During the infamous summer of 1972, our cross-country traveling family ended up in Las Vegas for a few days. This was in 1972; Las Vegas was NOT a family destination. It was a seedy place. Celebrity chefs hadn’t flocked there yet. I haven’t been back to Vegas (although I spent a lot of time in the Carson Valley), but I imagine it’s quite the scene these days. Not my scene, then or now.
I did not like Las Vegas much. Except for Circus Circus, which was new and fun back in 1972. The 3 of us kids were left unsupervised to wander around Circus Circus, which didn’t do us any harm, although maybe wasn’t one of my mother’s better parenting decisions. This excerpt from the memoir contains several questionable parenting decisions.
This episode revolves around a stay at Caesar’s Palace. The 1972 version, not the modern one.
If you aren’t familiar with Totie Fields (1930-1978), she was a stand-up comic (then called a comedienne), the rare female in the male-dominated field of the 1960s and 1970s. Tame by today’s standards, she was pretty raucous for her time.
And then there’s John Davidson. Born in 1941, he’s been an actor, singer, and game show host. My sister Ellen thought he was dreamy.
The two of them performed a show in August, 1972, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. We were there. Apologies to my siblings for any unintentional fictionalizing of the truth, but this is actually how I remember the story. Was 16 (almost 17) year old Ellen really served champagne? The laws were probably looser back then, but there were also a lot of big tips (bribes) to staff that made this entire event even happen. I’m sure I didn’t know the term maitre d’hotel at age 10 (almost 11), but I did hear the term that sounded like “maytra dee” a lot and I knew who that was. Maybe Totie was the opener for John; usually the comic is first up before the singer. Whatever. Here we go; what happened in Vegas isn’t staying there!
[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
For a change, we make an early start. Not that there is anything to do at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, Utah.
“What year do they think it is in Utah, anyway?” grumbles Van. “It’s 1972, not Prohibition. They could serve a man a drink in the restaurant, damn it.”
It’s a long, silent drive into Las Vegas. I thought it was hot in Texas, but this is crazy.
“I’m afraid the old girl is going to overheat, and we’re almost out of gas. Gonna try coasting and see if that gets us closer.”
Van hates to buy gas, so we are always on the verge of running out. Mom keeps suggesting he fill up the tank when we stop, but he hates not just the buying of the gas but the paying for it, so he won’t buy a full tank. I might only be a ten-year old Little Shit, as I am constantly reminded, but I can see this makes absolutely no sense at all, but then, neither does referring to the station wagon as The Old Girl.
He navigates down the “strip” as he calls the main road into Las Vegas. It seems to be all 24-hour coffee shops and gaudily lit hotel casinos. On opposite sides of the street, competing signs for the Flamingo and Caesar’s are lit up even though the bright sunlight seems to defeat the purpose. The marque for Caesar’s advertises its big show: John Davidson and Totie Fields. Ellen perks up in the back seat. She has a crush on singer John Davidson. I know who Totie Fields is from watching Johnny Carson late at night with Mom when neither of us can sleep.
Van decides on Caesar’s. It must be a gesture to Ellen; she can say she stayed at the same hotel where John Davidson is performing. He follows the drive to the front and he and Mom go in to get us rooms.
“Maybe you’ll see John Davidson in the hallway and he’ll talk to you,” Steve teases Ellen. We wait in the car in the unbearable heat, all the windows open and fanning ourselves with magazines and comic books.
Mom and Van finally emerge and get back in the car.
“He said to drive around back,” Mom explains as Van puts the car in drive. We head around back to a stark, black asphalt parking lot the size of a football field and a rectangular white cinderblock building separate from the hotel. We have rooms in the addition. It looks like the prisons on television shows. There are even bars on the windows of the ground floor rooms.
Van hands us the key to the room the 3 of us share. It’s next to the room where the Coke machine and overworked ice machine generate constant noise and even more heat. He and Mom are on the second floor. At least they aren’t next door to us. Small favors.
The room is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even the Bumbleberry Inn was nicer than this. Awful red bedspreads on the two beds, nothing to disguise the white cinderblock walls. The television is chained to the dresser. At least there is a television. And air conditioning, though it struggles to provide any cooling effect in the bright white room.
After showering and changing into our “nice clothes” (my green print dress that Mom made and is way too hot, the dreaded white socks, and patent leather Mary Janes), we head to the hotel. The asphalt is hot and sticky in the shimmering heat. What are we going to do in a casino? As soon as we enter, a scary looking man in a red suit comes over.
“These two can’t go onto the floor.” He nods his head toward me and Steve. “How old is the young lady?”
Ellen seems pleased to be asked. But when she says she’s 16, he shakes his head. “No, she can’t go on the floor either.”
The floor is a loud, crowded, place I don’t want to go anyway. Tired looking cocktail waitresses circle with trays of free drinks, slot machines make a constant high-pitched jangling noise, and it’s hard to tell if it’s day or night. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovers over the huge space.
“They can stay at the edge, and they can go in the buffet or the gift shop.”
Van pulls out his wallet and begrudgingly hands Ellen some money.
“Y’all go on the buffet. We’ll come find you there in an hour.”
Ellen sighs, but the word “buffet” has Steve’s attention. All-you-can eat buffets with no parental supervision are this summer’s most exciting discovery for him. The Grand Canyon and the Alamo had been cool, but to his 14-year old appetite, unlimited access to food trumps everything. I just want to go somewhere cool and quiet, but I am not sure that exists here.
It’s been a lot longer than an hour, but that’s to be expected. Steve is still exploring the Mexican section of the vast buffet. Ellen picks at the salad she’s pieced together. We call it big weird salad. You put whatever sounds good on the plate with some lettuce and put salad dressing on top. I have opted for the dessert section. I fix myself a cup of milky coffee. Mom lets me have it sometimes, and since no one’s paying attention to what I am doing, I go for it. I wish I’d brought a book. But there are lots of interesting people to watch.
Finally, close to 10 p.m., Mom and Van weave their way over to where we sit.
“Come on, kids, we’ve got a surprise.”
Uh oh. Van and surprises are usually a bad combination.
We follow them through a maze of loud crowded rooms and up the stairs to a lobby leading to huge, elaborately carved doors. The big, lighted sign on the door reads “Caesar’s is proud to present: John Davidson and Totie Fields. Two shows nightly.” The lobby is crowded as is every other space in the hotel. We follow Van like ducklings to the maitre d’hotel stand by the door. Van says something in the man’s ear and I see them shake hands, a tiny edge of a green bill showing in Van’s hand.
“Come on,” he says, looking at us, and we follow him and the maitre d’hotel without comment, unusual in itself, into the show room, and sit at a big round table next to a railing overlooking the stage.
“Enjoy the show, ladies and gentlemen.” The maitre d’hotel walks away with his head high. How much money did Van give him? He must have won at whatever gambling game he’s been playing. Ellen, dumbstruck, looks like she’s forgotten how to breathe. Steve looks at the sign on the table: “Four drink minimum.”
The waiter comes over for our order, and points to the sign. Van orders “7 and 7” and Mom has the same. It’s a disgusting combination of brown liquor and sweet 7-Up. I much prefer Sprite, plain, icy right out of the bottle. Sometimes, depending on where we are, the bartender puts a maraschino cherry in the glass, and Van will immediately toss his on his napkin in disgust. If he’s not paying attention, Mom lets me suck on the cherries, the odd, smoky, bitter taste of the whiskey and the sweet sticky cherry somehow pleasant in my mouth. It reminds me of the rum balls we had once from the bakery on Cheshire Bridge Road where Mom used to go for salt-rising bread and cheese straws.
Van slips more money to the waiter, who nods his head. He comes back with 4 of each adult drink, 4 Cokes each for me and my brother, and 4 glasses of champagne for my underage sister. The 4 Cokes sit in front of me, ice melting and glasses sweating. Should I drink them one at a time, or take sips down the row of glasses, keeping the levels all the same until they are gone?
Thankfully the air conditioning in here actually has some effect on the desert heat, and keeps the cigarette smoke from suffocating us. The lights dim and everyone stops talking. Ellen squirms in her seat, and switches with Steve so she is next to the rail and a few inches closer to the stage. John Davidson is on first, the opener for the more famous Totie Fields. I pay more attention to the levels in my Coke glasses than to what he’s singing. Ellen sways in her seat to the music and sips champagne. She looks so grown up, it scares me a little.
During the intermission, Van disappears. Mom chatters with Ellen about how good the first half of the show was. Ellen is starting to giggle, and her cheeks are rosy and glowing. Van reappears, a mysterious smile on his face. He looks pleased with himself. More surprises?
The lights dim again, and Totie Fields comes out to great applause. She is a small, round woman with large, elaborate hair. She alternates between songs and jokes, none of which I understand, but I can tell that Ellen and Steve are embarrassed. At one point she grabs one of her breasts and says, “What is this, chopped liver?” Everyone laughs. We are the only children in the room, and now I realize why.
It’s finally over.
“Can we leave now?” I whisper to Ellen, but she doesn’t hear me.
Van is still in his seat, with that self-satisfied look on his face. The maitre d’hotel finds us. He hands cocktail napkins to Ellen and Steve. Ellen squeals and wobbles on her high heels. “To Ellen, thanks for coming to the show. Love, John Davidson” is in black ink on the slightly crumpled napkin.
Steve’s face turns bright red and he tries to shove the napkin he’s been handed into his pocket.
“What is it?” I grab at his hand and try to pull it away so I can see. “Steve, I hear you are a big fan. Love you, Totie Fields.”
Van cracks up; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him laugh so genuinely and joyfully before. I think my brother is going to cry. Van has temporarily won over Ellen but humiliated Steve. I am not sure which makes him happier.
It’s hard to believe this was 45 years ago this summer. Mom and Van are both gone, as is Totie Fields. John Davidson is a senior citizen, but at 76 still active in stage musical productions.
I get mail from AARP now. But in my mind I’m still that girl called Little Shit.