Wednesday, December 20, 2006

All You Need is Love

Like many people my age, I love the Beatles. Among my most prized possessions is a numbered print of an early Beatles portrait taken by Dezo Hoffman, which I bought in an art gallery several years ago. I also have a framed copy of “Goodnight Vienna” that Ringo Starr signed while visiting Tim’s radio station. My favorite Beatles poster, which I bought when I was nine years old, has hung in every one of my homes since 1963.

I consider myself more “fan” than “fanatic,” but I do remain a Beatles “purist”—that is, I prefer their studio recordings as they appeared on the albums sold in the US. I can barely stand hearing their songs played live, let alone covered by someone else. Bottom line: don’t mess with the Beatles.

It was quite a surprise, therefore, when I immediately fell in love with an acoustic version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” while listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles” a couple of weeks ago. Turns out the song was a cut from “Love,” the soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to the Beatles. The show has been playing in Las Vegas for several months, but I really had no desire to see it until I heard the music. As soon as the song ended, I picked up the phone and bought a ticket to the show. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as I was already going to Vegas to attend a wedding (see blog posting 12/17/06).

I suspected the wedding reception would run long, so I made a reservation for the 10:30PM show. Sure enough, I barely had time to put my feet up back at the hotel, before I was hailing a cab to take me a half-mile down The Strip to the theater. Nine dollars later, I found myself strolling through the Mirage looking for “Love.” When I asked the bell captain for guidance, he pointed in the general direction of the casino. At first, I got distracted by the Revolution bar, a sleek affair decorated in updated 1960s furniture, but then found the box office, where people were already starting to queue up for the show.

I was more than an hour early, so made my way over to the Beatles gift shop, strategically placed right outside the theater. I must say that this was some of the best Beatles merchandise I’ve ever seen: interesting t-shirts and other high-end, artsy wares. I could have easily spent several hundred dollars buying memorabilia, but instead settled on an oversized, limited-edition crystal plate decorated with the Sergeant Pepper emblem. I asked the saleswoman, who was thrilled to meet me, to hold it until after the show.

By now, people were milling around the lobby, buying concessions and listening to Beatles music played overhead. The audience (mostly baby-boomers) waited anxiously for the doors to open. Some sang quietly to themselves; others, like the guy next to me, danced in place. Finally, the ushers (dressed like British bobbies) directed us inside.

The stage looked a lot like the big tent Cirque du Soleil sets up when it visits Los Angeles. The theater was bowl-shaped with seats surrounding the proscenium. Four floor-to-ceiling scrims divided the space into quarters. I was worried that my view would be blocked, but, of course, the scrims were raised as soon as the action began. Beatles music played as people poured in.

While I was sitting there, a rather important-looking man came over and started chatting with an older couple behind me. Apparently he was the stage manager because he was soon regaling all who listened with stories of how this had previously been the famous Siegfried and Roy theater. “The tigers were kept in cages right under where you’re now sitting,” he embellished. “They had to dig down six floors to get rid of the animal smell. It STUNK in here!”

The bobby-ushers came around to warn us not to grab at anything that might project above us during the show (!) And then suddenly the lights went down and the show began.

Although there’s no real plot, the storyline loosely follows the Beatles’ lives and music, starting with their childhood during World War II and ending with “Hey Jude.” We saw screaming fans, a pregnant Lady Madonna, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and a circus for “The Benefit of Mr. Kite.” “Octopus’s Garden” was filled with luminescent jellyfish, squids and fluttering seaweed. Acrobats performed amazing fetes on trampolines for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” But the most memorable acts, by far, were those performed to George Harrison’s songs. “While my Guitar Gently Weeps” was especially moving, with delicate four-story-tall puppets swaying gracefully to the music. I almost started weeping myself.

And then it was over. Most of us seemed to float toward the doors. True fans (like me!) were draped in the red crepe-paper shot out into the audience during the grand finale. In a daze, I picked up my crystal plate at the gift shop and headed toward the taxi line, which was surprisingly subdued.

I had a hard time falling asleep that night with John, Paul, George, and Ringo singing in my head. “Love is old, Love is new...”

Long live the Beatles!


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Vegas, Baby!

In the days when I had more time than money, I’d drive just about anywhere for fun. I’ve driven to Idaho, Seattle, Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon, and lots of places in-between. Nowadays, though, I only drive long distances when I want to avoid getting on an airplane. Since I’ve been flying far too much lately, I decided to drive to Las Vegas, this week, to attend my friend Suzanne’s wedding. Luckily for me, I now have far more money than I have time, because it ended up being the most expensive trip to Vegas I’ve ever taken!

My family always had a soft spot for Las Vegas. We didn’t take many vacations when I was a kid, but my parents—and sometimes my aunt and grandmother—would slip away maybe once a year to the casinos. They’d usually stay at the Stardust or some other hotel from Vegas’s postwar heyday. There they’d play the slot machines until the wee hours of the morning. To my young mind, the whole thing seemed so glamorous. My parents would leave Friday night and return home Sunday morning, tired but happy. My sister Vicki and I got to tag along a couple of times; but it was very clear that Vegas was meant exclusively for people who were old enough to drink, gamble, and see women dance topless in one of the many adult entertainment clubs.

When I was in college, I always drove through Vegas en route to Provo, UT, where Vicki went to school. By then I had lost all interest in alcohol and gambling; but my aunt, who accompanied me on one of my trips, still heard the sirens call and so stayed up all night playing the slots while I slept soundly in the hotel. Fast forward to 1986 when Tim and I eloped to the Little Chapel of the West (located in the parking lot of the now demolished Hacienda hotel), followed two years later by the National Broadcasters Association convention, where we had to share a hotel room with one of Tim’s coworkers because the entire town was booked for the night. I swore then that I would never return to Las Vegas.

Suzanne’s wedding was scheduled at 3PM, so I left home at 8:30AM. I was heading north on the I-15 by 10AM. It had been eighteen years since I’d passed through this part of the world. Still, it was quite a shock to see how much it had developed. Victorville is now practically a suburb of Los Angeles and even sleepy little Apple Valley, where my aunt once owned some investment property, has turned into a boom town. By the way, if you’re still mourning the loss of Bob’s restaurants in Los Angeles, I’m happy to report that Big Boy is alive and well on the I-15, with not one but three (!) roadside eateries between Victorville and the state line. Speaking of which, I was dismayed to see how much the small outpost of Primm has changed over the years. The first town to greet drivers on the Nevada side of I-15, Primm used to consist of a couple of ramshackle casinos where gamblers left their last handful of coins before crossing into California. Today Primm is home to multiple factory outlets tucked behind ridiculously oversized storefronts. Little did I know that even more garish architecture was yet to come.

It seems we always approached Las Vegas at night when I was younger. After miles and miles of desert darkness, we’d suddenly see a glow in the distance and know we were almost there. This time I knew I had arrived by the black smudge of smog hanging over the city. That’s also when I started noticing the huge hotels rising above the landscape—some looking vaguely familiar, as if they were trying to copy the far more fabulous buildings of NYC and Paris. And they were all right on top of each other! I was horrified. Almost every stylish hotel and casino of the 1950s and ‘60s has been replaced by crude monstrosities trying to mimic other parts of the world. As my tow-truck driver, who grew-up in Las Vegas, said, “Things have changed for the worse.” I agreed. But I’m starting to get ahead of myself...

While I was waiting to turn right into the Riviera hotel—where Suzanne was getting married in little over an hour—a pedestrian pointed toward the front of my car and yelled, “You’re leaking!” Sure enough, as soon as I parked, I saw black fluid pouring from the engine. All thoughts of driving to the post-wedding reception (and elsewhere) were dashed. My roommate for the evening, Karen G. (not to be confused with my best friend Karen C. or my high school friend Karen H.!), checked under the hood and determined that the black fluid was water not oil. Still, I didn’t dare drive the car and decided, after much deliberation with Tim (in LA) and other wedding guests, to have the car towed to the nearest Honda dealer the next morning.

So, after staying up well past 1AM, I woke-up at 6AM and called AAA for a tow. Despite everyone’s diagnosis that the problem was probably just a broken hose, the Honda guys convinced me that I needed a new radiator. I didn’t leave Las Vegas until 1PM. Luckily I had brought student papers to grade just in case of such an emergency (be careful what you plan for!)

Did I really need a new radiator? I’m not a mechanic, so have no idea. But everyone at the Honda dealer was extremely nice and concerned for my safety, so I can only hope they did not rip me off in the process. Will I ever return to Las Vegas? Probably not. Nonetheless, the wedding was very lovely and I got to spend time with old friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Plus, I got to experience “Love,” Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to the Beatles. But you’ll need to read my next installment for that story...


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas in the Magic Kingdom

As a year-end gift, Disney opens Disneyland two nights in December exclusively for employees and their immediate families. It’s cold and dark, but the park is magnificent, all dressed-up for the holidays; plus the lines to the good rides are practically nonexistent.

We don’t go every year; but this time was a must because we hadn’t yet seen the renovated Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the entire world knows by now, the Pirates movies have become one of the biggest of the company’s many franchises. And so, to take advantage of Pirates-mania — timed, not so coincidentally, to correspond with the release of the second Pirates film, “Dead Man’s Chest,” this past summer — Disney decided to “update” the ride on which the movies are based. Not only do animatronic versions of the movies’ characters now appear in the ride, but everything has been freshened up.

Over the past forty years, I’ve probably ridden Pirates of the Caribbean some thirty times, so the thrill had pretty well gone for both Tim and me. This time was definitely different, however. Fifteen minutes after the park opened, we were anxiously on our way to the Caribbean.

The ride’s storyline is still very much the same, except now the enemy ship is led by Captain Barbosa (a very good likeness of Geoffrey Rush), who is searching for his nemesis Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). (Beware: spoilers ahead!) Captain Jack, who looks exactly like his real-life counterpart, can be seen hiding amongst some mannequins and then again inside a barrel, and finally surrounded by riches, singing “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me!” The newly restored treasures sparkle and the villagers and their captors all look freshly scrubbed. There is also a wonderful water curtain, where a projection of the squid-headed Davy Jones warns all riders to turn back. I was so distracted taking pictures the first time around, I made Tim go on it with me again so I could savor every new feature. If it wasn’t so darn late when we got home, I probably would have watched both movies, too, just to relive it all again.

As for the rest of Disneyland, it looked beautiful as always. It’s a Small World was festooned in Christmas lights and Sleeping Beauty’s castle was glorious. Although I thought we’d only want to go on the Pirates ride, we also (of course!) rode my other favorites: the Haunted House, decorated once again as “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the mad teacups, Peter Pan, and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, a combination ride and video arcade. Before we knew it, it was 11PM — way past our bedtime! — and so we caught the tram back to reality . . . but not before picking up our limited-edition, employees-only holiday ornament. Another Disney memento to add to our already memory-laden Christmas tree.