That Old Vegas Magic

A cleaning trolley parked on a balcony in Las Vegas. (JAMES FLINT)

A cleaning trolley parked on a balcony in Las Vegas. (JAMES FLINT)

The priestess is a greeter; she's the greeter at Caesar's Magical Empire, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. She greets me in the elaborate, entablatured portico and ushers me into a fresco-ed anteroom where I went with fifteen or twenty others to be taken into something called the Chamber of Destiny. A wizard appears, dressed in a black velvet cape, and does a few little tricks for the kids. We laugh. We wait. 
"Credus quod habes et habes," says the priestess. "What you believe is real, is real." She leads the party through a set of heavily embossed gold doors and into the much vaunted Chamber. We stand in a circle beneath a low, domed ceiling modelled on the roof of the Parthenon. Opposite the entrance, set into a niche, is a large bust of Caesar - which one exactly isn't altogether clear. He's just a generic, Caesar kind of person. There are other busts too. One of them is of a woman who might be the goddess Ceres. Or she might be Britney Spears. Or neither. Or both.

The priestess pulls the doors to and comes and stands in the centre of the circle. "Credus quod habes et habes," she says again, raising her hands. The room goes dark and a single spot illuminates the Caesar-person's bust, while a Caesar-person voice booms out from a hidden PA and tells us that our destiny is now entwined with the destiny of the magical empire we're about to enter. "Credus quod habes et habes," says the voice.

There's a crack, a rumble, a lightning-like flash, and the whole room starts to shake. The floor drops away. Suddenly, we're going down. Fifty feet of rockcrete later we're sitting at the bottom of what appears to be a deep, sheer shaft, the domed Pantheon-type roof left high above our heads. We're trapped. It's mildly scary. Then a panel in the rock swings open and an armour-clad gladiator enters; he leads us out of the Chamber and down a dank stone corridor, past a series of wooden doors set into the rude, unfinished walls. At one of these we're stopped and led inside.

This is our dining chamber. Here we are to be served with food and jokes and tricks by the affable Ludicrous and his two betoga'd assistants, Maximus and Minimus. After dinner we're shown into an enormous underground arena, the walls of which are bursting with columns and figurines worthy of the Valley of the Kings, grottoes that conceal fully stocked bars, a huge statue of Hermes Trismegistus (the father of alchemy), and a central pool of fire that erupts as part of a blinding light show. Two caverns conceal two minature but well-appointed theatres, in which two minature but well-appointed magic shows are being staged for our entertainment. And all this for $75 a head. It's no wonder that Caesar's Magical Empire is losing money. If it hasn't turned a profit within the next six months, the management's going to shut it down.

Credus quod habes et habes.

Siegfried and Roy, two gay Austrian magicians who met on a cruise ship back in the 1960s, have been performing in Vegas for 35 years. This is their 4,997th appearance at the Mirage, and even though they must both be over sixty-five - and even though Siegfried moves around the stage like he's wearing a truss and Roy is a rumoured replacement (a somewhat questionable piece of information provided by Alice, the American retiree sitting next to me, whose seen Siegfried and Roy four times over the last twenty years) - it's still US$100 a ticket and still sells out up to 6 months in advance. With a US$50 million budget it's reputed to be the most expensive show of any kind ever staged. It looks it, too.

S&R do battle with a fifty-foot mechanical dragon. They rise into the air and walk back down to the stage on planes of green laser light. They get dismembered and squashed and re-appear in the midst of the audience. They pull off one of the most famous and complex illusions ever performed when, with the help of a enormous circular podium and a cast of fifty costumed dancers, they make an elephant appear from beneath a sheet of gold satin. And they climax by having Roy fly around the stage on top of a giant silver glitterball while sitting astride a genu-whine white tiger.

White tigers are the S&R trademark. The couple breed them at their absurdly over-appointed mansion outside Las Vegas and claim to have saved them from extinction. At one point during the show we get a gushy home video showing them at home with their OTT pets. "To make real your dreams, all you have to do is believe," Siegfried whispers into the microphone, with all the reassurance of a cult leader. The more over-weight the audience members the more they bill and coo, although you get the sense that most of them are imagining a post-magic-show charge to the nearest in-casino food outlet where they will happily graze for a few hours on burgers grown on prairie carved from vast tracts of virgin South American rainforest.

Credus quod habes et habes.

Down the Strip at the Monte Carlo, Lance Burton doesn't use white tigers. He uses white ducks. Burton has an advantage over his fellow Vegas illusionists, one that serves him well: he is among the top two or three card manipulators in the world. He opens his act with a reprisal of the astonishing card and dove production routine that won him magic's biggest prize - the Federation International Societé de Magic Grand Prix - at the tender age of 22. After that come the illusions, and the jokes, and the girls, and the ducks. Slick, knowing, friendly, flash, and refreshing self-aware, Burton's everything you want a magician to be.

He's one of those performers who draws the audience in, relaxes them, makes them feel a part of a show. His illusions, even the ones I've already seen three times that weekend in some shape or form, are presented in ways that make them seem amazing all over again. He also pokes a few pins at Las Vegas. "How Many winners do we have in the audience?" he asks. A couple of hands go up. "Two, huh? And how many losers?" Everyone else sticks their hand in the air. "Ok-ay. Well, you guys, make yourselves at home. This is your town. You built it." There's no credus quod habes et habes here. Burton's good enough not to need to ask you to believe.

Though she was briefly married to him, Melinda Saxe doesn't seem to have come away from their encounter with ex-husband's sense of proportion. Her show - "Melinda, First Lady of Magic" - plays at the Venetian. Hung with blue drapes and plasma screens, throbbing to a hip-hop soundtrack, her venue has a contemporary feel.

"My, you're a wonderful audience!" she tells us as she bounces onto the proscenium after an impressive opening number featuring a troupe of beautiful dancing gay men and a smaller troupe of less beautiful het women. Trouble is, we're not wonderful at all: the place is only two-thirds full and our applause has so far been merely lacklustre. And it's clearly going to take a lot more than a meaningless compliment to get our blood flowing.

Unfortunately, Melinda expects that her admittedly fabulous body and good looks and wonderful costume changes are going to do the job for her. They aren't. As she dances her way through the kind of set-piece illusions - vanishing cars, levitations, teleportations - familiar to anyone who's seen more than a couple of big magic shows, everything falls slightly flat. There's no build-up, no tension, no humour. When she makes a light aircraft appear - by anybody's standards, a pretty stunning feat - it's completely incidental to the moves she's been busting in her natty little flying suit. The thing is, the show's really not about magic. It's about her.

"I've known Melinda for eighteen years, and she's more showgirl than magician, God bless her," the box office clerk at Steve Wyrick's show tells me when I go there later that evening to get tickets (the show, unfortunately, was cancelled, so I didn't get to see Wyrick in action, this year's "Magician of the Year"). The clerk, a middle-aged lady with one very snaggly front tooth, is the most real person I've yet met in Vegas. I've already told her that I thought the show was a little pat; now I confess to being fairly appalled by the bit of schmaltz offered by Melinda at the end of her act, when she comes and sits down among the audience and - spotlight on her, Somewhere Over the Rainbow-style music plinking away in the background - tells us how when she was a little girl, growing up in a showbiz family here in Las Vegas, she had a dream of being a magician, how her mom helped her realise this dream and eventually became her producer, helping to make her the happiest, most successful female magician in the world.

"Oh yeah, that," says the clerk. "I bet she didn't say how couple of years back the two of them had a screaming row and Melinda threw her mother out, which is why her brother David's now doing all the production."

No, I say. She didn't say that.

Credus quod habes… well, you get the picture.

- The Observer, March 2002