Suburban Xanadu: Excerpt

From the preface….

Enter the Green Felt Garden;
new ideas about the history of casinos

A great number of Americans gamble although some, like me, don’t. Those who don’t gamble and don’t live in a city with casinos have little reason to know much about the historical development of the gaming industry or how casinos work. Most of what they do know has been picked up from movies like The Godfather and Casino and confirmed by the endless stream of “inside Las Vegas” specials that litter extended basic cable programming like handbill hawkers along the Strip. Within this genre, the casino industry is dangerous and exciting, owing more to mafia capos than to the white-collar managers who, it turns out, actually run most casinos. Though the business is thoroughly mainstream today, it retains a flavor of its outlaw gangster past, and the paunch of disreputability protrudes from under corporate pinstripes, if only one looks hard enough. “The casino” is an essentially deviant spot in American life, bearing the same relationship to a sound economy that an adult bookstore does to great literature.

For those who live in cities with casinos, such an interpretation of the casino industry is pretty far from the truth. To us, “the casino” is not a sybaritic den of vice, but a place to work or go for entertainment: to see a movie, play bingo, hit the buffet, or gamble. In short, casinos form a normative part of the social and economic landscape, and are usually neither dangerous nor exciting. Most of the people who work at casinos don’t seem particularly deviant. They have mortgages and car payments, and are, for the most part, productive citizens. Most are a great deal like their neighbors, but instead of telemarketing or selling insurance they just happen to deal blackjack or work in casino promotions. For people who actually live in the shadow of the industry, the sensationalistic “insider” stories circulating on extended basic are interesting tales, but have little to do with the reality of everyday life, and they really don’t explain much about the business that shapes their lives.

So in writing this book, I started from the point that neither casino operators nor patrons are fundamentally deviant, but are in fact more or less rational people acting to maximize their profit and vacation value, respectively. Surprisingly, this is a position articulated by few who have written about casinos. The glitter of the Las Vegas Strip is hardly conducive to clear-headed social analysis, but the superficial glibness of so much that has been written about the casino industry is still amazing. In the past twenty-five years, casinos have migrated from Nevada idiosyncrasy to near ubiquity. There are casinos, it seems, nearly everywhere-off the winding roads of northern San Diego County, in the shadow of the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh, and in downtown Detroit. But the even-tempered historical analysis of how and why this happened has been, for the most part, neglected.

Understandably, a faux medieval castle/4,000-room casino hotel standing next to a pyramid/3,000-room casino hotel (and across the street from a faux New York City/2,000-room casino hotel) is a bit unnerving. But it should be no more distracting than the fact that, within any movie multiplex, the latest Star Trek movie is playing alongside a James Bond spy thriller, a feature-length cartoon, a teen slasher retread, and a period costume drama. We’d hardly accept a film historian concluding that today’s movie industry is a surreal pastiche of consumer desire, shrugging her shoulders, and walking away. Rather, a student of American film would demand a well-reasoned study that charted the evolution of the art form and offered an explanatory framework. The seemingly inexplicable development of the casino resort as a premier American vacation attraction in an era of vehement moral and political campaigns against gambling demands no less rigor.

For those from jurisdictions that have hitched their economic futures to the wagon of casino gaming, this book will hopefully help you understand a bit better the dynamics that created the casino resort and helped it grow into maturity. I chose to investigate the casino resort in response to unanswered questions I had about the development of the industry in my hometown, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Why, I wondered, did casinos with hotels, restaurants, and entertainment facilities receive the sanction of law? How did rational people decide that their best hope for a livable region was with gambling? Why were casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip such promoters of growth? Why haven’t other casino towns duplicated their runaway success?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but this book explains the creation and development of casino resorts as specific adaptations to specific circumstances during the years after 1945. These resorts evolved to fill a void created by the dramatic turn against urban gambling that peaked in the early 1950s, just as casino operators were creating the Las Vegas Strip. My thesis-that suburban Americans chose to gamble in insular resorts far from their homes in order to forestall the particular problems posed by widespread urban gambling-suggests the current expansion of gambling will require yet another solution. Hopefully, a careful study of how the “greatest generation” solved their gambling “problem” will yield lessons for today.

The secret origins of Xanadu

What does a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem have to do with people gambling? Probably more than you might expect. I use the word Xanadu to describe the casino resorts of the Strip because it evokes an opulent, exotic locale, which is precisely what casino operators sought to do. As I did my research, I made two further discoveries. First, a travel writer in the 1950s had used Xanadu as a metaphor for the hostelries of the Strip. Second, a Xanadu Casino Hotel was actually planned by a prominent casino hotel architect, Martin Stern, Jr., though it was never built.

If that explains Xanadu, what explains “casino resort?” I use the term to mean a complete vacation resort, a unified complex operated by a single entity centered on a gambling casino but also containing restaurants, entertainment venues, pools, spas, and retail shopping. The term first came to prominence in the early 1990s to describe mega-casinos with extensive non-gaming components, such as shopping malls or themeparks, but it is also the best way to describe earlier casino/hotel/vacation complexes. For several reasons, casino operators of the 1950s usually called their Strip properties hotels. At the time, the “hotels” of the Strip were understood to include all of the things that casino resorts do. But outside that context, that word means little more than a structure with rooms for rent. The word “resort” better captures what these properties actually were-sprawling complexes in which visitors were expected to vacation comfortably. “Casino,” of course, reminds us of those resorts’ featured, though often unstated, attraction: gambling.

Within this complex, dining and entertainment were relatively cheap, as even the gourmet room and superstar shows were well within the budget of virtually all guests, and were often given to favored players as comps. Then, with relatively small casinos, there was nowhere near the segmentation in high- and low-end play that is seen today. This created the illusion of a “classless” social milieu, in which stenographers and chief executive officers rubbed elbows. Contemporary writers remarked on the apparent absence of barriers to sociability within the casino, painting the picture of a place where everyone was as good as his last roll. This has inspired some to conclude that casino resorts are supremely democratic institutions that reflect the egalitarian nature of American society. Casino resorts are, it is true, reflections of American values and social expectations, but this surely means that they are imbued with unwritten, though very present, rules. The spontaneous freedom of the casino floor is in fact structured, and the democratic casino, admitting all gamblers from penny slot players to $20,000 per hand baccarat players, is in actuality brutally segmented.

From a seat at a high-limit table, the casino seems to be without limit. The privilege of high stakes gambling is well rewarded-players have are given personalized customer contact, with a dealer serving them directly and high-level managers nearby. Cocktail servers bring complimentary beverages quickly, and, after the session is through, a casino host gladly dispenses chits for complimentary food and entertainment. From a more crowded lower-limit table, the service is a little less crisp and the complimentaries less grand. Seated at a stool in front of a slot machine, the landscape is less inviting. If the high rollers at the tables are the landed gentry of the casino, free to repaid to their palatial suites in lofty hotel towers, slot player are its tenant farmers, renting a stool in front of a slot machine by dropping coins. Contact with employees is less frequent and less personalized, as cocktail servers, change people, and slot attendants have an entire zone of machine players to serve. Complimentary meals no longer mean the gourmet room, but rather the buffet or coffee shop. On the casino floor, the patron knows exactly how much she is worth to the casino.

Before seriously discussing casinos, I should clarify what I call what goes on there: gambling or gaming? Even members of the industry are sometimes unsure what to call their profession. A persistent myth states that the word “gambling” is the true, organic description of the activity, and that industry apologists use the word “gaming,” hoping that through a feat of verbal crop-dusting, Americans will forget that the dice and slot machines in casinos are for gambling, and will overwhelmingly approve any initiatives for its expansion. In fact, according to Shannon Bybee’s extensive historical and legal research into the gambling/gaming etymology, the word “gaming” is actually older than “gambling,” and most dictionaries make no distinction in meaning between the two words.

Within this book, I usually use “gaming” to describe the industry, and “gambling” to talk about the activity that takes place inside the casino. I follow the accepted rules of usage-industry leaders gather each September in Las Vegas for the Global Gaming Expo, and if they get bored they might wander over to the Hilton to gamble a little. I have never heard someone say, “I was out gaming until three last night,” though within the United States most business and government entities profess to be in a slightly different field-New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement might investigate a license application by Boyd Gaming. In addition, within Nevada and New Jersey, the word “gaming” has been understood to apply exclusively to the commercial casino industry, whose evolution this study concerns.

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