by Danny Stout
Las Vegas has always been enigmatic for Mormons. When Brigham Young dispatched Hosea Stout (a very distant cousin) to settle the area, the project failed for lack of water and prospects for farming. The abandoned Mormon fort stands as a state monument and tourist attraction. Ironic, some say, that Mormons were the original settlers of the area known as the entertainment capitol of the world. The Mormon-Vegas paradox has evolved through time, with many iterations. The Donnie and Marie Show on one side of the Strip with Gentleman strip clubs on the other, exemplifies these conflicts of values. In the 1940’s, Las Vegas was a crass gambling town; in the mob-era sixties, it was a fount of organized crime and prostitution. The LDS population grew nevertheless, many working in casinos and other businesses. When Las Vegas mogul Howard Hughes wrestled gambling away from the mafia, giving it lawful legitimacy, LDS executives (i.e., “The Mormon Mafia”) arranged for loans from Utah’s First Security Bank.
A study published by this author in the journal, Mass Media and Society, describes a growing and devout Mormon population; a temple was dedicated in 1989. About five per cent (105,000) of Las Vegas is LDS. The city, while not the coarse off-color place it was in the sixties, retains its culture of excess, something-for-nothing mindset, and promiscuous flare for the erotic. The Cirque de Solei show “Zumanity” and “Absinthe” at Caesar’s Palace are examples. Yet some of the first-rate Broadway shows, fine art museums, and aquariums blend the commendable with the deleterious. Today, Mormon tourists visit the city annually by the hundreds of thousands. It’s a vacation destination for Utahns. When BYU sports teams compete in the city, Latter-day Saints check in to casino resorts. Like the city itself, which built the elegant Smith Center for the Performing Arts in 2009, and boasts an expanding art district exceeding many cities in the west, media attractive to LDS audiences have sprouted.
Using the term, “religion” in the same sentence as “Las Vegas” is disquieting for a myriad of Mormons. Yet it’s a city of simulacra, an idea developed by the French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard. A simulacrum is something artificial that displaces the real. When the Belagio Hotel serves the same purpose as an Italian five-star resort, and the replication of the Eifel Tower in the Paris resort feels real, the experience has legitimacy. Simulacra is ubiquitous, making Las Vegas the quintessential postmodern city. The “real” and the “articicial” have blended. So has the old and new, traditional and nontraditional as well as the sacred and the secular.
Music is a prime example. Every Sunday morning in the Mandalay Casino the “Gospel Brunch” is held. When I attended, the house lights came up and a singer, announced, “I know you’re here in Las Vegas to win money, but now it’s time to praise the Lord! Stand up and clap your hands in praise of Jesus!” The event was more like an Evangelical church than a casino. The gospel music was both spiritual and astoundingly performed. There is also the best of Broadway from “Phantom of the Opera” to “Jersey Boys” to “The Blue Man Group.” Fine art museums are abundant featuring the world’s great paintings and sculpture in the Bellagio Gallery as well that in the Winn Resort. Experimental, classical, impressionism, and abstract expressionism works are ubiquitous on the Strip.
Despite plenty of kitsch, the Strip has architectural works of note including the Renaissance Armillary Sphere, a creation of gold and marble eliciting awe and wonder. The oval stained glass piece in the Tropicana is one of the largest in the world, creating unique filters of light rays. Similarly, the Chihuli glass flower blossoms in the Belaggio lobby has 2,000 hand-blown glass blossoms created at a cost of $10 million. The gold shrine combining Hindu and Buddhist elements attracts thousands each day becoming a regular place for prayer.
While LDS visitors are not likely to attend, the wedding chapels at the mega-resorts have fine crafted wood features and appear much like Protestant churches without religious iconography. The MGM chapel has stone statuary simulating a European cathedral entrance. Unlike the tacky wedding chapels on Fremont Street, these facilities allow parties to bring in their own clergy, thus transporting congregations into the Las Vegas Strip.
The complex interplay between Mormon and Las Vegas cultures is difficult to assess. Cities are not static, and the values of their visitors and citizens advance in multiple directions. Increasing popularity of Las Vegas among Mormons implies that cities are not homogenous, that visitors select various sites and reject others. For this reason, some hotels have kosher floors for Jewish guests. Las Vegas and America have blurred. The Luxor Resort has Egyptian exhibits for local school children, as does the Aquarium at the Mandalay Bay. Virtually all movie theaters and bowling alleys are now in casinos. Neighborhood casinos are primarily for locals, and are the community centers of the past. The question is whether Las Vegas is becoming more like the rest of the U.S., or if other cities are beginning to resemble Sin City. One thing that is relatively certain, Las Vegas and its media are no longer easily categorized in the black-white, either-or fashion of the past. The city has many greys.