Reno Hilton

WRITING - The Vegas Guy

Okay, so I've taken the bait. I'm here at the Reno Hilton showroom, billed as "the largest stage in the world." (Can that be true? Don't they have places in Germany where a cast of 2,000 does Wagner's Ring cycle or something? But okay, to get into the mood, I'm gonna go with this.)

So I'm hanging out at the largest stage in the world, wondering exactly what kind of show promises to make a 747 jumbo jetliner disappear on stage.

I've been on a 747 jumbo jetliner, so I'm thinking now that, yes, this must be the biggest stage in the world. I'm gonna be impressed if the 747 just appears on stage, much less disappears, because that's some nasty parallel parking. At any rate, they're ballyhooing this thing as "what is believed to be the largest, live, nightly vanish in the history of magic." I'm a little troubled by that "what is believed to be" thing, but okay, it's bigger than Siegfried and Roy's disappearing elephant.

Everyone at my table--it's one of those long showroom tables where you're obliged to get very intimate with your neighbors--is equally baffled about just exactly what we've come to witness. The show is called "Carnival of Wonders"--fairly generic--and the star billing is "KALIN, JINGER, HOBSON," which sounds to me like a vaudeville act that includes pie-plate balancing. The room seats 1,600, and it's about two-thirds full on a Monday night.

"Do you go to magic shows?" I ask my new friend, in an effort to shift my position and jockey for more elbow room. He allows that the only other magic show he's seen was Lance Burton in Vegas. "Those white doves are great, aren't they?" I say lamely, and he lamely agrees.

The fact is, casinos are virtually the only places where people watch magicians, and with very few exceptions they rarely know anything about the magician they're about to watch. One reason casinos love big illusion shows, though, is that they are one of the cheapest ways to fill huge stages. Casino crowds demand a spectacle, with lots of fire, lights, action, scene changes, and this show was replacing the biggest production show in the history of Reno, "Hello Hollywood Hello," which featured 200 singers and dancers and ran for eons before half the country had already seen it and it had to close.

Kalin, Jinger and Hobson sounds like a vaudeville act, and that's not far off. Mark Kalin, Jinger Leigh, and Jeff Hobson create the peculiar Carnival of Wonders show on the world's largest stage, the showroom of the Reno Hilton "Carnival of Wonders" is almost the opposite of that show, though. Using a small chorus line, two illusions with a live panther and a live tiger, and nine or ten major set changes, it's really rather intimate. Mark Kalin is the slick boyish magician with a dash of sentimental patter. (One of the show's trademarks is his recreation of the first trick he ever learned, a disappearing billiard-ball illusion he performed at age 9 for his mother, who promptly pronounced it the best trick she'd ever seen.) Jinger (pronounced "Ginger") Leigh is billed as "The Dazzling Danseuse" as she struts, prances and pirouettes between turns as the beautiful girl in peril. (Two years ago she really was in peril when a saw took off part of her finger. She managed to finish the illusion, went to the emergency room, had the finger reattached, and did the next night's show with a huge white splint on her hand. I believe that's called being a trouper.)

But the real energy of the show is balding round-faced comedian Jeff Hobson--billed simply as Hobson--who does an over- the-top flaming queen with such panache that his shtick almost obscures his considerable skills as a magician. His show-stopper routine is as a gaudily robed Chinese magician, "Fu Ling Yu," who tells funny stories while working with a wooden apparatus called the Tama Suma Re. (You kinda have to take my word on this.) He also works the audience with ease, doing a card-trick bit with a volunteer (okay, it might be a shill--it wasn't entirely convincing) that scores big laughs. When Jinger disappears in a flash of smoke and becomes an ugly old woman, it's Hobson, of course, but when it's his turn to transform, he ends up as a charred skeleton, still doing one-liners. (Sample groaner: "Welcome to the Reno Hilton, where the towels are so fluffy you can't close your suitcase.")

It's the kind of show the Hilton hopes will appeal to the convention crowd. As the city's tourist base continues to erode, the victim of California Indian casinos and the greater glitz of Las Vegas, most of the major hotels--principally Peppermill, Atlantis, and John Ascuaga's Nugget--are fighting over the once lowly conventioneer. The Hilton, located in the middle of nowhere, on the boundary between Reno and Sparks, is especially aggressive in this area, with 200,000 square feet of convention space and 2,003 rooms, making it the only place in northern Nevada that can handle a large convention without calling on help from its neighbors.

Built by Kirk Kerkorian in 1978, the Hilton was originally called the MGM Grand, then Bally's. Hilton Hotels acquired the casino when it got into the gambling business in the eighties, but backed out two years ago and sold all its casino properties. The name remains, as a Hilton franchise, but the hotel is actually owned by Park Place Entertainment, parent company of Caesars Palace.

The Reno Hilton is now trying to build a "resort" clientele, loading up the grounds with blue-collar pastimes like miniature golf, bowling (50 lanes), a Go-Kart track, an "Aqua Golf" driving range, a KOA Kampground, a Harley-Davidson rental outlet, and one of those bungee swings called "Ultimate Rush." Their number one market is Oakland, with Sacramento a close second, and virtually no visitors from outside the western states. "We have no walk-in traffic," says Advertising Manager Jocelyn Lantrip, "so we have to give people a reason to be here. We also give away a lot more than Vegas. It's a totally different marketing style than what exists at the Las Vegas Hilton."

And one of those reasons to be here, I suppose, is the aforementioned 747 vanishing act.

It was a long time coming, but the time passed pleasantly. The show is arranged like a 19th-century carnival, with old posters and a chorus dressed as freak show performers. A huge spiked guillotine illusion, with Kalin chained beneath the spikes, was fairly entertaining. Jinger shimmies into a box where she is impaled with fiery sticks, only to appear in one piece at the back of the theater. Wearing a black velour catsuit, she's transformed into a black panther who ends up wearing her diamond necklace. Hobson does several brief comic turns, including one with hoochie-coochie girls ("They move, they groove, they violate their paroles"). We have swing dancing, an elaborate sword trick, and a levitation illusion that's part of a bizarre Black Sabbath. In a Thai dance number, Hobson disappears and a tiger appears.

But all this time I'm checking out the world's largest stage, and I'm thinking: Where are they going to put the 747? There must be a removable wall at the back of the stage so we can see the 747 in the Hilton parking lot or something.

But no, when the big moment comes, they raise the curtain on . . . an American Airlines 747.

Only it doesn't really look as big as a 747.

And the metal rivets and seams don't really look like metal rivets and seams.

And the way they run around it like crazy and put up a big curtain around it doesn't lead to much suspense.

And . . . oh, I'm ruining this, aren't I?

I'll just quote from my notes here: "Not a 747."

I looked at my elbow-room neighbor as the house lights came up, thinking he would have something to say about the alleged 747.

"That was a great show!" he says.

So, okay, it was a 747. After all, I'm in showbiz, too.

2500 E. 2nd Street, Reno
Theme: Hugeness
Opened: 1978
Total Investment: $170 million
Known For: Biggest showroom stage in the world.
Marketing niche: Northern California drive-ins, locals,
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Rapid
Dealers: Friendly
Bosses: Invisible
Tables: 69
Slots: 1,600
Rooms: 2,003
Surrounding area: Interstate 80 and acres of asphalt parking lots
Overall rating: 79
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $50 after betting Rafter in the Wimbledon finals at the 400-seat, 27-screen SuperBook: total to
date: +$26


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