November 3rd, 1988
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

Cocktail goddess Sharon Picone is a welcoming sight.

I first played Caesars Palace eighteen years ago, and Vegas, back then, was fantastic ‑ the height of gutter and glamour. You walked into a casino, and somebody would instantly say, “Hello, would you like a car? A room with two toilets? An egg cream? Three sandwiches? A girl to have an affair with?" The guys who ran the hotels then knew how to throw a party and how to appeal to a guy's ego, because they've all got huge egos themselves.

Now, though, things have changed. Most of the people who go to Vegas today are twenty‑five‑cent‑slot‑machine players from Nebraska and Utah. They've seen a tractor, a horse, but they've never seen a person, because no one goes for a walk in Utah. They've got a polyester shirt, a ripped jacket, and they're 750 pounds over­weight. Don't get me wrong: thanks to Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, these people are in some ways very sophisticated. They know about transsexuals and homosexuals and what homosexuals do to transsexuals. They're very hip about perversion and degradation. But a Jew ‑ this is something they've never seen. Or if they've seen a Jew, then they've never seen an Italian.

Singing bellman Joey Ciadella escorts you to your chambers.

Some things about Vegas stay the same, though. People have always talked a lot about God there. "Oh, God, just this one time," people say. "Oh, God, let me get this number." The guy who's saying this never stops to think, "I'm here with some woman who is not my wife, ignoring my children and betting with my brother‑in‑law's life savings." They never look at things objectively and say, "If there was a God, would he pay attention to a lowlife bastard like me?"

I've got to tell you, Las Vegas can distort the mind. The racket guys knew the psychology of it all. They invented the Las Vegas way of doing business, which is very simple. You give someone a free room, free drinks, hang up a sign that says, GAMBLING ‑ and then you take away all of his money. Outside of Vegas, if you gave this same schmuck $400 and took away $40,000, he'd call a cop and have you arrested. But in Vegas they re­fer to this process as gambling, and everybody thinks they had a good time.

Tonight's Caesar and Cleopatra primp for their royal duties.

The late Izzy Siegal, who was Caesar’ man at the wheel for seventeen years.

On some level these people know they're not gambling, really, because the money goes only in one direction. It's no accident that the hotels in Las Vegas keep getting bigger, but everyone who goes there is losing his house, his car, his shirt, his girlfriend. The gamblers can see this, but they deny it. They all say the same thing: If I'd have left an hour and a quarter earlier, I'd have $15 million today,” or “I don't know why my wife gave me that money I told her not to give me. My suitcase was packed, I was ahead $97 million" When a person starts telling me a story like this, I say to him, “Listen, next time leave an hour and a quarter earlier, when you still have the $97 million, you putz."

A game goddess prepares for a night among the revelers.

A fan waits outside the palace for the rich and famous.

Today big corporations own all the hotels, and it's more impersonal. But the corporations are not totally stupid. They figured out that from 50 millionaires you can make a certain amount of money but from 300,000 paupers you can make ten times more. So they made the town less exclusive, and cheaper. They took out ads in Iowa, and now business is booming. I haven't played there in a few years, but I'd be happy to go back any time, because I know that I could go onstage and talk about Las Vegas all I want. The hotel managers don't censor anybody. They know that Vegas is a powerful symbol of what some people call class ‑ and that nothing's going to change that. Whatever I or anyone else says about Vegas doesn't matter. There are more than enough people who don't just want to go there ‑ they have to go there to fulfill some kind of emotional need.

The end of a hard day's night for a couple of centurions.

JACKIE MASON'S one‑man Broadway show, The World According to Me!; won a Tony Award in 1987.