named Coffer -- no senator Coffer from Arizona -- a cofferdam is just a big dam made out of stones and earth and lots of rocks.  They build one up here, and they build one down there... Gives them a nice dry space in the center... they build the Hoover Dam.  When the dam is finished, they seal off the diversion tunnels, the water comes rushing along, smacks up against the dam, six years later it fills up this whole area... You got Lake Mead!  Isn’t that amazing?

PAT PATERNOSTRO:  It was June 6, 1933 when they began, Six Companies began placing concrete into Hoover Dam.  The first bucket went in on that day.  They did this by having about twelve cable weights stretched across the canyon walls; they had two concrete mixing plants right here on site, a lower one and an upper one -- as they got higher, they needed the upper one.  The cable weight would pick up a bucket of concrete -- it was a 22-ton bucket, which would hold eight cubic yards of concrete -- swing out over the canyon, lower it down into a form.  It took them two and a half years to complete the dam to get it to its height.  The concrete of Hoover Dam is 3,250,000 cubic yards of concrete.  This is a lot of concrete.  It’s enough concrete, you could build a walkway three feet wide, two-and-three-quarter-inches thick and circle the equator one time.  It’s incredible.

Our nine generators on this side, on the Nevada side, are the original generators.  Each one of these generators produces 130 megawatts; probably enough electricity to supply an average city of about forty to fifty thousand people.  All of them are working together and producing power, probably enough electricity to supply the needs of the entire city the size of Los Angeles.

Construction of the Hoover Dam began in 1931 and cost the federal government 165 million dollars.  It was finished four years later... two years ahead of schedule.  And the sale of the electricity that it produced has earned back the government’s investment.  Good news for Las Vegas, because if there was ever a town that depended on electricity, it’s this one.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well...that’s a brief look at today’s reincarnation of the Feast of Saturn and some of the things that make Las Vegas so interesting.  It would be really easy to write this place off as just gold and glitter, but along with the cash comes compassion, and around the dazzle is the desert with its magnificent natural beauty.  I hope you enjoyed this visit and that you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.