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Vegas off the Strip

September 19, 2012

What made last week's Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Las Vegas barely tolerable was getting off The Strip for an evening.

I have visited Vegas before several times (for conferences and to review opening night of Cirque du Soleil's Love for The Financial Times) but had no clue until I got away from the hotel-casinos with their stale cigarette smoke, nerve-jangling slot machines and five-dollar lattes for the first time on this visit that the place actually possesses a little bit of a pulsing neon heart tucked away in its otherwise back-lit plastic casing.

The first delight of my Escape-from-the-Strip trip was The Mob Museum. Located in downtown Vegas in an old courthouse where famous Mafia cases were heard, this lightly-attended but stylishly put-together homage to gangster life and death presents a fascinating exploration of the lurid underworld of organized crime.

Some components of the exhibition halls, such as the mug shot gallery illustrated above, are pretty inane. But there's plenty to sink one's teeth into.

The film presentations are particularly enticing. One of my favorite parts of the museum is the courtroom in which museum goers sit in pews and watch an engrossing short documentary the role played by those very surroundings in mob history. There's also a great sequence in another part of the museum on gangster films. I could have sat on the plush red velvet couch all evening with a bucket of popcorn and watched Goodfellas from start to finish.

The museum maintains a lively balance between the business of crime itself and the law's attempts to curtail it, and it also shines a thoughtful light on the relationship between organized crime and the not-exactly-squeaky-clean worlds of politics and entertainment.

After a couple of hours in the museum, I headed with my friend towards a random part of town north of the Strip without too much of a clue of where we were heading beyond a vague promise on Open Table of a place that might serve us tapas and cocktails.

To reach our potential destination, we strolled through a part of town with real, everyday businesses like vacuum cleaner repair stores and car washes. Wow. Imagine that in Vegas. And we saw a nice example of how daily life rubs up against surreality when we came across the unprepossessing, low-slung storefront which serves as the locus of the TV series Pawn Stars. Besides the line of people waiting outside before the shoot, the only evidence of the building's "celebrity" is a small plastic sign out the front which reads "As Seen On TV."

Eventually we found ourselves at The Arts Factory, which turns out to be at the center of a small but lively underground arts scene. The area around a section of East Charleston Street contains bars, cafes, galleries and even a black-box theatre.

We had drinks and tapas on the patio at Bar + Bistro, where we were entertained for free for an hour by an eager young woman in a long, black dress, who sang dramatic renditions of mostly contemporary show and pop tunes accompanied by a pianist and several of her friends as backing singers. There was a little too much sturm and drang in the vocal performance for my taste. Or, rather, the singer's repertoire didn't quite make sense in the context; lighter cabaret fare would have worked better. But she had a decent, musical theatre-esque voice and her brief forays into more fun-loving arrangements of chart-topping club tunes made me very happy.

The evening rounded up with more live music (this time a thrumming indie rock band) in a stylish drinking hole around the corner with big couches, hipster art work on the walls, and very friendly bar staff.

So while I am always relieved to be leaving Las Vegas, departing Sin City this time around made me kind of itch to get back there again and explore the city's hidden culture more extensively. I'm sure there must be more of it if I look closely enough.


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