WRITING - The Vegas Guy

I'm worried about the Luxor. I used to like it there. You gotta admire any hotel that builds a replica of the Sphinx at the entrance but decides that the real Sphinx in Egypt is too small and so the Vegas Sphinx is three stories taller.

It's sorta like the Monte Carlo up the street. The real casino in the real Monte Carlo--you have to make these distinctions in Vegas--would easily fit inside the gaming area of the Vegas Monte Carlo.

The Luxor is, in fact, the second largest hotel in the nation and the third largest in the world. (The largest are the Gentling Highlands Hotel in Malaysia--where the Asian high rollers play--and the MGM Grand, just a half block up The Strip.) But when I walked into the Luxor last week, the Nile River was gone. The last time I was there, they had this Nile River canal system that ran all around the inside of the pyramid. Vanished like the kingdom of Nefertiti.

That OTHER Sphinx in Egypt wasn't big enough, so he Luxor built one three stories higher. As the hotel gets older, the theme withers. Theme hotels in Vegas date to the early forties, when the El Cortez and El Rancho Vegas pioneered the dude-ranch theme. (El Rancho Vegas is long gone, but if you go downtown and look very closely at the exterior of the tattered El Cortez, you'll see a few tiny architectural hints that this nondescript building once looked like a western town.) And the theme at the Luxor, which I'll call the Museum of Egyptian Oddities, is withering faster than usual. The Luxor opened in 1993, but they've already turned the "Karnak Kiosk"--to use one example--into a shop selling Indian turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls, and other roadside-attraction knick-knacks. (I guess those King Tut keychains just weren't moving.) They still have the golden sacrophagi, the giant urn pedestals, and the vaguely tomb-like atmosphere. (I always thought the place was excessively dark.) But they also have Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dogs, a Hamada of Japan restaurant, and those ubiquitous pearl shops. (Cheap cultured pearls seem to never go out of fashion, especially in cities catering to tourists.)

The shopping area is called the Giza Galleria, obviously named after that world famous Egyptian shopping center in Milan. Or are they suggesting that Giza has a bazaar modeled after Milan's Galleria, because of the whole Marc Anthony thing? But then Marc Anthony was from Rome not Milan, and Cleopatra wasn't exactly in Giza, and besides . . . I have no idea. All I know is that the Giza Galleria, despite its Italian name, will never be mistaken for the Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. (That's a thought. Was the Nile River canal ripped out because it couldn't compete with the much vaster gondola ride at the Venetian?) The Giza Galleria is full of those shopping-mall kiosk carts on wheels, selling incense, hookahs (!), and pyramid paperweights. A couple of animatronic camels move their heads and talk to passersby, but you can't understand them because the tape is so old and scratchy. And lest you get bored browsing for sweatshirts, you can buy an "exact replica" of King Tut's state chariot for a mere $5,000.

The big attraction right now at the Luxor is Blue Man Group, which has moved more or less permanently into the 1,200-seat Luxor Theater. When I spoke to an executive at Mandalay Bay Group, which owns the Luxor, he said that Blue Man Group "looks to be a breakout show" and is an example of the kind of new, trendy, cutting-edge, must-see, spectacular, one-of-a-kind, only-in-Vegas show that's replacing the old crooners-and-showgirls acts. I was too flustered to point out that Blue Man Group is, uh, about, oh, ten years old, can be seen any night of the week at the Astor Place Theatre in Greenwich Village, has already traveled to Chicago and Los Angeles and other cities, and is a performance-art piece from the performance-art movement of the eighties, which is about as old hat as you can get. To make it even less unique, the three Blue Men are currently seen on lame Pentium III commercials. It may be a good show, but just to be certain, the Luxor has also just opened a "tasteful topless revue" (only in Vegas do people use "tasteful" and "topless" in the same sentence) called "Midnight Fantasy" in the 350-seat Pharaoh's Theatre. Directed by Anita Mann, a veteran of girlie dance shows, "Midnight Fantasy" has an excellent shot at running forever. And two years ago the Luxor also entered the high-stakes dance club competition, opening RA, a Studio 54-type funky-laser disco with trance music and freaky fashion-plates every night of the week. That will tend to cut down on the hotel's beer-gut ratio, which has been trending outward lately. The place could use a few more of those commando Brigitte Nielsen types who hang out at the Hard Rock in their commando boots, bleaching their spiked white hair by the pool.

But the experience that sums up the ennui of the place is, for me, the "In Search of the Obelisk" motion simulator ride in the hotel's second-floor attraction area called "Pharaoh's Pavilion." Built during Vegas's short-lived "family entertainment" era of the mid-nineties, this mini-theme-park- within-the-hotel features an IMAX movie theater, an exact replica of King Tut's tomb as it was discovered in 1922, a "Kareoske" make-your-own-music-video studio, and a "Games of the Gods" arcade with a vomit-inducing roller-coaster film.

"In Search of the Obelisk" is one of those group adventures in which you seem to plummet down into the center of the earth, then get strapped into chairs as a goofball actor flies you through a "Star Wars"-type asteroid field, Egyptian-style, with various stops along the way where live actors play the parts of alarmed employees trying to get you back to safety. In one room, the parts were played by two uniformed teens with East L.A. Hispanic accents.

"Do you know how to fly this thing?" one demanded of the other. "These people need to leave this place!"

"Hey, man, don't talk to me that way," the other guy says. "I don't know nothing."

"Well, they don't like it here. It's dark and there's ugly stuff down here."

"It's broken, man. I can't do nothing."

Actually I loved it, but I don't think that was exactly the way the theme-park designer wrote the script back in 1993. You could change the actors, but one thing the Luxor can never do--since it's built in the shape of a 36-story-high pyramid--is change the theme.


LUXOR  The Las Vegas Strip
Theme: Jetsons Post-Millennial Egyptian
Built: 1993
Known For: The Xenon light that shoots up out of the top of the pyramid; airplanes at cruising altitude can see it from 250 miles away.
Marketing niche: Middle America
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Slow
Dealers: Courteous but businesslike
Bosses: A little stingy with the comps
Tables: 106 (11 games)
Slots: 2,060
Rooms: 4,455
Surrounding area: At the extreme southern end of the Strip, between Excalibur and Mandalay Bay, and connected to both by trams and walkways.
Overall rating: 70
Joe Bob's bankroll: Took a $120 hit after two hours at the "Let It Ride" tables; total to date: +$20