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Tropicana Blues

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To many cost-conscious guests, Tropicana is a place to stay but not to play
Photo: Richard Abowitz

Interviewing showgirls is usually one of the less onerous parts of my job. This one, Janu Tornell, had an interesting background, including being a former Miss Nevada in the Miss USA contest as well as a onetime contestant on Survivor. We were backstage at les Folies Bergere. The show is a classic Vegas production, 49 years at the Tropicana, with old-school, tall and thin, showgirls.

I was interviewing Tornell for a story I am doing on her for my Los Angeles Times blog and column. Actually, we got the pictures out of the way with the Times photographer first, and then Tornell literally let her hair down after she confirmed that we were done with photographs. I vaguely wondered: Why the world couldn’t see a showgirl with long dark hair?

Tornell has been interviewed a lot, so she had practiced answers to my more obvious questions. And, most of my questions were obvious. Anything you can think of to ask a showgirl that will evoke deep reflection and original insight?

I had been told that, while I could ask for her age if I wanted to do so, that question was unlikely to be answered. Most showgirls (who could care less about the demands of Associated Press Stylebook) will not answer that question -- especially longtime veterans. Tornell had spent more than a decade in the show, and while she looks as wonderful and flawless as a showgirl should, there is nothing youthful about her. Yet, why not be proud of her age and the fabulous appearance she has right now?

This entire line of thought was pretty depressing, since by coincidence that night happened to also be my birthday. She seemed not all that much younger than I am. And, at 41, I still feel happily youthful. Turns out she has more to be proud of than I realize, as according to her Wikipedia entry Tornell is almost exactly two years older then I am. I am going to start avoiding giving out my age if people are going to expect me to look that thin attractive and healthy. Tornell ought to be shouting her age from the rooftop with pride. It is easy to be beautiful as a 20-something, but at our age a lifetime of effort, devotion, healthy eating and time spent at the gym is required. Physical beauty when you are young is a gift, but as the decades whereon it is an accomplishment, and one of which to be proud. The goal isn’t to look young but to look good, and Tornell looks good enough to be a showgirl into her 40s. Wow.

We had been talking, according to my tape recorder, for about three minutes, before I started having a series of uncontrollable burps as she discussed her love of rock-climbing in the Las Vegas area. This is pretty embarrassing to have in front of anyone. But somehow this all seemed extra ridiculous in front of someone who was in full showgirl regalia. And, I was starting to break into a cold sweat, and at that point I knew I would be vomiting soon. I thanked her for her time after a mere five-minute interview. I showed her my tape recorder timer (5 minutes, 6 seconds) as if to confirm for her that the five-minute barrier had been broken and the job had been successfully accomplished. I did not even ask her about Survivor.

I went up to my room at the Tropicana, and like many a drunken tourist in Vegas, hit my knees in front of the toilet and hurled. But I was not drunk. I was just very, very, sick. For the first time in my life a stomach illness came with a massive headache. Has that ever happened to you? My stomach and head usually have decency to take turns attacking, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the two-front war my body was waging against me.

Oddly, this is the second time I have been on assignment for Weekly on my birthday and sick. But the previous time I had been sick all day. I knew what I was getting into. This illness hit me out of nowhere, four hours after I arrived at the Tropicana. Yet somehow the Tropicana was a fitting place to be sick. The karma god was watching. Even the Tropicana’s marketing slogan in advertising and on its marquee uses the imperfect past tense suggesting the property’s obsolescence: “The way Las Vegas was meant to be.”

Sadly, I think most people want to be where Las Vegas “is” instead of where it “was.” But the truth is the truth, even on the Strip. And while Las Vegas can hide truth like the king of three-card Monte players, the Tropicana at this point can harbor few illusions about its lingering existence in 2008.

Everyone knows the legendary Tropicana has seen better days. Obviously the biggest problem the Tropicana has is that the resort is bankrupt. The Tropicana is also the only resort on the Strip yet to settle on a new contract with Culinary 226. The most humiliating example of the Tropicana’s increasingly hard times came back in April, when the property made news over its bounty offer to staff for capturing live bedbugs (Bedbug alert!).

And, what does any of this matter to a hotel guest? Well, that is what I was there to find out. Has this bargain property (rooms started at $49) become as valuable as most offers that are too good to refuse? Yet, unlike the rest of Las Vegas, the Tropicana is an ever-more attractive bargain. Right now with the destruction of Stardust and New Frontier, the Strip is increasingly dominated by luxury properties like Venetian, Mandalay Bay and Wynn. Also, the new generation of resorts opening and soon to open from Palazzo and Encore to City Center and Echelon Place all share one thing: They do not aim for the bargain shopper.

Further in its neighborhood the Tropicana is easily the best bargain. Two MGM Mirage properties, New York-New York and MGM Grand, both are linked by a pedestrian bridge to the Tropicana. That makes the Tropicana geographically desirable as well as the best bargain if you want to be on the South end of the Strip. (Yes, there is also Excalibur but always avoid the casinos filled with children unless you have one. If you don’t believe go and find out for yourself.) Anyway, the last time I stayed at the Tropicana, in December, I got the cheapest room I could. This time I went the other way and spent about $80 to get the nicest room available on-line. I was also told by a Tropicana employee over the phone that for $150 I could upgrade to a suite when I checked into the casino. I did not plan to spend much time in my room, but this was my birthday and I was seriously considering the extravagance. For the amount of a generic room at the MGM Grand, I could get a tricked-out suite at the Trop. I could feel special and still get an amazing bargain.

I had not made up my mind about what room to take when I arrived at the Tropicana shortly before 3 p.m. I had luggage (laptop, iPod with loud docking station) so I decided to valet. That went smoothly. No line and no problem. I figured that would be the case. I have used Tropicana’s valet to get easy parking for sold-out concerts at the MGM Grand Garden Arena when it is impossible to find parking at the host. There is always space at the Tropicana.

But when I got to the check-in desk, there was a huge line. In fact, the man in front, of me who turned out to be Brian Sweeney, 34, a tourist from Boston, was on his cell phone describing himself as stuck in “the longest check-in line in history.” I just got there. Not good news. And, because of a low ceiling above the registration area, a certain odor that I now associate with the Tropicana was particularly strong — a mélange of cigarette smoke, ammonia and very stale air.

Sweeney and a companion made beer runs to make it through the wait. The people who soon filled in behind me in line were infuriated by the wait as well; we had plenty of time to talk and get to know each other. Everyone I spoke to in line admitted the main reason they were staying at the Tropicana was for the bargain price. All were regular Vegas visitors. Also, as if embarrassed by their cheap lodgings, none of them planned to spend more time at the Tropicana than the line took to wait. Sweeney and his party were planning to go gamble at the Luxor. “We would never play at the Tropicana,” he said. I asked why, because as a non-gambler that made no sense to me. But he just shrugged and drank more from his beer, the answer as obvious to him as it was confusing to me.

No one wants to spend the first part of their vacation waiting like they are at an airport counter. And, like at the airport, part of what made things so infuriating was the majority of the check-in positions were closed. The Tropicana, by not having enough check-in clerks on duty, managed to take what should be a lazy Wednesday afternoon and turn the moment for their guests into the sort of aggravating experience you expect only during major event weekends at other Strip resorts. They say nothing beats a first impression. Can you blame people for not wanting to hang out at a casino that handles that basic customer service check-in like an airline?

At least, the Tropicana check-in worker displayed none of the indifference that makes airline check-in clerks so loathed. Though it took an hour for me to reach a check-in counter representative, things could not have gone better when I asked her about upgrading. She noticed from my driver’s license that the day was my birthday and that I was a local. “We always like to take care of locals.” She upgraded me to a suite with no discussion of $150. It was free.

I am always amazed by the random kindness of casino employees, particularly one facing a line of people pissed-off by how obviously few people Tropicana had working to relieve them of waiting with their baggage to check in after their long trip to Vegas. That would not be anyone at the counter’s fault, but I am sure they catch the line-rage every shift from customers. Still, like every employee I met at the Tropicana, the clerk avoided taking any of her frustrations out on the customers. In fact, no employee I spoke to at the Tropicana would even admit to having frustrations at the staffing levels and conditions of the property. Maybe they are afraid of talking honestly or maybe they have a natural inclination to not burden tourists with their problems. But it was interesting to observe the Tropicana employees acting like the Emperor had clothes. I told a cocktail server that I wanted to take a souvenir photo of the Tropicana, and asked if she knew of a spot that did not seem run-down and dingy. She suggested the ceiling.

I am glad a got the upgrade for free. I don’t know why I was expecting the expensive televisions, cool gadgets and over-the-top luxury of suites in the newer resorts. Instead, I got a back bedroom and a front room with a long bar and an empty refrigerator. The Tropicana odor was weaker in the room, though awful in the hallway walking to the room. The room seemed beyond routine cleaning, with permanent stains on the carpet, marks on the wall and grime on the windows, though there was nothing obviously disgusting or broken. The toilet seat was not wrapped in sanitary paper as at other hotels on the Strip where I have stayed. The best part of the room was the view. Looking through the grimy (sort of a greasy substance that blurred the view) windows, I could see both the giant gold lion of MGM Grand and the faux Statue of Liberty in front of New York-New York. I could see why tourists would look out that window and decide that fun in Vegas involves leaving the Tropicana.

In fact, I did not realize the great value of my room until I became sick. I could puke in the toilet, then hang out far away in the other room indulging my headache until the next wave of nausea arrived. The one problem is that the two rooms appeared to be in different climate zones. The bedroom was warm and the main room was frigid. Both rooms had climate controls, but they did not seem to alter anything unless I turned the entire system off. But that resulted in both rooms quickly heating to uncomfortable levels, and for some reason I am sure someone who paid attention during high school science could answer, the strengthening of the Tropicana smell. So, I kept a sweater on as I tried to take notes in the main room. The bathroom was in the bedroom area, so I would toss my sweater down between the rooms as I rushed to the bathroom and then put the sweater back on as I headed back to work.

My best friend, adult star Caroline Pierce, likes naked girls a lot. And she was very excited to see Folies Bergere. But it was clear that I was in no condition to see a production show. I called her to cancel. She was nice enough to drive to the Tropicana to visit me on my birthday and to provide some Alka-Seltzer she thought might help. After I puked that up, Caroline tucked me into the bed and headed off.

At 4 a.m., I awoke once again needing the ugly brown toilet. If you are going to be sick, I guess it is better to be using a hotel bathroom. I was a little disoriented at the time. But I intend to drive back to the Tropicana in the next couple days to make sure the maid gets the tip I should have left her. In fact, I can give it to her out of my winnings.

That’s right: winnings. After packing up my stuff and making a check-out that can best be described as a retreat, I was on my way to the valet when I saw a blackjack table with an elderly, heavy dealer sort of asleep on his elbows. I don’t really believe in luck. But if there is any such thing as luck, I was sure despite my throbbing head, churning stomach and exhaustion, I was felling very lucky. I am lucky to have a great job and wonderful friends, cool cats and too many reasons to name. All of which, I knew, would matter again as soon as whatever was wrong with my body righted. And, then I would be lucky to have good health, too. And, honestly, if there is lucky there is unlucky, and I could not imagine a place less lucky right now than the Tropicana. So I emptied my wallet on a single hand of blackjack. I don’t really know the game so the dealer helped me figure out to hit when I had 13. I got an 8. I won.

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